Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Bryce Covert’

Philadelphia Just Passed the Strongest Fair Scheduling Law in the Nation

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, just enacted the most sweeping bill yet to give low-wage workers some control over their schedules.

The city’s new law, which passed the city council on Thursday, will require businesses with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations worldwide to provide employees their schedules at least 10 days in advance. If any changes are made to their schedules after that, employers will owe employees more money. Employers will also be required to offer more hours as they become available to existing employees who want them rather than hiring new people, and they’ll be banned from retaliating against those who either request or decline more hours.

The law is poised to have a huge impact: A recent survey conducted by UC Berkeley found that among food and retail sector workers in Philadelphia, 62 percent receive their schedules less than two weeks ahead of time and two-thirds work irregular or variable schedules. Almost half usually work 30 hours or less each week even though less than 15 percent have a second job to supplement their incomes.

“It seems that employers are being less and less cognizant of their workers’ needs and home lives,” noted Nadia Hewka, an employment lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which advocated for the bill. “This would just put a little bit of balance back into that equation.”

The effort to help workers control their schedules started around a year ago, when advocates convened to discuss how Philadelphia could take action on its own to improve living standards for its residents. “Philadelphia is a very high-poverty city,” Hewka noted. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. So advocates were interested in “anything that we can do to raise the bottom just a little bit.” But thanks to a state preemption law, the city can’t raise the minimum wage—that power is reserved for the state government. So the city council has turned to a number of other measures that can make life for working people easier: paid sick leave, an anti-wage theft ordinance, a salary history ban, ban the box legislation and now a fair scheduling law.

“What I know is that I can’t be paralyzed just because the state has limited our capacity to be able to directly raise the minimum wage,” said Helen Gym, the first-term councilmember who introduced the fair workweek bill. “We have to talk about other things that impact people’s lives and could also improve them.”

The former community organizer came into the council looking for something that could “really grapple with this incredibly vast and intractable situation around deep and entrenched poverty in our city.” As she spoke with low-wage workers and those who work with them—teachers, lawyers, anti-poverty advocates—everyone brought up how unstable schedules were disrupting people’s lives. “This was a major, major issue,” she said.

“As a municipality, we have to do something,” she added. “We have the authority and the responsibility to act here as one of the largest cities in the country.” Her colleagues apparently agreed: “It has been one of the most popular bills to move through our council in a while,” she said.

While other places, such as Oregon, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, have similar scheduling legislation, Philadelphia’s goes further by covering workers in all industries, not just those in retail. “Of all the bills that exist around the country, ours will be the most far-reaching,” Gym noted. Hewka credits the involvement of UNITE HERE Philly, which represents hotel and restaurant workers and advocated for the bill.  

Hewka sees the new law as an anti-poverty measure.  It’s difficult “when you don’t know how many hours you’re working and how much you’ll be earning by the end of the week or the end of the month to make the bills you need to make,” she said. Someone’s income isn’t just determined by her wage, but by how many hours she works. A more predictable set of hours, and the ability to get more as they become available, can make a big difference.

And there are other benefits to a steady schedule. Hewka noted that many people feel that if minimum wage workers don’t like their pay they should get better jobs. “How are you supposed to improve your lot in life and go to school if your class schedules are set and your work schedule always changes?” Hewka noted. It’s also nearly impossible to hold down a second job to make ends meet if the first one is constantly shifting.

The bind is particularly tight for parents. “When [workers] are not allowed to have a say in their schedules,” Hewka said, “it impacts their entire family.” One big hurdle is finding childcare to fit a work schedule when that work schedule is constantly shifting.

On top of that, parents have to get their children to school, doctors’ offices, after-school activities and other appointments. Poor families are also often navigating the demands of welfare offices or child services, Hewka pointed out, all of which typically require daytime appointments. “All of these systems assume that you’re available to do these tasks,” she said. She has even had clients fail to show up to meetings in her office because they had to be at work instead.

