Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2008

Get a Raise Today? Minimum Wage Goes Up Again

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Did you get a raise today?

You might have, if you work for the minimum wage, or live in a state where the state minimum wage is tied to an increase in the federal minimum wage. Today, the federal minimum wage rose to $6.55 an hour, from $5.85. This also trigged an increase in some states which have minimum wages higher than the federal law. I guess any increase is better than nothing, but it still isn’t worth more than it was in the 1950s when adjusted for inflation, and still isn’t enough to keep families out of poverty. Yet there are still those who wrongly insist that raising the minimum wage costs us jobs and interferes with free enterprise — go figure.

This is a great time to announce that Workplace Fairness has just added 50 new pages to our site, discussing the wage and hour laws in every state. (A big thank you goes to the law firm of Goldstein Demchak Baller Borden and Dardarian, who conducted the research, and Prof. Douglas Scherer, Vice President of the Workplace Fairness Board of Directors, who updated the research to reflect the current changes.) So if you’d like to see the minimum wage in your state, please go to our site’s page on filing a wage claim, and select your state for up-to-date information wherever you are.

As a number of commentators pointed out today, this increase is hardly enough. As one article points out, the minimum wage hike is “a drop in the bucket compared to the increases in costs, declining labor market, and declining household wealth that consumers have experienced in the past year.” (See MSNBC article.)

Jonathan Tasini at Huffington Post says,

[W]e should keep in mind that, at the grand new sum of $6.55 an hour, the minimum wage is a disgrace and a sad commentary about the state of our social safety net, the economy and our political system. If you do the math, it’s pretty stark. If you worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you would earn $13,624. Not a single day off. No sick days. No health care. No pension.

(See Huffington Post article.) Tasini goes on to point out that

  • adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is what it was in the 1950s — more than half a century ago.
  • To really make ends meet at minimum wage pay, two people in a household have to work three full-time minimum wage jobs.

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? And the minimum wage laws don’t require employers to provide health care. Or sick leave. Or vacation time. Or pensions. If you worked 40 hours a week for 52 weeks, without a vacation or extra day off, you’d earn $13,624, over $4,000 below the official poverty line for a family of three.

One way to keep the minimum wage from being held hostage by politics, and to insure regular increases, is to tie the minimum wage to inflation. Ten states already do so (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) (See TomPaine.com article.) These states index their minimum wages to the federal government’s consumer price index, instead of the federal minimum wage, which until last year had not been raised since 1997. As Isaiah Poole of TomPaine.com tells us, fighting to index the minimum wage to inflation is the next big minimum wage battle likely to take place in the next administration.

Even after last year’s battle to raise the minimum wage, opponents still trot out the same old chestnuts: that raising the minimum wage costs low-income workers (and especially minority youth) jobs; that consumers will pay more for goods and services, and that African-American unemployment will go up. (See TomPaine.com article.) Yet report after report demonstrate just how flimsy these arguments are, giving the straw man a run for his money.

For example, the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC-Berkeley recently released a study that shows that the effect of raising the minimum wage on teen employment is insignificant. (See IRLE report, although if you suffer from insomnia, you might want to consider starting to wade through this one, because it is filled with enough jargon to defeat even the most committed data geeks.)

It’s unfathomable why some people worry so much about minimum wage increases and not about economic developments like this one: Richest Americans See Their Income Share Grow. This article tells us that the richest 1% of Americans in 2006 garnered the highest share of the nation’s adjusted gross income for two decades, and possibly the highest since 1929. But yet we can’t keep those who collect minimum wage over the poverty line, forcing them to work multiple jobs just to support their families. Jonathan Tasini is right: it really is a disgrace that we even have to have this conversation.


More Information:

Department of Labor’s Minimum Wage Laws in the States
Economic Policy Institute: Minimum Wage Issue Guide

Wait, Now Hurry Up: OSHA Changes Afoot

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

It seems to have finally occurred to the Department of Labor that there is about to be a change in administrations in a few months. It’s otherwise hard to explain why, after 7 1/2 years, DOL is suddenly and stealthily trying to make it harder for you to be protected from toxic chemicals in the workplace. If DOL could sneak in a new regulation before there’s a new president, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao can continue to boost her legacy of harming the very workers her job it is to protect.

It was front page news in the Washington Post: U.S. Rushes to Change Workplace Toxin Rules. The Department of Labor is trying to push through a rule “making it tougher to regulate workers’ on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.” Instead of disclosing this rule change publicly in a regulatory plan, allowing for input from agency staff, lawyers and outside experts, DOL instead quietly submitted the proposal to the White House’s Office of Management & Budget (OMB). After the draft rule is published, the public will only have 30 days for comment.

While the draft rule has not yet been made public, an early draft reviewed by the Washington Post shows that the agency is trying to change the process by which the risk of chemical exposure is assessed. Current policy requires an assumption that workers will stay in a job and be exposed to the same toxins for 45 years. Businesses have complained that this overstates the risk that workers are exposed to, as most workers nowadays don’t stay in their jobs that long. (See New York Sun article.)

