Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for November, 2015

Why the Sharing Economy is Hurting the Economy - and What Must Be Done

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Robert ReichIn this holiday season it’s especially appropriate to acknowledge how many Americans don’t have steady work.

The so-called “share economy” includes independent contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.

It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will be in such uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

Already two-thirds of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck.

This trend shifts all economic risks onto workers. A downturn in demand, or sudden change in consumer needs, or a personal injury or sickness, can make it impossible to pay the bills.

It eliminates labor protections such as the minimum wage, worker safety, family and medical leave, and overtime.

And it ends employer-financed insurance – Social Security, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

No wonder, according to polls, almost a quarter of American workers worry they won’t be earning enough in the future. That’s up from 15 percent a decade ago.

Such uncertainty can be hard on families, too. Children of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are likely to have lower cognitive skills and more behavioral problems, according to new research.

What to do?

Courts are overflowing with lawsuits over whether companies have misclassified “employees” as “independent contractors,” resulting in a profusion of criteria and definitions.

We should aim instead for simplicity: Whoever pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.

In addition, to restore some certainty to people’s lives, we need to move away from unemployment insurance and toward income insurance.

Say, for example, your monthly income dips more than 50 percent below the average monthly income you’ve received from all the jobs you’ve taken over the preceding five years. With income insurance, you’d automatically receive half the difference for up to a year.

It’s possible to have a flexible economy and also provide workers some minimal level of security.

A decent society requires no less.

This blog was posted at RobertReich.org at November 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century.

Now Vietnam Thumbs Nose At TPP’s Unenforceable Labor Provisions

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Dave JohnsonVietnam is already snubbing the unenforceable labor provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Voice of America reports, in “Vietnam Beating Case Highlights TPP Labor Rights Issue“:

A Vietnamese labor activist has accused authorities of beating and detaining her after she talked with fired workers in southern Long An province.

Long-time labor rights advocate Do Thi Minh Hanh, once imprisoned for helping organize labor strikes, said she was held Monday for “13 hours without being given any reasons.”

… Hanh, co-founder of Free Viet Labor Federation, and another activist, Truong Minh Duc, said they came to give support and advice to dozens of workers who maintained they had been unlawfully fired by a foreign-owned company.

What is going on here?

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said last week that Vietnam appeared to “play nice during TPP negotiations, but now that the agreement has been signed, it is taking steps to tighten government control over critics.”

Right. Now that the unenforceable agreement has been signed, there is no need to “play nice.”

To be fair, Vietnam is raising their minimum wage,

The monthly minimum wage for Zone 1 will increase from the current VND3.1 million ($138) to VND3.5 million ($155.8), and that of Zone 2 will rise from VND2.75 million ($122.4) to VND3.1 million.

For Zones 3 and 4, the monthly minimum wages will go up from VND2.4 million ($106.8) and VND2.15 million ($95.7) to VND2.7 ($120.2) million and VND2.4 million, respectively.

Got that? After the raise workers in Vietnam will be starting at $155 a month. That’s as little as $6.45 a day for Vietnamese working the standard six-day, 48-hour workweek. And that’s the top minimum. Others will be getting $95.70 a month, as little as $3.99 a day.

So you have “foreign-owned companies” illegally firing workers who will be making less than $7 a day. Workers are harassed, arrested and beaten if they try to do something to improve their lives.

And TPP is being sold as a “job creator” here in the U.S. Right.

Unenforceable Labor, Environment, Other Provisions

TPP has special provisions for enforcement of provisions that benefit corporations, while the already weak labor, environmental and other provisions that protect other “stakeholders” get no special enforcement mechanisms. Corporations can bring their own cases to a special corporate court that sits above governments, where corporate attorneys adjudicate. But violations of TPP’s labor, environmental and other provisions depend on governments to decide to bring the cases. And these cases do not go before panels friendly to labor or environment or other aggrieved parties. Our own government won’t even enforce labor rules inside our own country, never mind filing trade cases.

Slavery In Malaysia Ignored So TPP Can Pass

To make matters worse, the “fast track” trade promotion authority clearly specifies that the U.S. cannot enter into a trade agreement with countries designated as participating in human trafficking (slavery). Malaysia was designated as a human trafficking country. So to grease the skids for TPP our own government reclassified Malaysia, even though Malaysia had changed nothing. A Reuters investigation reported that the State Department downgraded Malaysia for political reasons. House Democrats and “stakeholder” groups are demanding an investigation.

A more recent Reuters report, “As Obama heads to Malaysia, human trafficking stance questioned,” describes what Malaysia’s trafficking victims endure,

…he was cooped up in a filthy, overcrowded detention center near Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, squatting or sleeping on the floor in a hall with scores of other men. During his fourth month, wardens ordered them not to move or talk, he says, and beat them with belts if they did.

“There was no rest. You couldn’t sit or lie down without touching someone else,” he said, pointing to a welt on his forearm that he says he received when a guard beat him for arguing with another detainee over space.

This Reuters report describes the Obama State Department’s changes to Malaysia’s trafficking status,

… senior officials instead in July upgraded Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List, freeing the country from potential sanctions and international condemnation, and paving the way for the ambitious 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. If Malaysia remained a Tier 3 country, the Obama administration would have had to exclude it from the deal under the fast-track negotiating authority it had from Congress, potentially torpedoing the agreement.

Starkly worded criticism of Malaysia was excised from the final report, according to internal documents seen by Reuters that have not been previously made public.

… The analysts were overruled by senior American diplomats at the State Department, according to sources with direct knowledge of how the report was compiled. By the time the report was published, much of the tougher criticism of Malaysia’s detention facilities was removed.

I discussed this in a “Malaysian Slavery & the TPP” segment of “The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow” last August.

P.S., Japan recently announced it will ignore the unenforceable currency side-agreement. This means companies making things in the U.S. will be put at a competitive disadvantage against companies making things in Japan.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on November 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Kohls Worker Details Her Insane Schedule Through Black Friday

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Bryce CovertConnie Miller isn’t really sure when she’s going to be able to get some sleep over the next three days.

She’ll be working at Kohl’s the day before Thanksgiving, on the holiday itself, and on Black Friday. Her shift on Wednesday ends at 12:30 a.m., and with her half-hour commute, she’ll be home by 1 a.m. Then she’ll have to wake up early so she can get an entire Thanksgiving meal for 15 family members cooked and ready to eat by the time they start to arrive at her house from all over the country at noon. She’ll leave that celebration at 5, arriving at work by 5:30 and working until just after midnight. Then she’ll have to be back at work on Black Friday by 6 in the morning for another eight-and-a-half hour shift. “They don’t even give you time to come home and actually go to sleep before you’re due back,” she said.

“It’s tough, it’s just really tough being open on Thanksgiving,” she added. “I just plan on doing a lot of Red Bull.”

The experience has cast a pallor over her holidays. She knows what it’s going to be like having done nearly the same thing last year. “You hate the holidays. It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s not a fun time. It’s a time to be dreaded. Because I can’t be with my family.”

Kohl’s did not respond to a request for comment. But it’s not the only employer making its employees jump through hoops to be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner. Eleven brands will be open on the holiday this year, and employees at Kmart, for example, say they weren’t given the option to volunteer or sign up for shifts that fit their schedules and can even risk being fired if they call out for a scheduled holiday shift.

Miller wasn’t given any option to pick her holiday schedule. She says she and her coworkers have been told that they’re not allowed to ask for any time off during the week of Thanksgiving or the week of Christmas. She fears that if she were to call out on Thanksgiving Day, she would be all but dropped from future schedules, losing her income. She’s not sure she would do it anyway. “I’d kind of like to call off, we’d all like to call off. But all it’s going to is make the people I work with in jewelry, their night even harder,” she said. “They’re going to have to hustle even more because I’m not there.”

While she’s technically a part-time employee, she will be scheduled for far more than the typical 25-26 hours a week during these times. But it’s not like she’s given much heads up. She only found out her Thanksgiving schedule ten days ago — leaving little time to adjust holiday plans — and still doesn’t know when she’ll have to work during the Christmas season. “They disrespect us so incredibly by not even telling us the most basic thing,” she said. All without any promise of extra holiday pay.

She finds the whole ordeal particularly ironic at her store. It plays a promo on its overhead speakers telling shoppers that it values family, she said. “We’re working on Thanksgiving… If you valued family, we’d be at home.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on November 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Spare a thought for workers who don't get a Thanksgiving holiday

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

LauraClawsonThere are jobs that have to be done on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other day of the year. We need doctors and nurses and firefighters and police. Then there are jobs that don’t have to be done … but workers are forced to do them anyway, because profit. Because the workers aren’t given a choice, other than the choice between working on Thanksgiving or losing their jobs.

So if you’re lucky enough to be sitting down to a big Thanksgiving meal with your loved ones today (or for that matter if you’re Netflix binging or spending the day in silent meditation), spare a thought for those who are forced to skip the holiday to work. Spare a thought also for people who can’t afford the big meal with turkey and all the trimmings—and remember that many of the very same people working at Walmart and Target fall into that category, or barely escape it.

If you’re thinking about heading out for a little shopping after dinner, remember that workers had to be there hours earlier. Remember that many of them don’t want to be there, even if they don’t feel able to speak out publicly or put their names to petitions saying so. And remember that common reasons to be glad to work the holiday include not getting paid holidays off of work, and being so underpaid that extra pay for working a holiday could mean the difference between paying the bills and not paying the bills.

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

We Rise: Building Immigrant Working People Power

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Richard TrumkaA year ago the president announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Today is a fitting time to honor those who compelled him to act.

Around the country, courageous working people demanded an end to the deportation regime that was tearing communities, families and workplaces apart. They shut down detention centers, turned around buses, and spoke truth to power?—?all at great personal risk. They banded together to prevent the deportation of community members and loved ones who were in removal proceedings, and they won many cases. These brave actions and the determined clamor for #Not1More deportation led to the announcement of the historic deferred action program that will allow millions of parents to live and work without fear.

Communities around the country also rejected the notion that their local law enforcement officials should serve as agents of the federal immigration enforcement machinery. They had important discussions about due process and constitutional protections. Over time, more than 300 jurisdictions enacted ordinances declaring that they would focus their resources on effective community policing and place reasonable limits on their cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This groundswell thoroughly discredited the Secure Communities program, a federally run program launched in 2008, and resulted in its termination in 2014.

These examples inspire us, and they also show us the playbook for how you make change in the nation’s capital— you force it from the ground up. Today as we confront legal and legislative obstruction and the rebranding of failed enforcement policies, the question we should all be asking is what do we push for next?

For the labor movement, the answer is simple. We know that every worker in our country has rights, and we want each worker to be able to exercise those rights, regardless of immigration status.

While this may sound like a simple idea, we are a long way from that reality now. The sad truth is that employers routinely hire undocumented workers with a wink and a nod and then fire them when they seek to organize a union or complain about unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions. And when new immigrants muster the courage to stand in a picket line, join a boycott, or negotiate for fair compensation, employers are still able to retaliate in ways that can set deportation proceedings in motion.

This is just not right; it’s an #Injury2All and the wages and standards for all working people in our country suffer as a result of these efforts to keep immigrant workers scared and silent. Here in Washington, we have been talking for years to Congress and the administration about the need to fix these problems, but we have yet to see the concrete changes that our nation’s workers so urgently need.

So we see this anniversary as an important opportunity to sound a new call to action. We intend to take our demands for basic worker protections to every community and every immigration office in the country. Our unions and allies will raise workers’ cases from many sectors of our economy and make clear that we cannot reasonably expect to end wage theft and exploitation without protecting those workers with the courage to take a stand.

From Chicago to Los Angeles to Austin and everywhere in between, our movement reaffirms what we have long understood, that an injury to one worker is an injury to all. Our federal agencies have the discretion to provide concrete protections to workers who exercise their most fundamental rights, but it is up to us to make them act.

Polite conversations in Washington aren’t working. These changes will only come if we demand them, from the ground up. Working people are ready for this fight, and it will be coming soon to a community near you.

We will keep pushing forward to demand what is just. Please join us.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president in September 2009. He served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer since 1995.

Heat kills California farmworkers, but the state won't always admit it

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

LauraClawsonAgricultural workers have fewer job protections than most other workers even as they do physically grueling labor for low pay. It’s a vicious circle—most of the people who work in the fields come from vulnerable groups, and the low wages and lack of protections keep them vulnerable. California’s heat is one significant source of illness and even death for farmworkers. But you might not know that from the state’s official statistics:

While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized six as heat related, according to data obtained by The Desert Sun. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.

Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014. However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. At least 13 of those farmworkers did not belong to a union, including a man who died in 109-degree heat after picking lemons Sept. 2 in a Mecca field. […]

Although California passed the groundbreaking Heat Illness Prevention act in 2005, Cal/OSHA confirms only 13 farmworkers have died in the decade since then from heat-related deaths. The confirmed deaths represent just a fraction of the total, according to the United Farm Workers union’s recently settled lawsuit, which pegs the number of deaths due to heat in just the six years from 2005-2011 at more than double the 10-year number claimed by Cal/OSHA.

Similarly, the state investigated 209 possibly heat-related illnesses between 2008 and 2014, but only confirmed 97 of them as officially heat-related. Even in cases where, gosh, the worker was definitely sick (or dead) after working in hot weather, and had the symptoms of heat-related illness, Cal/OSHA’s standards are sometimes just too high. And if an illness or death wasn’t officially related to heat, the employer doesn’t get cited for it. Funny how that works.

But despite the low number of illnesses and deaths officially attributed to heat, we do know that, in California, the agriculture industry has more heat-related illnesses and deaths than any other industry involving outdoor work, like construction. Which gets us back to the weak legal protections for agriculture workers.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

Strangers Raise Money For Walmart Worker Fired For Picking Up Cans

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

AlanPyke_108x108When a parking lot attendant dared to recycle trash he picked up outside an upstate New York Walmart, the store fired him. Now generous strangers are trying to help cushion his sudden fall.

Thomas Smith, 52, had been earning $9 an hour at an upstate New York Walmart for less than three months when his manager terminated him over the cans. Smith was in charge of rounding up shopping carts from the lot outside the store, and started collecting trash from the lot while making his rounds. After storing up cans for a couple months, he recycled them in the store’s machines in early November. He got $5.10 for them.

Then he got fired. His manager told Smith his actions were “tantamount to theft of Walmart property,” the Albany Times Union reports, and said he would have to repay the $5.10 or lose his job. Smith, who commuted an hour by bus from Albany for the job, returned to the store two days later with the cash. But he’d already been fired.

“I didn’t know you couldn’t take empties left behind. They were garbage. I didn’t even get a chance to explain myself,” Smith told the paper. He also said his manager told him that a coworker who’d been caught stealing cash from a store register was allowed to keep her job because she repaid the theft and “because she has five kids.”

That thief was white. Smith collected trash while black.

The store manager who made the decision refused to speak with the Times-Union, and a Walmart spokesman told the paper it does not comment on personnel matters. After the story got picked up by local TV news, a company representative claimed Smith had admitted to stealing from inside the store itself. “They certainly didn’t indicate that both when I talked to them and our attorney talked to them,” Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice said of that claim. Smith says he wrote out a statement for managers acknowledging he’d recycled the cans and no more.

Smith’s story has prompted strangers to send money through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. So far the effort has collected more than $2,200 – an amount Smith would’ve had to work more than six weeks at full-time hours to earn.

