Archive for April, 2016
Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
The world lost a musical icon [on April 21]. You’ll read about his impact as a musician and an entertainer elsewhere, but let’s take a second to look at Prince’s career-spanning fights on behalf of working people.
For more than 40 years, Prince was a union member, a long-standing member of both the Twin Cities Musicians Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and SAG-AFTRA. Beginning with “Ronnie Talk to Russia” in 1981 on through hits like “Sign o’ the Times” and later works like “We March” and “Baltimore,” Prince’s music often reflected the dreams, struggles, fears and hopes of working people. (And he wasn’t limited to words, his Baltimore concert in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death raised funds to help the city recover. I got to sit on the right side of the stage, high in the rafters, to watch joyously.) Few of America’s artists have so well captured the plight of working Americans as Prince, putting him in the line of artists like Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen as working-class heroes.
Ray Hair, president of AFM, spoke of Prince’s importance: “We are devastated about the loss of Prince, a member of our union for over 40 years. Prince was not only a talented and innovative musician, but also a true champion of musicians’ rights. Musicians—and fans throughout the world—will miss him. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and fans grieving right now.
And this is a key part of his legacy. Prince was deeply talented and could have easily made his success without much help from others. And yet he was a massive supporter of other artists, from writing and producing songs for artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, the Bangles, Sinéad O’Connor, Vanity, Morris Day and the Time and Tevin Campbell (among many others) to his mentoring and elevating of women in music, to the time where he put his own career on the line in defense of the rights of artists. And every musician that came after owes him a debt of gratitude.
The music industry has a deeply troubled past, with stories of corporations exploiting musicians, especially African American musicians, being plentiful enough to fill libraries. At the height of his popularity, Prince decided that he would fight back. He was set, financially and career-wise, and had nothing to gain from taking on the onerous contracts that artists were saddled with when they were young, inexperienced and hungry. If he lost everything by taking on the industry, he still had money and fame to rely on. But he knew this wasn’t true for many other musicians, and Prince was always a fan of music, and he knew that taking on this battle would help others. So he took on the recording industry on behalf of music. On behalf of the industry’s working people—the musicians themselves.
And it cost him his name and his fame.
In the ensuing battle, Prince famously renounced his birth name and began performing under an unpronouncable symbol instead of a name. He fought the company at every turn, even writing the word “slave” on his face in protest of the conditions he worked under. He said: “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face. But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?” For the rest of his career, which never recovered to his early heights, he continually fought to change the way that record companies treated artists, explored new ways to distribute music to fans and battled to give artists more control and more revenue for the art they create. In a still-changing musical landscape, Prince was one of a handful of artists who helped shape a future where musicians, working people, get the fruits of their labor.
In honor of Prince’s passing, check out his performance, an all-time great, at the country’s largest annual event brought to you by union workers, the Super Bowl.
This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on April 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere. I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.
Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
On Tuesday night, a psychiatric patient under Kay’s care told her she was going to beat her because Kay couldn’t give her any more phone call privileges.
Kay, a registered nurse who withheld her last name, had some good reason to believe the patient and fear for her own safety. Not too long ago, a different patient charged at her from 30 feet away, crushing her shoulder. The injury required months of physical therapy and she was in constant pain. She had to be removed from her normal job for a time. “My livelihood was robbed,” she said on a call with media on Wednesday morning.
Even today she still has flareups of pain, numbness, or burning in the injured shoulder. The incident also left mental scars. “I find I respond differently to stressful or perceived stressful situations,” she said. Her fight or flight instinct is more easily triggered, and she struggles with anxiety.
She’s not the only one in her workplace, either. One particular patient, weighing 285 pounds, has repeatedly assaulted both nurses and patients at the facility. Kay herself had to intervene in one incident where the patient grabbed a coworker’s head, hitting it against a window several times. There were just three other people around to restrain the patient. The incident left Kay’s coworker, a woman in her early 40s, with head and neck injuries, the loss of a tooth, and permanent hearing loss.
“People may assume that getting punched, kicked, or stepped on, or threatened and verbally abused, is part of working in a psychiatric facility,” Kay said. But “it’s unacceptable and preventable.”
It may be preventable, but the violence Kay experiences on a regular basis in her workplace is widespread — and getting worse. According to a report released Wednesday by the AFL-CIO, there were officially about 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses reported in 2014, although because underreporting is so widespread, the real number is likely somewhere between 7.6 and 11.4 million. That’s more than 10,000 people hurt or sickened at work every day.
And women like Kay and her coworker are on the front lines of the problem. The health care and social assistance industry made up the greatest share of nonfatal work injuries and illnesses, at more than 20 percent. Nursing and residential care facilities in particular have a high rate of 12.6 workers injured for every 100.
Violence generally is a growing workplace threat. It was responsible for 26,540 injuries that resulted in lost work time in 2014 across the country and across industries. “While the overall injury and illness rate in the U.S. has gone down over the last 25 years, the workplace violence rate was decreasing in the 90s and now it’s getting worse,” said Rebecca Reindel, the AFL-CIO’s senior safety and health specialist on the call with media. It’s increased more than 100 percent, for example, in private hospitals and psychiatric hospitals. And women are bearing the brunt, suffering two-thirds of these incidents.
Those findings line up with a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. It found that health care workers experience injuries from workplace violence at “substantially higher” rates than the rest of the workforce, ranging from five to 12 times the rate of the overall workforce depending on the type of facility. For example, nursing and residential care workers had a rate of 35.2 per 10,000 workers, compared to 2.8 for the workforce as a whole. Patients are the most common perpetrators, and workers most frequently report being hit, kicked, or beaten. The GAO also found that rates are getting worse, not better. But the full extent of the problem still isn’t known because health care workers are so unlikely to report incidents.
Perhaps even worse than injury and illness are the high rates of deaths on the job. In 2014, 4,821 workers were killed at work, an increase from the year before, the AFL-CIO reports. More troubling, the rate of death inched up, from 3.3 workers killed per 100,000 in 2013 to 3.4, showing that even if raw numbers went up because more people were at work, the share being killed is also increasing. On top of that, an estimated 50,000 people died from diseases they picked up from their jobs. That all works out to 150 workers dying every day from dangerous work conditions.
Violence is again a big problem when it comes to fatalities, accounting for 16 percent of all traumatic workplace deaths, or 765 total, in 2014. But other causes in industries beyond health care also had disturbingly high numbers. The highest was in transportation and material moving, with 1,346 deaths on the job in 2014, followed by 902 in construction and extraction. The oil and gas industry notched the highest number of fatalities it ever recorded at 144 and had a rate nearly five times the national average. And the leading cause of death at work is transportation incidents, particularly roadway crashes.
Beyond the cost of life and safety, the economic cost of injury and illness at work is also huge, estimated to be somewhere between $250 and $370 billion each year.
That cost could be alleviated by investing more in the agency meant to police workplaces to ensure workers’ safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created in 1970, has saved more than 532,000 people since then, according to the AFL-CIO report. But it could be doing far more. There are just 1,840 inspectors tasked with monitoring the country’s 8 million workplaces under its jurisdiction, working out to one inspector for every 74,760 workers. That means a workplace will see a state OSHA inspector once every 97 years, on average, and a federal one just once every 145 years. Over the last quarter century, “the capacity of the government to oversee and enforce safety and health has gotten a lot worse,” said Peg Seminario, Director of Health and Safety at the AFL-CIO.
But even when OSHA does inspect and uncover dangerous conditions, the fines it levies are a drop in the bucket. The average penalty for a serious violation of safety regulations was $2,148 from the federal agency and $1,317 for a state one. Even killing a worker doesn’t cost much: The median penalty was $7,000 at the federal level and just $3,500 in states. “This clearly isn’t enough to deter,” Seminario said, “to cause employers to change their practices.”
Kay wants to see much more done to ensure her safety at work. “I love my job and I love the work that I do,” she said. “I want to continue to help patients who are suffering.” But to do that without fearing for her health, she thinks it’ll take increased security measures, better policies, more training for staff, and better reporting of incidents.
And she wants to see OSHA do something about it. There is no federal standard when it comes to workplace violence. “We need a standard,” she said.
This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on April 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Bryce Covert Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.
Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
On April 4, New York State passed what is being hailed as the most comprehensive and generous paid family leave law in the country. The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act (A. 3870 / S. 3004) (“PFLIA”) will provide workers in New York State with up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year, to bond with a new child, or to care for a seriously ill family member. For military families, the leave time can be used to address legal, financial and childcare issues. Notably, unlike the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), coverage does not include taking care of an employee’s own medial condition. That means, if unrelated to childbirth, employees would still need to seek time off under New York State’s Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program.
Beginning in 2018, all full and part-time employees who have been working at their jobs for at least six months will be eligible for eight weeks of paid leave up to one-half of their weekly wages, capped at 50% of the New York Statewide Average Weekly Wage (“SAWW”). These payments will gradually phase in over four years until 2021 when workers will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave, for benefits up to two-thirds of their weekly salary, capped at a maximum of 67% of the SAWW.
The current SAWW is $1,266.44, through June 2016 (with predicted increases each year). So, the benefit will be robust. For instance, if an employee received family leave benefits today that would mean s/he could receive up to $633.22 per week; or $844.29 if the two-thirds rate was in effect. As compared with maximum benefits workers in New York are eligible to receive under its Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program that’s a big improvement. That program caps recipient benefits at a mere $170 per week. Until now, TDI was the only financial recourse postpartum women in New York were eligible for – unless their employers wanted to be more generous (sometimes true for large corporations, rarely for smaller employers). Although, beginning in 2018, women still would not be entitled to paid family leave in order to recover from their own childbirth recovery, they would be eligible to receive paid family leave to bond with their child at a vastly improved weekly wage replacement rate.
The PFLIA program is a fully employee-funded program, meaning, unlike several other states and localities, employers will not have to contribute to the cost. Rather, employees will pay into a state sponsored insurance program and payments to workers will be paid out through this program. These contributions will start at as little as 45 cents per week when the law goes into effect in 2018. Thereafter, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services will analyze what amount of funding the program needs based on the cost per worker of providing paid leave. While the total per employee contribution remains unknown, an important premise behind the legislation is that employee contributions should represent a very small deduction from each employee’s weekly paycheck. It is estimated that by year four that deduction will be 88 cents per week.
Significantly, paid leave is protected leave. All qualified employees who take paid family leave will be entitled to return to their jobs. If employers violate the law, employees will be entitled to reinstatement and back pay. Unfortunately, there is no private right of action to go into Court. Claims will have to be administered through the New York Worker’s Compensation Board which handles violations of the TDI law.
Several other states are now looking to follow New York’s lead. Ohio just introduced a 12-week paid leave bill the same week New York’s law was signed. Connecticut has introduced a bill as well that would entitle employees to be compensated up to $1,000 a week. The proposed bill would cover employers with as little as two employees.
In 20 states, legislation has either been introduced or is being actively pursued. Each of these proposed bills and programs strikes a different balance. Some states would provide fully employer-funded paid programs, while others base their programs on models similar to that used in New York, making their proposed paid family leave benefits solely through employee contributions, and some are a mix of both. What is covered under each of these proposed laws varies too. Some cover all employers, while others limit coverage to larger employers, although many require less than the FMLA does with 50 or more employees as a basis for coverage.
These laws undoubtedly will offer a new generation of workers the family-job balance that previous generations did not have. Not only will employees be less likely to face devastating economic choices when they decide to have children or need to care for a loved one, but as studies show, when family leave is paid, women are far less likely to be forced out of or choose to opt out of the workforce when having children. This in turn will decrease a persistent wage gap between men and women who have children. In addition, further studies document that men are far more likely to take family leave when it is paid, thereby bringing men and women closer to wage parity and more likely to share domestic responsibilities at home.
Nonetheless, as evidenced by this patchwork of laws and proposed bills, paid family leave – some, all or none – creates inequality among American workers when states offer inconsistent opportunities for work-life balance. Even worse, many states still have no paid family leave laws on their books, and do not seem close to passing such legislation in the near future. This result strongly emphasizes the need for national legislation that would allow us to join the rest of the industrialized world. But as a start, we New Yorkers’ are proud of where our efforts have led – to the strongest, broadest, most generous paid family leave law in the country! This law will make all the difference to the estimated 6.9 million workers in this state.
For more information about what you can do to support and/or expand family leave laws in your state check out what your legislators are doing and join family leave campaigns. Or, contact us at the Gender Equality Law Center.
Allegra L. Fishel is the founder and Executive Director of the Gender Equality Law Center (“GELC”), a 501(c)(3) legal and advocacy center. GELC’s mission is to advance laws and policies that promote gender equality in all spheres of public and private life.
Lauren T. Betters is a 2015 law school graduate of Northeastern Law School and GELC’s first Law Fellow.
Monday, April 25th, 2016
Union supporters had reason to cheer earlier this month when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s hated “right to work” law was overturned by a Dane County Circuit Judge. Unfortunately, the decision is all but certain to be overturned by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court. But contained in the case is a line of questioning over the constitutionality of the right-to-work concept that has quietly been playing out in federal courts.
The result could be that all right-to-work laws are nullified—and sooner than you might imagine.
“RTW” takes money and power from unions, but is that a ‘taking?’
The logic that the Wisconsin judge leaned upon in his decision has its origins in a federal case called Sweeney v. Pence, in which unions made an unsuccessful attempt to overturn Indiana’s recent right-to-work statute on constitutional grounds. Although the unions themselves did not raise this argument in the 2014 case, Chief Judge Diane Wood argued in her dissent that “right-to-work” provisions violate the U.S. Constitution’s Takings Clause.
“This is a law,” says Marquette Law Professor Paul Secunda, “that compels one private party to provide benefits to another private party with no compensation.” He is convinced that right-to-work laws, which permit represented workers to quit their union and stop paying fees while simultaneously obligating that union to continue to spend resources representing them, are an unconstitutional “taking.”
If the issue makes its way up to the Supreme Court, and the justices agree with Secunda, the result could overturn the section of the National Labor Relations Act that allows states to pass right-to-work measures as well as the statutes in all 26 states that have passed them in one fell swoop.
The Wisconsin case won’t get there. Because Wisconsin is in the same 7th Circuit that rejected the “takings” argument in Sweeny v. Pence (making it, for now, a settled matter there), unions filed their case in state court over the state’s constitution.
But West Virginia and Michigan are states that recently passed right-to-work laws, and they are both in different federal court circuits. Unions in those states could challenge the constitutionality of right to work on the federal level. Unions in Idaho already have a case pending, which is a particularly exciting prospect as that state falls within the liberal 9th circuit. (Keep an eye out for Operating Engineers Local 370 v. Wasden.)
The “takings” approach is not without its critics. Seattle University Associate Professor of Law Charlotte Garden notes that Judge Wood’s interpretation of the Takings clause is one more commonly advanced by anti-regulatory conservatives, and that labor taking up the cause could have unintended consequences. “There’s a difficulty of applying existing ‘takings’ law in this kind of context,” she says. “Takings” is generally applied to property, she says, and what’s being taken from unions is the labor of their staff.
As an alternative strategy, Garden points out that the NLRB has indicated an openness to considering whether unions in right-to-work states can charge a fee to non-members who want to file a grievance.
Any rulemaking by the Board on right to work can expect to be challenged by business interests, which could open different constitutional questions about the law. The Indiana unions actually argued in Sweeney v. Pence that the Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA were only meant to apply to questions of compelled union membership, not fees for service. But I believe there remains a compelling argument about legislative intent.
Remembering our history will be vital to success
The judges who rejected the “takings” logic in Sweeney vs. Pence argued that unions weren’t uncompensated for their duty to represent all workers in a bargaining unit. They wrote, “we believe the union is justly compensated by federal law’s grant to the Union the right to bargain exclusively with the employer. The reason the Union must represent all employees is that the Union alone gets a seat at the negotiation table.” This is a bunch of ahistorical nonsense that betrays a lack of understanding of labor relations and power dynamics.
But why should we expect a couple of judges to get this right when most union activists are so muddled on the history and effects of the duties of exclusive representation and the union shop? To win, we need to understand our history and have real clarity on our goals to regain power.
When the National Labor Relations Act was written, unions were “members-only” organizations that competed with each other. They contested for power in the same workplaces over who would make the best bargaining demands, who could extract the bigger concessions from management and who could organize the most successful job actions. Employers hated this.
In pursuit of labor peace, employers began signing contracts with unions as the “sole and exclusive representative” of their workers. These early contracts gave employers a one-year guarantee that there would be no new union demands and no strikes. Unions went with it because it helped knock out the competition. The NLRB, which had been certifying unions as representing their members only, also went with it and now certifies unions as exclusive representatives, exclusively.
Agency fee originated not merely as compensation for the financial costs of representing all the workers in a unit, but for the political costs. During World War II, patriotically motivated unions pledged not to strike, and were rewarded with government-dictated wage freezes. Workers protested by quitting their unions. In order to keep unions from dropping their no-strike pledges, the War Labor Board began to reward unions a “maintenance of membership” rule which prevented workers from quitting the union during the term of a contract. This evolved into the union shop and agency fees.
The combination of exclusive representation and agency fee does contain the potential for real power and real wins for unions, as well as labor peace for employers. But it also tends to make unions more conservative and less militant. Exclusive representation without agency fee is the worst of both worlds, and should be resisted.
For three quarters of a century the only way that the NLRB would “certify” a union was as the exclusive representative of all of the workers at a represented workplace, mostly with the union’s understanding that it could bargain for a contract clause that obligates represented workers to pay some fair share of the union’s expenses.
This “union certification” gives collective bargaining the force of law that an arm of the federal government—the NLRB—will drag an employer that refuses to recognize and bargain “in good faith” with a certified union to court to force them to. So, for a union to tear up this “certification” to represent all of the workers and say, “we only represent our members now” carries the risk of losing the backing of the NLRB—but the potential reward of forcing the courts to grapple with the tradeoffs of forced representation without taxation.
To win big, we need a union in a right-to-work state that is genuinely willing to cede exclusive representation to kick out the scabs.
What I think this would look like is that union, just prior to the expiration of their current contract, filing a letter with the employer and the labor board disclaiming representation of the entire bargaining unit but demanding to bargain for their members only (and subsequently refusing to bargain over a no strike clause). We’ve got a much stronger case if it’s brought to federal court by an employer complaining that a union won’t represent all the workers than one brought by a union complaining about a loss in agency fee revenue.
It is time to start using the courts more strategically
The idea that the Supreme Court could swing from seriously considering forcing the entire public sector to go right to work in this term, to weighing the very constitutionality of right-to-work laws two or three years later might seem too fantastical, but such is the strange lack of case law over the underlying legal justification for requiring that a union represent all the workers but forbidding them to mandate dues and fees for that service work.
“This isn’t stare decisis at all,” says Paul Secunda, describing the Latin term for the legal obligation of judges to stand by settled decisions. “You’ve got one decision from one circuit court. This is hardly settled case law.”
As I’ve noted, unions have tended to shy away from judicial strategies, and, on right to work in particular, labor has long favored a legislative solution. Repealing the Taft-Hartley Act that contained the right-to-work amendment to our nation’s main labor law was the top legislative priority of the AFL, the CIO and its merged successor from the time of its passage in 1947 well into the 1980s.
There were 12 right-to-work laws on the books—all in former slave states—at the time of Taft-Hartley’s passage. They had no force of law, as the federal NLRA preempted them—that is, until Taft-Hartley. And again, a close look at the legislative intent might reveal that Congress merely meant to allow states to ban union membership—not agency fees—as a requirement of employment. Or, more crudely, they may have basically been saying, “Let the Confederacy secede from the New Deal.”
The AFL and the CIO, which by 1947 had both abandoned organizing the south, seemingly wrote the former Confederacy off at the time. Since labor lost little to no membership as a result of those first 12 right-to-work states, little brainpower was devoted to challenging the constitutionality of the scheme. Likewise, when right to work next spread to western and plains states like Arizona and Nebraska, labor similarly wrote them off.
When right to work first spread to a bedrock labor stronghold, Indiana in 1959, the move was so controversial that within eight years labor had managed to overthrow the Republicans, who supported it in all three chambers of government and repeal the law. This win—the only instance of a right-to-work law being repealed legislatively—may have ultimately been counterproductive, giving unions false hope that killing right to work is a matter of making sure the bad guys don’t win re-election.
The labor movement of 1965 could entertain such fantasies. The labor movement that has seen bases of union power in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia go “right to work” within the same half decade must wake up to the fact that it will take more than elections to reverse the damage. It will also take a judicial activism agenda for labor, like I have advocated.
And ultimately, working people in America will gain no new rights without stoking a hell of a lot of chaos, through strikes and more. But we’ll also gain no new rights without legal demands like the Operating Engineers Local 370 v. Wasden case hanging out there. It is now up to the sisters and brothers in other “right to work” states—Michigan, West Virginia and beyond—to join the fight.
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on April 21, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.
Friday, April 22nd, 2016
Maryland will soon become the second state, after New Hampshire, to phase out the “subminimum wage” for workers with disabilities.
Maryland lawmakers this month passed a bill that would do away with special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked. The law affects all 36 of Maryland’s “sheltered workshops” — nonprofit organizations that hire people with disabilities at subminimum wages to perform basic tasks like assembling products, hanging clothes, or picking up trash.
Some 420,000 Americans with disabilities are employed this way nationally, some at a rate of just pennies per hour. The average Marylander working under this arrangement makes less than $4 per hour — an unjust rate that no longer jives with modern attitudes toward disability, advocates say.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Waldstreicher (D), says the bill is a victory for civil rights.
“By passing HB 420 and SB 417, we have upheld Maryland’s highest ideals,” he wrote in a public statement. “Marylanders are a compassionate, caring people. We believe in the dignity of every individual, in equal rights.”
In addition to boosting wages, the bill aims to desegregate Maryland’s workforce over the next four-and-a-half years. The Department of Disabilities will reallocate state and Medicaid funding to promote employment in “competitive, integrated workplaces” rather than in sheltered, segregated workshops. The state will pick up the tab for planning workers’ transitions to integrated employment.
“People thrive in a diverse workplace,” Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress. “Most of these workers want this transition, and we want to help it go smoothly.”
Legislators have worked closely with the sheltered workshops, and the majority are on board. They were initially concerned that higher wages would displace workers, but the state’s integrated employment plan assuaged their fears.
Disability advocates applauded the legislation, saying sheltered workshops are ineffective and reforms are long overdue.
“[Workshops] offer the employees no opportunities to be part of their community or to make enough money to support themselves,” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network said in a statement commending the Maryland legislation.
“Sheltered workshops often rely on outdated, non-mechanized production processes — which are poor vehicles for developing the skills real employers need in the open market economy,” writes University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos in a report to the National Federation of the Blind.
Indeed, only 5 percent of sheltered workshop employees leave to take a job in the community, according to a 2001 investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress he’s “positive” the governor will sign it into law.
These developments in Maryland are part of a turning tide against paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for eliminating the subminimum wage nationwide.
“We’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage,” Clinton said when a young lawyer with autism asked her about the minimum wage exemption. “There should not be a tiered wage.”
And in 2014 President Obama included workers with disabilities in his federal minimum wage hike — guaranteeing minimum wage for some 50,000 federal contract employees with disabilities.
This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on April 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Cory Herro comes to ThinkProgress from California, where he writes columns for The Stanford Daily and tutors rowdy middle schoolers. He likes to play pickup hoops and surf, even though his skills are rudimentary. Cory is pursuing a bachelor’s in public policy with a focus on poverty policy.
Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
When news about lead contamination in the water supply of Flint Michigan made headlines across the nation, many compared the crisis to Hurricane Katrina. Even Michigan Governor Rick Snyder called the disaster “his Katrina,” comparing the failure of government leadership in his state to the failure of public officials who left Katrina victims stranded.
But while Katrina was a singular event with a tragically long legacy, Flint is proving to be the beginning of a story playing out over a much longer time period and in more than one place.
It’s the difference between a blockbuster movie and the season opener of a TV serial.
In an update on Flint from the New York Times, we learn the crisis is anything but over. “Reports of rashes, itchiness, and hair loss” are making people fearful of using the city water to bathe in. “Families are going to extraordinary lengths to find places where they can bathe without fear,” the report says
And of course what’s yet to come is evidence of the irreversible damage done to the developing brains and nervous systems of Flint’s children due to the exposure to lead.
But what makes Flint more of a presage is the realization it’s sparking around the country about the conditions being inflicted on our youngest citizens.
Flint Is Everywhere
When New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “America is Flint,” he branded the crisis a “wake-up call” to address the national problem of lead toxicity in children’s environments.
Now we know some public officials indeed stirred. As the Associated Press reports, Flint prompted school officials in many places to test classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets for lead.
What they found was alarming: “Among schools and day care centers operating their own water systems … 278 violated federal lead levels at some point during the past three years. Roughly a third of those had lead levels that were at least double the federal limit.”
The reporters found an elementary school in Wisconsin with pipes, buried in the concrete foundation, leaching lead into the tap water and a Head Start center in Missouri whose relatively new building showed up with high levels of lead in the water. These facilities have switched to bottled water at considerable cost.
“No state is immune to the problem,” the article states.
The AP story follows other disturbing reports from big-city school systems plagued with lead in school drinking water. As Mother Jones reports, schools in Boston, Baltimore, Camden, and Newark “have been drinking trucked-in water for years due to lead concerns.” (The writer could have mentioned Philadelphia, too.)
The article calls schools with verified lead levels “the lucky ones” because officials at least know the water is toxic and have taken steps to address that. The much bigger problem is that many school systems simply don’t know the danger flowing through their pipes.
The article quotes a university professor who studied lead contamination in Flint, who observed, “It’s definitely the schools that you do not hear about” that are the most concerning.
It’s The Aging Infrastructure, Stupid
A significant part of the problem is that, according to Mother Jones, “roughly 90 percent of the nation’s schools aren’t required to test their water.”
But the issues go way beyond testing. As the AP reporter explains, in “almost all cases” of lead contamination, “the problems can be traced to aging buildings with lead pipes, older drinking fountains, and water fixtures that have parts made with lead.”
So even when municipal water supplies show no contamination with lead, that’s no assurance schools are lead free. Lead pipes weren’t banned until 1986, AP explains, but the average age of school buildings in America “date to the early 1970s.”
Some communities have addressed their aging school infrastructure by simply closing old buildings down. But taking that option can result in a number of potentially negative consequences.
First, after closing school buildings down, students still need somewhere to go to school, and again school buildings can often be a systemic problem. There are other problems as well.
As Rachel Cohen explains in a report for The American Prospect, closing down school buildings, even aging ones, has proven to be a very controversial issue in communities across the country. Cohen points to a number of cities where school closings have destabilized neighborhoods, devastated small businesses, and lowered local property values.
“Public schools have always impacted communities in ways that go beyond just educating young people,” Cohen writes, citing the benefits of “well-maintained school facilities” to economic vitality and civic life.
Also, old school buildings that are poorly maintained and in need of repair are located disproportionately in low-income communities of color, which has prompted education and civil rights advocates to connect school closings to charges of race and income discrimination.
Further, a majority of schools that are closed aren’t really closed for good. In fact, most find a second life as charter schools, and the problems don’t go away; they just change hands.
“Rather than shutter schools,” Cohen explains, “residents argue districts should reinvest in them.”
The Investment We Need
Where will the money come from?
“Increasing state and federal spending could both help struggling urban schools, and also help fortify communities more broadly,” Cohen says. She quotes an expert on school infrastructure spending who suggests the federal government “start contributing at least 10 percent toward district capital budgets” to low-income communities to Title I funding.
Much better still would be a national program addressing our aging education infrastructure. Congress is currently engaged in budget talks, but so far rescuing school children from their increasingly unsafe learning environments hasn’t been on the agenda, with one exception.
The exception comes from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose People’s Budgetincludes an investment of $1 trillion to “transition to 21st Century infrastructure, which ensures our roads, bridges, railways, and facilities are strong and that no town experiences the devastating effects of crumbling infrastructure we’ve seen in Flint, Michigan.” The CPC also calls for “greater investments in K-12 education.”
What better investment is there than making sure school buildings are safe and healthy?
The fact that Flint is not only staying in the news, but is also still in conversations in Congress, is testament to how disturbing the story is. But now that we know that Flint is really everywhere, it’s time to go beyond merely being disturbed to taking specific actions. Millions of school children are relying on us.
This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 14, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.
Tuesday, April 19th, 2016
Last year President Obama went to Nike headquarters to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But Nike doesn’t make shoes in the US, and TPP would force companies like New Balance to stop making shoes here. New Balance kept quiet about this, but now says the administration offered the company a big contract in exchange for its silence. New Balance is talking now, because the contract never came through.
A Contract In Exchange For Silence?
The Bangor Daily News has a big story this week, “New Balance claims Defense Department strung it along on military sneaker contract”:
New Balance officials say they’ve broken their silence over the Trans-Pacific Partnership because the Obama administration has failed to offer the company a chance for a contract to sell sneakers to the military.
… New Balance held its tongue about the TPP for nearly a year, he says, because federal officials told the company that if it did so, New Balance would get a shot at a military contract.
This is a very big deal. Last May’s post, “Obama To Visit Nike To Promote the TPP. Wait, NIKE? Really?”, explained what TPP means for the domestic shoe industry:
While the President visits Nike, New Balance is struggling to be able to keep some of its manufacturing in the U.S. Currently New Balance makes shoes in five factories in the U.S. Their executives say if TPP passes, lower tariffs on shoes made in places like Vietnam will force them to close their U.S. factories.
… If the President gets his way and TPP passes, the tariff on non-U.S.-made (Vietnam) shoes will end and New Balance – like so many other companies struggling to manufacture inside the U.S. – will have no choice but to end its U.S. manufacturing operations. Meanwhile Nike, already manufacturing in Vietnam and Malaysia and currently selling shoes that cost $10 to make for over $100, will gain even more of an advantage, which obviously will not be passed on to consumers. If you are able to get a certain price for a product, why reduce it?
This is just one example of how even more American workers would lose their jobs if TPP passes.
TPP would lower tariffs on shoes (and everything else) coming into the country from low-wage TPP countries. Companies like Nike would be rewarded for closing factories here in the past. Companies like New Balance would be forced to close factories here in the future.
New Balance says the government offered the company this contract if it would keep quiet about what TPP would do to domestic manufacturers. The military buys a lot of sneakers — as many as 200,000 pairs each year. It currently buys non-US-made sneakers, in spite of rules saying they should buy US-sourced when possible. So New Balance should have this contract anyway. (TPP would prohibit us from requiring the purchase of US-made goods with our own tax dollars.) But the government apparently used the promise of the contract to buy the company’s silence about the job-killing effect if TPP passes.
The Boston Globe has more on this, in “New Balance accuses Pentagon of reneging on sneaker deal”:
New Balance is renewing its opposition to the far-reaching Pacific Rim trade deal, saying the Obama administration reneged on a promise to give the sneaker maker a fair shot at military business if it stopped bad-mouthing the agreement.
After several years of resistance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact aimed at making it easier to conduct trade among the United States and 11 other countries, the Boston company had gone quiet last year. New Balance officials say one big reason is that they were told the Department of Defense would give them serious consideration for a contract to outfit recruits with athletic shoes.
… “We swallowed the poison pill that is TPP so we could have a chance to bid on these contracts,” said Matt LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs. “We were assured this would be a top-down approach at the Department of Defense if we agreed to either support or remain neutral on TPP.
The government offered a lucrative contract to a company, to keep quiet and not alert the public to the potential job-losses from TPP. Just, wow.
This story raises the question of what else the administration is doing to get TPP through, and why. For example, last year the “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority bill prohibited the administration from entering into “trade” agreements like TPP with countries that violate human rights, in particular human trafficking. Malaysia violates human rights by enabling human trafficking. Malaysia is a TPP country.
So the administration solved the problem by declaring that Malaysia doesn’t do that after all, even though they do.
Last year’s post “Obama Administration Makes Malaysia Slavery Problem For TPP Disappear”explains:
[T]he trade promotion authority law … prohibits the U.S. from entering into “trade” agreements with “tier 3” human-trafficking countries.
According to news reports, the Obama administration found an easy – and extremely cynical – fix: just change Malaysia’s rating to a “tier 2.” Problem solved. But human rights groups, labor and members of Congress are “outraged,” “shocked” and “deeply disturbed.”
… Human trafficking? Slavery? Sex slaves? People kept in cages? Mass graves? Abuse of workers? No problem. Just tell the State Department to ignore it.
Another post, “Did Obama Administration Downplay Malaysia Slavery To Grease Trade Deal?”, elaborates,
Cheap labor is the whole point of our corporate-rigged, NAFTA-style trade agreements. Companies get to move jobs, factories, even entire industries out of the U.S. to countries where people are exploited, the environment is not protected and “costs” like human safety are kept low.
But even so … tolerating slavery? Flat-out slavery? Really? Unfortunately, it looks like that’s what is happening with fast-track trade promotion authority, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Obama administration.
… Malaysia was a Tier 3 country in the 2014 TIP report. The 2015 TIP report was supposed to be released in June but was delayed coincident with the passage of fast-track legislation with the slavery clause. The report was released Monday, and changes Malaysia’s TIP rating from the worst “Tier 3” to a “Tier 2,? even though there is little or no change in Malaysia’s actual performance.
Promising a company a big military contract if they would keep quiet about the job-killing effects of TPP? Letting a country off the hook for actual slavery?
The TPP is all about pushing jobs out of the country in search of lower wages so executives and shareholders can pocket that wage differential. But slavery? Really? Contracts for silence about how it will close US factories? Really?
What else is going on to push this corporate-favoring “trade” agreement?
This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on April 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
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.
Monday, April 18th, 2016
Let’s be clear about North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and other “bathroom laws” popping up in states that would bar transgender people from using the restroom facility of their identified gender: We won’t stand for it.
H.B. 2 not only discriminates against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but it also means employers can now fire anyone because of their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, disability or veteran status. North Carolina abolished 30 years of legal protections against workplace discrimination.
This law even bars cities and municipalities from passing legislation on nondiscrimination, paid leave, fair scheduling and raising the minimum wage.
Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride At Work, said:
In states desperately in need of jobs and infrastructure, lawmakers are focused on legalizing discrimination and harassing people in restrooms. It’s just astounding. Pride at Work condemns these regressive laws as well as those in other states, including those that are still pending. We also call upon Congress to swiftly pass the Equality Act at the federal level in order to nullify the injustice of these attempts to circumvent progress for the LGBTQ community.
North Carolina State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said:
It’s crazy that at a time when our elected officials should be doing all they can to create jobs and get more people employed that they’re actually wasting taxpayer money to create a law that’s going to make it easier to discriminate and fire people. And, in the process, they’re driving business out of our state because these corporations don’t want to do business in a state that supports discrimination.
To put it simply, H.B. 2 and similar legislation mean more discrimination, weaker benefits, less safe workplaces and lower wages.
This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Liz Shuler was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in September 2009, the youngest person ever to become an officer of the AFL-CIO. Shuler previously was the highest-ranking woman in the Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, serving as the top assistant to the IBEW president since 2004. In 1993, she joined IBEW Local 125 in Portland, Ore., where she worked as an organizer and state legislative and political director. In 1998, she was part of the IBEW’s international staff in Washington, D.C., as a legislative and political representative.
Friday, April 15th, 2016
Ninety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.
According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.
“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”
Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”
Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.
If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.
Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.
“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).
Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages
As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”
While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.
Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.
“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.
ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.
As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.
Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.
Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.
But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”
While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.
“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.
The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.
This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Thursday, April 14th, 2016
Imagine a workplace where everyone clocked in at 9 a.m. and was paid the same day’s wage for the work they did – but the men could get their pay for the day at 3:20 p.m. and leave, while the women had to stay on the job until 5 p.m. to get the same check the men got an hour and 40 minutes earlier.
That’s another way to think of the gender wage gap – with women earning on average only 79 cents for each dollar a man earns – that Equal Pay Day, April 12, is intended to highlight. The“79 percent clock” is being promoted by the National Partnership for Women and Families and MTV as a way to dramatize that wage inequity. If you are a woman, you can enter the start and end of your workday and the calculator will “show you when 79 percent of your day has passed and you (or your female colleagues) are no longer being paid.”
For an eight-hour workday that starts at 9 a.m., that moment is generally 3:20 p.m. But that’s an average; for women of color, the moment at which a woman is no longer compensated for her day could be as early as 1:24 p.m. for Hispanics or as late as 3:44 p.m. for Asian Americans. For unmarried women, that moment comes at 1:48 p.m. – 60 percent of the day – the same moment as African-American women, according to a report released this week by the Voter Participation Data Center that also includes state-by-state data for unmarried women.
Of course, if we could see men and women leaving workplaces at different hours because they weren’t equally compensated for the work they did, there would be less opportunity for denying that the wage gap is real. But salary information is usually confidential, especially in mid-level jobs and above. Often, women who are being unfairly paid for their work don’t even realize they are being discriminated against.
When discrimination is documented, we get, particularly from conservative and Republican politicians, the usual round of denials and excuses. Comments from the 2016 Republican presidential candidates are typical: “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job,” said Donald Trump in 2015, who has also said that determining whether a man and a woman is doing “the same job” is “a very, very tricky question.” Ted Cruz as a senator voted to block a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and has dismissed equal pay legislation as “just empowering trial lawyers to file lawsuits.” (Yes, that’s what lawyers do when laws are violated and people are harmed as a result, but I digress.) John Kasich suggested in 2015 that gender pay disparities are “all tied up in skills” and experience.
The Center for American Progress has published “The Top 10 Facts About the Gender Wage Gap,” and several of those facts address the myths perpetuated by the Republican presidential candidates. The wage gap is real, it does appear among men and women with the same education and experience doing similar jobs, and, according to the CAP fact sheet, “38 percent of the gap is unexplainable by measurable factors,” such as women being concentrated in certain lower-wage occupations or being more likely to have to take unpaid leave to care for family members.
Having Congress pass the Paycheck Fairness Act would go a long way toward reinforcing the already existing Equal Pay Act and getting at the root of gender pay discrimination. A key requirement in the law would be that employers would have to disclose pay information to the federal government based on race, sex and national origin. That would make it easier for the government and individual employees to hold employers accountable for violations of the equal pay laws that already exist but are regularly evaded.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton highlighted her support of the Paycheck Fairness Act atan event sponsored by Glassdoor.com, where she praised Silicon Valley firms like Salesforce and retailers like Gap for succeeding in closing the gender pay gap in their companies.
Bernie Sanders has likewise been a longtime supporter of the Paycheck Fairness Act, including it as the first item of his 10-point women’s rights agenda.
Like the “79 percent clock” that rings an alarm when a person has reached 79 percent of their work day, the Paycheck Fairness Act allows for an alarm bell to ring when workers are not receiving equal pay for equal work. It would bring pay inequities into the light of day, instead of the darkness in which Republican presidential candidates would rather have this issue continue to fester.
This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives inWashington, DC.