While that may be true for most, there are some who do stay in a certain workplace (or in the same industry) that long, and their high level of exposure should serve as a baseline for everyone else. (With the ability to retire comfortably dramatically affected in the last several years, workers are forced to have even longer careers, and it would be nice if they were in good enough health to work as long as they need to and still retire healthy.) As the New York Sun article itself concedes, in many of these jobs, workers may work overtime and have less vacation time, than contemplated by the rule, so may have more intense exposure in shorter time periods than 45 years.

The new policy would also make it more difficult (by adding an additional round of challenges) to set new limits on workplace exposure. As epidemiologist and workplace safety professor David Michaels points out, “This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA.” (See Washington Post article.)

Submitting this proposal in such a rush even contradicts the Administration’s own edict from Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, who had ordered agencies to submit all proposed regulations by June 1 and “resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months.” (See Washington Post article.) It seems like Secretary Chao just couldn’t resist, given that in the last 7 1/2 years, the Department of Labor has only issued one worker-safety regulation, and that was one required by a court order.

After the first Post article was published, the Democratic leaders of both committees responsible for workplace safety, Sen. Edward Kennedy of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Rep. George Miller of the House Committee on Education and Labor, responded with outrage at DOL’s eleventh-hour attempt. Rep. Miller says,

For nearly eight years, this administration has consistently failed to respond in a meaningful way to the real health and safety threats workers face while on the job. But now they will stop at nothing to rush through a secret rule that will tie the hands of health and safety experts.

(See Washington Post article.)

With the light now shining on this proposed change, perhaps it can be stopped before it goes into effect. Otherwise, it will depend on who is elected as President. We could indeed see a swift regulatory reversal like we saw when President Bush took office: one of his first acts as President was to reverse OSHA’s ergonomic regulation that the Clinton Administration had spent years to carefully create, and which finally took effect four days before President Clinton left office. (See CNN article.) Or we might not, with this close-to-midnight change becoming the new standard we have to live with (or not live with, given its impact.)

Just another reason why the election matters for workers, so be sure you’re registered to vote.

Register to Vote: Rock the Vote, powered by Credo Mobile

More Information:

Workplace Health and Safety Protections

Workplace Fairness Receives Major Donation from Consumer Lawsuit

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Wondering why you’ve been hearing more from Workplace Fairness lately? One very big reason is a donation that we recently received as part of a consumer class action lawsuit. We owe some very huge thanks to Dworken & Bernstein Co., L.P.A., and Grange Insurance, whose settlement has made it possible for Workplace Fairness to resume staffed operations and carry out its mission to educate workers in a more comprehensive and effective way.

The 1994 consumer class action suit [Martin v. Grange Mutual Insurance Co.] alleged that consumers were incorrectly charged for uninsured motorist insurance. As part of the settlement of the case, Dworken and Bernstein and Grange agreed that the unclaimed funds would go to the benefit of national and Ohio-based nonprofit organizations, a practice known as cy pres.

“We commend Grange for working with us to use unclaimed funds for the benefit of charitable and non-profits in a broad range of areas, including help to the homeless, hunger prevention, drug and alcohol addiction prevention, fair treatment of employees, and a host of others,” said plaintiff’s counsel Patrick J. Perotti of Dworken & Bernstein. The parties chose 33 organizations to share in the unclaimed funds from the settlement of over $10 million, the largest class action residual fund donated to charity in history.

“We encourage attorneys around the country to provide for charitable reverter of a reasonable portion of unclaimed funds in all class suits. The practice can provide needed help to the community in a very difficult economic time,” said Perotti. If you’d like to hear Pat talking more about the practice of using cy pres funds to help worthy organizations, check out his YouTube video here, where he explains how this process works:

Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, president of Workplace Fairness, which provides information to workers about their legal rights in the workplace, said her organization is honored to be part of the resolution of this important case. “With the residual funds, we will be able to help thousands of workers to understand, protect and strengthen their rights through our website at www.workplacefairness.org,” she said.

The funds will be used to enable Workplace Fairness to resume staffed operations, with the hiring of Paula Brantner (that’s me) as Executive Director, and to assist in completing Workplace Fairness’ program priorities, including making the organization’s website fully accessible to users with disabilities.

We owe Pat Perotti an enormous debt of gratitude, but as he’ll be the first to tell you, he has done something with this case that many attorneys have the opportunity to do, but don’t always do when settling cases. Instead of allowing unclaimed funds to revert to the alleged wrongdoer, attorneys on both sides have an opportunity to benefit their local communities and worthwhile causes by using the cy pres mechanism to distribute funds. Pat is adamant that he will not settle cases without making this provision, and feels that other attorneys should insist on doing the same.

For additional information about the organizations participating in the settlement proceeds, see:

ohiolawyersgiveback.org

You’ll also see highlights from the July 18 luncheon in Cleveland, where lots of happy people from great organizations talked about how this donation has transformed their work in extraordinary ways.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog