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What Wal-Mart and Lance Armstrong Have in Common

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Leo GerardOddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping. 

It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.

Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.

 A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:

“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.

Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.

Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

"This is Not Just a Steelworker Issue"

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
berry craigShowing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
The link to the petition is http://wh.gov/Reqy.
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills.  “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

Labor Secretary Solis Resigns

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

BREAKING-Labor-Secretary-Solis-Resigns_blogpostimageU.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis resigned today.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Solis “brought urgently needed change to the Department of Labor, putting the U.S. government firmly on the side of working families.”

Under Secretary Solis, the Labor Department became a place of safety and support for workers. Secretary Solis’s Department of Labor talks tough and acts tough on enforcement, workplace safety, wage and hour violations and so many other vital services. Secretary Solis never lost sight of her own working-class roots, and she always put the values of working families at the center of everything she did. We hope that her successor will continue to be a powerful voice both within the Obama administration and across the country for all of America’s workers.

In a statement, Solis said:

This afternoon, I submitted my resignation to President Obama. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader.

Because President Obama took very bold action, millions of Americans are back to work.  There is still much to do, but we are well on the road to recovery, and middle class Americans know the president is on their side.

Together we have achieved extraordinary things and I am so proud of our work on behalf of the nation’s working families.

This post was originally posted by AFL-CIO NOW on January 9, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Donna Jablonski is the AFL-CIO’s deputy director of public affairs for publications, Web and broadcast. Prior to joining the AFL-CIO in 1997, she served as publications director at the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund for 12 years. She began my career as a newspaper reporter in Southwest Florida, and since have written, edited and managed production of advocacy materials— including newsletters, books, brochures, booklets, fliers, calendars, websites, posters and direct response mail and e-mail—to support economic and social justice campaigns. In June 2001, she received a B.A. in Labor Studies from the National Labor College.

Why Picket Lines Matter

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Vega.   I spent so much time on picket lines as a kid that when I thought my dad’s rules were too strict, I would run to build a sign on a stick and try to talk the neighbor kids into marching around the house with me. I learned early on the power of a picket to protest unfair treatment.

That right is more important today than ever. As our economy has shifted toward a more contingent workforce, companies are increasingly hiring workers as part-time or temporary, or labeling them as independent contractors. This leaves workers more vulnerable to abuse while also shielding companies from accountability. When warehouse workers unpacking Walmart goods in a Walmart-owned warehouse were cheated out of their wages, the retail giant responded that those workers were hired through a temporary agency and are not the company’s responsibility.

These kinds of working conditions make it all the more important that workers be able to share their stories with the public. Consumers have the right to know about the kinds of labor practices they are supporting when they shop at a particular store. In this economy, where workers have so little bargaining power, the ability to picket an employer to expose unfair conditions is more important than ever.

That’s what makes the recent California Supreme Court decision in Ralphs Grocery Co. v. UFCW Local 8 so important. The court upheld two provisions of California law that protect the right of workers to picket. The Moscone Act protects peaceful picketing and communicating about the facts of a labor dispute on “any public street or any place where any person or persons may lawfully be.” Labor Code Section 1138.1 restricts injunctive relief to stop picketing unless a company can show substantial and irreparable injury, the commission of unlawful acts and several other factors. Ralphs sought to invalidate those state statutes, which would have silenced California workers from such peaceful protest.

In upholding California law, the court maintained a critical protection for working people. What is at stake here is far more than where in a shopping center picketers are allowed to stand. The picket line was—and still is—an essential tool in building the American middle class. Workers standing together, making their case in the court of public opinion, helped bring about the eight-hour day, the weekend, prevailing wage, anti-discrimination laws and so many other protections. It also helped working people win wages and benefits that allowed them to buy homes, send their children to college and give back to their community through taxes, service and time.

In essence, the picket sign has enabled generations of working people to achieve the American Dream. Given the economy we face today, it’s time for the next generation to start making signs and marching to demand those same opportunities.

Why Picket Lines Matter,” by Caitlin Vega, originally appeared on the California Labor Federation’s blog Labor’s Edge. You can also view it on AFL-CIO NOW, posted on January 7, 2013.

New Agreement Means $2.2M in Back Pay, New Work for Florida IATSE Members

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Stagehands in West Palm Beach, Fla., will secure regular work and share some $2.2 million in back pay after Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 500 and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Artsreached agreement on a five-year contract that settles charges in a dispute that began in 2001.

The agreement was reached in late December and approved today by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  

The new agreement followed a strike last month that forced the cancellation of four performances of the touring musical “Jersey Boys.” Actors’ Equity (AEA) and other unions representing workers in the touring companyrespected IATSE picket lines. When the Palm Beach Post asked Local 500 business manager Terry McKenzie how the agreement was reached, the paper wrote:

McKenzie deadpanned, ‘Well, a strike had something to do with it.’

In 2000, the theater fired several IATSE members and withdrew recognition of the union after declaring an impasse had been reached in negotiations. In 2001, attorneys for the regional director of the NLRB concluded that Kravis had committed “massive and continuous violations” of federal labor law when it unilaterally withdrew recognition of the union, refused to negotiate, discharged union-represented department heads and other major violations.

Kravis appealed the decision to the Bush–era full NLRB, which took five years before the board ruled that the center violated the law when it ejected the union and fired union workers. But the center appealed to a federal appeals court, which upheld the NLRB ruling.

In 2009, the Kravis Center, under court order, returned to the bargaining table, but in 2011 and 2012 committed further labor law violations, according to charges filed by IATSE.  

The new agreement withdraws all pending charges and the NLRB says Kravis also recognizes the union as the bargaining agent for stagehands working on Kravis productions and agrees to obtain workers through the Local 500 hiring hall. The contract also reinstates three department heads whose positions had been eliminated. Said McKenzie in a statement:

The union looks forward to building a positive relationship that contributes to the success of the Kravis Center and gainful employment for the people we represent.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 4, 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 has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse.

Workplace Advice: My Fair Share

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

DavidMy Fair Share is a cross-post from Working America’s Dear David workplace advice column. David knows you deserve to be treated fairly on the job and he’s available to answer your questions, whether it is co-workers making off-handed comments that you should retire or you feel like your job’s long hours are causing stress.


What can you do about not being paid a fair wage for the work you do? I make a lot of money for the company I work for feeding a robot up to 4,000 packages per hour. How do I get some of the money I make for the company through high production paid to me?

—Marty, Indiana


“We make it, they take it.” If the last 40 years have anything to teach us, it’s that if we leave it up to them, too many bosses don’t feel like they need to share fairly—if they even share at all. Check this out. It used to be that as worker productivity increased, so did a worker’s wages. But sometime in the 1970s that stopped being the case. Today, even as most workers are struggling in a stagnant economy, big banks and corporations are posting record profits. If you’re feeling squeezed, it’s not your fault.

 As long as you’re being paid at least the minimum wage, there’s no legal requirement that a wage be “fair.” So who should get to decide what’s “fair”? You already know what can happen when the boss gets to be the decider—so the key is not to leave it only to your boss! And to act collectively.

It starts by you getting together with at least one other person at your workplace who feels the same way you do. Do this first—there are certain legal protections that kick in for you once this has happened. Meet up someplace outside of work, and compare notes. Who else can you talk to who would stand with you? Make a list, get folks together again and ask others what improvements they’d like to see at their workplace. This has been said before, but these are all important first steps. Together you may decide that you are ready to take something up with your boss right away. Or you could decide that you will be more successful negotiating if you first form a union. This process might take some time, and it’s worth it to move cautiously. Whatever you decide—you are stronger acting as a group than if you act alone. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 30, 2012. Reprinted with Permission. 

About the Author: David at Working America focuses on answering submitted questions about workplace fairness and workplace rights around the country. Working America is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and is the fastest-growing organization for working people in the country. At 3 million strong and growing, Working America uses their strength in numbers to educate each other, mobilize and win real victories to improve working people’s lives.

A Post-Brinker Victory for Employees: Bradley v. Networkers International, LLC

Friday, December 21st, 2012
In the aftermath of the California Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court(2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004 (Brinker), employers and non-exempt employees are still hashing out the implications of the clarified meal and rest period requirements.  In April, Bryan Schwartz Law discussed the implications of that case on this blog, which can be found here: California Supreme Court’s Long-Awaited Brinker Decision.


Last week, in Bradley v. Networkers International, LLC (December 12, 2012)  —Cal. Rptr.3d —, 2012 WL 6182473, the California Court of Appeal in San Diego addressed a common problem in meal and rest period cases: where an employer has no compliant meal and rest period policies that are distributed to employees. This case makes clear that a lack of a meal or rest period policy can provide sufficient commonality for class certification, which is a significant victory for plaintiffs.


While the Brinker case was pending, a number of cases appealed to the Supreme Court were granted review and held, pending the decision in Brinker.  Among the cases relegated to judicial limbo was Bradley v. Networkers International, Inc. (Feb. 5, 2009, D052365). In Bradley, three plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against Networkers International, LLC, alleging violations of California’s wage and hour laws including nonpayment of overtime and failure to provide rest breaks and meal periods. The plaintiffs moved to certify the class, which requires that they “demonstrate the existence of an ascertainable and sufficiently numerous class, a well-defined community of interest, and substantial benefits from certification that render proceeding as a class superior to the alternatives.” Brinker, 53 Cal.4th at 1021. The court determined that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that common factual and legal questions would predominate over the individual issues and denied class certification. The plaintiffs appealed, but the decision was upheld by the California Court of Appeal. 

Plaintiffs appealed to the California Supreme Court, which granted petition for review but held the case for over three years until Brinker was resolved. After issuing their decision in Brinker, the California Supreme Court remanded Bradleyto the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, with directions to vacate its decision on class certification and reconsider the case in light of the Brinker decision.

Before getting to the recent decision from the Fourth Appellate District, a little background is useful. A common fight between employers and employees arises when an employer classifies its employees as “independent contractors,” as opposed to employees. True independent contractors have control over the terms and conditions of their employment and are not subject to California wage and hour protections including overtime and meal and rest periods. Employees, on the other hand, remain under their employer’s control during their working hours and are protected by California’s wage and hour laws. The employee versus independent contractor issue has been a battleground for years in the employment law arena and California courts have developed numerous criteria to assess whether an individual is truly an independent contractor or an employee.

In the recent Bradley case, the three plaintiffs alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors, and should instead have been treated as employees. All three of the plaintiffs worked for Networkers. Each of the plaintiffs was required to sign an “independent contractor agreement,” which stated that each was an independent contractor rather than an employee. As such, plaintiffs did not receive overtime pay or meal or rest periods. However, contrary to the terms of the agreement, the plaintiffs alleged that they were treated as employees and were subject to the same employment policies.

Networkers argued that plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class should be denied because the case did not involve common questions of fact or law, and therefore, resolution of the case would require mini-trials for each plaintiff. Although the court agreed with Networkers on the first go-around, after the Brinker decision, the court agreed with plaintiffs on all but one cause of action. 

The Court of Appeal’s Decision on Remand

Because Networkers applied consistent companywide policies applicable to all employees regarding scheduling, payments, and work requirements, those policies could be analyzed on a class-wide basis. The court would not need to assess them with respect to each potential class member. In analyzing whether class certification was appropriate the court noted that, “[t]he critical fact is that the evidence likely to be relied upon by the parties would be largely uniform throughout the class.” The court held that the factual and legal issues related to the independent contractor issue would be the same among the plaintiff class members, and therefore appropriate for class treatment.
Moreover, in Bradley, as in many workplaces, the employer did not have a policy actually distributed to employees that provides for meal and rest periods. Networkers argued that Brinker was not controlling, in its guidance about meal and rest requirements, because in Brinker the plaintiffs challenged an express meal and rest break policy whereas in Bradley, the plaintiffs were arguing that the employer’s lack of policy violated the law. The Court rejected this argument, holding: “This is not a material distinction on the record before us. Under Brinker, and under the facts here, the employer engaged in uniform companywide conduct that allegedly violated state law.” Bradley, 2012 WL 6182473 *13. The Court noted that plaintiffs had presented evidence on Networkers’ uniform practice and that Networkers acknowledged that it did not have a policy and did not know if employees took meal or rest breaks. In assessing the lack of evidence presented by Networkers and relying on Brinker, the Bradley Court held: “Here, plaintiffs’ theory of recovery is based on Networkers’ (uniform)  lack of a rest and meal break policy and its (uniform) failure to authorize employees to take statutorily required rest and meal breaks. The lack of a meal/rest break policy and the uniform failure to authorize such breaks are matters of common proof.” Bradley, 2012 WL 6182473 *13.

The Bradley decision disposes of a significant hurdle in wage and hour cases by holding that this type of scheme – where no policy is distributed to provide for meal and rest periods- can meet the commonality requirement for class certification. For example, Bryan Schwartz Law is currently representing a group of restaurant workers who were not aware of a meal/rest period policy, and who were not provided with meal or rest periods. In the Bryan Schwartz Law case, there was no policy that provided the workers with coverage to enable them to take their breaks. Under Bradley, certification is appropriate to test, class-wide, whether the employer’s lack of a well-defined policy or practice of providing meal/rest periods violated the Labor Code. 

Although several meal and rest period cases have been decided adversely to workers post-Brinker, the Bradley court determined that each of those cases was distinguishable.  In distinguishing Lamps Plus Overtime Cases (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 35, the Bradley Court of Appeal noted that it was undisputed that the Lamps Plus employer’s written meal and rest period policy was consistent with state law requirements and that the violations differed at each store and with respect to each employee. Similarly, the Bradley court held that Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1487 was distinguishable because the only evidence of a company-wide policy or practice was Chipotle’s evidence that it provided meal and rest breaks as required by law. Likewise, Bradley distinguished Tien v. Tenet Healthcare Corp. (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1077, noting that in that case there was “overwhelming” evidence that meal periods were made available and the employer’s liability with respect to each employee depended on issues specific to each employee. Brookler v. Radioshack Corp. is an undecided case that was remanded after Brinker involving wage and hour class certification, which may provide additional clarification on these issues.

The court also rejected Networkers’ argument that because each plaintiff would be owed a different amount of damages, the case should not be certified. Relying, in part, on the concurring opinion in Brinker, the court held that even where plaintiffs are required to individually prove damages, individualized damages inquiries do not bar class certification. The court also reversed its prior decision and determined that class certification on the issue of overtime was appropriate because, assuming the plaintiffs were employees, proof of damages could be determined from the common proof of the pay records.

Although the court decided to remand the off-the-clock work issue, it did so because the factual record did not show that there was a uniform policy requiring each employee to work off the clock.

About the Author: Bryan Schwartz is a practicing attorney. If you believe you have been mis-classified as an independent contractor, have meal and rest period claims, or have questions about other wage and hour violations, contact Bryan Schwartz Law (www.BryanSchwartzLaw.com). Nothing in the foregoing commentary is intended to provide legal advice in a specific case or to form an attorney-client relationship with any reader. You must have a representation agreement with Bryan Schwartz Law to be a client of this firm or author.

Low-Wage Workers Hit Hardest by Workplace Injuries, Illnesses

Monday, December 17th, 2012

It’s a double whammy for low-wage workers when they get hurt or fall ill on the job.

First, they lose pay because the vast majority (more than 80%) of low-wage workers do not have any paid sick leave to take time off to recover. Second, not only does the pay check shrink, but because of inadequate workers’ compensation laws, they must shoulder a bigger portion of their health care costs with those smaller paychecks. That means workers and their communities must bear a larger share of the $39 billion (in 2010) that workplace injuries and illnesses cost the nation.  

A new policy brief, “Mom’s Off Work ’Cause She Got Hurt: The Economic Impact of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in the U.S.’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce,” examines the growing problem.  

Using information from a study, by University of California, Davis, economist J. Paul Leigh, on the number and cost of injuries and illnesses among low-wage workers, Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), and SPHHS researcher Liz Borkowski explore how workplace injuries and illnesses impact the lives of low-wage workers. Says Monforton:

Workers earning the lowest wages are the least likely to have paid sick leave, so missing work to recuperate from a work-related injury or illness often means smaller paychecks. For the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, a few missed shifts can leave families struggling to pay rent and buy groceries.

Leigh’s study classifies about 31 million people—22% of the U.S. workforce—in 65 occupations for which the median wage is below $11.19 per hour as low-wage workers. The janitors, housecleaners, restaurant workers and others earning that wage full-time will bring home just $22,350 per year—an amount that means a family of four must subsist at the poverty line

In 2010, 596 low-wage workers suffered fatal on-the-job injuries and 12,415 died from occupational ailments, including certain kinds of cancer. Another 1.6 million suffered from non-fatal injuries, and 87,857 developed non-fatal occupational health problems such as asthma. The costs of the 1.73 million injuries and illness amounted to $15 billion for medical care and another $24 billion for lost productivity—the cost when injured or sick workers cannot perform their jobs or daily household duties.

But as Monforton and Borkowski point out, workers’ compensation insurance either does not apply or fails to cover many of these costs, which can bankrupt families living on the margin. In some cases, employers do not have to offer this kind of insurance to employees.

And even workers who do have the coverage often get an unexpected surprise after an on-the-job injury or illness: Insurers generally do not have to provide wage replacement until the worker has lost between three and seven consecutive shifts. And workers at the low end of the wage scale are often discouraged from reporting on-the-job injuries as work-related—which leaves them with no insurance benefits at all.

According to Leigh, insurers cover less than one-fourth of the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses. The rest falls on workers’ families, non-workers’ compensation health insurers and taxpayer-funded programs like Medicaid.

When low-wage workers miss even a few days of pay while recovering from an occupational injury or illness, the effects spread quickly,” says Borkowski.

They will usually have to cut back on their spending right away, which affects the local economy. And families with children might skip meals or cut back on the heat, money-saving tactics that can put vulnerable family members such as children at risk of developmental delays and poor performance in school.

The authors call on policymakers to address this public health problem more forcefully by improving workplace safety and strengthening the safety net to reduce the negative impacts caused by the injuries and illnesses that still occur. Says Monforton:

On average, more than 4,000 workers are injured on the job each day. If we make workplaces safer, we not only stop losing billions of dollars each year, but we also could reduce the pain and suffering and financial impact on thousands of low-wage, hard-working Americans and their families.

The reports are posted here: http://defendingscience.org/low-wage-workers.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 14, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is is a 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 has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was “still blue,” he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse.

The Bangladeshi Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

When I first read about the horrendous fire in Bangladesh, I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 — more than 100 years ago. In many ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, some things have changed.


A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney,  and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told the Associated Press.

Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze…

The factory didn’t have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.

100 years ago:

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

Nothing has changed in 100 years — workers’ lives are thought of as expendable, corners are cut in the name of profit, whether the name is Triangle Waist Company or Wal-Mart.

What did change a bit in the wake of the 1911 fire was a renewed drive to unionize and strengthen health and safety laws. Out of the tragedy, workers mobilized.

Whether that will happen in Bangladesh is to be seen. It would be a great testament to those who died is, out of the ashes of the fire, workers organized to stop the survivors and others from being future victims of the greed of Wal-Mart and its global corporate ilk.

This post was originally posted on Working Life on December 7, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors. He has also written four books, including the Audacity of Greed.

The Price of Cheap: Slave Labor, No Jobs

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Cheap. Low prices. Bargains. It’s the American way of recent decades–a promise we’ve been given by everyone from politicians to corporate marketing campaigns. And most people find it hard to see the devastating cost to us as a society. But, sometimes things happen at once that can give a very clear picture, if you look. For your consideration.

First, a now well-known episode:

While Twinkies have a reputation for an unlimited shelf life, the company that makes the junk food may not.Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of cream-filled pastries like Twinkies and Ho Hos, said on Friday that it planned to wind down its operations. The decision comes a week after one of the company’s biggest unions went on strike to protest a labor contract.

Richard Trumka has it exactly right:

“What’s happening with Hostess Brands is a microcosm of what’s wrong with America, as Bain-style Wall Street vultures make themselves rich by making America poor,” Trumka said in a public statement. “Crony capitalism and consistently poor management drove Hostess into the ground, but its workers are paying the price.”…“These workers, who consistently make great products Americans love and have offered multiple concessions, want their company to succeed,” Trumka said in the statement. “They have bravely taken a stand against the corporate race-to-the-bottom. And now they and their communities are suffering the tragedy of a needless layoff. This is wrong. It has to stop. It’s wrecking America.”

Second, some of those cheap goods people snap up at Ikea were made by slave labor:

Ikea has long been famous for its inexpensive, some-assembly-required furniture. On Friday the company admitted that political prisoners in the former East Germany provided some of the labor that helped it keep its prices so low.A report by auditors at Ernst & Young concluded that Ikea, a Swedish company, knowingly benefited from forced labor in the former East Germany to manufacture some of its products in the 1980s. Ikea had commissioned the report in May as a result of accusations that both political and criminal prisoners were involved in making components of Ikea furniture and that some Ikea employees knew about it.

And, lastly, Black Friday is approaching–and Wal-Mart workers are asking for people to assist in their fight back against the Beast of Bentonville, the paragon of low-cost.

So, the lesson:

If we pull all those strands together–the destruction of the lives of thousands of workers who made Twinkies; the sweat that brought people the couch or bed they picked up in their car at Ikea; and the hard times hundreds of thousands of people have to endure to eke out a tiny paycheck from Wal-Mart–it tells the tale of America.

Cheap means the end of the middle-class, not to mention the mythical American Dream because cheap means minimum wage jobs, no health care, no pensions.

Low-cost means paychecks that don’t make it possible for a worker to get through the end of the month without seeing her or his financial debt grow larger.

Bargains are only beneficial to the fat-cat CEOs who pocket obscene paychecks because hidden behind that “bargain” price is an endless cycle of poverty and despair: to give millions of people “bargains”, CEOs manufacture products in low-wage countries or low-wage factories, and, the, they pay–or fire, in the case of Twinkies–workers every declining wages…and, then, those same workers don’t have enough money to buy much–so they are forced to, then, shop at the very low-wage stores–Wal-Mart being the prime example–that are the engine for the destructive cycle.

Just something to think about everytime we are assaulted by a TV ad, or coupon or billboard promising a bargain.

It isn’t more than a bargain with the devil of the bankrupt so-called free market.

This article was originally posted on Working Life on November 16, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is is a strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor, and economy. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.

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