Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘Workplace Conditions’ Category

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

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass the Wage Act Now

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Shauna BarnaskasFor many American workers, union and non-union alike, work ethic and attendance will only get them so far in the workplace. They may still face many adverse working conditions including but not limited to lack of safety, pay, and benefits. Furthermore, bargaining power of America’s workers is far weaker than it used to be. Most employees lack the chance to have a real voice in the workplace and negotiate with their employer over issues that drive workplace morale. In fact, collective bargaining is at a critically low and is currently lower in the United States than every other industrialized nation.

In effect of decline in collective bargaining and unionization, income inequality is on the rise. Rebuilding our collective bargaining system and putting power back into the hands of the workers and not just the companies and managers is significant, and necessary, for reestablishing wage growth and bringing positive changes to the workplace.

Having no recourse at work, workers depend on current labor laws to protect their workplace rights. Although the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is in place to protect the right of private sector workers, union and non-union, to engage in collective bargaining to improve workplace conditions, the reality of the NLRA is that it was enacted 80 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, and has failed to update to account for current workplace trends. Unlike other labor and employment laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the entity charged with enforcing the NLRA, has a toothless enforcement mechanism that does not adequately protect workers rights, or deter employers from breaking the laws; it does not impose any real penalties financial or otherwise. In result, employers view breaking the law as nothing less than a smart business decision where they may receive a small slap on the wrist, or they may even receive no punishment at all.

In line with the current trend towards collective action from fast-food workers to Wal-Mart employees, Congress has introduced legislation to properly aid and protect workers in collective bargaining. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, an act designed to strengthen protections for workers who collectively organize, and ensure that employers violating workers’ rights face actual consequences. The WAGE Act would amend the NLRA to provide it with a backbone for enforcement, and would essentially give a voice to union and non-union workers alike to provide them a path to action against those who illegally retaliate against the employees who are taking collective action.

The WAGE Act has many features, but its biggest aspects that will protect workers include adding a meaningful back pay remedy for workers illegally fired, including penalties for employers and a preliminary reinstatement; it implements triple back pay awards for workers who were illegally retaliated against regardless of that workers’ immigration status; and finally it would provide workers with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys fees. Now, when employees complain about workplace conditions or benefits, its employer will think twice about the potential costs of illegally firing that employee under the WAGE Act penalties.

The WAGE Act would discourage employer retaliation through and promote prompt remedies through:

  • Providing a temporary reinstatement for workers who are fired or retaliated against when exercising rights to join together and seek workplace improvements. This would direct the NLRB to go to court to seek a preliminary injunction that would immediately return fired workers to their jobs so long as there is no reasonable cause to believe the worker was wrongly fired.
  • Strengthening the remedies for workers who are fired or retaliated against, providing the workers with the ability to bring cases directly to court for monetary damages and attorneys fees. In addition, the WAGE Act would triple the back pay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against by employers regardless of immigration status.
  • Establishing robust penalties against employers who violate workers’ rights and commit unfair labor practices by implementing a $50,000 fine for illegal retaliation and doubling that amount for repeat violations.
  • Streamlining the NLRB process and implementing a 30 day maximum time limit for employers wishing to challenge an NLRB decision. After that time is expired, the NLRB decision is final and binding.
  • Improving workers knowledge of their rights through requiring employers to inform workers of their rights by posting notice and informing employees at time of hire.

This legislation is designed to help all workers, but it will necessarily give power back to low-wage workers trying to make a good living, immigrants afraid of complaining due to lack of rights, and all workers trying to collectively engage. For years, employers have taken advantage of the weak workplace protection laws, and the WAGE Act seeks to put the power back in the hands of the employee, allowing them to seek remedies for unfair labor practices without making them jumping through so many hoops.

The purpose of the WAGE Act is to help employees through protections against employers. “Too often as workers are underpaid, overworked, and treated unfairly on the job, some companies are doing everything they can to prevent them from having a voice in the workplace. The WAGE Act would strengthen protections for all workers and it would finally crack down on employers who break the law when workers exercise their basic right to collective action,” said Senator Patty Murray. Currently, the WAGE Act has gained momentum and support from presidential-hopeful, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters) Union, and many other organizations and unions. With more organizations supporting this bill, and more attention to inform individuals about this legislation, the WAGE Act could potentially pass to get workers what they not just deserve, but need.

While some may argue this bill is just more pro-union propaganda, the simple fact driving this bill is that it is pro-worker. It helps all workers regardless of union affiliation and allows the employees to more easily get back-pay and reinstatement. Without workers, essential functions in society cannot happen; this bill is necessary to providing workers with the power they need to protect their own rights. Employers have notoriously taken advantage of weak worker protection laws to slow down or stop working people from joining together to improve their lives. The WAGE Act is a necessary first step toward overdue labor law reform to promote collective action and put power back in the hands of the employees. Pass the WAGE Act now.

To learn about unions, the WAGE Act, or your workplace rights generally, please visit Workplace Fairness today.

About the Author: Shauna Barnaskas is an associate with Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A., located in Baltimore, Maryland, where she concentrates her practice in the representation of ERISA plans. Shauna was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa to a union family, and has been actively involved in the labor movement her whole life. Mrs. Barnaskas earned her Juris Doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014, where she served as the Articles Editor for the Labor and Employment Law Forum. Prior to joining Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A. Shauna served as a law clerk for the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee where she was a contributing author of the committee staff report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success.”  Additionally, Mrs. Barnaskas was selected for the Peggy Browning Fellowship program where she worked for the American Federation of Teachers.

The Hellish Conditions Facing Workers At Chicken Processing Plants

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Bryce CovertPedro started getting worried when his hands were so swollen he needed a larger size of plastic gloves.

Pedro (which is not his real name) would arrive at the chicken processing plant for Tyson in North Carolina at 5 p.m. to clock in for the second shift. For the next three hours, he says he wouldn’t get a single break from breaking down slaughtered and defeathered chickens, cutting the shoulders and pulling out the tenders, until he was allowed to take a half-hour lunch at 8 p.m. Then it was back to the line until all of the chickens were processed, sometimes at 5 or 6 in the morning.

He says the line moved so quickly that he was processing 45-50 chickens every minute, or nearly one each second. The fast, repetitive motions soon started affecting his hands, which swelled up painfully. They got so large he had to wear 3XL sized plastic gloves. But when he was sent to the plant’s infirmary, he says the nurse simply told him to take ibuprofen and soak his hands in epsom salts and hot water. “The infirmary nurse told me it was nothing to worry about, just your body getting used to it, like when you lift weights and your muscles swell up,” he said on a call with media.

But he didn’t adjust and his hands kept getting worse. He eventually sought out medical treatment from a doctor, who told him he’d never seen injuries as bad as Pedro’s and gave him work restrictions. Yet Pedro says his supervisor ignored the doctor’s orders and put him back to work on the line. “They do not care about the safety of the person, they just care about putting the chickens out,” he said.

He’s worked lots of jobs, many of which — such as construction — were physically demanding. But nothing was quite like the job processing chickens. “Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, working at the processing plant was the worst job ever,” he said.

In a report released on Tuesday, Oxfam America is launching a new campaign to address what it says are rampant health and safety issues, as well as low pay and few benefits, that face the people who process chicken in the country’s plants. Consumer demand has been growing such that the average American who consumed about 20 pounds of chicken a year in 1950 eats 89 pounds today, and today the industry sells 8.5 billion chickens a year, earning $50 billion.

That demand has come with increased pressure on processing line speeds, which are twice as fast today as they were in 1979, with an upper level of 140 birds per minute today versus 91 back then. But the report claims that speeds can go even higher than that, given that each line is run by a supervisor with the capacity to slow it down or speed it up at any time. In interviews it conducted with current and former workers in Arkansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina, they reported averaged between 35 and 45 birds per minute, or processing more than 2,000 chickens an hour and 14,000 a day.

Workers have to hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package chickens, actions that require multiple motions on each bird. That means that the average worker has to repeat the same motion — cutting, pulling, hacking, twisting, and hanging — 20,000 times a day with force, although some reach as many as 100,000 of the same motion each shift.

This speed, coupled with repeated motions, is a recipe for injury. Workers report pain in their hands, fingers, arms, shoulders, and backs, plus swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and loss of grip. Some workers say the pain is so intense that it wakes them up at night. Sharp knives and even chicken bones lead to cuts, which can also expose workers to pathogens. The conditions can be long-lasting if not permanent.

They end up with high rates of injuries, although Oxfam warns that even the official numbers can be an undercount. They have ten times the rate of repetitive strain from microtasks than the rest of the workforce, seven times the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome, and five times the rate of musculoskeletal disorders generally. Human Rights Watch has found that poultry workers are 14 times more likely to have injuries such as “claw hand,” where their fingers get locked in a curled position, or ganglionic cysts where fluid is deposited under the skin. In a 2013 survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 86 percent of workers reported hand and wrist pain, swelling, or numbness or the inability to close their hands.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 4.32.50 PM

Credit: OXFAM

They also report being exposed to harsh chemicals, often used to clean up the blood, offal, and grease that flows from the birds. One survey found that every single worker reported being exposed to chemicals on the job, with half exposed to chlorine and 21 percent to ammonia.

“Despite industry claims that conditions are improving and injury rates are dropping, we don’t believe that they’re true,” Oliver Gottfried, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam, said on the media call.

In a statement, Tyson said, “we believe in fair compensation, a safe and healthy work environment and in providing workers with a voice.” It said it has the highest entry-level pay in many poultry communities, provides health and dental benefits, provides health and safety trainings, requires workers to report injuries and illnesses, allows them to leave the line to use the bathroom, and employs 500 health and safety professionals. Perdue said in a statement that it provides “competitive wages” above minimum wage, comprehensive benefits, and paid time off. It also pointed to its lost-time rate as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 0.17 per 100 workers compared to .8 for all industries, and its incident rate as recorded by OSHA of 2.23 compared to 4.5 for the industry. Pilgrim’s and Sanderson representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The industry also says the injury rate has steadily fallen over the last 20 years. But that data is often based on self-reported rates. Meanwhile, sending a worker to the company infirmary and instructing him to take Advil rather than to a regular doctor, as Pedro says he experienced, means a company doesn’t have to official record an injury in its log.

“Employers have been going to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for these injuries,” said Celeste Monforton, professional lecturer at George Washington University and a former legislative analyst for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Then there’s the problem of breaks. The bathroom is particularly challenging, as workers say they have to get a supervisor to find another employee to fill their spots to keep the line running while they relieve themselves. Workers report that they have to wait an hour or more to get a break. Some say that to cope, they severely cut back on drinking liquids or even wear diapers. Pedro has seen people urinate on themselves while working on the line out of fear of losing their jobs if they leave to use the bathroom.

Tyson specifically refutes this issue in its plants, saying in a statement, “we make it very clear to our production supervisors that they are to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”

All of this is undertaken for low wages. Oxfam reports that they average about $11 an hour, or between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. For every dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker sees just two cents. That kind of pay qualifies a poultry worker with two children for food stamps and free school lunches.

And they still might not see all of their promised pay. Workers report often working more than 40 hours a week — they’re required to stay at most plants until all chickens are processed — but rarely get overtime pay. There have also been investigations and lawsuits finding that plants fail to pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off all of their safety gear or for their lunch breaks. SPLC found that nearly 60 percent have to pay for some or all of their protective equipment, eating into their wages.

On top of all of that, Oxfam did not find a single worker who got paid time off for illness, vacation, or personal leave.

Yet the industry is profitable. The top four companies — Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson — control about 60 percent of the market. Tyson made $856 million in profit last year, Pilgrim’s made $711 million, and Sanderson made $249 million.

Oxfam is hoping that by drawing attention to the issue of safety, consumers will be inspired to push back. Its reforms include lower line speeds and higher staffing numbers, stronger training, more frequent breaks, and dealing with and reporting workers’ injuries. “They need to have respect for workers,” Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America’s regional director, said. It’s targeting the four largest because, he said, “They’re the ones that have the lion’s share of employees and the lion’s share of the market. They influence the market for other poultry companies.”

Pedro will miss out on any improvements, as he was fired, he says because he had been raising awareness about rights among his coworkers at the Tyson plant. He noted people used to ask him why he would put up with those conditions at work, but there are few other jobs on offer in his area.

“I’m trying to pay my bills, pay my rent, feed my family,” he said. “I have to do what I have to do to survive.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on October 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

Half of Food Workers Go to Work Sick Because Lack of Paid Sick Leave Forces Them To

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

LauraClawsonPaid sick leave isn’t just the right thing to do for people who currently face the choice of going to work sick, or going without pay. It’s a public health issue.

Fifty-one percent of food workers — who do everything from grow and process food to cook and serve it — said they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick, according to the results of a survey released Monday. An additional 38 percent said they go to work sick “sometimes.” […]But it’s not as if these sick food workers are careless. Nine out of 10 workers polled in the new survey said they feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. Yet about 45 percent said they go to work sick because they “can’t afford to lose pay.” And about 46 percent said they do it because they “don’t want to let co-workers down.”

That means that customers are exposed to those sick workers’ illnesses. And that, in turn, can be a serious issue:

“One of the most egregious examples that I describe in the book is a worker at a Fayetteville, N.C., Olive Garden [who] was forced to work with hepatitis A because [Olive Garden] doesn’t have an earned sick leave policy,” [Saru] Jayaraman says. As a result, Jayaraman says, 3,000 people had to be tested for hepatitis A at the Cumberland County, N.C., health department.

Most cases aren’t that dramatic, of course, but norovirus is often spread by food workers, and you really don’t want norovirus. Yet somehow Republican morality says that these workers in one of the lowest-paying industries should stay home to protect the rest of us while being denied basic protections themselves, and risking their ability to pay the bills and put food on the table for every day they stay home sick.

Paid sick leave is gaining momentum in the United States, with four states—Connecticut, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts—now having laws requiring it for most workers. But it will never be federal law as long as Republicans have the ability to block it.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

The Grocery Store That Competes With Walmart Prices And Is Beloved By Employees

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Bryce CovertThis week, Wegmans, a family-owned grocery store chain, announced it would open its first location in New York City.

The announcement prompted an outpouring of devotion for the company. The New York Times noted it can actually claim a “cult following.” Part of the devotion to the store is not just that it manages to have a huge selection while offering prices that can compete with Walmart, but that it does it while treating its employees well.

The perks start with pay, which for hourly store employees is a little more than $33,000 a year on average. By contrast, Walmart has admitted that more than half of its employees make less than $25,000 a year, although it recently announced a wage increase, and retail sales workers make a median $21,410 annual salary. Anonymous pay sites like Glassdoor and Payscale also show that a Wegmans cashier can expect to make more than $9 an hour, on average.

But that’s not what makes the company famous for employee satisfaction, landing it on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since the list began. It also offers generous benefits. It pays about 85 percent of the costs of health care coverage, including dental, for its full-time employees and offers insurance to part-time workers who put in 30 hours a week. It offers 401(k) plans with a salary match of up to 3 percent of an employee’s contribution.

And it has a scholarship program that awards tuition assistance to employees, which has paid out $100 million to 32,000 employees since it began in 1984. The program gives part-time employees up to $1,500 a year and full-time employees up to $2,200 a year to study at any college in any field. Starbucks’s lauded scholarship program, by contrast, used to only be for studying careers that directly prepared employees for working at Starbucks and now is only applicable for studying at Arizona State University. The share of companies offering employees college assistance has been trending downward.

Wegmans also offers more work/life balance than most retail jobs. It gives employees 11 days of paid vacation and holidays and three extra days of paid time off. It’s known for flexible scheduling, a perk that regularly tops surveys of its own workforce as the most important benefit offered. Managers have the power to craft their own schedules and work with employees’ needs, and many workers use an online system to lay out their availability around their own schedules. In retail at large, on the other hand, more than a quarter of workers report irregular and unpredictable scheduling like being made to be on call or working two shifts in one day. Nearly 40 percent of retail workers in New York City say they don’t have a set minimum of hours week to week.

These benefits aren’t just altruistic. The company generates $7.1 billion in revenue and is profitable. “When you think about employees first, the bottom line is better,” the company’s vice-president for human resources has said. The company boasts a 5 percent turnover rate among full-time employees, compared to a 27 percent rate for the industry. That comes with a cost, as it often eats up about 20 percent of a worker’s salary to replace him.

“What some companies believe is that you can’t grow and treat your people well,” says a senior vice president. “We’ve proven that you can grow and treat your people well.”

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on May 14, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

Indiana Working Families Win Dramatic Improvements In Workers' Compensation Insurance

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe Indiana State AFL-CIO fought for and won dramatic improvements in the workers’ compensation system this year. Over the next three years, several major increases in benefits and new workers’ rights will be phased in. This will mitigate the effect of workplace injuries on those hurt on the job and their families in the Hoosier State, the Indiana State AFL-CIO reports.

The first part of the new legislation will increase wage replacement benefits. Starting in July 2014, the cap (currently at $975) will be raised by 20% over the following three years to a total of $1,170 in 2016. More workers will receive a full two-thirds of their weekly wage.

The next effect of the legislation deals with increasing compensation for people permanently impaired from a work-related injury. Current law requires doctors to determine how much the injuries impair the employee and compensation is paid to the injured party based on the severity of the impairment. Starting in July 2014 and phased in until 2016, the compensation for work-related injuries will be increased 18 to 25% (based on the severity of the impairment).

Finally, the last new effect of the law will be to place a cap on the amount hospitals will be paid for their services. Hospitals will be paid 200% of the amount Medicare would pay for the same service. Injured employees will not be charged for medical services, which are paid by the employer or the employer’s insurer.

Nancy J. Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, applauded the changes as a move in the right direction via press release:

“Let’s be clear: it’s never OK when your job hurts. And we have a long way to go to make our worker’s compensation system what it should be for workers and their families when an injury does happen. However, these increases are the largest increases workers have won in decades and they begin to move us in the right direction. “

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO NOW on July 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

28-Year Inspection Gap at Deadly Texas Fertilizer Plant ‘Stunning Indictment’ of OSHA’s Underfunding

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Image: Mike HallThe West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where a fire and explosion last week claimed at least 14 lives—including 11 firefighters and EMTs—and injured more than 200, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.

In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.

While the plant reported that it was storing up to 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to state authorities—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh needed just two tons to blow up the federal building and kill 168 people—it did not report that fact to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:

Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.

While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.

There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.

In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”

What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.

BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.

While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.

Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.”

With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.

But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:

Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.

For a more detailed look at the regulatory history of the West Fertilizer plant, see this Huffington Post report by Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 23, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

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

Las Vegas Strip Action Results in 98 Arrests

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Kenneth Quinnell

Kenneth Quinnell

Nearly 100 workers were arrested Wednesday night in Las Vegas as they engaged in civil disobedience to protest the Cosmopolitan casino’s refusal to agree to a fair contract with its workers. As reported Wednesday, members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165 blocked the street on the Las Vegas Strip, leading to 98 arrests.

Workers shut down rush hour traffic for more than an hour as about 1,500 people gathered in solidarity with the Cosmopolitan casino workers. The casino is owned by Deutsche Bank. According to U.S. News and World Report, some of the gathered workers said they were concerned that the bank was delaying so they could sell the casino without the employees having a union contract.

The workers engaged in the protest were not employed by the Cosmopolitan:

Moments before her hands were bound with a zip tie, Janet Hill said she decided to get arrested to send management a message.

“They need to give workers here a contract; it affects us all,” said Hill, a porter at the Flamingo casino down the Strip.

Paulina Corona came to the protest in the brown uniform she wears as a housekeeper at the Mirage hotel-casino. She said the demonstration was important because mutual support creates strength.

“This is a union, and everybody is in it together. When there are problems at the Mirage, everyone goes there,” she said.

Corona, 58, said that as a cancer survivor she worries that management could make workers shoulder more of their health care costs.

“Every day, they try to ask for more things,” she said.

Check out the Local 226’s Facebook page for more pictures and updates.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Free Said

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Jonathana TasiniJust a quick reminder that while it is true that union organizers in many countries are fighting anti-labor laws, not everyone ends up in jail just for being a union organizer. Like Said Elhairech who has now been tossed into jail by the pathetic Moroccan legal system.

Per the ITF:

The ITF has condemned as ‘utterly unbelievable’ a totally unexpected decision by a court in Morocco to jail trade union leaders Said Elhairech and Mohamed Chamchati.

Elhairech the general secretary of the Moroccan Ports Union, part of the ITF-affiliated UMT, and chair of the ITF Arab World regional committee, was arrested in June 2012 on charges of ‘sabotage and endangering national security’. He utterly rejected the accusations and was supported throughout by the ITF, which was unequivocal in its stance that he had been wrongly targeted following his very effective work on behalf of crews stranded by the cessation of operations of the Comarit-Comanav ferry company – which he undertook at the ITF’s request. In October all charges except one minor one were dropped and his innocence proven.

Despite this he has been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment by the criminal Court of First Instance in Rabat, which charged him with participating in obstructing freedom of action according to article 288 of the Moroccan Criminal Code (criminalisation of trade union action). He will appeal.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog