Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for January, 2014

This Week in the War on Workers: Temp Work Isn't Safe and it Often Isn't Temporary

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Temp workers face higher risk of injury and even death on the job than workers directly employed by the companies they work for, a December ProPublica report showed:

A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers’ compensation claims shows that in five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees.In California and Florida, two of the largest states, temps had about 50 percent greater risk of being injured on the job than non-temps. That risk was 36 percent higher in Massachusetts, 66 percent in Oregon and 72 percent in Minnesota.

Laura ClawsonCompanies fail to provide basic training or safety equipment for temps, even when they’re working around dangerous equipment; injured temps don’t receive care or are fired. And, as Sarah Jaffe reports this week, temp doesn’t really mean temporary anymore, even in what used to be considered good manufacturing jobs:

As an “associate” (the firm’s preferred term for temp), [Betty McCray] works alongside permanent Nissan employees, but she is treated differently. She says she is paid less, gets no personal days and has to bring a doctor’s note if she is sick. Her job feels precarious, like she could be let go at any time.The path to becoming an “employee,” that elusive goal, is far from clear. Tracy Logan, 34, worked through Yates on Nissan’s assembly line for a year before winning a promotion to a position as a robot tender, overseeing the robots that spray paint on the car parts. To his surprise, he remained a temp. “When I first arrived at Nissan, that position was considered Class A—only Nissan personnel can hold that position,” he says. “I put in for it, thinking that would be a way of getting on with Nissan. Somewhere in there, they changed the classification of the job, but didn’t let us know.”

Manufacturers increasingly use temps even for skilled labor, and often pay low wages. Skilled manufacturing jobs done by temps at $10 an hour? That’s what you call clear evidence of the race to the bottom.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on January 11, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

It's Time To Stop Judging the Unemployed

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

seiu-org-logoVickey Tyson, an SEIU Local 517Mmember in Saginaw, Michigan, knows firsthand about the stresses of today’s job market and the critical difference the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) can make.

Until late 2012, Vickey worked as customer service representative for the Michigan unemployment claims agency. But like many other Michiganders, she lost her job due to state cutbacks and layoffs. And the sudden expiration of modest federal unemployment benefits on December 28, 2013 pulled the rug out from beneath 1.3 million Americans just like Vickey.

She traveled to Washington, DC this week to stand with President Obama during his January 7 address where he called on Congress to extend the federal EUC program, which serves as a lifeline for long-term unemployed workers. Like the President, Vickey knows that it is not too late to fix this. Congress can take swift action to restore emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. We should not be making it harder for Americans to work and participate in society. Extending these benefits is the right thing to do for America’s jobless and the economy.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 10, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Courtney-Rose Dantus

Cheer on Your Union Brothers and Sisters at the 2014 Golden Globes

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Jackie TortoraThis Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC, union talent will be on full display at the 2014 Golden Globes Awards, hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Union members involved in making, creating and starring in the movies and TV shows include SAG-AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

Best of luck to everyone up for awards, and thanks for keeping us entertained year round.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on January 10, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Oops, So Much for the Right-Wing Arguments Against Paid Sick Leave

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallIn 2011, Connecticut became the first state to require employers to provide paid sick days for workers, including part-time employees. At the time, extreme pro-business interests in the state ran through the common, yet tired, arguments about paid sick leave in efforts to stop the law from passing. After 18 months of the law being in effect, researchers Eileen Appelbaum, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and Ruth Milkman, a professor at CUNY, surveyed more than 250 employersin the state to determine the effects of the law. The results of the study pretty soundly reject the conservative arguments against paid sick leave.

CEPR’s Teresa Kroeger said of the study:

The authors found that the law had minimal effects on businesses. A large majority of employers reported that the law did not affect business operations and that they had no or only small increases in costs. Businesses most frequently covered absent workers by assigning the work to other employees, a solution which has little effect on costs. Just 10% of employers reported that the law caused their costs to increase by 3% or more.

The key findings of the study include:

  • Employee turnover was reduced 3.3%.
  • Sick employees coming to work sick was reduced 18.8%.
  • Illness was spread 14.8% less often than before the law.
  • Productivity increased 14.9%.
  • Morale, motivation and loyalty increased among employees (according to their employers).
  • Payroll costs increased by 3% or more for only 10% of employers.
  • Only 10.6% of employers reported reducing employee hours because of the law.
  • Only 15.6% of employers reported increasing prices because of the law.
  • Only 3.4% of employers reported reducing operating hours because of the law.
  • Only 1.3% of employers reported reduced quality of service because of the law.
  • Only 1.0% of employers reported reducing wages because of the law.
  • A strong majority of employers were “very supportive” (39.5%) or “somewhat supportive” (37.0%) of the law a year-and-a-half after it went into effect.
  • The law covers about 400,000 workers
  • The law had minimal impact on employers that already offered paid sick days.
  • Little abuse of the system has been reported by employers.
  • Paid sick day coverage increased from 88.5% of employers to 93.7% that offer five or more paid sick days annually.
  • The number of paid sick days offered to all employees rose from an average of 6.9 days to 7.7 days.
  • About two-thirds of eligible workers used paid sick days, with an average of four days used per year.
  • Unionized employers were half as likely to report cost increases because of the law (compared to nonunion employers).

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on January 7, 2014.  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.

Georgia-Pacific Employees Can Now Tweet Without Fear

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Mike ElkIn October 2012, In These Times revealed that the Koch brothers had instructed 45,000 employees of Georgia-Pacific, a paper company owned by Koch Industries, to vote for Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election. But even as the Kochs took advantage of expanded free speech rights for corporations under the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, Georgia-Pacific was busy circulating a strict policy that prohibited workers from speaking poorly of the company or its officers on social media. Thanks to a new decree by the National Labor Relations Board, however, employees can now feel free to post about their jobs to Facebook or Instagram without fear of retribution.

Georgia-Pacific’s now-defunct social media policy, which it implemented in 2011, warned, “Even if your social media conduct is outside of the workplace and/or non-work related, it must not reflect negatively on GP’s reputation, its products, or its brands.”

Many employees took this to mean that they could not post anything criticizing the company on social media.

Greg Pallesen, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Papers Workers (AWPPW), which represents workers at Georgia-Pacific paper plants in the Pacific Northwest, says that the policy was emblematic of the Koch brothers’ hypocrisy when it comes to workers’ rights.

“It all ties back into the last round of politics,” he says. “On one hand [the Kochs] say they believe and want free speech [for themselves], but on the other hand, they don’t allow their employees to have free speech.”

Though labor law does not unequivocally protect workers’ free speech on the job, it does give employees the right to advocate on behalf of their co-workers. With this in mind, in July 2012, AWPPW filed charges with the NLRB arguing that Georgia-Pacific’s overly broad social media policy interfered with employees’ ability to speak out about working conditions there. AWPPW also alleged that the company should have included the policy, as well as parts of the Employee Code of Conduct, in the union’s contract negotiations as a mandatory subject of bargaining.

In December 2013, after a year and a half of investigation, the NLRB reached a settlement with Georgia-Pacific requiring the company to rescind the policy and to post a statement in all its facilities assuring workers of their rights under federal labor law. The statement will read, “WE WILL repeal our social media policy and WE WILL NOT issue policies that interfere with your right to share information relating to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, including on social media.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Georgia-Pacific must also now allow employees to use the company email system to share information about working conditions. In addition, the corporation revoked the portions of its Code of Conduct that forbade employees from “sharing personal employee or compensation information with others”—a ban expressly prohibited by federal labor law.

Greg Guest, spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific, said in a statement, “Georgia-Pacific worked cooperatively with the National Labor Relations Board to better understand its position on employees’ rights, including employee rights in the social media space, and we are pleased that we were able to find a compromise that worked for both parties.”

Despite Guest’s talk of compromise, however, Pallesen feels the settlement is a clear victory for AWPPW and Georgia-Pacific’s workers.

“It was a good win for us. It slows the company down on just implementing things, which they tend to do. This forces them to come to us to negotiate policy,” says Pallesen. “Instead of the employer having 100 percent of the control of speech in the workplace, this gives employees some protection when it comes to ‘protected and concerted efforts’ [to organize at work].”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 7, 2014.  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.

Philadelphia School Layoffs are Endangering Students' College Prospects

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Laura ClawsonIt’s college application time for high school seniors around the country, and Philadelphia public school students are facing more than the usual “will I get in?” stresses. That’s because last summer’s massive layoffs in the Philadelphia schools left them understaffed and without enough counselors to guide students through the application process—in some cases without enough counselors to even write recommendation letters for every student who needs them:

Many students at Central High shoot for top-tier colleges, but counselor Tatiana Olmedo has had to warn college officials not every student will have a letter of recommendation.The math just doesn’t add up, Olmedo said – 2,400 students, two counselors. Eight counselors used to work at the school. Students who want an appointment to see a counselor can count on a two-week wait.

“We don’t know all the students, and we don’t have a way of meeting them in a timely fashion,” Olmedo said. Schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University indicated that might affect students’ chances.

And forget about counselors having the time to help students figure out what colleges they should apply to, advice that can be especially important for teens seeking to become first-generation college students, whose parents aren’t familiar with the application process. Also falling by the wayside as counselors struggle to help hundreds or thousands of students make it through high school are little things like teaching students how to tell if their friends might be suicidal.

Philadelphia’s schools are being hit by a funding crisis created by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett; their teachers are paid less than teachers in surrounding suburbs, they receive less funding per student than schools in Pittsburgh and many of the state’s other cities, and school closings are disproportionately hurting low-income and black students. Now, kids who’ve nearly made it through and are trying to move on to college are being hurt by Corbett’s cuts.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on January 6, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

A New Approach (and Attitude) Needed for Social Security

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

seiu-org-logoA recent study from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) finds while the retirement crisis affects all, it is particularly dire for households of color. Fewer than half of blacks and Latino workers have retirement plans on the job, leaving the vast majority with no retirement savings and more likely to depend on Social Security’s modest benefits.

What’s equally as disturbing as the findings of this study is the position toward Social Security taken by Charles Blahous, research fellow with the Hoover Institution and one of the trustees appointed to oversee Social Security and Medicare.

In an email interview with the Washington Post, Blahous argued that Social Security has the perverse effect of discouraging cash-strapped people from making a priority of retirement savings.

“A true answer to the problem would mean decreasing our society’s dependence on income transfer programs as a source of retirement income, and increasing the net amount of saving that we do,” he said.

As someone appointed to oversee Social Security, he should know this program remains the foundation of retirement security for almost all Americans as it is the only portable defined benefit retirement plan available to virtually all workers. The problem with Social Security is that alone it doesn’t provide retirees with adequate income as the program was never meant to be the sole source of retirement savings.

More than 65 percent of single and married seniors depended on Social Security for the majority of their income in 2010. We can only expect our reliance on this program to increase as private employers freeze pension plans and cut retirement contributions of all types.

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, 87 percent of Americans? including 71 percent of Republicans, 97 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents? agree it is critical to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing taxes paid by wealthier Americans. It’s time for lawmakers and those who help to shape policies to listen to their constituencies who want an opportunity to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 6, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Eileen Kirlin, SEIU Executive Vice President

SeaTac Minimum Wage Hike Goes into Effect, Yet Many Are Left Out

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Jackie TortoraYesterday, workers at large hotels and car services outside the SeaTac International Airport, just south of Seattle, became eligible for a wage increase to $15 an hour after a groundbreaking ballot initiative to significantly raise the minimum wage passed last November.

A judge in the King County Superior Court last week suspended the part of the law that would cover 4,700 people who work within the airport itself, saying that the airport is technically a separate jurisdiction belonging to the Port of Seattle, even though those workers were major proponents of the measure. As it stands now, the law covers 1,600 people who work at hotels and car services outside the airport.

Employees of airport contractors are appealing the county judge’s decision and filed a “petition for discretionary review” with the Washington State Supreme Court on Dec. 31.

The Yes for SeaTac coalition reports that while Alaska Airlines operates hundreds of flights at those other airports that pay living wages, such as the Los Angeles International Airport, Alaska Airlines is the main plaintiff in the lawsuit to take away living wages and paid sick days from the 4,700 SeaTac workers. Alaska Airlines recently reported its best quarter ever and the airline’s 18th consecutive quarterly profit, with $157 million in profits in just three months.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on January 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

The U.S. Government Uses Sweatshops, Too

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Michelle ChenThe collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last April exposed the cruel link between abusive Global South factories and the Western brands they supply. But while consumers may have been shocked to learn of the Gap or Benetton‘s latest designs strewn amid the wreckage of “death trap” factories, they might have missed another bit of debris: the label of the U.S. government. In fact, much of the clothing churned out by overseas sweatshops is custom-made for Uncle Sam.

In an extensive investigative report, New York Times details how the federal government’s contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparel are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.

A recent audit by labor monitoring authorities found workers as young as 15 at a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that produces clothes to be sold by the Army and Air Force. Some workers spoke to the Times of having to work long shifts without breaks, forcing them to soil themselves while sewing.

The Times also reported evidence of child labor in another Bangladesh factory commissioned to produce Marine Corps shirts. And at yet another facility, this one making clothes for the General Services Administration—which supplies uniforms for more than a dozen federal agencies—beatings of workers were reportedly frequent, as was the often brutal suppression of labor organization. Both facilities lacked proper fire protections.

And in Haiti, a country scarred by the legacy of U.S. military intervention and devastating trade policies, government-supported low-wage garment work underscores the U.S. military’s continued influence over the impoverished island. A local clothing producer, BKI, told the Times it hopes to expand its production of camouflage wear this year thanks to a $30 million contract with a Missouri-based uniform company and the General Services Administration. Meanwhile, the workers inside earn 72 cents per hour on average, which is below Haiti’s minimum wage and “barely covers food and rent.”

Such overseas deals are part of the government’s practice of “procurement,” or contracting with private firms for goods or services. Ultimately, however, whether the buyer is a public agency or a high-fashion retail brand, any trade with the Global South garment industries runs the risk of worker abuses, corporate impunity and rampant exploitation.

Recently, PR-conscious private-sector clothing-makers have made some overtures toward improving labor practices along their supply chains. In Bangladesh, for example, the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters have prompted about 120 multinational brands, including Adidas and H&M, to shown some willingness to reform their supply chains by signing onto the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. But thus far, few similar improvements have been enacted by the U.S. government.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the White House did make the largely symbolic move of temporarily suspending Bangladesh’s trade preferences on some goods. There’s been little action, however, on a more concrete proposal that would target improving military procurement in Bangladesh. According to a recent memo from the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the military “provides little to no oversight of the labor and safety conditions” in its supply chain and has failed to address evidence of labor abuses. One exception is the Marine Corps Trademark and Licensing Office: After the agency’s labels, displaying the slogan “The Few, the Proud,” turned up in the ruins of the deadly 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh, the Office implemented stronger worker safety provisions for its suppliers that parallel the Bangladesh Accord, as well as child labor restrictions. For the most part, though, Miller’s memo suggests the military contracting system has largely resisted meaningful labor reforms.

In June, Rep. Miller teamed up with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to propose legislation to compel military exchanges—special military-run sales outlets that share the consumer clothing market with private retailers—to adopt the Bangladesh Accord. Though the proposal wassuccessfully incorporated into the House’s version of the pending military spending bill, it was ultimately left out of the one in the Senate.

And supply-chain labor abuse isn’t limited to Bangladesh alone. In light of this, the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has urged the federal government to set strict labor standards for overseas procurement in general, with the option of sanctioning contractor firms “if the factories and other high-risk points in the supply chain do not comply with applicable laws and regulations and internationally accepted labor standards.” The ILRF also promotes a more comprehensive monitoring structure that would provide independent oversight that engages workers and unions.

Bjorn Claeson, ILRF senior policy analyst, tells In These Times that the government should take chief responsibility for upholding decent labor standards in industries known for violating workers’ rights through stricter monitoring and investment in better labor conditions.

“The government should expect to pay for products made in decent working conditions, in compliance with all applicable labor standards, by workers who earn a living wage—that is, a fair price,” Claeson says. “In the context of procurement, paying a fair price is the way the government ‘invests’ in compliance.”

Ideally, activists say, the government would retake control of its supply chain from private contractors and give more service jobs to federal employees—thus avoiding outsourcing, and the attendant costs and risks, altogether. This practice, known as “insourcing,” would reverse a longstanding trend toward privatization in the public sector and would likely take considerable political effort.

In the meantime, however, if private clothing companies can be pressured to change their shoddy labor practices, then surely government agencies can pursue a higher standard for factory workers whose everyday struggles make a shameful mockery of “The Few, the Proud.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

U.S. Supreme Court Accepts Cert in Dudenhoeffer ERISA Moench Presumption of Prudence Case

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Paul SecundaToday, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case where the 6th Circuit found that a company may have breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA by continuing to offer company stock as a retirement plan investment option even after the value of the stock plunged.

The case is Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, No. 12-751 (don’t ERISA cases have the best names?) and here is the decision below in the 6th Circuit.  SCOTUSBlog says the case is likely to be heard in March.  The Solicitor General had urged the Court to hear the case.

The issue is whether courts should apply a presumption of prudence or reasonableness (sometimes called the Moench presumption based on a similar case by that name in another circuit court) when a company,  like Fifth Third, decides to retain investments in its own securities for its ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) when the stock’s price dropped 74 percent because of the company’s involvement in subprime mortgage lending.  The employees in the retirement plan claim they were never alerted to the company’s new riskier investment course.

Participants in Fifth Third’s ESOP filed an ERISA class action, asserting that the company’s actions  violated their fiduciary responsibilities to plan participants and beneficiaries by imprudently investing in company stock.  Initially, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio had determined that Fifth Third did not violate ERISA because plan fiduciaries are entitled to a “presumption of prudence” permitting investment in their own stock and the plaintiffs had not overcome that presumption by showing that the company had plausibly abused their discretion in investing the ESOP money in the company stock.

The participants appealed to the 6th Circuit, supported by an amicus brief by the Department of Labor (DOL).  The DOL maintains that the presumption of prudence should not apply and that plaintiffs had plausibly alleged a breach of fiduciary duty.  The 6th Circuit agreed, at least as far as holding that the presumption should not be applied at the pleading stage of the lawsuit.

The 6th Circuit also held that Fifth Third acted as an ERISA fiduciary when it incorporated its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings into the ESOP’s plan documents. The Court did not take cert. on a challenge to this finding.

The case law had been trending in favor of the presumption of prudence in these stock-drop cases in recent years, with the Sixth Circuit being a notable exception. It is always hard to predict where the Court will come out on ERISA fiduciary cases, but given that the Court granted cert. on the question as presented by the company (and did not re-write the question as requested by the Solicitor General), we may gain some insight. The question presented is:

Whether the Sixth Circuit erred by holding that respondents were not required to plausibly allege in their complaint that the fiduciaries of an employee stock ownership plan abused their discretion by remaining invested in employer stock, in order to overcome the presumption that their decision to invest in employer stock was reasonable, as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 . . . and every other circuit to address the issue.

Phrasing the question presented in such a leading manner suggests only one possible reasonable answer upholding the presumption of prudence in ERISA stock drop cases.  But we shall see.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blogs 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.

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