Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘Department of Labor’ Category

House Democrats plan to grill Labor Department officials about tip and child labor policies

Monday, November 12th, 2018

After winning back the House on Tuesday, Democrats plan to grill Labor Department officials about some of their proposals, which they have safety and transparency concerns about.

Democrats have long had questions about the U.S. Department of Labor’s approach on issues such as child labor in health care jobs and not informing the public about an analysis that did not favor one of their proposed regulations on tipping.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who will be chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, told Bloomberg Law about his plans and said, “If you’re having a regulatory change, the law requires you to produce the evidence to support the change.”

In December, the department proposed a rule rescinding parts of Obama-era tip regulations and allow employers who pay the minimum wage to take workers’ tips. The department said it would allow “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, who don’t typically receive tips, to be part of a tip-sharing pool. But the rule wouldn’t actually prevent employers from just keeping the tips.

According to Economic Policy Institute research, tipped workers would lose $5.8 billion a year in tips as a result of this rule. Women in tipped jobs would lose $4.6 billion annually.

After doing an internal analysis of the proposal, Department of Labor decided to scrub it from its proposal after it also discovered workers would be robbed of billions of dollars. Staff then changed the methodology to get a more favorable analysis, but Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were reportedly unsatisfied with even that analysis, so with the approval of the White House, they took it out. Later reports from Bloomberg showed that White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) staff said the proposal of changes to tipped worker pay rules should include professional estimates of the impact for tipped workers but Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, worked with Acosta to scrap the analysis entirely, Bloomberg Law first reported.

In December, Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for improvement of wages for low-wage restaurant workers, said the proposed rule would push a majority-women workforce “further into financial instability, poverty, and vulnerability to harassment and assault.”

Democrats on the committee, as well as other Democrats in Congress, wrote a letter to the department in February stating that if the department withheld the analysis, it “raises serious questions about the integrity of the Department’s rulemaking process.” They also demanded more information about meetings and further communication about the analysis.

Democrats also wrote a letter to Acosta and Mulvaney in August citing their concerns about a department proposal to allow teenagers to work more hours in health care positions that under current regulations, are considered unsafe for them. The department has said that exempting power-driven patient lifts from these regulations makes sense because use of the equipment would be “safer for workers than the alternative method of manually lifting patients.”

The department has said that teenagers would have to receive 75 hours of training and at least 16 hours of supervision by a nurse in the proposed rule.

But in their August letter, Democratic lawmakers said they want scientific reviews from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“While we believe in expanding job opportunities for young workers, I am sure you would agree that this should not be done at the expense of their health, safety, and lives,” Democratic members of Congress wrote.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Today’s Bad Idea: Merge Labor and Education Departments

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.

While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”

Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change.  In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.

In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.

We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.

Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”

While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.”  And of course, draining the swamp:

“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.

Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.

And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education,  training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.

Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”

The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:

This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.

So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions.  Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.)  Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”

This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission. 

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).

Is Acosta Being Kicked Upstairs?

Monday, May 7th, 2018

If you read last Monday’s Punching In by Bloomberg Law crack reporters Benn Penn and Chris Opfer, you know that there are some management attorneys who are less than enamored of Alex Acosta’s less-than-stellar deregulatory accomplishments and wish President Trump would kick him upstairs to a judgeship, which (rumor has it) is where the 49 year old former federal prosecutor would like to end up eventually.

After all, 15 months after Trump’s inauguration and one year after Acosta was sworn in, construction workers are still breathing air free from cancer causing silica dust, thanks to the efforts of the dreaded Obama administration.  Never mind that the court unanimously rejected the industry’s attempt to overturn the rule (which Acosta’s Labor Department vigorously and successfully defended.)

But hope springs eternal. The general industry Silica standard has not yet taken effect, so the Administration could theoretically still succeed in giving foundry workers the right to get cancer at work.

Taking Acosta’s place in these corporate fever dreams would be the newly appointed and allegedly less cautious Deputy Secretary of Labor Pat Pizzella. It seems that for some people there aren’t enough Trump Cabinet agencies embroiled in scandal and the Jack Abramoff-tainted Pizzella would undoubtedly be a much better fit with the rest of Trump’s ethically challenged cabinet members than the boring, straight-laced, and (so-far) ethically untainted Acosta.

Presumably, the climax of these management attorneys’ fantasies would be the appointment of a Scott Pruitt type to head the Labor Department — without the daily scandals of course.  But this raises some issues.

First, as former OMB analyst (and current Rutgers professor) Stuart Shapiro wrote last week, Pruitt’s deregulatory “accomplishments” have been more rhetoric and failure than actual accomplishment.

The reality is that he’s made less headway than advertised. To date, Pruitt’s EPA has been taken to court repeatedly over efforts to delay or repeal regulations finalized near the end of the Obama administration. His record in court on these issues is not good. The courts have struck down six attempts to delay or roll back regulations on pesticides, lead paint and renewable-fuel requirements, The New York Times reported.

The main reason for Pruitt’s failures is that he is no better at complying with regulatory rules than his is with ethics rules.

Repealing a regulation is hard. In fact it is just as hard as enacting one. In his haste to dismantle President Obama’s environmental legacy, Pruitt has skirted the procedural requirements necessary to defend his actions in court.  Those procedures are not easy to follow, but failure to follow them means near-certain defeat in the courts. The best way to make sure that the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed is to rely on the experts, the civil servants within EPA.

And EPA’s civil servants are fleeing. (See “Rats,” “Sinking Ship.”)

Acosta, to his credit, seems to understand that problem, aside from the momentary lapse when he neglected to include the economic analysis of his tipping rule. But with the help of Congress, everyone pretty much kissed and made up over that too.

Yes, in theory, Acosta could ride into the sunset to be replaced with a Scott Pruitt/Andy Puzder Frankenstein’s monster at DOL who would try to rape and pillage worker protections without passing go — and without complying with the Administrative Procedures Act, the OSH Act or the many other laws that lay out rulemaking procedures based on the tiresome requirements of evidence, science and public input.

But as we’ve seen in this administration, undermining an agency’s mission and cutting corners on administrative procedures tends to go hand-in-hand with cutting corners on ethics — as well as the law.  Not a very good combination if your goal is to actually get something accomplished.

Alex Acosta may not my my ideal Labor Secretary by a long shot — and he will certainly never live down his infamous naming of Ronald Reagan to the Labor Hall of Honor (a deed that will be as hard to live down as Mitt Romney heading out on the family vacation with his dog strapped to the top of this car,) but he’s about the best we could expect in a Trump administration that sports such Cabinet luminaries as Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, Ryan Zinke, Steve Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos.

After all, he actually defended his failure to slash the budgets of DOL’s enforcement agencies before Congress by making the shockingly un-Republican argument that “Those are priorities. These laws matter. They’ve been passed by Congress. They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced.”

Which is probably why this cabal of one-martini-over-the-line corporate attorneys would like to show him the door.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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).

Labor Department tells senators it’s too ‘complex’ to collect sexual harassment data

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

The Labor Department told Democratic senators that it can’t collect data on sexual harassment in the workplace because it would be “complex and costly.” On Monday, Democratic senators dismissed that justification.

In January, 22 Democratic senators sent a letter to labor department officials requesting the department act on studying sexual harassment. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) signed the letter and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and others co-signed the letter, according toBuzzFeed.

Referring to the #MeToo movement, the letter noted that “there has not been an exact accounting of the extent of this discrimination and the magnitude of its economic costs on the labor force. We therefore request your agencies work to collect this data.”

CNN was the first to obtain the Labor Department’s response, which was addressed to Gillibrand. The department’s letter read, “There are a number of steps involved in any new data collection, including consultation with experts, cognitive testing, data collection training, and test collection. Once test collection is successful, there is an extensive clearance process before data collection can begin.”

The department went on to say that employers would have difficulty providing the information they’re requesting and that requesting additional information for the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey “may have detrimental effects on survey response.”

The letter mentions “alternative sources of information on sexual harassment,” such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, but senators sent a letter in response that essentially balked at that recommendation.

“…the Department is surely aware that not all sexual harassment rises to the level of a violent criminal act and therefore would not be captured by this survey,” the letter read.

Senators called the justifications for declining to work on the issue “wholly inadequate” and wrote that since they “hope that the Department would always consider rigorous methods inherent in data collection,” the department’s mention of its complexity should not justify the decision to not study sexual harassment. Senators also mentioned that the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board did this type of data collection and analysis in the ’80s and that “Surely the government’s capacity to collect this data has only become more sophisticated over the past several decades.”

Senators from both parties asked the labor secretary to take some kind of action on sexual harassment at an April Senate panel on the budget. According to Bloomberg, at the time, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta “expressed willingness to act.”

Many researchers have looked at the economic cost to harassed women themselves. Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, has studied the career effects of sexual harassment and found that a lot of the women who quit jobs because of sexual harassment changed careers and chose fields where they expected less harassment. But that meant that some of those fields were female-dominated, and many female-dominated fields pay less. Some women were more interested in working by themselves after the harassment.

” … but certainly they’re being shuffled into fields that are associated with lower pay because of the harassment,” McLaughlin told Marketplace.

People who have been harassed also experience effects on their physical and mental health, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of sexual harassment can also experience headaches, muscle aches, and high blood pressure.

Fifty-four percent of U.S. women said they received inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances from men, with 23 percent saying those advances came from men who had influence over their careers and 30 percent coming from male co-workers, according to a 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll.

“Right now, we don’t know how many gifted workers and innovators were unable to contribute to our country because they were forced to choose between working in a harassment-free workplace and their career,” Gillibrand wrote in her January letter to the department.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Legislation from DeLauro and Clark Would Strengthen Protections for Tipped Workers

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

As we reported in January, President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor is proposing a rule change that would mean restaurant servers and bartenders could lose a large portion of their earnings. The rule would overturn one put in place by the Barack Obama administration, which prevents workers in tipped industries from having their tips taken by their employers. Under the new rule, business owners could pay their waitstaff and bartenders as little as $7.25 per hour and keep all tips above that amount without having to tell customers what happened.

An independent analysis estimates this rule would steal $5.8 billion from the pockets of workers each year. A whopping $4.6 billion of that would come out of the pockets of working women. This is bigger than simply the well-deserved tips of restaurant workers. This is another example of extreme legislators, greedy CEOs and corporate lobbyists uniting in opposition to working people. They want to further rig the economic playing field against workers, people of color and women.

Last week, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) offered up legislation that will strengthen protections for tipped workers and secure tips as the property of the workers who earn them. Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta indicated that he will support Congress’ legislative efforts to stop companies from claiming ownership over tips instead of the workers who earn them.

Hundreds of thousands of you already have spoken out, sending comments of opposition to the rule straight to the Labor Department. It’s time for us to take the next step together. We can hold Trump’s Department of Labor accountable and make sure that Congress hears our opposition to this ridiculous and unfair change. Take action, and tell Acosta to support amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act that will secure tips as the property of workers and oppose Trump’s rule legalizing wage theft.

Trump Administration Should Rescind Proposal That Allows Bosses to Pocket Working People's Tips

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

As we previously reported, President Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced a new proposed regulation to allow restaurant owners to pocket the tips of millions of tipped workers. This would result in an estimated $5.8 billion in lost wages for workers each year?wages that they rightfully earned.

And most of that would come from women’s pockets. Nearly 70% of tipped workers are women, and a majority of them work in the restaurant industry, which suffers from some of the highest rates of sexual harassment in the entire labor market. This rule would exacerbate sexual harassment because workers will now depend on the whims of owners to get their tips back.

In a letter to Congress, the AFL-CIO opposed the rule change in the strongest possible terms, calling for the proposal to be rescinded:

Just days before the comment period for this [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] closed, an extremely disturbing report appeared indicating that analysis of the costs and benefits in fact occurred, but was discarded. On Feb. 1, 2018, Bloomberg/BNA reported that the Department of Labor “scrubbed an unfavorable internal analysis from a new tip pooling proposal, shielding the public from estimates that potentially billions of dollars in gratuities could be transferred from workers to their employer.” Assuming these reports are correct, the Department of Labor should immediately make the underlying data (and the analyses that the Department conducted) available to the public. We call on the Department of Labor to do so immediately and to withdraw the related Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The AFL-CIO strongly urges the Department to withdraw the proposed rule, and instead focus its energies on promoting policies that will improve economic security for people working in low-wage jobs and empower all working people with the resources they need to combat sexual harassment in their workplaces.

