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Archive for April, 2012

Good News for Transgender and Ex-Offender Workers

Monday, April 30th, 2012

eidelson-headshotEqual Employment Opportunity Commission issues major rulings.

Last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released major decisions regarding the rights of two groups of workers that face frequent discrimination. On Monday, the EEOC delivered an opinion finding that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans “sex discrimination” in employment, applies to discrimination against transgender workers. On Wednesday, the EEOC approved a new set of guidelines restricting employers’ use of past criminal convictions to disqualify job applicants. Both decisions parallel, and could impact, legislative efforts already underway.

The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act and enforces that landmark legislation’s workplace discrimination protections. Its five commissioners are appointed by the president for five-year terms.

Transgender protections.

The EEOC’s new transgender precedent came in the case of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who says she had, as a man, applied for and been promised a job with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. When she attempted to take the job after her transition, she was told it had been given to someone else. After ATF’s Office of Equal Opportunity responded to Macy’s discrimination claim by asserting that anti-transgender discrimination was not covered by federal law, she appealed to the EEOC.

Macy’s lawyer argued that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination applied to discrimination for being transgender. The EEOC agreed, and sent the case back to ATF with the instruction that it evaluate the case in that light. That’s in line with the steady—but by no means unanimous—trend of lower court rulings, notes Jennifer Pizer, the Legal Director of the Williams Institute at University of California Los Angeles. Pizer, a former Lambda Legal Senior Counsel, says the decision is “very significant,” because it “establishes a national understanding that discrimination in a workplace because of a person’s gender identity or expression is a form of gender discrimination.”

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Macy described the EEOC opinion as “one more piece in the puzzle of equality.”

“This isn’t discrimination because a person is male or because a person is female,” says Pizer. “It’s a subset of that discrimination against a person based on how they are male or how they are female, or whether their gender seems to be ambiguous, or whether the way they are and the way they live is consistent with what other people they should do based on what their gender appears to be.”

Pizer notes that courts used to often rule against sex discrimination claims by transgender workers on the grounds that “Congress did not have this in mind” in 1964.  But more recently, judges have increasingly recognized that the protection covers “the range of ways a person might be treated differently because of their sex…If a person was qualified to the job as a man, and isn’t qualified to do it as a woman, or vice versa, that’s sex discrimination.”

Williams say there’s no good estimate of what proportion of transgender workers are known to be transgender by their employers. Some employers find out for the first time when a employee undergoes a gender transition, or when management reviews a worker’s health insurance information for an unrelated reason. When that happens, says Pizer, “a hostile reaction” is “sadly common.”

“Everybody is protected against sex discrimination,” says Pizer, “and sex discrimination includes protection against discrimination based on one’s perceived failure to confirm to sex stereotypes.”

Pizer says the EEOC’s logic would also apply to some, but not all, cases of discrimination against non-heterosexual workers: it would apply to a non-transgender lesbian woman, for example, who was treated differently because of a perceived failure to conform to “feminine” norms.

But it would not protect the same woman if she was being treated differently specifically for having, or wanting, same-sex relationships. Pizer acknowledges that’s an “odd line,” and one that could be exploited by employers. A minority of states have their own laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, though it’s drawn less attention than fights over marriage equality. In a November press conference following the announcement of his retirement, Congressman and ENDA sponsor Barney Frank named resistance to transgender protections as one of the reasons the bill has not yet passed.

Pizer says the EEOC’s ruling, which leaves transgender workers with stronger federal protections than other LGBT workers, doesn’t lessen the urgency of passing a broad ENDA, but has the potential to dull some of the opposition.

“What we’ve seen in some states,” says Pizer, “is that when courts and administrative bodies recognize that a kind of discrimination is covered by existing law, then sometimes legislators find it that much more straightforward, if you will, to codify that understanding into a statute.”

Ex-offender protections.

In a Wednesday vote, the EEOC approved a revised set of guidelines for employers regarding the use of criminal background checks in hiring. Advocates hailed the move in a Thursday conference call with reporters.

National Employment Law Project Executive Director Christine Owens said it “was really well past time” for new guidelines, given that the “terrain…had shifted so dramatically” since 1987, when the EEOC first formally recognized the “disparate impact” of such restrictions on African-Americans and Latinos.