“Jobs don’t recognize [workers’] humanity, let alone these kinds of demands on their lives,” she added. “You’re spinning plates up in the air with all of these things in your life. A work schedule changing can really cause everything to come crashing down.”

Gym hopes not just to improve Philadelphians’ working lives, but to make a bigger impact. “We’re trying to change the way in which we talk about poverty and the nature of work these days,” she said. “Not only did we set a standard for what happens around the state, but we sent a message across the nation that we need to see an economic justice agenda.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert, a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, New York Magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

Friday, August 24th, 2018

On August 16, the San Antonio city council voted 9-2 to pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will allow residents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employers and eight at larger ones. 

The United States is alone among 22 wealthy countries in having no national guaranteed paid sick-leave policy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP legislatures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Antonio became the 33rd city in the country to take such a step, and the second in the South after Austin passed a similar law in February.

The San Antonio law is supposed to go into effect in January, and Austin’s was scheduled to go into effect in October. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordinance passed, an appeals court temporarily put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation— a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network—that claims the law violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Even if that lawsuit fails, many Republican members of the Texas legislature have vowed to pass legislation to block such local progressive laws throughout the state. Lawmakers are expected to take up broad preemption legislation as a top priority when the next legislative session begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to preempt cities’ ability to pass their own ordinances. In 2017 he explained this decision would “continue our legacy of economic freedom” and “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from regulating oil and gas drilling activity, including fracking, and it has also banned local laws that would create sanctuary cities.

It’s a growing trend in legislatures controlled by Republicans. At least 25 states have passed preemption laws that block cities from raising the minimum wage, and 20 have banned cities from instituting paid sick leave. The majority of these laws have been enacted since 2013 and advocates for higher workplace standards say the trend is only accelerating.

Texas advocates for paid sick leave haven’t given up hope, however. They plan to wield the sheer amount of popular support for these ordinances in their favor and against the state politicians who block them. “Our state leadership is out of touch with what the majority of Texans believe and want for their communities,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organizing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Organizing Project began surveying working families in San Antonio about what issues were most important to them and what would most improve their lives. “It was very clear…that issues addressing economic security were at the very top of the list,” Tremillo says. Number one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the minimum wage, followed by benefits and the ability to get paid time off for illness, understandable since an estimated 350,000 city residents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advocates also eagerly watched what happened in Austin. “It just made sense that we would figure out how to make that happen in San Antonio as well,” Tremillo says.

Her group and others decided to take the issue directly to city residents. In San Antonio, anyone can put an issue before the city council by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the eligible voting population in the previous municipal election. If they succeed, the city council can either decide to vote on the topic directly or reject it, thus sending it to the ballot for voters to weigh in on. To hit the 10 percent requirement, paid sick leave advocates needed to collect at least 70,000 signatures to force the issue.

Within ten weeks they managed to collect more than double that number, eventually receiving more than 144,000. “The response was forceful. People wanted to sign it,” Tremillo says. “People understand immediately how important that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of yourself and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s seven years on the city council that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature threshold, he says. “It was an easy sell, easier than many folks had actually thought,” he says. Surprised at the level of support behind the issue, the mayor and Saldaña’s fellow council members decided to take it up and pass the ordinance themselves.

Saldaña, who supported paid sick leave from the beginning, chalks the support up to the fact that so many people in the city work in the service industry where paid sick day are uncommon. “Many of them know what it feels like to have to make decisions between going in sick or taking a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t realize that they had that power to try to ask the government to step in and intervene on some of the pressures they have in life.”

That support, he believes, will make it hard for state lawmakers to reverse the progress made. “The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s ability to ignore that issue,” he says.

“Unfortunately we have a state leadership that is determined to interfere with our cities’ ability to do what’s best for their citizens,” Tremillo says. “We have a state leadership that is not at all concerned about improving conditions for working people.”

