Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for November, 2017

Fight for $15 Just Scored a Big Win in Maryland. We Have Unions to Thank.

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

A law establishing a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Maryland’s Montgomery County was signed into law Monday, representing a comeback win after a similar measure was defeated by pro-business Democrats just ten months ago.

It’s a meaningful victory for the Fight for $15, the union-inspired campaign to raise wages nationally. Montgomery is the most populous county in the state, with a larger population than the nearby cities of Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. It’s also a bellwether for Maryland politics, where organizing has begun already ahead of the 2018 statewide elections, including organizing aimed at improving Maryland’s wage laws.

“The difference that $15 an hour will make for so many working families cannot be underestimated. And the entire county will benefit as more workers will be able to move off publicly funded programs and spend more on local businesses,” Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, told In These Times over email.

Contreras and SEIU have been prominent in the labor coalition that has been supporting a higher minimum wage, along with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and others. “We are really proud of what we have accomplished. As with any compromise, we are not totally pleased, but this is a real step forward,” Jonathan Williams, spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, told In These Times.

“The $15 minimum wage win in Montgomery County comes on the heels of last week’s 11 victories of Fight for $15 supporters Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey. It shows the continued power of this movement and builds momentum for state-wide action next year in Maryland and other states,” Christine Owens, executive director of the workers’ advocacy group National Employment Law Project, told In These Times over email.

Satisfaction with the victory notwithstanding, some worker advocates grumbled that the political compromises necessary to solidify support came at a high price for some workers. The compromises had been hammered out over the last several months in response the Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s veto of similar legislation approved by the County Council in January.

One of these compromises was an exemption from the law for workers under age 20, a concession to Leggett’s concern that the increase would hurt job opportunities for minority youth. Another compromise extended the phase-in schedule of higher wages so that the $15 minimum does not take effect for small employers until 2023 (50 workers or fewer) or 2024 (10 workers or fewer). For large employers, the new minimum will be phased in through 2021.

Owens said Montgomery “residents should be concerned that county leaders excluded from the full $15 wage younger workers—many of whom are from low-income families or are struggling to work their way through two or four-year colleges—and tipped workers. We urge the county council to revisit and remove these harmful carve-outs.”

Williams added that the UFCW is among those advocating for a state-wide $15 minimum wage bill that could address the problems in some of the carve-outs. Political efforts are initially focusing on selecting a Democratic Party candidate for governor who will be a reliable supporter of $15. Currently, there are numerous candidates in the race, and Democrats are debating who would be the strongest candidate against incumbent Republican Larry Hogan, Williams says.

Hogan is not a supporter of a higher minimum wage and provoked the anger of many workers’ rights advocates in Maryland earlier this year when he vetoed a bill to provide guaranteed sick leave to workers in the state.

UFCW has not endorsed any candidate yet, but SEIU issued an early endorsement of Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP who is running for governor on a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive platform, including the $15 minimum wage.

Aside from positive signs in local political races, Fight for $15 recently got a boost from one of the largest private-sector retailers in the country, Target stores. Following worker organizing, Target officials announced in September it would raise the minimum wage for Target employees to $11 an hour this year, with the goal of reaching $15 by the end of 2020. Target currently employs more than 300,000 workers nationwide.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

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

House of Representatives has a sexual harassment policy — but it’s designed to protect the harasser

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

House lawmakers met on Capitol Hill Tuesday to review the chamber’s sexual harassment policies. This review process comes on the heels of sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment among some of the nation’s most powerful institutions and industries — including the U.S. Congress.

In her opening statement, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) told the story of a young female staffer who was subject to sexual harassment from a sitting Congressman.

“This member asked a staffer to bring them over some materials to their residence. And a young staffer — it was a young woman — went there and was greeted with a member in a towel. It was a male, who then invited her in. At that point, he decided to expose himself,” Comstock said. “She left, and then she quit her job.”

Over 1,500 former Hill staffers have signed a letter calling for a formal review of the “inadequate” congressional sexual harassment policies in the wake of such incidents.

Lawmakers like Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) have previously shared their own stories of sexual harassment from their years working as aides on the Hill.

Speier — who shared a story on Twitter back in October about a congressional chief of staff who had once “stuck his tongue down her throat” — testified before the panel on Tuesday and disclosed there are at least two sitting members of Congress, one Democrat and one Republican, who have engaged in sexual harassment. She stated some victims have admitted to having their “private parts grabbed on the House floor” by members. Speier didn’t disclose the names of the members and said these cases have not yet been reviewed.

The reason for that is likely that the process for reporting sexual harassment in the House is so extensive and geared towards protecting the harasser.

As Speier noted in the hearing, successful claims against a House employee require the victim to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Any settlements made to the victim are taxpayer-funded and never disclosed, the identity of the accused also remains anonymous. Additionally, interns and fellows do not have access to this process, leaving them with nowhere to turn should they be sexually harassed by a member of Congress.

Currently, there is no required sexual harassment training in the House of Representatives, but rather, individual offices may have their staff attend training sessions offered by the Office of Compliance. The head of that department said during testimony on Tuesday that they have made multiple recommendations to Congress to mandate sexual harassment training for all employees since 2010.

Just last week, the Senate passed a resolution that required mandatory sexual harassment training for all members, including staffers, interns, and the lawmakers themselves.

Following the Committee on House Administration hearing on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a statement calling for mandatory sexual harassment training in the chamber.