In the 25 years since, notes Owens, the pre-employment background check industry has exploded, and the use of such checks has spread from a bare majority of the economy in 1996 to over 90 percent today. NELP has estimated that up to 65 million U.S. adults face potential job restrictions due to past offenses, including 1 in 17 white men, 1 in 7 hispanic men, and 1 in 3 black men.

Compared to its ruling recognizing anti-transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, EEOC law on pre-employment background checks remains less clear: The EEOC warns that such practices can have a potentially illegal—discriminatory effect, but doesn’t consider them inherently to be a form of racial discrimination under Title VII.

Sharon Dietrich, a managing attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, says the EEOC’s move Wednesday “is not groundbreaking, but it is extremely important.” Dietrich highlighted the change in three areas. First, the EEOC is providing illustrative examples for employers of practices now likely to run afoul of the law, including firing already-hired employees purely on the basis of background checks, or automatically disqualifying all employees with criminal records in an online application. Second, it offers guidelines for how to stay within the law. Third, it advises employers to inform potential employees when ex-offender status is being weighed against them, and provides guidelines for consideration of extenuating circumstances.

Dietrich notes that private-sector employers aren’t the only ones that have been found to use background checks in a manner inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act. She says the EEOC’s new guidance means that “legislators at the state and local level cannot enact over-broad state and local laws that restrict the employment of former offenders.”

In Pennsylvania, Dietrich’s organization successfully brought suit against a state law that imposed imposed a lifetime ban on the hiring of people with a wide range of former offenses by facilities assisting senior citizens.  “Anything that is a lifetime ban,” she says, “pretty clearly is in violation of EEOC’s policies, and is of really questionable legal merit.” Meanwhile, some cities have gone farther than the EEOC, passing “Ban the Box” legislation that forbids some employers from asking about criminal background on initial employment applications.

Owens and Dietrich were joined on the call by Elsie Sacarello Quiles, who says she was fired after three days working for a new school district.

“At the time,” says Sacarello, “I didn’t even remember what the charges were.” She later realized she had lost her job over a nearly four-decade-old “disorderly conduct” arrest. “I was very humiliated. I was very much ashamed, for something occurred 38 years ago, out of my ignorance as an 18-year-old…I’m pretty much at a standstill right now.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

Federal Judge Rules Yet Another Florida Drug-Testing Program Unconstitutional

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Laura ClawsonWelfare applicants aren’t the only people the courts have forced the state of Florida to stop drug testing. A federal court ruled on Thursday that Gov. Rick Scott also doesn’t get to randomly drug test 80,000 state workers.

Judge Ungaro said Mr. Scott had overreached in his executive order because there was no evidence of a large-scale problem and no reason to mandate drug tests.The governor’s drug testing requirement “does not identify a concrete danger that must be addressed by suspicionless drug-testing of state employees,” Judge Ungaro wrote. “And the governor shows no evidence of a drug-use problem at the covered agencies.”

Scott plans to appeal. Not only that, Florida may face two more drug-testing lawsuits, one over another requirement in Scott’s executive order, calling for drug testing of applicants for state jobs, and one over a law passed last month and taking effect in July, “that allows all state workers to undergo random drug testing but does not make it a requirement.” Because obviously there would be no pressure to take a drug test that you were “allowed” but “not required” to take at work.

I fully expect that soon Rick Scott will be trying to “randomly” drug test everyone to cross the border into Florida, and using state money to fight off those lawsuits, too.

*Disclaimer: The opinions of this blog are those of the author and not those of Workplace Fairness.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on April 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Lawmakers Turn Back the Clock on Women's Rights

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Image: Linda MericOn this year’s Equal Pay Day, Linda Meric, the executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women 9to5.org, explains why pay equity is an economic plus for the United States

On April 5, 2012, Governor Scott Walker signed a repeal of Wisconsin’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state courts. Wisconsin was one of 44 states with laws providing remedies for employees who experience discrimination. When the bill was enacted, Wisconsin ranked 36 in the nation in gender equity; since then the state improved ten places in that ranking. Yet, instead of continued progress, Walker chose to protect companies proven to violate state law and hurt Wisconsin’s families and economy.

Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman, a major force behind the repeal, claims money is more important to men than to women.  With misogyny taking center stage this 2012 election cycle, let’s hope we don’t see repeats of this attack on equal pay for equal work. But so far, this “war on women” has legislators voting to limit women’s control over their health, men of national and international prominence assaulting women physically and verbally with carte blanche, candidates speaking against women serving in combat, and new data proving women pay more than men for the same health insurance. And the rhetoric claiming pay discrimination doesn’t exist is growing louder.

The simple truth is that a significant pay gap exists for women and people of color. In almost all the occupations tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn less than men. Today, April 17, is Equal Pay Day. People across the country are protesting the pay gap that is still shortchanging women. Women were paid 77 cents for every dollar men got paid in 2010 annual earnings. For women of color, the pay gap is even wider. African American women earned 67 cents and Latinas 58 cents for every dollar earned by white males, the highest earners.

Women don’t choose to earn less. But the pay gap is affected by several factors including occupational segregation—women who work primarily with other women in undervalued, underpaid occupations. For example, women make up 97 percent of office workers, 88 percent of home health care workers, 95 percent of child care workers, and 71 percent of restaurant servers. Overall, women remain overrepresented among low-wage workers, making up an estimated 49 percent of the workforce, but 59 percent of the low-wage workforce.

Even when working in the same occupation as a man, women earn less. The same is true for workers of color compared to white workers. Women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to over a million, over their careers. That means less money to make ends meet and achieve economic security for families today. It also means less retirement savings for tomorrow—earning less, there is less to save, and social security and pensions are based on earnings.

Another cause for gender wage inequity is the lack of family flexibility. Too many working women are penalized financially for family caregiving because they lack access to policies such as paid sick days and family leave. This is particularly troublesome for single low-wage earning women with children, who on average have the lowest annual income.

?And then there’s the illegal gender discrimination that still occurs. For example, recent cases against Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, allege unequal pay for equal work and lack of promotional opportunities for women. These practices still happen, which makes it more important than ever to have laws on the books like the one repealed by Governor Walker, which allowed women their day in court.

Governor Walker, other elected officials and even some presidential candidates are turning back the clock on women’s rights, and putting women’s economic security in further jeopardy, at a time they should be taking steps to assist women in getting ahead and strengthen the economy.

Pay equity is good for the the nation’s financial health—it reduces poverty and stimulates the economy. It reduces stress-related health problems and health care costs. The World Economic Forum estimates closing the employment gender gap could increase U.S. GDP by up to 9 percent.

The country is leading up to an election where women will play a major role in choosing our president. Candidates need to focus on issues that are important to women. Contrary to Senator Grothman’s fictitious claims, women do care about money. So for those political candidates vying to win the women’s vote, a word to the wise: focus on pay equity and the economy. All women deserve to be paid fairly, and when they are, their families and the economy will win.

About the Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. 9to5 is one of the largest national membership-based organizations of working women in the U.S., creating a powerful force for change. Founded in 1973, 9to5 empowers women to organize and lead campaigns on family-friendly workplace policies, equal opportunity and economic security issues. To learn more visit 9to5.org or call the Job Survival Helpline at 800.522.0925.

Regulators Take an Average of Seven Years to Approve New Workplace Safety Conditions

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Image: Pat GarofaloAccording to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, it takes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more than seven years on average to write a new workplace safety rule. Some rules take nearly two decades to finalize. “The process for setting safety standards at OSHA is broken,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). “Even when the evidence is undeniable that our workers are dying from workplace hazards, OSHA still takes an eternity to issue a new safety rule. While reasonable safety rules are delayed to provide never-ending opportunities for stakeholder input, workers’ lives and livelihood are at risk.”

This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress on April 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.

Half of College Graduates Under 25 are Unemployed or Underemployed

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Laura ClawsonRecent projections have job prospects improving for 2012′s college graduates. But there’s a lot more room for improvement than we’re likely to see:

About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.

Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.

That means 100,000 waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers with bachelor’s degrees, plus 125,000 cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives and 163,000 receptionists and payroll clerks. That’s a reflection of the job categories that are growing these days:

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren’t easily replaced by computers.

It’s the growth of inequality in action. Relatively few jobs pay a middle-class income, and competition for them grows fiercer. It’s not enough to have a bachelor’s degree; at a minimum you have to have one in the right field from the right school—and it sure helps if you’ve been able to afford to do an unpaid internship in your field while in school. But a graduate degree is even better. Too bad if that means thousands of dollars of added debt, but you don’t want to be waiting tables for the rest of your life, do you? And if you score one of those precious, rare good jobs, chances are you won’t be leaving, at least not of your own accord, not while you have all those student loans to pay off and there are so few other good jobs out there. Meanwhile, jobs that don’t require a college education are growing more quickly, but the fact that they don’t require a college education is increasingly used as the rationale for driving down wages (and benefits? forget about benefits), because why would we pay decent wages for these jobs that just anyone can do? So goes the accelerating rationale of an economy by and for the 1 percent.

11:52 AM PT: Congress can keep one small piece of this from getting worse, by acting now to keep federal student loan interest rates from doubling on July 1. Tell House Republicans to keep student loan rates low.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on April 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Employment Commission Ruling Protects Transgender Individuals from Workplace Discrimination

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Our guest bloggers are Jeff Krehely and Crosby Burns, who work on the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

Late yesterday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a comprehensive ruling giving transgender individuals sorely-needed federal protections against discrimination in the workplace. According to the ruling, employers who discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of gender identity can now be found in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifically its prohibition of sex discrimination in employment.

This ruling marks the first time that the EEOC has held that transgender people are protected from discrimination by federal law. Chris Geidner broke the story late last night in Metro Weekly:

“The opinion came in a decision delivered on Monday, April 23, to lawyers for Mia Macy, a transgender woman who claims she was denied employment with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after the agency learned of her transition. It also comes on the heels of a growing number of federal appellate and trial courts deciding that gender-identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination, whether based on Title VII or the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

The EEOC decision, issued without objection by the five-member, bipartisan commission, will apply to all EEOC enforcement and litigation activities at the commission and in its 53 field offices throughout the country. It also will be binding on all federal agencies and departments.

The implications of this ruling are far-reaching. Prior to yesterday’s ruling, only 16 states and the District of Columbia prohibit employment discrimination based on gender identity. Going forth, this precedent-setting decision puts in place comprehensive protections for transgender workers that apply to both private and public employees across the entire United States.

Specifically, thanks to the ruling in this case (brought forward by the Transgender Law Center) transgender people are now protected by federal law and have legal recourse if they are denied a job or fired because they are transgender. Should a transgender person file a complaint with the EEOC and should the EEOC determine that case has merit, the EEOC now has the legal standing to sue the employer for discrimination under Title VII.

This ruling comes at a time when transgender Americans face near-universal discrimination and harassment in the workplace. According to the most comprehensive study on transgender discrimination to-date, 90 percent of transgender individuals have experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job, or took actions to avoid it. This includes 47 percent of transgender individuals who have experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired, or denied an otherwise deserved promotion based solely on their gender identity. What’s more, race multiplies the effect of discrimination, with transgender people of color reporting especially high rates of discrimination on the job.

Unfortunately, workplace discrimination poses a significant threat to the economic livelihood of transgender individuals and their families, who report higher rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty than their non-transgender counterparts. Workplace discrimination leaves far too many transgender individuals without a steady income to buy groceries, pay the utility bills, and make ends meet in an already struggling economy. That’s why yesterday’s ruling from the EEOC is so important for transgender workers and their families.

EEOC’s ruling has the potential to substantially impact the legal landscape for transgender workers—not to mention their employers. Companies in jurisdictions where gender identity-discrimination was already illegal prior to this ruling have wisely taken steps to avoid financially painful lawsuits by ensuring discrimination does not go unchecked against their workers, including those who are transgender.

Given yesterday’s decision, companies in all 50 states would also be wise to take similar steps. These steps include adding “gender identity” to existing company nondiscrimination and anti-harassment workplace policies as well as updating any staff diversity training programs. It is worth mentioning, however, that many companies both big and small already have these policies in place. As detailed in this report from the Center for American Progress, companies adopt these policies in large part because they actually help improve the bottom line (in addition to just being the right thing to do).

Employment is fundamental for people to support themselves and their families. Yesterday’s ruling by the EEOC helps ensure workers are not forced out of a job and into the ranks of the unemployed based solely on their gender identity. To that end, we urge Congress to pass theEmployment Non-Discrimination Act and the president to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to have corporate policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal policymakers should take advantage of all tools at their disposal to put LGBT people on a level playing field in the workplace. It’s the right thing to do – both for people and for business.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on April 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

'We Don’t Go to Work to Be Touched’: Sexual Harassment in the Warehouse

Friday, April 20th, 2012

kari-lydersen“We don’t go to work to be touched, to be talked down to, to be told what our bodies look like. We know what our bodies look like when we put on our clothes in the morning,” Uylonda Dickerson said.

But constant remarks about their bodies, and unwanted touching, advances, mean-spirited “pranks” and other forms of sexual harassment are a regular occurrence for many of the more than 30,000 women—like Dickerson—who work in the warehouse industry in the Chicago area, according to a report (PDF) released this week by the group Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ). And women often face retaliation for reporting harassment.

In an extreme example that is currently the subject of a lawsuit, 19-year-old Priscilla Marshall, her mother and her teenage friend allege they were repeatedly subject to aggressive and abusive sexual assaults and language by a 45-year-old manager at the Partners Warehouse in Elwood, Ill. After the three women and Marshall’s uncle and the mother’s boyfriend complained, they were fired or suspended and accused of theft, which resulted in Marshall and her mother spending 15 and seven days in jail, respectively, according to the lawsuit filed March 9.

WWJ’s Leah Fried told me that the same industry structure that allegedly allows for widespread violations of labor law, extremely low wages and unhealthy conditions also contributes to a climate of unchecked sexual harassment and retaliation. The warehousing (or logistics) industry is based on layers of subcontractors, so that major companies like Wal-Mart rarely own and operate the warehouses where their goods are stored and distributed. Fried said:

A major factor is the layering of management, it’s another way the owners say of WalMart shirk responsibility and subcontract and subcontract so no one is taking responsibility for a very basic legal obligation (avoiding sexual harassment). There’s also the low unionization rate – because so many jobs are temp jobs and because very few warehouse workers have a union, it makes it easier for management to get away with violating people’s rights. Not having a union is a big deal – and a big reason people can be exploited more easily.

WWJ (launched by the United Electrical workers union, for which Fried is an organizer) is trying to fill the gap by educating women and men about sexual harassment and their rights and responsibilities, and providing resources for legal action and a forum for organizing and leveraging community support. Various elected officials, religious leaders and other residents attended a forum on International Women’s Day, called “Take Back the Warehouse,” in reference to Take Back the Night marches.

WWJ’s extensive surveys of the Chicago-area industry found that about one quarter of warehouse workers are women; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports similar numbers nationwide.

The report and forum are part of WWJ’s three-year-old campaign to improve conditions and accountability in the warehouses where consumer goods destined for stores around the country are staged for distribution.

The group has also recently launched a Warehouse Women’s Legal Defense Fund to subsidize legal action for women with sexual harassment or other gender-based complaints. In conjunction with the Working Hands Legal Clinic, WWJ recently helped Marshall and her mother, friend, uncle and mother’s boyfriend sue Partners Warehouse manager Brian Swaw, and people whom Swaw allegedly enlisted to intimidate and threaten the plaintiffs after they complained about his conduct. The lawsuit alleges Swaw repeatedly touched their breasts and buttocks, thrust his crotch in their faces and told Marshall’s then-17-year-old friend that when she turned 18 he would have sex with her.

The lawsuit also alleges Swaw also made frequent racial slurs toward Latinos, and suspended, and then fired, the plaintiffs after they complained. It also alleges he enlisted a former police officer (who was facing a federal indictment) and a private investigator to intimidate the plaintiffs and falsely charge them with theft, forgery and filing a false police report.

While that was an extreme situation, many other women told WWJ organizers that they deal with unequal pay, constant verbal and physical harassment and the threat of retaliation if they complain on a daily basis.

Elizabeth Labrador said after she complained about being paid $2 to $3 an hour less than men doing the same job at a warehouse for Petco, she was assigned to lift heavy fish tanks and ended up hurting her back.

Female workers report sexual harassment from both top managers and co-workers lower down the organizational hierarchy, so WWJ is trying to convince men they should be joining with their female co-workers to fight for better conditions rather than making their jobs even rougher. Fried told me:

A lot of men need to receive some education about what’s appropriate in the workplace. Because that’s not happening from the companies that employ them and operate the warehouse, because the industry is not doing their job, WWJ founded a women’s committee with one of the roles being to develop sexual harassment training for both women and men. The men have been incredibly supportive, it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve found that absolutely this is an issue that affects women and also that it’s about making warehouses better for everybody.

Women quoted in the report describe constant patterns of humiliating and threatening behavior that left them exhausted and dreading their jobs. Dickerson, who worked at a Wal-Mart warehouse, said she was locked in a trailer and constantly derided by men asking things like “Did you chip a nail?” Latasha Davis described men gathering to watch women bend over to pick up boxes.

Samantha Rodriguez, a former Wal-Mart warehouse worker, is quoted in the report:

When I went to another supervisor about the harassment, he asked me out on a date. I said “no,” and eventually I got fired. I pride myself on being an independent woman. I do remodeling, I hang drywall, I put in floors. That’s my profession. So I went to warehouses because I like doing that kind of work. Now, I won’t step foot in a warehouse. I refuse to. Because, the way they treated me wasn’t right.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Wal-Mart: One More Reason Why We Need Equal Pay

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

JenyaCassidy.phpLast week, I talked with a cashier at a Ralph’s grocery store in Orange County, Calif. She told me she lives with and supports her 82-year-old mother and her disabled 56-year-old sister. She represents a growing group in the United States: a working woman who is head of household and also a family caregiver.

But with the rise of the low-wage retail giants like Wal-Mart, she is also part of a shrinking group: a union worker with rights on the job, health benefits, paid sick days, vacation and possibly a pension or retirement fund. And with a union contract, she won’t be arbitrarily paid less than a man doing the same job with the same seniority.

Wal-Mart = Unequal Pay

In June 2011, a sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by 1.5 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart reached the Supreme Court, bringing national attention to the company’s policies of paying women less than men in every job category and promoting women less – often in spite of better job performance. The Court decided against allowing the women to pursue the lawsuit as a single class but Wal-Mart will likely have to face these claims individually for years.

Wal-Mart’s treatment of women workers is bad news for everyone fighting for equal pay. As the largest retailer in the United States and the world, Wal-Mart “leads the way” in setting standards and has the effect of depressing retail wages in every community where it opens shop. Right now, average pay for all Wal-Mart workers is $8.81 an hour and “full-time” is considered 34 hours a week. Imagine the woman I talked to at Ralph’s trying to support her family on that income in
California.

Equal Pay Day

Yesterday, we marked Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how far into 2012 women must work to earn what men were paid in 2011. Women now earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. We have not made a lot of progress since Equal Pay Day was first instituted back in 1996 when women earned 73.8 cents for every dollar men earned. I think the rise of companies like Wal-Mart and the demise of union jobs have a lot to do with our lack of progress in this area.

Let’s recommit to defeating Wal-Mart and what it stands for: low wages, bad working conditions, unequal treatment of women workers, union busting and a
business model that hurts the ability of working families to survive.

More and more families depend on a woman’s paycheck to put food on the table and a roof overhead. Two-thirds of women are either dual earners or the heads of households. Women are also carrying out the bulk of caregiving duties in families. We need decent wages and flexible workplaces with paid sick days and family leave. While Equal Pay Day is still fresh in our minds, let’s commit to getting involved in raising the standard of living for working women everywhere.

Let’s build the movement for workplaces that support caregivers. Let’s start with Wal-Mart.

For information on how to get involved in supporting positive change at Wal-Mart, go to http://makingchangeatwalmart.org/ For information on local campaigns advocating for paid sick days and paid family leave go to http://familyvaluesatwork.org/.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on April 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jenya Cassidy is a regular blog contributor to MomsRising.org.

High-Risk Trial Begins in Labor Fight Between Hostess Brands and Teamsters

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The risks are high in a trial that began this week pitting top corporate managers at Hostess Brands against the unionized workers who have produced and distributed its cakes, breads and snack foods for decades.

Hostess – maker of well-known products like Twinkies and Wonder Bread – wants bankruptcy court approval to cancel its labor contracts with several unions, most notably the Teamsters. If successful in eliminating the contracts, a strike could well ensue that threatens to kill off the company and eliminate as many as 15,000 union jobs.

Hostess has been spoiling for this fight for months, according to court documents and comments by union leaders. In January, it filed a Chapter 11 petition in federal court and immediately sought to invoke the notorious Section 1113 provision of the bankruptcy code, which would allow Hostess to unilaterally cancel its collective bargaining agreements. Soon after the filing, it was revealed that Hostess had anticipated a labor fight six months earlier by unilaterally ceasing to make any more cash contributions to union pension plans.

After some delays and fitful negotiations with its unions, the Section 1113 trial opened yesterday (April 17) in the federal bankruotcy court in White Plains, N.Y., and is expected to last two to three days, according to Hostess spokesman Erik Halvorson.

There is little indication of when Judge Robert Drain will issue his ruling, or how damaging it might be to the unions, said a spokeswoman for Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union (BCTGM), another labor organization with a lot at risk in the trial. Spokeswoman Corrina Christensen said the bakers union – which represents more than 5,000 Hostess production workers at 36 bakeries spread out across the country – is not making any comments about the case until the situation becomes clearer.

The Teamsters, by contrast, have been making a lot of public comments about the case. The union set up a special Hostess page on its website, where it has issued a steady stream of statements attacking Hostess officials, and demanding a fair negotiation of contract changes free from judicial coercion. It also reported on a vote by some 7,500 Teamster members at Hostess authorizing a strike against the company.

Ken Hall, a Teamster leader who is second only to President Jim Hoffa in the union hierarchy, has not tried to minimize the potential consequences of a strike. One result of a prolonged strike could be the final financial collapse of Hostess, and the consequent loss of all the Teamster jobs, he has indicated.  By the same token, Hostess lawyers have argued in bankruptcy court that it must have deep union concessions to repair the company and avoid liquidation.

Despite the threats of a strike, Hall has also made continued appeals to Hostess to negotiate an out-of-court settlement that would include some concessions. The latest of such offer came early this week but was not acceptable to Hostess, Teamsters representatives said.

Also at risk are the members of several other unions and the non-unionized employees of the company. Hostess’ third-largest labor group is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an independent affiliate of the United Food & Commercial Workers. Hostess estimates that it currently employs a total of about 15,000 unionized workers, and another 3,500 individuals not represented by any union. All stand to lose their jobs in a court-ordered liquidation.

Watching developments closely are pension experts from all sectors of organized labor. One of Hostess’ key demands is that it be relieved of large debts to the pension funds for members of Teamsters and the bakers union. A decision by Judge Drain to allow Hostess off the hook for these debts would be seen as a blow to the health of union pension funds elsewhere.

Josh Shapiro, deputy executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multi-Employer Plans (NCCMP), said that his group is very concerned about the case. NCCMP has filed documents with Judge Drain decrying the use of Section 1113 Shapiro said. Any court decision that would encourage corporations to abandon their union pension plans could have broader destructive effects on workers, Shapiro said.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories.

Why Is the Recovery So Feeble? Ask (Laid-Off) Public-Sector Workers

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Roger BybeeThe slashing of public-sector jobs—concentrated in states Republicans took control in 2010—is accounting for a major slowing of the nation’s economic recovery. In a recent report issued by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), economist Josh Bivens calculated that the U.S. has lost 584,000 government jobs during the recovery, an “unprecedented drag.”

Bivens argues that if America had emulated the strategy used to strengthen previous recoveries, it would have added 1.2 million public-sector jobs since the recovery’s start in June 2009. And the expanded buying power of these workers would have led to an additional 500,000 jobs in the private sector.

“If we had been following normal path, we’d have 1.7 million more jobs,” Bivens told In These Times last week. “Given that we have a shortfall of 10 million jobs in this country, we would have created nearly one fifth of the jobs we need.”

The drop in public employment further reduces consumer demand at a time when American households and small businesses are only reluctantly spending. Families are devoting more of their income to getting out of debt caused by credit cards, underwater mortgages and skyrocketing college tuition.

Of, course the nearly three-year “recovery” is still far from solid, as David Moberg has shown on the website:

The official unemployment rate in March [2012] fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent—the only good political news for President Obama. But that gain largely reflected the numbers of people who dropped out of the labor market. The 120,000 increase in jobs [are] about half the recent rate and a third of what’s needed to return to relatively full employment in three years…

While most of the cutbacks have occurred at the state and local levels thus far, federal jobs and federal programs that stimulate the economy will be increasingly under the gun. President Obama appears to be acceding to vast cutbacks in the U.S. Postal Service demanded by Republicans, which will be “a further drag on the recovery,” Bivens says.

Moreover, there are several stimulative federal programs that will be ending in January 2013, Bivens stated. “The payroll tax cut will be ended, the unemployment compensation extensions will be halted, and all of the Bush tax cuts, including those for moderate income families, will be stopped. This will all be contractionary for overall employment,” Bivens said.

In part, cutbacks in government employment during the current recovery are the result of the extraordinarily devastating impact of the economic meltdown and its connection to the deflated housing bubble.

“The budget gaps have been deeper for the states, and have required more fiscal contraction,” Bivens noted. “The impact on housing values has created a laser targeting of states that are so dependent on property taxes, as property values have declined so steeply. At the same time, “There has been a conscious decision this time to target public workers.”

Public workers targeted

Over the last several years, the Right and Republican-allied politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have tried to focus public anger against supposedly privileged public employees, much like earlier Republican-led crusades against “welfare recipients” receiving benefits from the public, as Adam Bessie has pointed out.

Along with stigmatizing public employees including teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers, GOP lawmakers have promoted a number of remarkably hollow slogans that assert the need for draconian cuts in public spending and public employment. To wit:

  • “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy” (title of Republican commentary by Republican members of Joint Economic Committee.
  • “Deficit reduction is part of job creation.” (Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas)
  • “Taxes cost jobs,” (Republican billboards in Wisconsin in 2010)

Cutbacks in public employment have been heavily concentrated in Republican-controlled states, as Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert document:

Of the eleven states in which Republicans came into power in 2010 – Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – five were among the seven states that lost more than 2.5 percent of their workforce from December 2010 to December 2011. The remaining 42 states lost an average 0.5 percent (there is no data for Mississippi).

The cutbacks in public employment have not produced economic miracles for any of these states. Particularly noticeable is the failure of Gov. Walker, who faces a recall election in June, to make any progress on his pledge of producing 250,000 jobs. In fact, Wisconsin, after cutting its public employment by about 2.8% has had the worst overall performance in job creation of any of the 50 states.

Nonetheless, Republicans can find important gains for their corporate constiutents.

In a paper called “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy,” Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee hailed the benefits of  “decreasing the number and compensation of government workers”:

The effects of this will ripple into the private sector in the form of lower wages: A smaller government workforce increases the available supply of educated, skilled workers for private firms, thus lowering labor costs.

In Wisconsin, this stance is especially stunning, as Walker campaigned on the notion that public employees should absorb the same kind of pay and benefit cuts inflicted by corporations upon private-sector workers. But in this report, Republicans argue that reductions in public-sector jobs and compensation will pave the way for yet more pay slashing among private-sector workers.

Funding for corporate tax cuts

In states ruled by the new crop of hard-line Republican governors, the GOP has claimed to be enacting massive cuts—especially reductions in allocations to education, cuts in public employment and reductions in public employees’ pay and benefits—to close budgetary deficits.

But Wisconsin’s Walker, leading the wave of anti-worker attacks, essentially transformed pay cuts for public workers into corporate tax breaks, as Bessie insightfully argued before the enactment of Walker’s program:

Walker’s tax cuts for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.

While Democrats may be enjoying Walker’s mounting problems, the weakness of the recovery will also be a problem for President Obama. His failure to defend the USPS is emblematic of his larger failure to consistently make the case for a strong public-sector that serves the 99%.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is winterbybee@gmail.com.

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