While going viral for his sudden termination from a low-wage job has provided some short-term help, Smith will likely still have a hard time getting back on his feet. He was paroled in May after more than a dozen years in prison for armed robbery. He’d spent four months homeless after his release before finding housing through a charitable group. The Walmart job would have been one of his first, if not his very first, opportunities since his release for earning a living and achieving a degree of economic independence.

Formerly incarcerated people face immense hurdles to re-entering society and the workforce. Trust is hard to come by. Many job applications feature a check-box requiring applicants to volunteer information about their criminal history, which generally ruins their chances of even getting an interview.

The rejection naturally encourages desperate people to return to criminal activity for an income, as Glenn Martin, who now runs a non-profit that works with the formerly incarcerated and wasturned away from 50 different jobs in the month after his own release from prison, has described. Activists like Martin say efforts to reform the criminal justice and prison systems should include “ban the box” measures to restrict how hiring managers can ask about criminal histories – something President Obama recently did for federal hiring practices – and a revamp of education programs behind bars.

Since being fired, Smith has gotten plugged in with a legal aid group in Albany that is helping him recover his footing and that may eventually help him sue Walmart over his treatment. For now, though, he’s more worried about how he’s going to buy Christmas presents for his two teenage children.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

An Economy That Works For Everyone Starts With Women

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Terrance HeathAccording to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, creating an economy that works for everyone starts with creating an economy that works for women.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the gap between women’s earnings and men’s earnings has closed a little. The bad news is the narrowing of the gender wage gap is not due to women’s gains in the workplace, but to declining wages for men and growing inequality overall.

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According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), eliminating the gap between men’s and women’s wages would amount to a 70% raise for women.

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Consider economic impact of eliminating the gender pay gap. Women are the primary breadwinners in at least 40 percent of American households. Consider what eliminating the gender pay gap would mean for these women.

  • Nearly 60 percent of women would earn more if working women were paid the same as men the same age doing similar work.
  • The poverty rate for working women would be cut in half; the poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half.
  • The US Economy would produce an extra $447.6 billion, if women received equal pay.

Like a “rising tide,” lifting these women lifts the households that depend upon their earnings, and boosts the economy. An economy that works for women, then, works for American families, too, bringing us closer to an economy that works for all. To that end EPI has introduced the “Women’s Economic Agenda,” a 12-point policy agenda that will “give low- and moderate-wage workers more economic leverage, change the rules so that a growing economy benefits hardworking Americans, and maximize women’s economic security.”


The benefits for women are clear. As I wrote in, “We Must Fight Poverty With Justice,” it’s no coincidence that women’s risk of poverty jumps drastically between the ages of  25 and 34, when their poverty rate is 6.9 times higher than men’s, or that their poverty risk doesn’t begin to come down until age 40. Women are at a higher risk of poverty during their peak reproductive years, when they begin juggling the responsibilities of work and family, and lose out on pay that’s already less than what men earn.

However, the benefits of the agenda aren’t exclusive to women. In fact, none of its 12 points are applied exclusively to women. Men, women, and children would benefit from increased wages, guaranteed family leave and paid sick leave, accessible child care, and all of the other agenda items. When the economy works for women on these 12 issues, it’s more likely to work for us all.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on November 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Terrance Heath is the Online Producer at Campaign for America’s Future. He has consulted on blogging and social media consultant for a number of organizations and agencies. He is a prominent activist on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.

When Temp Workers Die While Being Taken to the Job, Who’s Responsible?

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

in these timesOn September 24, just after 3 PM, a 36-year-old Haitian immigrant named Marianie Sanon was sitting on a particleboard bench in the back of a van overcrowded with 22 other Haitian temp workers on their way to the night shift at a factory in Evansville, Indiana. She noticed that the van driver seemed to be driving dangerously fast down Interstate 69. Sanon had recently moved from Miami to Washington, Indiana, on the hope of landing a good job at the local branch of a temp agency called ServiceXpress. This would have been her fourth day temping at a plant operated by AmeriQual, an Evansville, Indiana-based manufacturer of prepackaged military food for the Department of Defense.

The last thing Sanon remembers of the van ride was watching the driver—a 30-year-old man named James Allen who helped his father run a van service that he called “Haitian Transportation”—attempt a high-speed, slalom-like maneuver to get around a truck.

Three days later, Sanon emerged from a coma in a hospital in Evansville, Indiana. She had suffered severe head trauma, had several fractured vertebrae, a bone in her left arm had been shattered and she still had shards of glass still imbedded in her body.

The accident had left two of her fellow passengers dead. As it tumbled across the interstate, the van disintegrated, ejecting Sanon onto the pavement and sending more than a dozen other survivors to the hospital. As she lay in her hospital bed and gathered information about her co-workers, Sanon says she began to wonder why she had heard nothing from the temp agency—ServiceXpress, a subsidiary of Delaware-based Service General—that deployed her, or from AmerQual itself. Not only had there been no offer of help, but not a single person from either firm had checked in, called, visited or sent a letter, Sanon says.

Sanon called ServiceXpress and spoke with a manager. “She said she was sorry for what happened to me,” Sanon told me, “but that she cannot do anything for me.”

Sanon soon received a letter from ServiceXpress.

Dear Employee,

We thank you for your time that you have been with ServiceXpress; we want to help in some way from the traumatic experience that you have been through. We hope this gift card and food basket can help you get back on your feet. We want to wish you the best regards in everything you do.

Thank you,

ServiceXpress Staff

Aside from the $50 Walmart credit, Sanon says that she soon received a paycheck from ServiceXpress that came to $71.00. (She says she never received the food basket referenced in the letter and has heard nothing from AmeriQual.) Meanwhile, Sanon, who was airlifted from the crash site, began receiving the first of her medical bills (many more are on their way), which quickly amounted, she says, to roughly $105,000.

Out of work and unable to pay rent on her apartment, Sanon soon became homeless. She currently sleeps in a women’s shelter in downtown Evansville.

The subcontractor maze

Steven Chancellor is the Chairman of AmeriQual, according to Bloomberg. He has an ardent passion for big-game hunting on African safari trips and has even used his wealth and influence to lobby the Botswanan government to lift its ban on lion hunting. Chancellor has also proven an energetic Republican activist, hosting a high-profile fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012. Before that, he reportedly held a Republican fundraiser in 2004 election of President George W. Bush who, from the White House, assisted Chancellor’s crusade against Botswana’s lion hunting ban.

Immediately after the I-69 van crash, AmeriQual expressed sympathy for the victims but also made clear that it had enlisted the workers through ServiceXpress, which sent the temps to the factory for $11 per hour. Yet ServiceXpress, in turn, emphasized that the van’s driver worked for a different business. James Allen, the van’s driver, was recently arrested for his role in the van crash and Neil Chapman, Sanon’s attorney, says Allen likely has little in assets for the crash victims to draw from. (AmeriQual declined to provide comment for this story.)

Since the Great Recession, the temporary staffing industry has boomed, and temp employment has accounted for significant portions of rebounding job growth. Temps—who are employed by agencies and whose labor is simply rented out by third-party businesses—have become seen as some of America’s most vulnerable workers. Labor advocates say that, in treating workers as replaceable units of labor, the temp industry can overlook workers’ most basic human needs.  Through the layering of contractors and subcontractors, many corporations who rely on temps have effectively shielded themselves from numerous forms of liability for temps they retain through third-party agencies.

Labor advocates across the country have identified the safety of vans that transport temp workers to job sites as a key issue. In 2013, ProPublica published a diagram, drawn by a temp worker, of an overcrowded van said to be a typical feature of the New Jersey temp economy. Workers in New Jersey I spoke with this week say that they are still being transported in woefully overcrowded conditions.

“The problems with the vans from the agencies is that they pack them in over capacity,” a Spanish-speaking temp worker in northern New Jersey told me through a translator and labor organizer named Louis Kimmel, the executive director of New Labor. “Logically when it’s over capacity and no one has seatbelts on, for example—and sometimes drivers might be driving when they’re still drunk—we’re putting ourselves at risk just by getting into a full van like that.”

Sanon herself expressed surprise at the lack of responsibility assumed by AmeriQual and ServiceXpress after the crash. “I was like, how am in the hospital and why am I not hearing from anyone?” Sanon said. “I’m very strong, but really, I need help. I cannot do this by myself.”

“A heroic effort”

Bamdad Bahar, the president of ServiceXpress, said that his office in Indiana did more than just send Walmart cards and food baskets. “[O]ur team there provided round the clock support for the employees, including taking family members to and from the various hospitals,” Bahar said in an email. “It was truly a heroic effort.” Bahar said that he had taken out life insurance plans that would provide the families of each deceased worker with a $5,000 payment.

Bahar also reiterated that his company has nothing to do with the accident. “I mentioned we provided maximum support feasible. This was NOT a workmans comp case, and was NOT an industrial accident. The driver and van company are NOT part of our company, and we are NOT responsible for the accident, the blown tire etc.” He added that he is looking into filing a libel suit against the local newspaper in Indiana, the Evansville Courier & Press, for its coverage of the accident. “There is really NO need to refer to us in relation to the accident,” Bahar said in a subsequent email. “I shut my operation in Indiana because of all this negative press.”

After the accident, Jacques Estime, who is involved in Washington, Indiana’s Haitian community, launched a fundraiser for the victims of the I-69 rollover crash. After securing enough money to pay for the funerals of the deceased, Estime said he split the leftover money 17 ways among the injured victims, who will each receive a check from Estime for $196.95.

In late September, shortly after the van crash, AmeriQual announced in a Facebook post that it would launch a donation drive among its full-time employees to compensate the injured temps. Yet Sanon has heard nothing about AmerQual’s fundraiser. It is unclear if the company gathered a single donation. Estime said the ServiceXpress had donated one thousand dollars to a funeral fund.

Estime told me that the victims are coping with an array of physical and psychological injuries. “Some of them are badly hurt, some of them need therapy,” Jacques told me. “Some haven’t been sleeping well. They’ve been having horrible nightmares. All they see are people dying.”

In late October, a Gibson County prosecutor reportedly filed 19 criminal charges against the van’s driver, James Allen, who had tested positive for marijuana during a blood test taken just after the crash. The charges against Allen range from “causing death while operating a vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance” to “causing serious bodily injury while operating under the influence,” according to the Evansville Courier & Press.

Last week, Sanon’s attorney, Neil Chapman, filed a suit against not only James Allen and his father, Robert, who owns the van, but also against Ameriqual and ServiceXpress. The civil complaint seeks to dispute any notion that the Allens’ transit business operated with autonomy from Xpress and AmeriQual, and asserts that the three businesses were operating as a joint venture. “A principle motivating factor for Ameriqual to choose ServiceXpress was because it offered a competitive advantage of other temporary agencies: transportation of the Haitian employees free-of charge as a part of its advertised, integrated incentive package to its factory clients.”

Sanon told me that, before the accident, she still owed $50 to a man she had paid $200 to bring her from Miami to Washington, Indiana. Although the AmeriQual wage was modest, it was the best she could find, she said, and she had hoped to use the earnings to become debt-free. With medical bills that she estimates total over $100,000, that goal now seems impossible.

“I’m struggling for my life right now,” Sanon said. “I cannot do this by myself.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on November 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the AuthorSpencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.

IKEA Workers in Massachusetts Walk Out on One Day Strike Amidst Drive to Unionize

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

 

in these times

Yesterday morning in Stoughton, Massachusetts, 14 IKEA workers walked out on a one-day strike—the first ever in the furniture giant’s U.S. stores.

“I’m fighting for my rights,” said striker Veronica Cabral, a 36-year-old single mother and immigrant from Cape Verde. “I want better for me, my family, and my co-workers.”

The union would consist of the 32 people who work in the “Goods Flow In” department, where workers receive shipments and stock the store. Last week they delivered a petition demanding union recognition, signed by 75 percent of the department.

They would form a so-called “micro-bargaining unit,” affiliated with the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—following in the footsteps of retail workers at Target and Macy’s who have formed small bargaining units since a 2011 National Labor Relations Board decision, Specialty Healthcare, opened the door.

“It’s been a long fight. Three years ago we started with the Teamsters and we had 70 percent since then,” said Chris DeAngelo, 45, who’s worked at the store for eight years. “What changed is that we can have a micro-unit now.”

Ultimately, DeAngelo said, “our plan is to unionize the whole store. But it is difficult with the different shifts and different parts of the store. We are working up to getting everyone else.”

Fears and reprisals

The same day the workers delivered their petition, Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders sent letters to IKEA U.S. President Lars Peterson, urging the company to recognize the union.

Sanders castigated the company for “blatant intimidation coupled with subtle yet effective psychological warfare against workers who wish to unionize.”

“We had a ‘code of conduct’ training that seemed routine until we were asked to go around the room and talk about our union sympathies,” said machine operator Shawn Morrison, 28. “That was routine, just a part of the training, until someone called it out. Another time the store manager called us up to the H.R. office. He dropped union literature on the table and asked us how we felt about it.”

“IKEA has team leaders on the floor trying to scare everyone about what will happen if there is a union,” Cabral said. “They tell us we will be fired.” She’s been urging her co-workers not to get scared off.

But managers have begun targeting pro-union employees for arbitrary discipline—which made the petition and strike urgent, workers said.

“We couldn’t wait any longer. We had to make some sort of decision,” DeAngelo said. “We know that we all have targets painted on us, especially those of us who have been there longer and are making more than the new recruits.

“This store has been open 10 years and I have been there eight, and there has been no improvement. There is all this tension, all this instability, all this insecurity. You never know when the other shoe is about to drop.”

At the end of their shift November 14, workers in the Goods Flow In department were called together to hear the store manager and head of H.R. give the company’s official response to their petition.

The letter from IKEA management said that “by recognizing the UFCW as the representative, we would be taking away the chance for each individual co-worker to make a choice” and that a secret-ballot election supervised by the Labor Board would be “more consistent with the approach we have taken in our U.S. distribution centers.”

Workers were livid. “Their excuse for denying the petition is ridiculous and disrespectful to the 75 percent of people who signed their names,” DeAngelo said. “That is why we are going on strike. It is a slap in the face. It is absolutely disgusting.”

The American model

IKEA, a Swedish company headquartered in the Netherlands, touts its commitment to social responsibility and worker rights. In Europe its retail workers are overwhelmingly unionized.

But like pro-union workers in Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant, the Stoughton IKEA workers are realizing that their employer is not so much a socially responsible European company doing business in the U.S. as an American-style company that just happens to be headquartered in Europe.

“The American Model—that is what they are calling it,” said DeAngelo. He points to IKEA’s hiring of the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis to bust the organizing campaign. “A truly socially responsible company wouldn’t do that.”

Morrison traveled to Milan, Italy, last month to attend the IKEA Global Alliance meeting, which brings together unions representing the company’s retail and warehouse workers from all over the world.

“One of the things that our European co-workers felt was that the company was shifting more and more towards the American model and that their labor unions would be in danger,” he said.

“In Europe they kind of believe that the United States does not want unions,” Morrison said. “Europe has gone such a long time thinking that the U.S. is just a barren wasteland of union activity, but we are showing them that that is not true.”

This article was originally printed on InTheseTimes.org on November 17, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chris Brooks is a graduate student in the Labor Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an organizer living in Chattanooga.

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