“Today’s hearing was another important step in our efforts to combat sexual harassment and ensure a safe workplace. I want to especially thank my colleagues who shared their stories. Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff. Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution. As we work with the Administration, Ethics, and Rules committees to implement mandatory training, we will continue our review to make sure the right policies and resources are in place to prevent and report harassment.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant and social media coordinator at NPR, where she covered presidential conflicts of interest and ethics coverage. Before moving to Washington, she was an intern reporter at NPR member stations WLRN in Miami and WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. She holds a B.A in Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in political science from Florida State University

Workforce Intermediaries Advance Equity and Diversity Through Apprenticeship

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

As we kick off National Apprenticeship Week, it is more important than ever to shine a light on the ways government agencies, employers and joint labor-management programs can focus their resources on fostering greater equity, diversity and inclusion in the American workforce. Registered apprenticeship programs are a big part of the answer. Workforce intermediary partnerships that promote and operate apprenticeship programs are powerful vehicles for delivering career opportunities.

A new report by the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute and the Jobs with Justice Education Fund profiles a number of workforce intermediaries that reach into disadvantaged communities and mobilize joint funds and industry expertise to help women and people of color advance in their careers and improve diversity in aerospace, health care, hotel and hospitality, steel, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

Workforce intermediary partnerships bring together the needs and resources of multiple employers in a region or industry, and provide essential input from workers and unions to customize the skills training, apprenticeship and educational services required for employers to meet their workforce needs and workers to access career ladders. The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, for example, works with hundreds of employers in Washington State to develop curriculum and customize apprenticeship programs. This year, AJAC helped place formerly incarcerated individuals in good-paying aerospace jobs. An AJAC pre-apprenticeship program for high school students has graduated more than 300 young people over five years. Some 20% of the graduates were women and 53% were people of color.

The story of Grace Rutha highlights the power of apprenticeship implemented by intermediaries. A former reporter in Kenya, forced out of her country by an oppressive regime, she came to Philadelphia to seek a better life, but became unemployed and ended up living in a homeless shelter. While volunteering for a community organization, she discovered a community health worker apprenticeship program co-sponsored by a university and the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. After a few months on the job, with the help and guidance of a mentor, she gained the experience to intercede with HIV patients and protect their health without continually going to the emergency room. Now Rutha earns enough to have her own apartment and she serves as a co-instructor in an educational program of Philadelphia FIGHT. She and others are profiled in the Advancing Equity report.

The report lists 18 best practices in workforce diversity as identified by the JWJ Education Fund in its work with North America’s Building Trades Unions. “Hire watchdogs and grant them authority,” the organizations advise, for example, while keeping up the “push for consistent public pressure from community groups.”

Expanding apprenticeship in manufacturing and the hotel and hospitality industries is a prime activity of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute, which has a five-year contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to operate the Multiple Industry Intermediary (MII) Project.

For us, every week is National Apprenticeship Week. We will continue to use our education and training programs to create opportunity and upward mobility for workers of all backgrounds. Please join us in supporting this important work.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Daniel Marschall became executive director of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute WAI) in 2016. From 2008-2015, he served as the legislative and policy specialist for workforce issues for the Federation. He has been involved in the nation’s employment and training system since the 1980s, when he was coordinator of the Dislocated Worker Program for the State of Ohio and executive director of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Training Foundation. He served as a legislative director for a Member of Congress. He has a Master’s degree in communication studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in Sociology. He is the author of a 2012 Temple University Press book – The Company We Keep: Occupational Community in the High-Tech Network Society – based on his research in the occupational community of software developers. He is a Professorial Lecturer in Sociology at The George Washington University and a member of the Executive Board of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). He also represents the AFL-CIO at the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) Working Group on Education, Training and Employment Policy.

How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

For Women Restaurant Workers, Sexual Harassment Starts with the Day You’re Hired

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Anyone who has ever scanned Craigslist for a restaurant job knows the boilerplate “will train the right person,” code for, among other things, “Be young and have a nice ass.” I have two (attractive, blonde) female colleagues who got their first serving jobs at 19 on the supposed basis of their scores on the restaurant giant Darden’s infamous personality test. The first guy who ever hired me to wait tables said he liked my writing in my personal statement.

No one is innately or instantly good at waiting tables. Training someone who has never worked in a restaurant involves several long weeks of physically and mentally exhausting serial humiliation during which time she is likely, perversely, to be the restaurant’s most expensive front-of house employee, since until she is eligible to earn tips she has to be paid the ghastly sum that is the full minimum wage. The “right person” is likely to be the target, until a new right person supplants her, of so much hostility and derision from the chefs and the cooks and the food runners and the bartenders and the managers who didn’t hire her, and the other waiters and waitresses forced to train her, that the sexual harassment that results inevitably from being hired for her looks/intangibles/etc. is likely to seem, at first anyway, like the least of her problems. At first.

The dress code at my first restaurant job consisted, for women, of a black miniskirt, ballet flats and neutral makeup during the week and black minidress, slouchy boots, red lipstick and “statement jewelry” on the weekends. For dudes, it was a black shirt and jeans at all times. None of the dudes had been hired on the basis of their potential to prove themselves “the right person”; they’d all been servers at big strip mall chains and, before that, food runners and bussers and barbacks. They had collective decades of advanced tray carrying experience on us: The youngest female server had just turned 19, the youngest male was 27, and that was a fairly standard state of affairs at restaurants willing to administer Remedial Restaurant 101 to “the right person.” It would be hard to design a context more conducive to being sexually harassed by co-workers, and indeed, like 80 percent of women restaurant workers in a 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) survey, we all were.

We experienced sexual harassment from customers, too (as did nearly 80 percent in the ROC United survey)—the entire point of making female servers dress a certain way is to entice customers, not managers or coworkers. But as in any field, it’s the harassment from bosses and superiors—the guys who decide whether you’ll be waiting on three tables or ten tonight, who can choose to help you or chastise you if the hosts stick you with five two tops all at once and you get behind, the guys you see every fucking day—that really gets to you. Even the handsiest dirty old man customer has to compete with a dozen other dinner guests for your attention, and if he’s really that creepy the hosts won’t let him sit in your section—or depending on his spending habits/status/infractions, any woman’s section—again. (Also, there’s always the chance creepy old man leaves a 40 percent tip, in which case, and depending on the infraction, he is roughly 90 percent forgiven.) 

I was fired from my first job after two weeks, when the guy who hired me went on vacation. The firing was done by a nervous-looking fellow who’d spoken all of three words to me and gave no reason at all. For months afterward, I was still fielding flirtatious texts from the fortysomething ex-Marine I’d been assigned to shadow during my brief employment. (He thought he could get me hired back.) My friend Liz, who worked for an enormous restaurant chain, survived hazing to win the “most improved server” award after a year during which she learned “to finally not suck,” but one of her managers regularly slapped her ass on the floor (even after she started whipping out her lighter and threatening to burn him whenever he approached) and another would regularly creep up and massage her shoulder blades—oh to have a nickel for every unwanted shoulder massage!—while she was ringing in orders.

And that’s par for the course at a massive publicly traded company with a huge human resources department. My current restaurant group has no HR department, despite employing close to a thousand people (among them a half dozen “guest relations” staffers whose full time job it is to pore over the responses to our incessant feedback emails for negative reviews.) The response to sexual harassment claims varies depending on who is doing the harassing and who is responding to the complaint: The chefs recently fired a cook for repeatedly cornering a cocktail waitress in the underground parking lot to ask for dates, but a food runner who complained last year of being constantly harassed for sex by an executive manager was simply transferred to another restaurant. Nor was there an HR department at Besh Hospitality Group, the 1,200-employee restaurant group helmed by Louisiana celebrity chef John Besh, until the publication last month of an expose in which 25 separate women accused the chef of fostering a Playboy Mansion-esque corporate culture and forcing himself (and inflicting what can only be described as two years of veritable sex slavery) upon a young female subordinate. I don’t want to make too much of this: “Human resources” as a field originated primarily as a union avoidance scheme; its practitioners are inherently adversarial to the interests of employees. But if nothing else, the presence of someone, anyone, devoted to the function can—maybe?—serve as a deterrent to the worst behavior, or a psychological comfort to someone who knows she is being mistreated. A union could help, but you could probably fit the number of unionized non-hotel American restaurant workers inside my restaurant.

Without any third party nominally devoted to employment law compliance, bosses operate with total impunity, as a friend of mine learned when her manager attacked her in the office when she was working as a nightclub bartender in her early twenties. “He was always known as ‘the groper’ and it was just kind of this hilarious joke,” she recalls. “He had an Asian fetish and that was a joke, too. I worked with him for two or three years and nothing happened. Then one night I needed cash in the middle of my shift, and I went into the office and he’s putting his hand up my skirt. I ran out, and after that he suddenly started acting really serious with me. One night in the middle of service, he called me into the office and showed me a video of me serving a guest, then immediately serving another and explained that I had just given a drink away without ringing it in—which was probably because she or someone in her group had a tab—but anyway, therefore I was being fired for stealing. I didn’t even argue. I just felt like I had no voice and would be forever known as ‘that girl.’”

It’s hard to say what exactly she means by “that girl.” Every restaurant is haunted by a few apocryphal tales of “that girl” who slipped on a piece of pasta while cutting in line for staff meal and successfully sued for nine months of worker’s comp, or forgot her hairnet the day the health inspector came and shut down the restaurant during service, or had some conflict with the only prep cook who could properly execute the foie gras parfait—and now we can’t eat in the back hallway/chop vegetables during staff meal/have nice things/etc. “That girl” isn’t always a girl—and the stories often have some basis in reality—but it is generally some employee whose defining quality is incompetence/disposability. Women who work in restaurants are exponentially more likely to feel acutely disposable in any given context, I think because we so often start in semi-ornamental roles, whether as barely-competent server trainees hired for our intangible qualities, or as hostesses hired to stand at the front of the restaurant and apologize profusely for the circumstances that led to all the riverside tables being occupied right now.  

A parallel, albeit more nuanced imbalance exists on the other side of the kitchen doors, where you will never, ever, ever find a woman washing dishes (typically, you will find a Latino man in trash bags doing the job) and you will virtually never find a woman grilling steaks, but you’ll find lots of women polishing glasses and arranging edible flowers on salads and piping meticulous domes and Hershey kisses and happy birthday messages out of oversized pastry bags. Women culinary workers who venture outside their assigned ghettos are often made to feel sorry they tried, via sexual assault and humiliation: A chef I know was fired from her first job in fine dining after the sous chef she’d theretofore considered a mentor shoved his crotch into her hands inside a walk-in refrigerator. She told people the story; soon after, she was fired over a small infraction—being late for a shift. She believes they feared she’d report the assault and wanted her gone.

Which brings me to a rare redeeming trait of the industry’s gender dynamics: As rampant as sexually inappropriate behavior is, there is also a severe shortage of private spaces in which that behavior has the opportunity to rise to full-fledged assault. (This is not to say assault doesn’t find places to happen: An August lawsuit detailing the “rape culture” pervading the—unionized!—Plaza Hotel described the coatroom as a go-to unsafe space for uninvited groping, and a Texas jury last year awarded $7.65 million to a teenage Chipotle employee whose manager raped her in the bathroom, the back office and by the dumpster outside in the parking lot.) There are no private offices and very few hotel suites, and the amount of time in a day the typical restaurant manager or server or even dishwasher or coat check girl can plausibly spend away from the kitchen or the floor is measured in minutes. Most importantly, the industry itself is fragmented and dispersed, its ultimate product hopelessly chained to an old-fashioned distribution system that relies on vast armies of human laborers, not an exclusive clique of “It Girl” starlets. There are thousands of chefs and restaurants with Michelin stars and James Beard awards and cookbooks and reality television appearances, and none of them can even begin to approach, even on a regional level, the influence or reach Harvey Weinstein exerted in Hollywood. That might be the biggest reason I don’t know anyone who has been seriously long-term traumatized by restaurant industry sleazebaggery the way certain journalist and media friends have been left utterly devastated by their relationships with various “predators”—no one person, in restaurants, can destroy your livelihood or render you long-term unemployable.

And yet over the long term I think all the women I know intend to lose the war of attrition with this industry. ROC United found that a third of women who had quit the restaurant industry after working in tipped positions did so because of unwanted sexual behavior. The diminishing financial returns are no longer worth the accumulated microaggressions—and it gets to the point where every friendly high-five between male colleagues in the line for staff meal feels like a tiny ulcer. I have been waiting tables for longer than I ever intended, and since graduating from the prime sexual harassment demographic, the rare lecherous remark is almost flattering. I look young enough that I should have a good five to seven years left before I find myself mysteriously demoted or taken off the schedule (the fate that tends to befall middle aged servers at Darden-owned Seasons 52, whose age discrimination case goes to trial this month.) But I still don’t make nearly as much money as male colleagues who regularly make stupid mistakes and get negative guest feedback and come to work viciously hungover—and neither do any of the female servers (save the one hypercompetitive twentysomething wunderkind who through sheer force of singleminded perfection and dogged sycophancy gets as many VIP tables as the mediocre bro types.) According to ROC United, full-time female servers make 68 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

But the most damaging legacy of our profession’s institutional sexual harassment may be the lasting perception that whatever we have achieved in the industry we owe to the fact that someone, at some point, just wanted to get in our pants.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on November 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author works as a server in a restaurant. Ursula Buffay is a pseudonym.

Labor-Backed Candidates Win Big in Tuesday’s Elections

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

It was a big night for labor’s agenda as pro-worker candidates won election from coast to coast Tuesday.

In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam handily defeated Ed Gillespie as AFL-CIO-endorsed candidates won throughout the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays hailed the victories:

“Today, Virginia’s voters turned out in record numbers to stand with working people and reject the hateful, divisive rhetoric that has taken over the airwaves throughout the campaign. Virginia voters have spoken—we must work toward a commonwealth that puts working families first and prioritizes real issues that impact our lives each and every day. All students must have quality public education and job-training opportunities. All workers must be guaranteed fair wages, safe working conditions and the freedom to join in union. And all Virginians must have access to quality, affordable health care no matter where they live.

“We are proud to stand with you all and elect Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring and a host of delegates in districts from Blacksburg to Hampton and so many places in between. Voters came together to enact real change in our commonwealth by flipping control in at least 15 house districts despite our heavily gerrymandered lines.”

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, one of several key victories for labor in the state. New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech said union solidarity made it possible:

“The results of New Jersey’s critical gubernatorial election are in, and the election of Phil Murphy as governor and Sheila Oliver as lieutenant governor speaks to the unmatched mobilization efforts of organized labor and the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s political program that is unparalleled by any other in our state or nation.

“Let’s be clear: what made the difference tonight was our unified labor voice, comprised of support from thousands of union volunteers, national, state and local affiliates, central labor councils and Building Trades councils. We had an opportunity to show strength and solidarity and we did. We joined together every Saturday for labor walks, made calls at evening phone banks and delivered thousands of mail pieces around the state. There is no question that our 1-million-member-strong state labor movement determined the outcome of this election.

“Working people needed a victory and organized labor delivered. The results of this election make clear that the New Jersey labor movement will lead the way forward for the rest of the nation, securing needed reforms that promote job creation, quality education, skills training, modernized infrastructure, affordable health care, equitable taxation, and a sustainable and secure retirement future for all New Jersey families.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schlittner is the AFL-CIO director of speechwriting and publications and co-president of Pride At Work

Deepwater Horizon: Is the CSB Preparing to Retreat on Worker Participation?

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

The Chemical Safety Board may be preparing to take a significant step backwards in its advocacy for worker participation in preventing chemical facility incidents, including catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In April, 2016 the CSB unanimously approved a 4-volume “Macondo Investigation Report” in response to the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 workers, injured 17 and spilled 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  The report contained a number of recommendations, including four recommendations calling for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to significantly enhance its regulations requiring worker participation in the employer’s safety program, and enhanced whistleblower protections for workers participating in safety activities. BSEE, an agency within the Department of Interior,  was created in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) disaster and is the lead federal government agency in charge of oversight and enforcement of the offshore energy industry on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Last month, however, the CSB’s recommendations staff recommended that these recommendations be withdrawn in the face of opposition from BSEE, which claims that it has no jurisdiction to adopt the CSB recommendations.  A short discussion about withdrawing the recommendations was held at the Board’s October 16 public meeting in Washington DC. Board member Rick Engler waged a spirited defense of the recommendations, but judging from the discussion at the meeting, three of the four members seem to be leaning toward withdrawing the recommendations.

The CSB’s recommendations staff raised seven reasons that the recommendations should be withdrawn. The discussion at the September 16th meeting seemed to focus on two of those: whether the CSB investigation had established that lack of worker participation and fear of retaliation was a causative element in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and whether BSEE is correct in claiming that they do not have jurisdiction.  In addition to those two arguments, the CSB recommendations staff justified its recommendation to withdraw the worker participation recommendations by arguing that the recommendations went beyond full statutory authority and mandate of CSB to issue reports and studies, were redundant with what BSEE was already doing, were a product of the (rejected) “safety case” regime, were prescriptive rather than performance based and that these issues should more appropriately be handled by other agencies.

What Did the CSB Recommend?

Volume 4 of the report described the importance of effective worker involvement:

Worker participation in the offshore oil and gas industry is of critical importance. Workers aboard a rig can contribute keen insights into the daily workings of an operation that upper management might miss. As such, workers should be engaged in a wide range of safety management activities, including project planning, risk analysis, and incident investigations, and thus can play an integral role in preventing accidents. As Volumes 2 and 3 demonstrate, decisions that people on a rig make can impact the potential for a well kick, or strengthen or weaken a barrier. For example, “any problems that did occur during the TA [temporary abandonment] plan would be dealt with by employing the knowledge, experience and skills of the drilling team” Therefore, if workers are not effectively engaged in the management of major hazards in these ways, a duty holder bypasses a key layer of insight and enhanced protection.

Accordingly, the CSB unanimously approved the following recommendations to the Department of Interior, and specifically to BSEE (Recommendations 2010-1-I-OS-15):

  1. Worker-elected safety representatives and safety committees for each staffed offshore facility chosen under procedures overseen by the regulator; these safety representatives will have the authority to interact with employers (such as operators and drillers) and regulators on issues of worker health and safety risks and the development and implementation of the major hazard report documentation;
  2. The elected worker representative has the right to issue an enforceable stop-work order if an operation or task is perceived as unsafe; all efforts should be made to resolve the issue at the workplace level, but if the issue remains unresolved, BSEE shall establish mechanisms such that the worker representative has the right and ability to seek regulator intervention to resolve the issue, and the regulator must respond in a timely fashion;
  3. The regulator will host an annual tripartite forum for workforce representatives, industry management, and the regulator to promote opportunities for interaction by all three entities on safety matters and to advance initiatives for major accident prevention.
  4. Protections for workers participating in safety activities with a specific and effective process that workers can use to seek redress from retaliatory action with the goal to provide a workplace free from fear that encourages discussion and resolution of safety issues and concerns. Protected activities include, but are not limited to reporting unsafe working conditions, near misses, and situations where stop work authority is used.

Why The Recommendations Should Be Maintained

As mentioned above, the CSB’s recommendations staff raised seven reasons that the recommendations should be withdrawn. I want to focus mainly on two of these, both of which were major topics of discussion at the October 16 meeting. I will address the others at the end.

Causation: Was Poor Worker Communication and Fear of Retaliation a Cause of the Blowout?

Board recommendations are guided by “Board Orders,” approved by the Board members. Board Order 22states that “a recommendation is a specific and measurable course of
action directed to a specific party, based on the findings and conclusions of incident investigations, safety studies, or similar products” and that “Recommendations proposed to the Board should describe a clear rationale that links the findings of an investigation, study, or similar product with explicit conclusions that factually support the need and basis for the recommendation.” At the October 26 meeting, Board Chair Vanessa Sutherland indicated that she didn’t believe the report had provided evidence that lack of worker participation and intimidation of workers were possible causes of the blowout and resulting environmental catastrophe.

The CSB’s report, however, actually discusses numerous communications failures, and lists under its “key findings” that  “Active workforce participation supported by the regulator and regulations” are missing or inadequate. Volume 3 later finds that “Transocean [the drilling contractor] did not follow its corporate policies to meaningfully engage the workforce in managing risks posed by an activity through identifying effective barriers.” Workers were only encouraged to focus on “personal safety or relatively minor spills of drilling mud on the rig and overboard” instead of identifying more important process issues that eventually led to the blowout.

Workers also reported being reluctant to participate in the employer’s “Start” observation program where employees were supposed to report “negative work practices” of their co-workers because their co-workers were often disciplined and fired after such reports. Furthermore, the wife of Jason Anderson, a worker who was killed in the explosion, testified at a Congressional hearing that her husband had expressed fears for his safety shortly before the explosion, but told her “I can’t talk about it now. The walls are too thin.”

And the CSB was not alone in identifying worker participation and lack of whistleblower protections as a flaw that needed to be remedied. The 2011 National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling” Report to the President identified the same problems, citing a survey done by Transocean discussing poor communication between workers and management about safety conditions, and that over half of the workers reported that “some of the workforce feared reprisals for reporting unsafe situations.” The President’s Commission therefore recommended that Congress pass legislation providing offshore workers with “the same whistleblower protection that workers are guaranteed in other comparable settings.”

Even if the language in President’s Commission Report and the Congressional testimony were not a result of CSB work, the CSB’s legislative authority explicitly states that “The Board may utilize the expertise and experience of other agencies.”

Now, can the CSB prove that the incident wouldn’t have happened if there had there been better communication, less intimidation and functioning labor-management health and safety committees? Of  course not. Unlike determining that a piece of machinery failed, investigative findings and recommendations that focus on inadeuate management systems adn organizational practices can almost never be 100% confirmed as a direct cause of an incident.

Furthermore Board Order 22 does not hold the recommendations to a strict “but for” standard.  In other words, the investigation does not have to prove that the lack of a health and safety committee or the lack of anti-retaliation procedures led directly to the blowout.  Many other CSB reports make recommendations based on causes that likely contributed to incident based on the findings of the investigation, industry best practices and previous experience of similar disasters.

In 2006, an explosion at the Bethune Wastewater Treatment Plant in Daytona, Florida killed two workers. The CSB found that maintenance workers using a cutting torch on a roof above the methanol storage tank accidentally ignited vapors coming from the tank vent.  Public employees in Florida are not covered by OSHA and the CSB issued a recommendation to the Florida state legislature to adopt a public employer OSHA law. Could the CSB prove that such a law would have prevented the explosion? Of course not.  But there is strong evidence that compliance with OSHA regulations prevents such incidents and likely that OSHA coverage of public employees would prevent future similar incidents.

Neither the law creating the CSB, nor Board Order 22 state that the CSB should only investigate and make findings on the technical issues. Engler cites the legislative history of the board, stating that

Moreover, the statute’s legislative history says, and I quote, “The Board should take on an all-cause theory in discharging its investigatory duties.” It is not the single necessary or sufficient cause which is to be the focus of the Board’s inquiry, but all circumstances which contributed to the accident and which may effectively be modified to improve safety are circumstances of concern. Multiple causation is, in fact, the norm and it is expected that the Board will follow many strands of inquiry in response to each accidental release.

Indeed, Volume III of the Macondo report lays out why the CSB must go beyond direct technical causes to examine and address problems with the safety management system and organizational practices:

The broadest learning impact can be achieved when investigations extend beyond the immediate technical causes of an incident. Addressing deficient safety management systems and inadequate organizational practices can result in findings that go beyond the immediate chain events that preceded any one incident. As examples in this chapter show, while the immediate causes of a well control incident might vary, the safety management systems and organizational findings can be similar. Ultimately, BSEE has the opportunity to mandate such a focus and then facilitate the dissemination of lessons across the operator/drilling contractor boundary and geographical regions.

So in order to withdraw these recommendations based on lack of evidence, the Board would not only be contradicting the findings of the report that they unanimously approved, but also violating Congressional intent and past CSB practice.

Does BSEE Have Authority to Regulate Worker Participation?

The CSB Recommendations Staff reported that BSEE did not agree to the recommendations because the agency did not have the authority to adopt them. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been around government a long time, and BSEE’s claim sounds suspicious at best.

First, BSEE already requires worker participation as part of its Safety and Environmental Management System (SEMS) issued in October 2010 and amended in 2013, although the CSB concluded that SEMS did not “provide BSEE with an adequate framework for major accident prevention,” particularly in the area of workforce involvement.

For example, in SEMS, BSEE requires drilling operators to have an Employee Participation Plan where operators must consult with employees regarding the program, Stop-Work Authority that would authorize and require all employees and other personnel who witness an activity presenting an imminent risk or danger to the health or safety of an individual, the public, or to the environment to stop the work creating the risk or danger, a person with Ultimate Work Authority (UWA) who can determine “that the imminent risk or danger …. no longer exists,” and operators must provide all personnel with a system for reporting unsafe work conditions.

The CSB did not feel that these provisions were adequate.  You can check out Section 3.4 of Volume IV for the reasons that the CSB thought these provisions need to be improved, but my point is that the existence of these (inadequate) provisions prove that BSEE does, indeed, have authority to address these provisions as the CSB recommended.

It seems hard to argue that on one hand, BSEE has authority to require worker participation and stop work authority, but on the other hand does not have authority to protect workers who actually exercise those rights.

It’s possible that BSEE is primarily claiming that it does not have authority to adopt the CSB’s recommendation that it provide whistleblower protections for workers who have been retaliated against, but that doesn’t make much sense either.  It makes no practical or legal sense to provide rights to employees (e.g. the power to stop work) unless regulations also protect workers who use that power from being retaliated against.  They are effectively the same. It seems hard to argue that, on one hand, BSEE has authority to require worker participation and stop work authority, but on the other hand does not have authority to protect workers who actually exercise those rights.

It is possible, however, that BSEE does not have the authority to provide adequate remedies for workers who are retaliated against, especially if those remedies lie with another agency.  In other words, BSEE’s protection of workers who may be retaliated against is necessary for workers to feel safe exercising their rights, but it may not be sufficient.  In this case Congress may need to pass legislation like the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2010, which was passed by on overwhelming margin in the House of Representatives (and later died in the Senate.) In endorsing the legislation, the White House stated that “There is currently no Federal law adequately protecting offshore workers who blow the whistle on worker health and safety hazards.”

But if the Board determines that a law passed by Congress would provide superior protections for workers, the CSB should add a recommendation to Congress to pass such legislation, rather than removing the recommendation to BSEE.

Other Reasons The CSB Staff  Used To Justify Withdrawal of the Recommendations

As I mentioned before, there are several other reasons that the CSB recommendations staff used to justify withdrawing the recommendations. None of these merited much discussion at the October 16 meeting, but I will review them briefly here in case they come up at the next meeting

The CSB May Not Have the Statutory Authority to Address these Issues

Does the CSB have authority under its law to make this type of recommendation? The answer is clear “yes.”  The CSB is authorized to “investigate (or cause to be investigated), determine and report to the public in writing the facts,  conditions, and circumstances and the cause or probable cause of any accidental release resulting in a fatality, serious injury or substantial property damages, and to issue issue “periodic reports” to OSHA, EPA and others “recommending measures to reduce the likelihood or the consequences of accidental releases and proposing corrective steps to make chemical production, processing, handling and storage as safe and free from risk of injury as is possible.”

The CSB is clearly not limited to just looking at the specific technical causes, or as we used to say “why the widget broke.” In fact, the most important role of the CSB is not just providing techinal answers for uncontrolled chemical releases, but doing “root cause” investigations that look into deeper, systemic reasons that these incidents occur and addressing those root causes through their recommendations. As readers of Confined Space will remember, we have discussed many times the futility of only addressing the direct causes of an incident. Unless the root causes — or systemic problems — of an incident are addressed, the same incident will occur over and over again.

These Recommendations Duplicate BSEE’s current efforts

This allegation is puzzling in the context of the allegation, discussed above, that BSEE doesn’t have the authority to address worker participation and discrimination issues. How can these recommendations be “duplicative,” when the agency allegedly doesn’t have the authority to address them in the first place. And, as we’ve seen, they are already addressing many of these issues, if in an inadequate manner, according to the Macondo report. The CSB’s recommendations, rather than being duplicative, contain important improvements.

It Would be More Appropriate for Other Agencies to Address These Issues

The recommendations staff raise the possibility that either OSHA or the Coast Guard would be more appropriate to address these issues. But as former OSHA head, Dr. David Michaels pointed out in Congressional testimony, OSHA is limited by paragraph 4(b)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act which allows other federal agencies pre-empt OSHA’s authority if they claim to be addressing health and safety for workers under their jurisdiction, which both the Coast Guard and Department of Interior have done. These limitations are not just the opinion of Dr. Michaels, but based decades of case law.

The Coast Guard shares jurisdiction with BSEE over the safety of off-shore facilities, but the Coast Guard’s focus is clearly on oil spill preparedness and response, while BSEE’s is on the overall process safety requirements of the drilling process, including worker participation as part of its Safety and Environmental Management System.

Worker Safety and Health Committees are Part of the “Safety Case” Regime, Which Has Not Been Adopted in the United States

The Safety Case regime, as the CSB describes it is “where the company proposes to conduct its activities and then explains its major accident hazards assessment and control plan to the regulator, typically (but not always) for acceptance before commencing drilling exploration or production operations.”

It’s true that the US had not adopted the Safety Case regime, but safety and health committees are hardly a unique attribute of the Safety Case regime. In fact,  safety and health committees are included in many safety and health programs recommended by safety and health organizations, including ANSI’s Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems. And as Engler points out, 17 states have requirements for safety committees. Most union safety and health contracts contain language about safety and health committees and numerous large companies in the petrochemical industry already have joint labor management safety and health committees.

The CSB Recommendations are “Prescriptive” instead of “Performance-Based”

Prescriptive recommendations describe the exact action to be taken by the recipient, whereas performance-based recommendations set out the goal of the recommendation, and let the recipient figure out how to get there. I’m not sure why the recommendations team has suddenly determined that prescriptive recommendations are forbidden. There is nothing in the law or the CSB’s Board Orders requiring the CSB to only issue performance-based recommendations. And a quick look at past CSB recommendations find both prescriptive and performance-based recommendations.

The CSB’s BP report following the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers has a variety of recommendation from the most prescriptive (e.g. that OSHA should “Establish the capacity to conduct more comprehensive PSM inspections by hiring or developing a sufficient cadre of highly trained and experienced inspectors,” to more performance-based (e.g. recommending that the BP Refinery that it “Ensure that process startup procedures are updated to reflect actual process conditions.”

Sometimes it is more practical to make performance-based recommendations, but where there is a widespread industry consensus that certain protections are important (like whistleblower protections or safety and health committees),  prescriptive recommendations may be more appropriate.

Conclusion

Withdrawing recommendations addressing worker participation and whistleblower rights — recommendations that are based on findings in the CSB report and confirmed by other Macondo reports — would be a devastating precedent for the Board to present, particularly coming after the Board’s unanimous approval of the report and the accompanying recommendations.  Workers are the eyes and ears of any complex process and in order for a safety program to be success, worker not only have to be listened to, but they should be encouraged to report any problems. And unless there is no fear of retaliation from management, even the most expansive rights, such as the ability to shut down an operation due to safety problems, only exist on paper.

The widely respected Baker Panel report on the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion emphasized the importance of a “reporting culture.”

The Panel believes that a good safety culture requires a positive, trusting and open environment with effective lines of communication between management and the workforce, including employee representatives. The single most important factor in creating a good process safety culture is trust. Employees and contractors must trust that they can report incidents,near misses and other concerns — even when it reflects poorly on their own knowledge skills or conduct with out fear of punishment or repercussion.

The panel went on to state that “When workers believe that this information will be used unfairly to blame or punish them, and not to improve safety, reporting will decrease.”

Let the Board members know loud an clear how important the Board’s advocacy is to worker and environmental safety in this country.

In other words, if the Chemical Safety Board is serious about preventing chemical plant disasters, worker participation — a functioning reporting culture — is not just a “good idea” or a nice thing to recommend when comfortable; it is an essential tool needed by any managers or government agencies intent on preventing workplace safety and health disasters, especially in workplaces as complicated as a refinery or offshore drilling.

So come to the meeting next week, or call in if you can’t be there.  Let the Board members know loud and clear how important the Board’s advocacy is to worker and environmental safety in this country.  It is even more important during this time in history when we are seeing worker protections rolled back on every front for the Board to stand strongly by its authority, its history and its obligation to recognize the essential role that effective worker involvement plays in chemical plant safety.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

California Just Passed Landmark Law to Stop Bosses From Discriminating Against People with Convictions

Monday, November 6th, 2017

In an important victory for formerly-incarcerated workers fighting employment discrimination, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1008 into law on October 14, establishing some of the strongest “Ban the Box” legislation in the country. Brown’s signature can be attributed to tireless organizing on the part of formerly incarcerated individuals and their advocates.

One of the biggest challenges facing people returning from prison is employment. Many jobs require applicants to check a box if they have ever been convicted of a crime, but offer no opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest. Employers often disregard formerly incarcerated individuals, regardless of their given situation. “Banning the Box” removes this question from applications, requiring businesses to assess the job-seekers’ criminal background only after the individual’s qualifications have been considered.

Under AB 1008, or the California Fair Chance Act, restrictions on employers’ criminal background checks have been extended to private companies. This means that, as of January 1, 2018, no California business with five or more employees will be allowed to ask about or consider an applicant’s conviction history before an employment decision is made.

The legislative victory is the culmination of a fight that has lasted more 14 years, as the grassroots organizing project All of Us or None started the campaign during the early 2000s. All of Us or None sprung out of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC.)

LSPC’s Communications Director Mark Fujiwara spoke with In These Times about the bill. Formerly incarcerated himself, Fujiwara emphasized that his group’s organizing was primarily led by individuals who had spent time in prison—and have experienced the system firsthand. “Having a grassroots organizing project like All of Us or None is key to creating a sense of community and empowerment for directly-impacted people and our families, as every aspect of the prison industrial complex is designed to separate and isolate people,” he said.

Sandra Johnson is another formerly incarcerated member of LSPC who was on the frontlines of California’s “Ban the Box” fight, testifying during hearings and advocating to legislators. She told In These Times that she was fired from her job of six years after her former employer accused her of concealing her conviction history. “It was devastating,” she told In These Times, “I don’t want anyone else to feel what I felt.”

AB 1008 also received a visibility boost from high-profile supporters like the musician John Legend. About a month before its passage, Legend wrote a letter to Governor Brown calling on him to act on the issue. “For too long, these men and women have been defined by the worst moments of their lives,” Legend wrote. “They have been stigmatized, even after paying their debt to society, and? ?they? ?have? ?seen how? ?a? ?criminal? ?record? ?takes? ?a? ?wrecking? ?ball? ?to? ?future? ?employment.”

“Ban the Box” legislation is particularly important in California. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), nearly one out of every three California adults has an arrest or conviction on their record. That’s roughly 8 million people statewide. “The old approach didn’t serve any of us well,” NELP staff attorney Phil Hernandez told In These Times. “When 8 million people across the state are effectively shut out of employment, that shrinks the economy, undermines public safety, and harms families and communities. For those reasons, this new law—which aims to give people with records a fair chance at employment—will ultimately benefit all of us.”

NELP studies also show how restrictive hiring practices have a devastating impact on children and families. Almost half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a record. According to a survey with family members of formerly incarcerated individuals, 68 percent said that those who were parents had trouble paying child support after being released from prison. One study of formerly incarcerated women revealed that 65 percent of them were relying on a family member for financial support.

The fair hiring movement has gained considerable steam in recent years. AB 1008 makes California the 10th state to ban the box for public and private sector workers. Twenty-nine states now ban the box for public employees, and five of them have done so this year: Utah, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. In 2015, President Obama endorsed the practice for federal employees. There are also increasing efforts to extend ban the box policies to colleges. In June, Louisiana became the first state to block public universities from asking applicants about their criminal history.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Billionaire Trump donor puts 115 people out of work after some joined a union

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Last week, writers at the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist joined a union. This week, the sites’ Trump-supporting billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, shut them down, putting 115 people out of work.

Ricketts, who deleted negative coverage of himself when he acquired the Gothamist properties in March, has threatened to shut down the site in the past if the writers attempted to unionize.

On Thursday, he made good on the promise. […]

According to the National Labor Relations Board, laying off employees because they are engaged in union activity is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that shutting down an entire business — like Ricketts chose to do Thursday — is one permissible form of retaliation.

Ricketts’ letter announcing the decision said that “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” but the New York Times reports that Ricketts “lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence.” It was only after workers dared to organize that he shut it down.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Do Nondisclosure Agreements Perpetuate a Toxic Workplace Culture?

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

In Hollywood, the cat is out of the bag. Scores of women (and men) are pouring out pent-up tales of sexual assaults and sexual harassment by famous producers, directors and actors. Every day brings new accusations against some movie icon. A group of women at Weinstein Co. has asked to be released from nondisclosure agreements so they can speak publicly to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged decades of predatory abuse and brazen quid pro quo demands.

The mere fact that an entire group of employees at one company is seeking to be unmuzzled is testament to a deep problem. Nor is it limited to the entertainment industry. NDAs and “hush money” settlements are common in every employment sector, including government agencies.

Sweeping it under the rug … until someone notices the lumps

There are two types of nondisclosure agreements at play in scenarios like the Weinstein saga:

First, there are standard NDAs in employment contracts which prevent employees from speaking up about what they’ve seen or experienced. These are a preemptive strike against disclosures that would reflect negatively on the company. When victims, witnesses and allies are effectively gagged, offenders are off the hook and a culture that tolerates sexual harassment is perpetuated.

Second, there are nondisclosure “agreements” thrust upon victims after the fact when they report harassment/assault or threaten legal action. In exchange for a payoff and/or a specifically worded NDA, they keep their jobs or walk away with a settlement and never speak of it again. The alternative is the threat of being blacklisted and smeared.
Again, this dynamic is not unique to Hollywood. Sexual harassment and coerced silence happens in every industry.

How nondisclosure agreements inhibit sexual harassment claims

A few mavericks have violated their NDAs with the Weinstein Co., knowing the company would face fierce public backlash if it tried to enforce the confidentiality agreements. But most people who are subject to NDAs do not have the upper hand. They can be terminated, sued and “outed” for breaching the agreement. The contract may specify monetary damages greater than the original settlement.

One-third of the 90,000 complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in 2015 involved workplace harassment. About 45 percent of those cases were sexual harassment. A report by the EEOC revealed that taking formal action is the least common response for women or men who reported being sexually harassed at work.

Why would they not file a formal complaint or lawsuit? Some fear termination or other retaliation. Others fear they won’t be believed or that nothing will change. And some take no action because their hands are tied by employment agreements.

Many employment contracts and NDAs require that claims against the employer – including sexual harassment — be resolved through arbitration. Employers favor mandatory arbitration clauses because (a) there is no risk of a big jury award and (b) the proceedings are private. Whatever the outcome, it is kept quiet. For victims of sexual harassment who want their abuser exposed, arbitration is a dead end.

Nondisclosure agreements are not ironclad

The mere threat of enforcing an NDA is very effective. Some victims do not want the public exposure, expense and stress. Settling and staying mum was their way of making the best of an awful ordeal and moving on.

However, NDAs are not as bulletproof as most employees think. No employment agreement can supercede state or federal laws. A victim of a crime cannot be prevented from talking to police or testifying in court. An employer cannot prevent an employee from reporting sexual harassment to the EEOC. A settlement agreement and NDA only prevents the employee from suing the company and speaking publicly about the incident. And if the agreement was overreaching or coerced, it may not be enforceable.

If you are subject to a nondisclosure agreement, you also cannot be barred from talking to a lawyer. An employment law attorney can explain your rights, your legal options, and any possible consequences of breaching the NDA.

This blog was originally published at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on November 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

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