The Department of Labor must provide an estimate of its proposed rules’ economic impact. However, while suspiciously claiming that such an analysis was impossible, it turns out that this wasn’t true:

Senior department political officials—faced with a government analysis showing that workers could lose billions of dollars in tips as a result of the proposal—ordered staff to revise the data methodology to lessen the expected impact, several of the sources said. Although later calculations showed progressively reduced tip losses, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team are said to have still been uncomfortable with including the data in the proposal. The officials disagreed with assumptions in the analysis that employers would retain their employees’ gratuities, rather than redistribute the money to other hourly workers. They wound up receiving approval from the White House to publish a proposal Dec. 5 that removed the economic transfer data altogether, the sources said.

The move to drop the analysis means workers, businesses, advocacy groups and others who want to weigh in on the tip pool proposal will have to do so without seeing the government’s estimate first.

Democrats in Congress quickly responded that the rule change should be abandoned, as the new rule would authorize employers to engage in wage theft against their workers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said:

You have been a proponent of more transparency and economic analysis in the rulemaking process. But if DOL hid a key economic analysis of this proposed rule—and if [Office of Management and Budget] officials were aware of and complicit in doing so—that would raise serious questions about the integrity of the rule itself, and about your role and the role of other OMB officials in the rulemaking.

Take action today and send a letter to Congress asking it to stop Trump’s tip theft rule.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Labor Department scrubbed analysis that said its proposal would rob billions from workers

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

The Department of Labor decided to scrub an analysis from its proposal affecting tipped workers after it found workers would be robbed of billions of dollarsaccording to former and current department sources who spoke to Bloomberg Law.

In December, the Labor Department proposed a rule that rescinded portions of Obama-administration tip regulations and would allow employers who pay the minimum wage to take workers’ tips. The department said the proposed rule would allow “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, who don’t typically receive tips, to be part of a tip-sharing pool. But the rule also wouldn’t prevent employers from just keeping the tips and not redistributing them.

The department never offered any estimate to the public of the amount of tips that would be shifted from workers to employers. The work of analyzing costs and benefits to proposed rules is legally required for the rulemaking process, Economic Policy Institute noted. EPI did its own analysis and found that tipped workers would lose $5.8 billion a year in tips as a result of this rule. Women in tipped jobs would lose $4.6 billion annually.

After seeing the annual projection showing that billions of dollars would transfer from tipped workers to their employers, senior department officials told staff to revise the methodology to lessen the impact, according to Bloomberg Law. After staff changed the methodology, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were still not satisfied with the analysis, so they removed it from the proposal, with the approval of the White House.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for improvement of wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers, has opposed the proposed rule and said it would push a majority-women workforce “further into financial instability.”

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Washington Post in December that “the administration is giving a windfall to restaurant owners out of the pockets of tipped workers.”

A department spokesman told Bloomberg Law that the department would likely publish an “informed cost benefit analysis” as part of any final rule but did not answer the reporter’s question about why the department wouldn’t allow the public to react to the analysis it created. The spokesman also claimed the department is acting in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute governing the ways agencies move forward with regulations. Two purposes of the APA is to make sure there is public participation in the rulemaking process, including by allowing public commenting and make sure the public is informed of rules. The public only has until Feb. 5 to comment on the proposal without viewing the department analysis. But the public could view the Economic Policy Institute analysis created to replace the department’s shelved one.

Some senior attorneys at worker rights’ groups say that the lack of analysis could violate the APA if the department publishes the full analysis with the final rule, as the spokesman said it would, but doesn’t do so during its proposal. That would prove that the department could have created the analysis earlier but decided not to, lawyers told Bloomberg Law last week.

This wouldn’t be the first time the administration has been accused of not properly adhering to the ADA.  Many states are claiming the administration violated some part of the Administrative Procedure Act. Only a couple weeks into Trump’s presidency, Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America sought to overturn an executive order mandating that federal agencies eliminate two regulations for every regulation they create. The executive order also required that net costs of regulations on people and businesses be $0 in 2017.

The groups argued that this clearly violates a clause the APA. Judge Randolph Moss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard arguments in the lawsuit in August and said, “It’s like a shadow regulatory process on top of the regulatory process.” However, it’s not clear if the rule has been implemented in practice. Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America are still waiting on a ruling.

Economists, labor experts, and worker advocates from the National Employment Law Project, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ROC United, and the Economic Policy Institute reacted to the news with outrage.

Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former Chief Economist to Vice President Joseph Biden, said he has developed a “high outrage bar” over the past year but “this failure to disclose handily cleared that bar.”

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at Economic Policy Institute, said she believes  EPI’s analysis is pretty close to whatever the department of labor came up with in its shelved analysis.

“The basic economic logic is that it is really unlikely that back-of-the house workers would get any more pay if this rule were to be finalized … If employers do share those tips with them, it is likely it will be offset by a reduction in base pay. I don’t think take-home pay would be affected by this rule at all,” Shierholz said.

Shierholz added, “It is likely that the DOL found something in this ballpark too and it’s not surprising that there is just no way to do a good faith estimate and also maintain the fiction that this rule is not terrible for workers, so in that light you can see why it is no wonder that they tried to bury it.”

When asked whether any group planned to sue the department over its decision not to show the analysis to the public, Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said her organization sent a request to the department asking that it withdraw the rule but that she has not heard back from the department.

“We haven’t decided what further action we may take,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) released a statement demanding that the department drop the effort to propose this rule:

“This botched cover-up of evidence proving President Trump’s policies help businesses steal billions from workers shows exactly what President Trump truly cares about: helping those at the top squeeze every last penny from families trying as hard as they can to get ahead. Now that their real priorities have been exposed, President Trump should tell Secretary Acosta to abandon this effort immediately.”

This story was updated with additional quotes from economists, labor advocates, and politicians.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 1, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Here Are the 10 Worst Attacks on Workers From Trump’s First Year

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

January 20th marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Since taking office, President Trump has overseen a string of policies that will harm working people and benefit corporations and the rich. Here we present a list of the 10 worst things Congress and Trump have done to undermine pay growth and erode working conditions for the nation’s workers.

1) Enacting tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy over the average worker

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law at the end of 2017 provides a permanent cut in the corporate income tax rate that will overwhelmingly benefit capital owners and the top 1%. President Trump’s boast to wealthy diners at his $200,000-initiation-fee Mar-a-Lago Club on Dec. 22, 2017, says it best: “You all just got a lot richer.”

2) Taking billions out of workers’ pockets by weakening or abandoning regulations that protect their pay

In 2017, the Trump administration hurt workers’ pay in a number of ways, including acts to dismantle two key regulations that protect the pay of low- to middle-income workers. The Trump administration failed to defend a 2016 rule strengthening overtime protections for these workers, and took steps to gut regulations that protect servers from having their tips taken by their employers.

3) Blocking workers from access to the courts by allowing mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts

The Trump administration is fighting on the side of corporate interests who want to continue to require employees to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers. This forces workers to give up their right to file class action lawsuits, and takes them out of the courtrooms and into individual private arbitration when their rights on the job are violated.

4) Pushing immigration policies that hurt all workers

The Trump administration has taken a number of extreme actions that will hurt all workers, including detaining unauthorized immigrants who were victims of employer abuse and human trafficking, and ending Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, many of whom have resided in the United States for decades. But perhaps the most striking example has been the administration’s termination of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program.

5) Rolling back regulations that protect worker pay and safety

President Trump and congressional Republicans have blocked regulations that protect workers’ pay and safety. By blocking these rules, the president and Congress are raising the risks for workers while rewarding companies that put their employees at risk.

6) Stacking the Federal Reserve Board with candidates friendlier to Wall Street than to working families

President Trump’s actions so far—including his choice not to reappoint Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and his nomination of Randal Quarles to fill one of the vacancies—suggest that he plans to tilt the board toward the interests of Wall Street rather than those of working families.

7) Ensuring Wall Street can pocket more of workers’ retirement savings

Since Trump took office, the Department of Labor has actively worked to weaken or rescind the “fiduciary” rule, which requires financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients when giving retirement investment advice. The Trump administration’s repeated delays in enforcing this rule will cost retirement savers an estimated $18.5 billion over the next 30 years in hidden fees and lost earning potential.

8) Stacking the Supreme Court against workers by appointing Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a record of ruling against workers and siding with corporate interests. Cases involving collective bargaining, forced arbitration and class action waivers in employment disputes are already on the court’s docket this term or are likely to be considered by the court in coming years. Gorsuch may cast the deciding vote in significant cases challenging workers’ rights.

9) Trying to take affordable health care away from millions of working people

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans spent much of 2017 attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They finally succeeded in repealing a well-known provision of the ACA—the penalty for not buying health insurance—in the tax bill signed into law at the end of 2017. According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2027, the repeal of this provision will raise the number of uninsured Americans by 13 million.

10) Undercutting key worker protection agencies by nominating anti-worker leaders

Trump has appointed—or tried to appoint—individuals with records of exploiting workers to key posts in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Nominees to critical roles at DOL and the NLRB have—in word and deed—expressed hostility to the worker rights laws they are in charge of upholding.

This list is based on a new report out from the Economic Policy Institute.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

Here’s How Trump’s Labor Department Quietly Gave Bosses Even More Power Over Their Workers

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

On January 5, the Department of Labor (DOL) quietly took a step to bolster the legal power of bosses over their workers by reissuing 17 previously withdrawn opinion letters. Developed at the end of George W. Bush’s final term, the letters had been withdrawn by the Obama administration, which discontinued the practice of issuing opinion letters altogether.

Opinion letters address specific questions submitted to the DOL by either employees or employers. The party then receives an official interpretation from the DOL Wage and Hour Division (WHD) detailing how the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act is implicated in their case. That opinion can then be used as guidance in future litigation. Other employers can also rely on an opinion letter, even if they didn’t request it themselves, as long as the facts are similar.

Critics of opinion letters point out that they take a long time for the labor department to craft (the George W. Bush administration averaged just 28 a year), and they only address one company’s specific situation—despite the fact that they can be used to the advantage of other employers in future cases.

There’s another big critique of opinion letters: They make it easier for employers to fight labor violation claims in court.

“Employers love opinion letters,” Patricia Smith, former Obama administration solicitor of labor, told In These Times. “They’re viewed by many as Get-Out-of-Jail Free cards.”

This sentiment was echoed by Michael Hancock, who managed the WHD opinion process for Bush’s final term. “It’s no secret that the opinion letter process largely serves the interest of employers; it gives them a legal defense if their practices comport with what the opinion letter says, even if the Department of Labor was wrong in what the opinion states,” he told Bloomberg last March. “It offers a serious and real significant defense to employers.”

Employers typically have the resources to pay their attorneys to talk with WHD officials before they request an opinion, so they can make sure they only ask if they are going to get a favorable result. The process is further skewed toward employers if the administration they’re requesting opinion from is employer-friendly—a fact that is certainly true of the Trump administration.

The Obama administration ended the established practice of issuing opinion letters and decided to issue a small amount of informal guidance documents instead. Last June, Trump’s labor secretary Alexander Acosta announced that he was withdrawing two of the informal guidance documents, a move that was hailed by business groups, as the documents both benefited workers. One of the letters dictated that subcontractors could be held liable if they failed to comply with FLSA requirements. The other offered an interpretation of “joint employers” and required some businesses to comply with the FLSA’s overtime rules.  That same month Acosta announced that opinion letters were returning.

Lawyers who say that they received favorable opinions for employers during the George W. Bush administration explained to Bloomberg how the process worked. Christopher A. Parlo, who represents management clients, said, “In the past you could go to DOL and lay out a scenario for them and they would give you their informal view on how that situation might play out. And if you didn’t believe that the result was one that would help your client or industry, you could choose not to ask for formal opinion. I thought that was a great process.”

The 17 Bush administration opinions that are being revived refer to a variety of topics, from year-end non-discretionary bonuses to salary deductions for full-day absences. Smith told In These Times that it was hard to know exactly what kind of impact these specific opinions would have, but said she thought that the move was at least partially symbolic: a signal to employers that the pro-business policies of Bush’s labor department have officially returned. “The message is, ‘We’re back,’” she said.

National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens issued a strong statement regarding the move, calling it “another example of how this administration is siding with big business to make it harder to get paid for working overtime and to make it easier for companies to reap the benefits of young workers’ labor without paying a cent for it.”

There’s a good chance that the WHD, which issues the opinion letters, will be soon be run by Trump nominee Cheryl Stanton, who is expected to be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate early this year. Stanton served as the White House’s principal legal liaison to the Labor Department under George W. Bush and spent years defending companies in labor cases. She’s also had an unpaid wage scandal of her own: In 2016 she was sued for allegedly failing to pay her house cleaners.

For the first time in over eight years, employers will be able to ask the White House for advice when they get tied up in legal battles. It seems quite probable that the pro-business forces dominating the Trump administration will have a lot to give.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

2017 was a year of eroding workers’ rights

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

There have been a series of victories for labor rights in recent years. Graduate student workers at private colleges and universities now have the right to unionize. In New York, employers are no longer allowed to ask for an employee’s salary history — a question that often hurts women and people of color. And the Fight for 15 has scored wins in cities across the country.

But the Trump administration stands in the way of much of the progress labor activists are demanding. It may not be as noisy or ripe for attention-grabbing headlines as Betsy DeVos’ education department or Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, but Alexander Acosta’s labor department has rolled back a number of key Obama-era labor advances.

“Acosta is not a bomb-thrower,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Trump’s other less traditional choices for agency heads, Acosta had already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions and was considered a safe choice for labor department secretary.

Still, it’s clear the department is now under a Republican administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces fair labor practices, has an employer-friendly majority. The General Counsel of the NLRB is Peter Robb, a lawyer who management-focused firm Jackson Lewis wrote would “set the stage for the board to reverse many of the pro-labor rulings issued by the Obama board”. The Senate also confirmed to the NLRB William Emanuel, whose nomination was supported by corporate donors and industry groups like the National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association. Emanuel’s work previous focused on union avoidance tactics and among his former clients were Amazon, Target, Uber, and FedEx.

With these new additions, the Department of Labor has been busy dismantling protections for workers. Here are some of the biggest ways the Trump administration rolled back workers’ rights in 2017:

Less accountability for corporations like McDonald’s

One of the labor rollbacks that gained the most attention this year was the board’s decision to overturn the new joint employer standard that was supposed to make it easier for corporations to be held accountable for unfair labor practices at their franchises. Labor advocates expected the decision for some time after the department rescinded guidance that defines who a joint-employer is.

The Obama administration’s standard on joint employers went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business. McDonald’s has tried to avoid responsibility for violations like wage-theft for years. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action and released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

“Under the previous rule, you only needed to show [McDonald’s] had a theoretical amount of control. They reserve the right to control terms and conditions of work and controlled those conditions in an indirect manner like setting policies that other companies have to follow,” Hirsch explained. “The new case has said that no, you need actual direct control. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of evidence and how much proof you have, so you may well still have a case against McDonald’s but you’re going to have to show that there is more actual control.”

Reduced protections for quality investment advice

In August, the Labor Department said it would like to delay a rule that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their customers and their retirement accounts. According to a federal court filing, the department wanted to delay implementation of the rule to July 2019. The full implementation of the rule is currently set for January 2018.

There are two standards investors have to be aware of right now: the fiduciary standard and suitability standard. A financial adviser operating under what is called the “suitability standard” is only required to make sure a client’s investment is suitable for the client’s finances, age, and risk tolerance at that point in time, but they don’t have a huge legal obligation to monitor the investment for the client. Under the fiduciary standard, an adviser must keep monitoring the investment and keep the customer’s overall financial picture in mind. In addition, advisers must disclose all of their conflicts of interest, fees, and commissions under the fiduciary standard. Right now, it’s easier for advisers to push investments that will make them money but are not necessarily in clients’ best interest, said Paul Secunda, professor of law and director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School.

“That rule has been substantially cut back, though how far back we’re still waiting to see. The current admin is in a holding pattern right now and my sense is that it could be cut back fairly dramatically even further,” Secunda said.

None of these labor department actions have been good enough for the financial industry, however. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that included the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Institute, the Financial Services Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a Dec. 8 letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs said the delay of regulation shouldn’t hold up their appeal, where they argue the department does not have the authority to promulgate the rule, according to InvestmentNews.

Reduced worker safety

Experts on labor violations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told ThinkProgress they were concerned about how OSHA would respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, especially since the Trump administration has slashed worker safety rules from the Obama administration. 

Trump’s OSHA has left behind regulations on worker exposure to construction noise, combustible dust, and vehicles backing up in factories and construction sites, according to Bloomberg BNA. It also abandoned a rule that would change the way the agency decides on permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The July regulatory agenda did not list any new rule-making. The president’s 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training.

“OSHA is taking a turn we usually see during Republican administrations, which means a lot less inspections and enforcement and a lot more trying to get employers to self-regulate or voluntarily comply which has not really worked that well historically,” Secunda said. “People who participate in these voluntary participation programs are usually employers who are already in compliance and those who continue to be bad actors are not really impacted by these voluntary programs. OSHA is about to be run by corporate America, which is obviously not good for employees.”

Deciding to let go of Obama-era overtime rule

In July, the labor department moved to roll back an Obama administration rule that would have expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay by 4.2 million. The department has not appealed a U.S. District Court in Texas that gave business groups the temporary injunction they wanted.

The current threshold for overtime pay is at just $23,660 a year, and the Obama-era rule would have nearly doubled that. In 1974, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had a salary that allowed them to be eligible for overtime, but today, only 7 percent of full-time salaried workers earn a salary below this level, according toDavid Weill, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University who headed the Wage and Hour Division of the department during the Obama administration.

Referring to Acosta, Weill wrote in U.S. News, “Failure to appeal this flawed decision will leave millions working long hours with low pay and abrogate his responsibility to protect the hardworking people he and the Trump administration profess to care so much about.”

Labor department focus on ‘harmonious workplaces’

In one of the NLRB’s less discussed decisions this month, it overruled the Bush-era standard Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia. This standard went into further detail on whether facially neutral workplace rules, policies, and handbook provisions could unlawfully interfere with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. (Under Section 7, it’s unlawful for employers to interfere with employees’ organizing rights.) The NLRB provides the example of employers threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees or promising employees benefits if they stay away from organizing as unlawful activity under Section 7.

Under the 2004 standard, employers could have the violated the National Labor Relations Act by instituting workplace rules that could be “reasonably construed” to prohibit workers from accessing these rights even if the employers don’t explicitly prohibit the activities.

Hirsch said he was surprised by the decision to reverse a Bush-era decision. “To me, it seems like they’re doing more than they needed to, which makes me wonder if they’re trying to make a point.”

Hirsch added that the decision appeared to carve out certain types of rules, such as a civility code in the workplace, and say they were permissible. The decision referred to employers who wanted “harmonious workplaces” and cast any opposition to such a requirement to be impractical, but Hirsch said there needs to be a balance in NLRB decisions between clarity and flexibility.

“That can be problematic bevause they’re rules that depending on the history of what has happened in that particular workplace and it could actually be viewed as fairly chilling for those employees,” Hirsch said. “… Labor and management relations aren’t always harmonious. In fact, they are designed not to be in a  lot of ways. Sometimes harsh language is used by both sides and sometimes that is OK, or we’re willing to tolerate that as part of the collective bargaining process rather than having violent strikes, like we did before the NRLA.”

‘Micro-unions’ are out of luck

The NLRB made another business-friendly decision this month when it decided that a unionized group of 100 welders and “rework specialists” at a manufacturing company with thousands of workers was improper. This means it will be easier for employers to oppose what are referred to as “micro unions” even though it can be advantageous for workers to organize this way. The decision went against eight federal appeals court rulings, according to Reuters.

LGBTQ workers’ not protected by Title VII

There is ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ workers have rights to ensure that they are treated fairly in the workplace under Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In July, the Department of Justice undermined rights for LGBTQ people when it filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog