Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Tuesday’s Baltimore Primary Results Mean a $15 Minimum Wage Is Likely Coming Soon

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Bruce VailBALTIMORE—Although it was nowhere on the ballot, the Fight for 15 was a winner in the municipal elections here Tuesday.

In a Democratic Party primary election that selected candidates for both a new mayor and a new majority of the city council, supporters of a city-wide minimum wage law of $15 an hour appear to have won enough offices to see it enacted. The push is underway now to get it passed this year, and almost certainly will be passed by early next year, at the latest, activists say.

Because of a large Democratic majority in the city, the spring party primary is considered tantamount to final victory in the November general election. Only an unprecedented political upheaval could prevent the candidates selected this week from taking office in January 2017.

Fight for 15 supporters are mobilizing behind a bill introduced earlier this month by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D). Clarke’s bill would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, and also eliminate the subminimum “tipped wage.”

Worker activists are pleased that the new Democratic candidate for mayor, Catherine Pugh, is committed to signing a $15 bill, says Charly Carter, executive director of the political party Maryland Working Families. The new city council will include a strong majority who have already committed to supporting the higher minimum wage, so the path to final passage seems clear, she says.

Majority support in the 15-member city council was evident even before the election this week, Carter explains. “We had somewhere between nine and 12 votes before the primary. But our goal had to be at least 12,” to override an anticipated veto by current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she says. Although Rawlings-Blake had never explicitly threatened a veto, some City Hall insiders are interpreting her lukewarm public comments about the higher minimum wage as a veiled veto threat.

With this political arithmetic, Working Families made support for $15 one of its minimum requirements for an endorsement in city council races, as did a number of labor unions active in local politics. Special importance was attached to the council races because an unusually large number of members had announced their retirements, meaning that a working majority on the council would be reformulated in the election process. Therefore it was a priority for Working Families to add support for the Fight for 15, Carter says.

Riccara Jones, a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), did candidate interviews on behalf of her union and reports that most candidates were quick to commit to $15. “Support for Fight for 15 is out there in the community, and the politicians who are listening to the community are lining up,” Jones says. SEIU endorsed seven candidates for council, and six of those were successful on election day.

“I’m optimistic we have the votes” to pass the minimum wage law, Jones adds. The union will push to pass it this year, despite reservations about Mayor Rawlings-Blake. “She’ll be gone at the end of the year, so I don’t see any reason why she would want to fight over this. Even if she wins a veto fight, then it gets passed under Mayor Pugh. … Our goal is to do it now. Baltimore can’t wait another year,” she says.

Jones’ comment partially reflects a feeling among some political activists that an opportunity for change in the wake of the Baltimore race riot one year ago is slipping away. Working Families’ Carter, for example, says that there have been a lot of press conferences and statements from public officials, but there is no sense in the streets that anything has changed. The voluntary retirement of Rawlings-Blake and the turnover at the city council seem to be admission of defeat by the city’s political leadership, but that has yet to be replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.

“A year after the uprising, nothing has been done. The terrible conditions in these neighborhoods have not changed at all,” she says.

Operating independently of Working Families, UNITE HERE Local 7 has been active in this election but on a different scale, says President Roxie Herbekian. “We are more oriented to the community level. We saw that two council districts had a high percentage of our members, and that the incumbent councilmen in those two districts are what I would call ‘do nothing’ politicians. So we supported challenger candidates and worked hard to get them elected. Of course, we wouldn’t support anyone who would oppose the $15.”

UNITE HERE was rewarded with success on Election Day, and both challengers supported by the union won. “But really, we are not about making friends with one candidate or another. We are mobilizing on a community level around our broad goals,” of improved lives for workers, she says.

A higher minimum wage fits in with those broader goals and will have a real impact in the lower-income neighborhoods of Baltimore, Herbekian predicts. UNITE HERE, along with other unions and local activists, will be pushing the city’s elected officials to move as quickly as possible.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetime.com on April 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

United Workers Win WARN Act Victory in Baltimore ESPN Zone Case

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

kari-lydersenWhen the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s touristy Inner Harbor development closed abruptly on June 16, 2010, about 150 workers lost their jobs. Most were paid low hourly wages with few benefits, barely making ends meet and relying on the busy summer tourist season to get them through the slow winter months. Because they’d only found out about the closing only a week earlier, they had little chance to find new employment for the summer.

In October 2010, United Workers, a grassroots advocacy group running a larger campaign for economic justice and human rights at Inner Harbor establishments, helped some of the laid-off workers file a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The lawsuit named the Walt Disney Company—which owned the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, as well as four other locations around the country that also closed in summer 2010—and its subsidiary Zone Enterprises of Maryland LLC, which operated the Inner Harbor location. On Jan. 3, 2013, more than two years after the lawsuit was filed, a U.S. District judge issued a ruling that United Workers see as an important victory, stressing the importance of the federal WARN Act and launching a process wherein workers will be able to collect additional pay due to them under the act.

The WARN Act requires that companies give workers at least 60 days’ notice of mass layoffs and mandates that if a company fails to give adequate notice it must pay workers 60 days’ worth of wages from the date notice is given. The amount is to be based on the worker’s average wages over the last three years or their pay rate at the time of closing. When the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone closed, Disney gave the workers “notice pay”—in the form of weekly paychecks and an end lump sum—and based the amounts on the employees’ earnings during the previous six months. But since the restaurant closed in June, that meant the notice pay was based on a slow season, not the much higher pay for long summer hours they would have actually received had they worked in June, July and August.

The lawsuit argued that this was a violation of the WARN Act, and U.S. District Judge Catherine C.  Blake agreed that workers were due additional pay, launching a second ongoing legal phase in which the pay due to each individual worker will be determined. Andrew D. Freeman, the attorney representing the workers, said they will also seek class action status, meaning all the laid-off workers could be eligible for compensation.

Emanuel McCray, who was a host at the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, told In These Times that he loved his job and that it had inspired him to want to open his own sports bar and restaurant some day. But he felt betrayed and disrespected by his employers in the way the closing was carried out. “I felt disgusted with them,” McCray told In These Times. “I grew up as a kid watching Disney movies and dreaming of going to Disneyland. What happened killed all that. Now when I see Mickey Mouse or anything to do with Disney, I get really upset.”

Emanuel said that the not only was the pay rate unfair, but the company’s failure to give the workers advance notice was devastating because they couldn’t seek other jobs for the summer. By the time ESPN Zone closed, he said, “all the summer restaurant jobs were already locked up.”

McCray said some workers lost their homes and had to move to other cities with their families after the closing. He has struggled to find steady work since—he does D.J. gigs and was a service manager at Wal-Mart. He also does work with United Workers and the Waterfront Partnership, a company that works with city officials and business owners to promote sustainable development along Baltimore’s waterfront.  (A silver lining in the ESPN Zone situation has been that McCray thinks he’s found his true calling as a social justice activist, building on his college major in political science. He is considering running for elected office and otherwise working to improve the local community.)

Freeman, the workers’ attorney, told In These Times that the situation laid bare larger disturbing truths about “the disrespect this country shows to hardworking people in low wage jobs.”

“What Disney failed to pay these workers is a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Disney has probably paid more than that to its lawyers to fight this case—and to my firm in attorneys’ fees. So the lawyers end up making more money than the workers this law was intended to benefit, who have been waiting for two-and-a-half years and will wait some substantial additional time, when they’re the ones who really need the money.”

Freeman told In These Times that about 35 ESPN Zone workers showed up to United Workers’ initial meeting about the situation, and he realized that all of them combined probably made less per hour than he charges as an attorney. “There’s something wrong with our society,” he said, “when you can hire 35 of those workers for the cost of one hour of my time or the time of Disney’s lawyers.”

In its response to the lawsuit, Disney argued that the WARN Act allows temporary pay reductions of up to 50 percent without notice, and said the workers got more in notice pay than they would have in such a situation. But Freeman noted that the pay reduction provision of the WARN Act is only supposed to apply during a temporary downturn when the business is ultimately remaining open—not in a closing situation like ESPN Zone’s. In her decision, Judge Blake agreed with Freeman that the provision did not apply to the case at hand.

Blake also agreed with the plaintiffs in finding that Disney illegally tried to get out of paying some workers the full amount due under its own corporate severance pay provisions, by essentially subtracting the WARN Act pay from the additional severance due the employees (Disney’s written severance pay policy specifically says that notice pay given under the WARN Act will count toward the severance pay the company owes workers). “I found that one of the most offensive parts of this,” Freeman told In These Times.  “They wrote their severance plan in a way that explicitly compensated violating the WARN Act. As the judge said, that’s a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Freeman said Blake’s decision should help strengthen the WARN Act for future litigation. “There’ve been arguments that ESPN Zone and some other employers have tried to rely on to avoid giving workers notice that the Act requires, or paying them less than their full wages if they did violate the Act,” he said. “The court in this case made clear that the Act means what it says.”

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times on January 15, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Baltimore Workers File Class-Action Suit Over ESPN Zone Closure

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

kari-lydersenIn June the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s trendy Inner Harbor shopping and entertainment district closed after workers were given just a week’s notice and state regulators were given only one day notice.

In a class-action lawsuit filed Monday naming ESPN Zone’s owner Disney, five workers allege this was a violation of the WARN Act, which requires at least 60 days notice—or 60 days severance pay—in the case of mass layoffs at companies with 100 or more employees. About 150 workers lost their jobs when the restaurant closed. About 50 workers and supporters protested Monday outside ESPN Zone, then marched to Baltimore District Court where the lawsuit was filed. (See photos by Bill Hughes here).

After the ESPN Zone closed June 16, workers were given a month’s pay on administrative leave and an additional severance based on length of service, which the company has said constitutes WARN Act compliance. But the workers’ attorneys and a grassroots labor group called United Workers says the total pay and severance is still less than what they would be due under the  WARN Act. Severance was due under an agreement with Disney that should be separate from WARN Act compliance, they say.

The case has become a centerpiece of United Workers’ Economic Human Rights Zone campaign in the Inner Harbor, a novel strategy uniting workers at various restaurants and stores to demand that as the area has received substantial taxpayer subsidies, developers of the two major malls should be responsible for making sure workers are paid a state living wage and basic workers rights are respected. Monday’s march came on the second anniversary of the declaration of the Human Rights Zone, and eight years after United Workers’ founding out of a struggle on behalf of homeless vendors at the city stadium.

United Workers began targeting individual employers in the Inner Harbor, but decided it was a more pragmatic and meaningful campaign to target the development as a whole, and demand the two major companies—GGP and Cordish—that lease and sell space commit to making sure their tenants treat workers right.

In a playful post on the United Workers website, they describe the pervasive problems uncovered during an investigation by a pro-labor “Sherlock Holmes.”

Holmes discovered that the trail of worker human rights abuses did not stop with the ESPN Zone, but extends throughout the harbor. Hearing from workers from the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips, and Hooters, he uncovered what lies beneath the surface: poverty wages, stolen tips, sexual harrassment, lack of healthcare, and barriers to education. ‘Different vendors, but the same story? The Inner Harbor is a Poverty-zone! But who is in control?,’ thought Sherlock.

ESPN Zone workers discovered by word of mouth that, they say, managers didn’t intend to give them any notice of the closing at all, until word leaked out over social media websites. That, in fact, is how numerous workers first heard the news. “We would just come to work one day and all the doors would be shut and locked,” said Lenard Gray, 28, who’d worked there more than six years.

The closing was especially problematic since it came during the busiest summer months, when workers count on racking up long hours that – even at pay rates just barely above minimum wage – allow them to save money for leaner seasons. Workers reported becoming homeless, having to withdraw kids from programs and being evicted since the closing.

“We were stunned. It was like walking through a dream. We were just devastated,” said former cook Winston Gupton. He had worked there for more than seven years, and lost his housing after the closure.

The WARN Act – which received national attention during the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago two years ago – was meant to provide workers time to look for other jobs and state agencies time to offer retraining and social services. The acronym means Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification.  Even when WARN Act notice is given, an outpouring of state services or retraining opportunities is a rarity. And the Act is regularly violated with few repercussions.

Enforcing it takes lawsuits like the one filed by ESPN Zone workers, which are costly and time-consuming for low-income workers who hardly have time to wait around for a judgment.

But as in the Republic Windows and Doors struggle, the ESPN Zone workers’ lawsuit serves not only to try to hold an employer accountable but also to raise the public profile of WARN Act violations in general and of the Economic Human Rights Zone campaign. Organizers say they will continue to investigate possible labor law violations and working conditions at various Inner Harbor outlets including the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips Seafood and Hooters. When United Workers initially surveyed restaurants trying to find the “worst of the worst,” Phillips’ name came up, they said.

Former ESPN Zone cook Debra Harris said in a statement:

We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect.

This post was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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