“The state has turned its back on working Texans and turned its back on solutions,” Saldaña agrees. “It does not surprise the city of San Antonio, just like it does not surprise Austin or Dallas or Houston, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from innovating and applying rules and laws that support the working men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the campaign to protect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advocates pledge to keep up the momentum no matter what the state does. “We will continue to fight at the city level and at the state level for what people really need and want,” Tremillo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s experience, with over a hundred thousand people voicing their support, shows that the state is up against a swell of popular support. “These are large numbers of voters and people in our community who are demanding improvements to working conditions,” she says. “I think our numbers are only going to get bigger. I think people are going to stand up against our state leadership… We’ll continue to increase the number of people participating in our democracy.”

She adds, “They should stay out of interfering with what our cities are doing and they should start listening to the needs of regular Texans.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New York Daily News, New York magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Undefeated Olympic U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Is Still Fighting For Equal Pay

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Bryce CovertThe U.S. women’s soccer team is already on a roll at the Olympics in Rio.

So far, they haven’t lost a single game they’ve played, winning against New Zealand and France and tying with Colombia. They didn’t even give up a goal during the first two games and are now first in their group. They’re well on their way toward gold.

Yet the victorious streak comes amid their continuing fight to be paid equally with the U.S. men’s team, which didn’t even qualify to participate in this year’s summer Olympics.

In March, five stars on the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT)?—?Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo?—?filed a complaint on behalf of everyone on the women’s team with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They alleged that the U.S. Soccer Federation unfairly pays female players less than those on the men’s team.

In their complaint, the players claimed that they are paid almost four times less than the men’s team players. For example, the women say they are paidjust $1,350 each for winning a friendly match and nothing for a tie or loss, compared to $9,375 for a men’s victory (even more if they win against a top-ranked team), $6,250 for a tie, and $5,000 for a loss.

The women’s team has a contract specifying that top-tier players get $72,000 a year as a base salary, while the men aren’t guaranteed payment. But the complaint pointed out that if the USWNT were to lose all 20 friendlies in a season, a player would get $72,000, while if it won all 20 she would get $99,000. The men, on the other hand, get $100,000 a year for losing all 20 friendlies, $1,000 more than a victorious female player. Meanwhile, they get about $263,000 each for winning all 20 matches–38 percent more than a winning women’s player.

The women’s team also gets nothing for playing in World Cup matches until they get into fourth place, even though the men’s team gets payment for each game played regardless of the result. They got just $2 million for winning the World Cup last year, while the U.S. men’s team earned $8 million for losing in the first round. Meanwhile, the German team that won the men’s World Cup got $35 million.

The women have argued that their pay is unfair in part because the men are compensated more for just showing up, while the women have to perform at world champion levels to get comparable pay.

The current team has been ranked number one in the world for 12 of the last 13 years, won three World Cups, and got the gold at four of the five Olympics that included women’s soccer?—?so they’re getting unequal pay for unequal work. Another gold medal would only add to their pile of accomplishments.

But the U.S. Soccer Federation, the target of the USWNT lawsuit, has fired back.

In June, it filed a response with the EEOC in which it called accusations of discrimination “unwarranted, unfounded, and untrue.” It also claims that the women’s team players are actually paid more than the men. The team’s compensation “is comparable to (and in many cases better than) the compensation U.S. Soccer provides to the MNT,” it says in the filing.

Without going into a detailed breakdown of pay, the Federation notes that among all USWNT players who got any pay between 2012 and 2015, their average compensation was $279,743?—?about $90,000 more than average compensation for a men’s team player over the same time period.

The Federation also argues that the five players who brought the complaint were paid more than the top five highest-paid members of the USMNT when World Cup money is taken out of the picture. Yet when that income is included, the five female players earned 3.8 percent less than the men?—?despite winning the cup. Meanwhile, the Federation’s response also admits that the 14 women who are among the 25 highest-earning U.S. soccer players earned 2.2 percent less, on average, than the men in the same group.

The biggest inequalities show up at the bottom, not at the top, of the pay scales. According to data obtained by the New York Times dating back to 2008, the 25th highest-paid female player made about $341,000, compared to $580,000 for the corresponding male player, and the male player in the 50th slot made 50 times more than the female one.

The Federation argues that if there are any pay differences, they should be chalked up to the fact that the men’s team has historically generated higher ratings and more revenue. The men’s team brought in about $144 million between 2008 and 2015, according to the Federation’s filing, compared to $53 million from the women’s team. Attendance at USMNT games was more than double that of USWNT games between 2001 and 2015.

Meanwhile, although it admits that the women’s World Cup final got “unprecedented” TV ratings last year, it argues that historically men draw twice the viewership.

The fight has garnered attention from the U.S. Senate, where Patty Murray (D-WA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have been looking into why the two teams are paid different amounts. After viewing the data provided in the Federation’s response, the two senators sent it a letter asking for more information about the revenue it gets from TV contracts and the efforts it makes to promote the women’s team. They also pointed out that the Federation’s own data shows that viewership for the Women’s World Cup last year set a record, and not just for the final match.

“We remain focused on the pressing issue of pay equity for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team,” they wrote. “We, along with millions of women’s soccer fans, are looking forward to rooting for the Women’s Team as they compete in the summer Olympic Games in Brazil.”

The differences between revenue and viewership also don’t take into account the systemic and historic disadvantages that women’s soccer has faced. Nor has either side in the dispute brought up other disparities like being made to fly coach while the men fly business class or racking up a third of the men’s teams expenses over a year.

Since filing the complaint, the USWNT has continued to be vocal about their cause. At a match in July, they sported t-shirts that read #EqualPayEqualPlay and took to social media to discuss the pay gap. It remains to be seen if they bring the issue up as they go for gold in Rio.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on August 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Donald Trump’s New Childcare Plan Would Only Help The Rich

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Bryce CovertIn his economic policy speech on Monday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to announce a new policy: allowing families to fully deduct the cost of their childcare expenses from their taxes.

The announcement will mark Trump’s first foray into work/family issues and follows up on his daughter Ivanka’s promise during the Republican National Convention that he “will focus on making quality childcare affordable and accessible for all.” But experts say that his plan will do nothing to help low- or even middle-income families, instead solely benefitting the rich who least need help affording child care.

“It’s absolutely regressive,” said Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

“It’s absolutely regressive.”

Tax deductions benefit the wealthy, who usually owe more come April 15. A deduction helps them reduce that amount. But many low-income families don’t owe anything in income taxes because they make too little and qualify for credits that reduce or erase their burdens. Currently, 35 percent of all people filing taxes don’t have a liability come tax time, and Trump has said he wants to significantly expand that number.

It’s the lower- and middle-income families, however, who are paying the greatest share of their income for childcare. Families who live in poverty spend over a third of their monthly income on it, while those living just above the poverty line spend about 20 percent, according to Katie Hamm, senior director for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.) Everyone who makes more, however, spends less than 10 percent of their income on average.

Meanwhile, if childcare expenses are fully deductible with no cap at all, the more a family spends on child care the more it benefits. “For folks who are in the upper earning bracket, who have a higher tax rate to begin with, and who are paying more money to have child care options like au pairs for example, those people are likely to receive large cost savings,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress. “Whereas a single working mom who makes around the minimum wage is going to get nothing out of this.”

Speaking of Trump, she added, “It would really help people like him and not help anybody else.”

The country has already tried a child care tax deduction and decided it didn’t work. “We had a tax deduction until the late 70s,” Blank said. “The deduction was made into a credit because a credit is more equitable.” A low-income family can take advantage of a credit, especially if it’s refundable, which allows it to get money back at tax time even if it doesn’t have a tax liability.

The tax code is also a poor tool for easing the burden of increasingly unaffordable child care. Even if it were to help lower-income families, they would only get the benefit of their tax return once a year in a lump sum. But child care expenses are ongoing, bills that usually have to be paid monthly or even weekly.

“It would really help people like him and not help anybody else.”

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on August 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Massachusetts Becomes First State Ever To Ban Employers From Asking For Salary Histories

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Bryce CovertMassachusetts has leapfrogged over all other states to pass the most robust equal pay law in the country.

The law takes a step that is completely unique: it prohibits employers from asking prospective hires about their salary histories until after they make a job offer that includes compensation, unless the applicants voluntarily disclose the information. No other state has such a ban in place.

Many employers require applicants to give them a salary history at the outset or during the initial steps of the hiring process, usually to determine how much they should be paid and whether the employer can afford their salary. But this disadvantages women, who, thanks to a variety of factors that can include outright discrimination, make less than men on average. Women make less than men in their first jobs even when education and field are taken into consideration, and they are also penalized in salary negotiations, while men get an advantage. If the next employer bases a salary on the previous one a woman was earning, that discrimination will only be furthered.

Massachusetts’s new law also mandates that employers pay men and women the same not just when they do the exact same work, but when their work is “comparable.” Most laws only require men and women in the exact same job to be paid equally. The state defines comparable work as being “substantially similar” in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions — not just based on job titles or descriptions. It does, however, allow for differing pay scales based on seniority — so long as a lack of seniority for a female employee isn’t related to pregnancy or family leave — merit, production, geography, education, experience, or training.

Women’s work has long been undervalued even when it’s substantially similar to what men do.Housekeepers make less than janitors, for instance. And when women move into higher-paying, male-dominated jobs, the pay drops.

There was a movement in the 1970s and 80s among state governments to ensure comparable pay equity in their own workforces. They ended up spending $527 million to adjust women’s pay to make it equal with men who had essentially the same job duties, eliminating about 20 percent of women’s wage gap.

A paper at the time found that a national pay equity law, one that looks like Massachusetts’s, would eliminate more than a quarter of the overall gender wage gap.

The new law also bans salary secrecy, blocking employers from keeping their employees from talking about pay with each other. About half of all employees say they are either prohibited or discouraged from discussing compensation, even though they have a legal right to do so. That makes it incredibly difficult for women or other marginalized groups to discover whether they’re being unfairly paid less than their colleagues.

A handful of other states have passed their own equal pay laws aimed at closing the gender wage gap. California passed one at the end of last year mandating pay equity for comparable work and banning salary secrecy, and New York passed a package of bills that included prohibiting salary secrecy. But none of them have gone as far as Massachusetts in including a ban on employers asking for salary histories.

Massachusetts’s new law unanimously passed the state legislature, and Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has said he will sign it into law.

Meanwhile, progress toward passing national legislation to address the gender wage gap has been blocked in Congress. Republicans have repeatedly blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban salary secrecy, and the Fair Pay Act, which would mandate equal pay for comparable work, never even gets a vote.

This post originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on August 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Nannies And Housekeepers In Illinois Just Won A Major Victory

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Bryce CovertMagdalena Zylinska has been working in people’s homes for most of the last two decades since she came to the United States from Poland. She spent some time as a nanny and a caregiver, but since 1997, she’s been a full-time housekeeper.

But it wasn’t until she took classes with Arise Chicago, a worker organization, in 2013 that she realized how few protections she had on the job. Domestic workers across the country aren’t protected by basic workplace regulations like requirements that they be paid minimum wage, given days off, or be free from harassment.

She’d already had some brushes with these challenges. On one job cleaning up a house after a construction company came in and did work, she says the contractor refused to pay her $1,000 she was owed. “There were really no regulations,” she said, and it would have been too costly and complicated to go to court seeking her money. “It’s really not worth it for us to spend the time and money and taking days off to go after that.” On top of that, employers will regularly hire her for one set of duties at a particular rate and then pack on more and more responsibilities without more pay.

So three years ago, Zylinska decided to do something about it and get involved with the fight to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Illionis, similar to those on the books in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon. She traveled to the state capitol in Springfield and even as far as Washington, D.C. in pursuit of expanded rights.

And this week she and her fellow domestic workers tasted victory. The bill of rights they had been trying to move forward passed the state’s Senate and has already passed the House, so it will soon head to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R) desk.

The bill, if it gets signed into law, will guarantee domestic workers — including housekeepers like Zylinska as well as nannies and home care workers — the right to make minimum wage, be paid for all hours they work, get one day off a week, and be protected from sexual harassment at work. A 2012 survey of domestic workers across the country found that a quarter were paid less than minimum wage, leaving many in tough financial circumstances — 20 percent had to go without food because they couldn’t afford any. A third said they worked long hours without breaks while 85 percent said they didn’t get overtime pay. And 20 percent said they have faced threats, insults, or verbal abuse. But nearly all of those who experienced problems at work didn’t complain for fear of risking their jobs.

It’s still unclear whether Rauner will sign the bill, and his office did not respond to a request for comment. But those at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who were also involved in fighting for the bill, are optimistic given that it unanimously passed the Senate with bipartisan support. “As an organization, we feel confident that the Governor will see the value of singing the bill into a law,” said a spokesperson for the organization.

Zylinska is also feeling confident. “I think they realize that domestic workers make all the work possible and they’re very crucial to the economy,” she said. “I just hope the governor really will see that it’s really necessary for us to be protected.”

“We only want to be recognized as domestic workers, workers that have basic protection,” she added. “All we want is respect.”

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Poor People Don’t Stand A Chance In Court

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Bryce CovertYour landlord has decided to evict you and your family has nowhere to go. Or you’re in an abusive relationship and need a restraining order and probably a divorce and custody order for your children. Or you’re a homeless veteran trying to get VA benefits and navigate the complicated claims process. Or you’re being hounded by a collector for a debt you can’t pay who’s threatening to take away all of your income.

In each of these cases, you’ll wind up taking the issue to the civil courts, not the criminal ones. If it were a criminal case, where you were at risk of being jailed or incarcerated, you would at least have a constitutional right to representation. But there is virtually no promise in the civil system. You will almost certainly be left on your own, with little guidance or assistance, to navigate a labyrinthine system.

In theory, low-income Americans who need help with a civil case can turn to civil legal aid organizations. But there are so few of them that getting their help is a bit like winning the lottery.

There is less than one civil legal attorney — 0.64, to be exact — for every 10,000 people living in poverty, according to the newly released Justice Index from the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ). Even though nearly 110 million people are poor enough to qualify for free legal assistance because they can’t afford a private attorney, there are less than 7,000 legal aid attorneys throughout the country to help them.

Things are even worse in some states. In South Carolina, which ranks at the very bottom, there are 0.24 legal aid attorneys serving 10,000 poor people. There are only six states where there is more than one attorney. And research has shown that low-income people are more likely to find themselves dealing with the civil court system.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 4.09.31 PM

CREDIT: NATIONAL CENTER FOR ACCESS TO JUSTICE

“Individuals face really high stakes in the civil justice system,” noted Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice. “You can lose your children, you can lose your home, you can lose your livelihood without having legal help to get you through complicated legal proceedings.”

And while people can turn to private lawyers — there are about 40 of those for every 10,000 Americans — they are often prohibitively expensive, even for middle-class families. They often bill around $300 an hour.

So many instead represent themselves and rely on their own abilities to get through the maze of the legal system. In three-quarters of cases, at least one party — more likely to be someone like a tenant or a debtor — is self-represented.

States can take steps to make their civil court systems easier for regular people to navigate. And some are doing that, but the overall picture is mixed. Based on 33 different steps a state could take — which include a variety of things from requiring communication to be in plain English to letting court employees and judges help people without lawyers to putting materials online to waiving filing fees — no state gets a perfect score; the median score given by NCAJ is 51, ranging from 86.25 in California to 13.75 in Rhode Island.

There are some areas of promise. For one, NCAJ has had to broaden the measures it looks at because so much is changing. “So much innovation is occurring in states across the country,” explained David Udell, executive director of the organization.

One big focus has been to try to use technology more efficiently. “Technology doesn’t replace an attorney,” Udell noted, “but it can help.” Eighty percent of states list the required forms needed in family law matters such as divorce or child support on their websites, while 60 percent list the required supporting materials. The efforts are scarcer, however, for eviction and debt collection — about 40 percent of states put things online — and foreclosure — 20 percent.

A good number — 44 states — have allowed lawyers to perform discrete legal tasks for people who don’t retain them for full representation. And 32 have allowed court clerks to help out people who don’t have lawyers, but just 23 have allowed judges to do the same.

Plain English has been slower to catch on. Just 20 states encourage judges not to use “legalese” in the courtroom when talking to people who don’t have a lawyer, while 17 train judges and 12 train court staff in doing so.

Meanwhile, the most common step taken in all states is to waive civil filing fees for those who meet a financial eligibility standard. Yet just 34 describe the fee waiver on their websites, 26 have provided a simple process for determining eligibility, and just 12 encourage or require court staff to explain to people that fees can be waived — so many litigants may simply not know that it’s an option.

“The court system remains a system that was designed by lawyers with the expectation that there would be lawyers,” Bergmark said. “Most people don’t have representation and yet it’s still a system that very much contemplates that they will.”

And the outcomes are dramatically different when they do have representation. A study in Boston found that two-thirds of tenants who had full representation against their landlords were able to avoid eviction and received nearly five times the financial payout than those who weren’t represented. Other research has found that making legal services available to domestic violence victims significantly lowers the rate of abuse.

More civil legal aid lawyers could also spur larger change. “What civil legal aid lawyers see in their day-to-day practice is problems that need to be solved systemically, and they are capable of doing that,” Bergmark said. For example, a group in Baltimore noticed how many of the tenants they were assisting were being evicted through rent court and issued a call for reform. Another group in Chicago is fighting for changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would bring greater protections against lead paint poisoning for people living in publicly funded housing. “There’s a real value add for society as well as the individuals involved.”

“We’re not served by having a broken civil justice system that’s not adequately supported,” she added.

This blog was originally published at Thinkprogress.org on May 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Scott Walker Implements Backdoor Way To Drug Test People For Unemployment Benefits

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Bryce CovertUnder current law, states aren’t allowed to institute drug tests for unemployment benefits. But that hasn’t kept Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) from trying.

In July, Walker approved legislation that would implement drug tests for both unemployment benefits and food stamps, neither of which are currently permissible. To get his way, he’s suing the government to allow him to move forward with implementation, arguing that these programs are “welfare” just the same as the welfare cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that does in fact allow states to implement drug tests.

But in the meantime, he took steps this week to do as much as he can under his limited authority. On Wednesday he authorized new rules that allow employers to voluntarily submit information about drug tests they made people take as a condition of employment. If any of those employees end up seeking unemployment benefits but failed the employers’ drug tests or declined to take one, they can be denied benefits unless they agree to get taxpayer-funded drug treatment.

“This new rule brings us one step closer to moving Wisconsinites from government dependence to true independence,” Walker said. “We frequently hear from employers that they have good paying jobs, but they need their workers to be drug-free. This rule is a common-sense reform which strengthens our workforce by helping people find and keep a family supporting job.”

But past experience from states that drug test welfare recipients shows they are anything but common sense. The positive test result rates are far lower than the drug use rate for the American population as a whole — last year, some states didn’t turn up any positive tests at all. Meanwhile, they are quite costly: states collectively spent nearly $2 million administering the programs over the last two years.

Walker’s plans to spread drug tests to other programs are mostly on hold. In the meantime, beyond suing the government, he’s asking Congress to give him permission. He’s reached at least one sympathetic ear in Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that administers food stamps. He’s put forward a measure that would allowing testing for that program.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

 

House Republicans Have A Temper Tantrum Over Rule That Bans Financial Advisers From Scamming Retirees

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Bryce CovertThe Department of Labor (DOL) has finalized rules that require financial advisers who help people make investments for retirement to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. But House Republicans aren’t letting the rule go into effect without a fight.

