Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for December, 2013

At $2.13 Minimum Wage, Restaurant Workers Struggle to Put Food on Their Own Tables

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Laura ClawsonRestaurant workers are supposed to get at least minimum wage, when tips are combined with the $2.13 an hour tipped worker minimum wage. But, as the women in this video make clear, that’s not enough. Too often, employers don’t make up the difference, or even push workers to do prep or cleaning work at $2.13, with no chance to make tips. Or customers walk out on their checks, or leave a racist note instead of a tip, or a homophobic note instead of a tip, or a religious tract instead of a tip.

Relying on tips also forces an overwhelmingly female workforce to flirt with customers and smile at things that should be considered sexual harassment, all for the hope of a tip. A server named Gwenn told the Restaurant Opportunities Centers site Living Off Tips that “I think service is the hardest part. especially when customers decide how they’ll pay you by what they think of your looks.”

While the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t gone up since 2009, the minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t gone up since 1991 and is now a cause of widespread poverty among restaurant workers.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on December 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

500 Strong in Pennsylvania Bringing Healthcare to the People

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

seiu-org-logoWhen SEIU members in Pennsylvania made a decision to make the Affordable Care Act a success in the Keystone state, they knew their main focus would need to be on door-knocking and reaching out to the community directly. And it was a good thing they did, as initial problems with theHealthcare.gov website made it difficult for many people to get information as the enrollment period began.

At its height, there were more than 500 SEIU members working full-time in Pennsylvania, visiting the houses of uninsured home care workers and other low income families who often were uninsured. They also passed out information at health fairs, farmers’ markets, and other public events in order to get folks started on the path to health care.

One of these SEIU members was Chris Sloat, a Licensed Practical Nurse from Wilkes-Barre. Sloat works at the Guardian Elder Care nursing home, and sees firsthand what a lack of health insurance can do to people coming into her facility.

“As a nurse, I see people with all sorts of conditions who could have been spared a lot of suffering if they’d had preventative care. People come in needing full-time care after suffering stokes in their 50’s.”

 

Chris spends countless hours going door to door and passing out information at public events in order to counter all the right-wing attacks that flood the state’s airwaves. “One day at the nursing home, most of the folks had their radios on and I counted six commercials in one hour that attacked the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “I can STILL remember the lines from those ads.”

Chris had dozens of conversations at people’s doors, when the first things out of their mouths would be “Obamacare? That terrible program?”. But after giving them the facts and having an honest conversation with them, they’d be grabbing the phone as she left in an attempt to sign up.

Chris Sloat not only was a champion for the Affordable Care Act this fall, but also personally benefitted from the law. Two of her children have been able to stay on their father’s health insurance plan because the Affordable Care Act mandates that children be allowed to stay on until they turn 26.

In addition, Chris previously had a somewhat high co-pay for her yearly mammograms, and at least once she had to forgo the procedure due to a money crunch. But thanks to the new law, Chris’s plan now offers free preventative care and she’ll never again have to worry about paying for potentially life-saving checkups like these.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on December 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications

Community @Work: Beyond the Gridiron

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe latest article in our Community section of the AFL-CIO @Work site takes a look at an innovative program from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health that provides much-needed services to an often neglected segment of American society.

Sometimes, an unexpected moment can change the lives of thousands of people.

In 1996, NFL Players Association (NFLPA) member Nick Lowery, a Pro Bowl placekicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and the New York Jets, was wrapping up his career and had an idea to create a football camp for Native American youths. He approached the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health and was told the plan needed a broader purpose that had to go beyond football.

He then bumped into a fellow former NFL player, running back Clark Gaines, on an airplane. Their conversation turned to Lowery’s project and the idea broadened into creating a sports and lifestyle camp for Native American youths. Within a year, the NFLPA, the Nick Lowery Youth Foundation and Johns Hopkins joined forces to create NativeVision, a program enabling professional athletes to mentor economically disadvantaged American Indian youths. Since then, more than 26,000 young people have been served by the program.

“NativeVision is magic,” says Allison Barlow, the associate director of the Johns Hopkins center that co-sponsors the program. “It springs from each person giving all they have of raw talents, passion and life story.”

The centerpiece of the year-round NativeVision program is the annual camp that attracts American Indian youths from around the country. Held in June on tribal lands, the NativeVision camps have involved the efforts of more than 60 professional athletes and coaches to date. The camp goes beyond sports and includes breakout sessions that promote discipline, teamwork, the pursuit of education and healthy lifestyles. Workshops aren’t limited to young people either; offerings include computer training, parenting, cooking, financial literacy, community service projects, arts and life skills for families of the youths and other community members.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 21, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Honeywell Workers Get Rare Good News for Christmas

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Mike ElkFor the past several Christmases, workers at Honeywell’s uranium plant in Metropolis, Ill., have had little to celebrate. Most of the workers at the plant have spent the best part of four years in a series of labor struggles with the company: first a tense 13-month lockout ending in 2011, then post-lockout disputes in which the union alleged that the company failed to abide by the new contract, and then, in July of 2012, a yearlong shuttering of the plant that led to temporary layoffs of almost the entire union workforce.

This holiday season, however, the workers are finally getting something to cheer about—all of their jobs back, two days before Christmas.

Earlier this month, Honeywell’s new plant manager Jim Pritchett recalled the final 11 of the nearly 200 laid-off union workers—including the union local president, Stephen Lech. The last of the workers restarted their jobs on Monday, December 23. The union, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-699, is hoping that the recalls may be a sign of improved relations with Honeywell.

That relationship grew even more strained this summer, after Honeywell reopened the renovated plant in May. While the company began bringing back laid-off union workers in an order determined by lists negotiated with the union, it stopped with 21 workers still left on the list. Local 7-699 alleges that this was an attempt to avoid rehiring Lech, who was next in line.

Out of solidarity with the laid-off workers, some union workers refused to work overtime, saying the plant was understaffed and that Honeywell was using overtime to avoid filling the needed positions. In turn, Pritchett (then the plant’s operating manager), sent a memo in July canceling summer vacations for all workers because not enough overtime shifts were being filled.

On October 25, Local 7-699 filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, saying that Honeywell had “unlawfully, disparately, and discriminatorily failed and refused to reinstate from layoff, union president, Stephen Lech, because he engaged in protected, and concerted, and union activities.”

The NLRB was getting ready to hear the case when Honeywell settled. If the board had ruled in favor of the local and found that the refusal to reinstate was in retaliation for union action, Honeywell would have been legally liable for the back pay for the 21 workers who were not recalled during that six-month period. Lech estimates that the payment could have totaled more than a half a million dollars.

Some union activists say that the threat of legal action over the layoffs propelled Honeywell to finally readmit the last 21 workers to the plant. Honeywell did not return Working In These Times’ request for comment.

While Honeywell’s motives are unclear, what is clear is that this Christmas Eve, a lot of Honeywell workers in Metropolis, Ill., have reason to smile. The news of a victory gives union workers a much-needed morale boost as they head into what are expected to be contentious negotiations over their contract, which is set to expire this June.

“I’m excited about it,” says Lech of the rehirings. “We’ve fought hard against Honeywell for the last four years, and this is a huge victory for us.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on December 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Paid Family Leave: One More Great Democratic Idea Republicans Will Block

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Laura ClawsonFamily leave is one of the many ways the United States lags behind its peers on workers’ rights, but Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) aim to change that. The two Democrats are pushing the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would create a national insurance system allowing workers paid leave time to deal with their own serious health conditions or those of family members. Even families with health insurance struggle when the choice is between being available to take care of a sick loved one or going to work and getting a paycheck:

In a testimony gathered by the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, a mother named Devorah from Rosendale, N.Y. recalled the hardships she faced when her daughter was born premature with a severe medical condition and continued to suffer from long-term medical problems in later years. Though her family had some insurance protection, Devorah said, “By the time we walked out of the hospital with our baby, we had spent an additional $30,000 out of pocket.” In her daughter’s first years, she went on:

There were times when … we didn’t pay our bills. We didn’t pay the gas company or the oil company or the phone company. If there was a choice between prescription drugs and groceries, we bought prescription drugs. If there was a choice between groceries and the phone bill, we went without a phone. … And it’s taken us six years to dig our way out of the financial hole that this dumped us into.

Workers would get up to 12 weeks of leave in a year, receiving 66 percent of their pay (up to a capped amount). The benefits would be financed by small employee and employer payroll contributions—small as in two-tenths of one percent, or two cents for every $10 in wages—and available to all workers insured by Social Security Disability Insurance, not just those currently eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act. It would be administered by the Social Security Administration, an agency that knows a little something about handling social insurance funded by payroll contributions. And the plan is modeled on similar programs that are already working, and working well, in California and New Jersey; another begins in Rhode Island in 2014.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act fills a clear need: people often report that the reason they don’t take FMLA’s unpaid leave is that they can’t afford to do so. It’s modeled on programs that already work. It’s humane. It would especially help women, since women are both most likely to be caregivers and are, on average, paid less than men. It’s crazy that the United States doesn’t already have a law like this. Yet until and unless Democrats control the House, Senate, and presidency, we can count on Republicans blocking it.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on December 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

Unanimous Supreme Court in Heimeshoff Permits Contractually-Based SOLs in ERISA Denial of Benefit Cases

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Paul SecundaThis morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in  Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accidental Life Ins. Co., concerning statute of limitation accrual issues for benefit claims under Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.

The Court unanimously held that Hartford’s Long Term Disability Plan’s requirement that any suit to recover benefits be filed within three years after “proof of loss” is due is enforceable.  More specifically, “[a]bsent a controlling statute to the contrary, a participant and a plan may agree by contract to a particular limita­tions period, even one that starts to run before the cause of action accrues, as long as the period is reasonable.”  Causes of action for benfit under ERISA do not start to accrue until a final internal appeal decision.  Because Heimeshoff failed to file a claim for long-term disability ben­efits with Hartford within the contractual SOL period, the Court concluded her claim was rightfully denied by Hartford.

While ERISA does not provide a statute of limitations for denial of benefit claims, many plan administrator have in place a contractual 3-year limitations period like Hartford’s.  Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Thomas held the Plan’s limitations provision enforceable under the rule set forth in Order of United Commercial Travelers of America v. Wolfe, 331 U. S. 586, 608, which provides that a contractual limi­tations provision is enforceable so long as the limitations period is of reasonable length and there is no controlling statute to the contrary.  This conclusion was especially supported, according to the Court, by the ERISA principle that contractual limitations should be enforced as written under ERISA’s written plan rule.

There may still be limitations in place in the future to finding these contractual SOLs valid.  If the limitations period is unreasonably short or if there is a controlling statute to the contrary, the Plan’s limitations provision can be overridden. Moreover, the Court held that courts are well equipped to apply traditional doctrines, such as waiver or estoppel and equitable tolling that nevertheless may allow partic­ipants to proceed on stale claims. However, consider in this regard Heimseshoff in light of U.S. Airways vs. McCutcheon. 

Although Heimeshoff says traditional equitable doctrines may circumscribe application of statutes of limitations to protect participants, McCutcheon said plans can include terms that explicitly preclude application of traditional equitable doctrines.  So does this mean that employers will quickly amend their plans to preclude application of equitable doctrines? It very well could be the case.

Here, in any event, the period was not unreasonably short and, in fact, most internal benefit appeals are completed within one year so that there should be sufficient time for most ERISA plaintiffs to bring their suit in a timely manner.  Even Justice Ginsburg remarked in oral argument that there might have been essentially legal malpractice in this case in that Heimeshoff’s attorney may have failed to diligently pursue her claim (she had about a year to file her case even after her internal appeal had been finally denied).

Although this decision may not be that important in the long-run as there is not much evidence that plan administrators have used these SOLs to prevent participants to bring claims, the one part of the decision that seemed fanciful to me was this idea that plan participants and beneficiaries “agree” with their plans to these SOLs.  The Court said this with regard to this critical aspect of the case: “the parties have agreed by contract to commence the limitations period at a particular time.”

As I wrote previously when oral argument occurred in this case in October, benefit plans are classic contracts of adhesion with usually no bargaining between the parties taking place.  It is legal fiction to say that most participants consented to this provision.  Nevertheless, it is hard to argue, under the circumstances, that this unilateral term is unreasonable, as long as equitable principles and regulations exist to prevent plan administrators from gaming the system to prevent judicial review of claims decisions. Whether such equitable principles will continue to exist, however, post-Heimeshoff and McCuthcheon is anyone’s guess but I am skeptical.

Somwhat called this case. Here is what I wrote in October: “I fear this pro-employer/pro-plan sponsor court will adopt the written plan requirement rule and permit the plan sponsor to unilaterally set in the plan document an accrual date and a length for the statute of limitations.”

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on December 16, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.

They Just Didn't Know How to Take the Next Steps

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

seiu-org-logoRoberta Kenner works as a registrar at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a member of SEIU Local 1199. In recent months she worked as a lost-timer for her local union–helping to sign up uninsured New Yorkers for affordable new healthcare options under the Affordable Care Act.

As part of Local 1199’s program, the Healthcare Education Project, Kenner and her union brothers and sisters spread throughout the city with Kenner’s team focusing on the low-income areas of Queens. Members of Local 1199 were able to knock on 134,000 doors and speak to more than 36,000 residents about the new benefits available under the law. And they got results. For those people they identified as being eligible for affordable care, nine out of ten pledged “Yes” to take action by signing up with the New York healthcare exchanges.

Kenner is proud of work she has done, and got to see firsthand how hungry people were for more information. “A lot of people know about the law, but they just didn’t know how to take the next steps,” she said. “And it was amazing to see their expressions change as the conversation went on. One lady went and grabbed a laptop and started signing up just as I was leaving, which really makes you feel that all this work is not in vain.”

This article was originally printed on SEIU on December 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications.

Is That a Union Nutcracker?

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Image: Mike HallHere in the holiday season and stretching into the New Year, a lot of folks decide it’s a good time for a night at the theater or to take in a concert. A lot of us want to look for the union label, too. Here are some links that might help.

Most of your big city ballet companies—which are likely finishing up their run of “The Nutcracker”—and operas employ dancers, singers and production workers who are members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)Click here for a list of those companies.

The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) represents musicians in most major metropolitan symphony orchestras and many regional orchestras in the United States and Canada.Click here for a list of the big-city U.S. orchestras, here for the regional orchestras and here for the Canadian orchestras.

While the cast, crews and pit orchestras for most Broadway and off-Broadway shows are made up of Actors’ Equity (AEA), Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and AFM members, that’s not always the case when one of these shows rolls into your town.

Click here to find out the current touring shows that feature an AEA cast and here for a list of shows employing IATSE members. AFM does not have a similar site, but does list current tours without AFM agreements here.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Nelson Mandela and the Importance of Civil Justice

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

 

kleiman_smThe memory of Nelson Mandela is being honored for his courageous and deeply dignified stance while imprisoned, and for his astute and successful efforts at reconciliation and nation building when he was finally released in his 70s.

 

Very few people remember that the man who helped lead a revolution was not always ready to die for his cause.  Sixty years ago, Nelson Mandela was a civil rights lawyer in the only African-run law firm in South Africa.  He represented victims of police brutality and the overbearing racial authority in his country.  The white-run government could not tolerate these challenges and used the apartheid laws to force the firm to move out of downtown Johannesburg and into a remote area.  Mandela could not get to the courts, and his clients could not get to him.   Unable to practice under these conditions, Mandela and his partner had to close their practice.

 

Blocked in his efforts at peaceful reform and appalled by the government’s wanton demolition of an all-Black Johannesburg suburb, Mandela took up the path of armed resistance.  This was the beginning of an armed struggle that went on for over thirty years, taking tens of thousands of lives.  Mandela spent twenty-seven of those years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

 

It is no accident that a smart and determined leader would seek justice under the law.  And it is no surprise that after being thwarted at every turn, he sought that justice through other means.

 

After years as an organizer I went to law school to help get justice in this country.  I was confident that unlike South Africa, I lived in a country with a rich history of democratic feistiness and a strong commitment to fair enforcement of the laws.  I now wonder if I was wrong.

 

In the United States we are witnessing an unprecedented attack on legal rights.  One courthouse door after another is slammed – on workers, on women, on people of color, and even on everyday consumers.    Instead of club-swinging southern sheriffs or snarling lynch mobs, the new weapon of choice is a judicially enforced, secret system of private judging called arbitration.  Arbitration strips away Americans’ constitutional right to a jury trial and drops them into the murky world of closed-door judging.  It’s a rigged game where one side hires, fires, and pays for the referees.  Arbitrators at one top private judging firm ruled for employers and against employees, for big business and against consumers 93.8% of the time.  And these decisions are made in secret, instead of an open courtroom.

 

Time after time the U.S. Supreme Court has twisted federal law to strip away these constitutional rights.  It Walmart v Dukes it ruled that over a million women working at Walmart could not band together to sue for sex discrimination that stole wages from them. Rights to equal pay, a safe workplace, and equal treatment have been stripped away by secret tribunals.  Now that same Supreme Court, in ATT Mobility v Concepcion,  has also ruled that fine print language buried in 30-page user agreements can be used to keep millions consumers from banding together in class action suits or workers from demanding that they be repaid for meal and break time stolen from them.

 

As we honor Mandela, it bears remembering that his broad vision for his country, and his skills as an orator bring to mind an American leader with those same traits, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  President Kennedy may have had Mandela in mind when he prophetically warned that “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

 

The engineers of current attacks on access to justice in America would do well to reflect on JFK’s cautionary words, and on the fiery trajectory of Nelson Mandela.  If the life of the man being honored this week proves anything, it proves that without justice, restoring security for America’s working people will require a lot more than lawsuits.

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on December 14, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Kleiman is A long-time human rights and consumer activist.  He has filed cases that have led to over $500 million being recovered for U.S. taxpayers.  He has won multimillion dollar verdicts in consumer fraud and medical malpractice trials.

Uncle Sam’s Hiring Practices

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Bruce VailA pair of reports released this week show that the federal government routinely ignores worker safety and labor law violations when awarding contracts to private companies—and that American taxpayers are cheated in the process.

The first  comes from the staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee, which conducted a yearlong investigation of federal contracting records. Unveiled Wednesday by HELP Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the report provides a long list of specific companies that break safety and labor laws yet continue to receive big government contracts. In particular, it names 49 law-breaking contractors that got more than $81 billion from Uncle Sam in 2012 alone—including AT&T, Home Depot and GM.

The HELP report was paired with one from the Center For American Progress (CAP) Action Fund, a Democratic Party advocacy group, which examined whether government contractors are actually fulfilling their contracts. The CAP report found that a number of companies shortchange taxpayers through poor performance, and names specific companies that stand out in this respect, including Lockheed Martin and KBR. Some of these scofflaw companies, such as international oil giant BP, overlapped with the HELP report lists.

The CAP report was presented Wednesday by Chairman John Podesta in a joint appearance with Harkin at CAP’s Washington D.C. headquarters.

Both Harkin and Podesta trace the origin of their respective reports to a 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that analyzed official data on safety and labor law violations by government contractors. That GAO report found that known violators routinely received new government contracts. It failed to name the specific contractor companies guilty of violations, however, and the HELP report was designed to provide the public with those names, as well as to bring the information up to date through 2012, according to Harkin. CAP report co-author David Madland says his effort “provides a nice complement” to the HELP analysis by highlighting that the contracting problem is not solely a labor issue, but also one of good government administration and the concern of taxpayers over wasteful spending.

The names of federal contractors guilty of fatal worker safety violations will be familiar to most Working In These Times readers. Harkin began his presentation by pointing to the workplace deaths of 10 employees in three separate incidents at the facilities of laundry operator Cintas Corp., shipbuilder ST Engineering Ltd. and oil refiner Tesoro Corp.  Despite these deaths, all three companies received federal contracts in 2012, with Tesoro alone getting $463 million last year, the report states. A lengthier list of safety violators (some fatal, some non-fatal) includes international oil giant BP, commodities conglomerate Louis Dreyfus Group, beef and chicken processor Tyson Foods, auto manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler, and defense contractor General Dynamics. Eighteen such companies received almost $23 billion in federal contracts between 2006 and 2013, the report details.

Harkin pointed out that of 18 companies with terrible safety records, only one, BP, had ever been barred from federal contracts—and that suspension from new contracts was spurred by the environmental damage from the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil rig explosion, not from the safety violations (although 10 workers were killed). Federal contracting officers routinely ignore the bad worker safety records of companies competing for government business, he added, and reforms are needed to correct the problem.

Similar issues are raised when analyzing the records on wage-and-hour law violations, according to both HELP and CAP. Again the HELP report unearths many household names from the Department of Labor records of companies obliged to make back wage payments to workers for legal violations. Among them are Hewlett-Packard Co., AT&T, General Dynamics, Nestle S.A., Lockheed Martin Corp., Cerberus Capital Management, and Home Depot Inc. A group of the 32 worst offenders received  $73.1 billion from the federal government between 2007 and 2012, the HELP report says.

Harkin conceded that not all violations are so serious that contractors should be punished by exclusion from government business. Some violations apparently arise from simple errors, unavoidable accidents or other benign sources, he said. However, when the Labor Department finds willful and repeated violations, it can assess civil penalties. Harkin suggested that the contractors penalized in this way should receive special scrutiny before any new contracts are awarded. HELP researchers came up with the names of Sprint Nextel Corp, UnitedHealth Group, Marriott International, C&S Wholesalers Inc., Acosta Inc. and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as examples of contractors already assessed for “severe and repeated” violations of labor law. Together, those six companies received about $470 million in federal contracts in 2012 alone, the report said.

Like the safety violators, none of the wage-and-hour labor-law violators have been barred from the further government contracts, Harkin emphasized. “There is an existing legal requirement (that contractors obey labor law) but it’s clear to me that compliance is not being considered” when new contracts are awarded, he said.

CAP came up with some of the same names when it separately analyzed the government data and “found that the companies with the worst records of harming workers were also guilty of shortchanging taxpayers through poor performance on government contracts and similar business agreements in ways that defraud the government and otherwise provide a bad value for taxpayers.”

Cited in this regard were:

  • KBR, a construction and defense contractor notable for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan, which received $11.4 billion in contracts between 2009 and 2013
  • BP, the international oil giant, which received $4.6 billion in contracts (plus $433 million in offshore oil and gas leases) 2009-20013
  • Corrections Corporation of America or CCA, the nation’s largest operator of private prisons, which got $2.3 billion in government contracts 2009-2013
  • Akai Security, notable for its agreements to provide private security at Department of Justice facilities nationwide, which got $3.6 billion on government contracts 2009-2013
  • Wackenhut Services, whose subsidiary ArmorGroup of North America provides private security guards at U.S. embassies overseas, which got $1.7 billion 2009-2012
  • Lockheed Martin, a diversified military contractor, which got $170 billion 2009-2013
  • Group Health Cooperative, a health maintenance organization (HMO), which got $20.2 million 2009-2012

Both Harkin and Podesta were full of righteous indignation about this state of affairs at their joint appearance Wednesday, but neither offered any sweeping new proposals to fix the problem. The HELP report states that existing law allows federal contract administrators to exclude offending companies and suggests that improved reporting and database management by the Labor Department could make it easier to bar scofflaw companies. It also proposes that President Barack Obama issue several small-scale executive orders that would streamline the process of legally excluding some companies. The CAP conclusion was even less ambitious, merely blaming “weak guidance and lax enforcement of the regulations” for the chronic contracting problems.

It’s possible that in ignoring the possibility of stronger federal laws, both reports implicitly recognized the impracticality of any new legislative initiative in Washington’s current political environment.

CAP’s Madland tells Working In These Times that the new reports represent a continuing effort by Democrats to wrestle with the contracting issue. Reform proposals early in the Obama administration known as “high road” contracting were abandoned in the face of political opposition, he says, but the need to make reforms to the contract process remains. “Workers are being killed because companies cut corners. …The system is broken and needs to be reformed.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on December 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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