On Thursday, the House voted on a resolution that would effectively block the new rules, which require advisers to adhere to a “fiduciary standard,” that passed along strict party lines, with 234 Republicans voting yes and 183 Democrats voting no. Republicans claim that the rule will make investment advice more expensive, with Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), a sponsor of the legislation, saying it would “protect access to affordable retirement advice.” They’ve also characterized the rules as government overreach, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) calling them “Obamacare for financial planning.”

Their position mirrors that of the financial industry, which has fought the rules with claims about the impact they could have on their businesses that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has questioned as being disingenuous. Ahead of the House vote on the resolution, eight big financial industry trade groups sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to vote in favor of the resolution.

The vote, however, is a largely symbolic move. For the resolution to have any power, it would have to be taken up and passed by the Senate, and President Obama would have to sign it. But he’s already threatened to veto the measure. DOL Secretary Thomas Perez called Thursday’s vote “a waste of time.”

Before the new standard, advisers were only required to give “suitable” advice, which left the door open for them to steer clients into products that made the advisers more money but weren’t the best option. That practice was costing Americans an estimated$17 billion a year in conflicted advice, according to the White House. Some people say their finances, particularly their chances of retiring comfortably, have been destroyed by bad advice and that they would have simply been better off without it.

Americans have little wiggle room for losing money when it comes to saving enough for retirement. Pensions, which guarantee payments in old age, have beenoverwhelmingly replaced with 401(k)s, which require individual workers to make smart investment choices in order to have enough to live off of when they stop working. And by and large workers aren’t putting enough aside. The gap between what they should have saved up and what they’ve actually put away is $6.6 trillion. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of working age people have no retirement savings at all.

This blog originally appeared on Thinkprogress.org on April 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

An Outrageous Number Of People Are Hurt And Killed At Work

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Bryce CovertOn Tuesday night, a psychiatric patient under Kay’s care told her she was going to beat her because Kay couldn’t give her any more phone call privileges.

Kay, a registered nurse who withheld her last name, had some good reason to believe the patient and fear for her own safety. Not too long ago, a different patient charged at her from 30 feet away, crushing her shoulder. The injury required months of physical therapy and she was in constant pain. She had to be removed from her normal job for a time. “My livelihood was robbed,” she said on a call with media on Wednesday morning.

Even today she still has flareups of pain, numbness, or burning in the injured shoulder. The incident also left mental scars. “I find I respond differently to stressful or perceived stressful situations,” she said. Her fight or flight instinct is more easily triggered, and she struggles with anxiety.

She’s not the only one in her workplace, either. One particular patient, weighing 285 pounds, has repeatedly assaulted both nurses and patients at the facility. Kay herself had to intervene in one incident where the patient grabbed a coworker’s head, hitting it against a window several times. There were just three other people around to restrain the patient. The incident left Kay’s coworker, a woman in her early 40s, with head and neck injuries, the loss of a tooth, and permanent hearing loss.

“People may assume that getting punched, kicked, or stepped on, or threatened and verbally abused, is part of working in a psychiatric facility,” Kay said. But “it’s unacceptable and preventable.”

It may be preventable, but the violence Kay experiences on a regular basis in her workplace is widespread — and getting worse. According to a report released Wednesday by the AFL-CIO, there were officially about 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses reported in 2014, although because underreporting is so widespread, the real number is likely somewhere between 7.6 and 11.4 million. That’s more than 10,000 people hurt or sickened at work every day.

And women like Kay and her coworker are on the front lines of the problem. The health care and social assistance industry made up the greatest share of nonfatal work injuries and illnesses, at more than 20 percent. Nursing and residential care facilities in particular have a high rate of 12.6 workers injured for every 100.

Violence generally is a growing workplace threat. It was responsible for 26,540 injuries that resulted in lost work time in 2014 across the country and across industries. “While the overall injury and illness rate in the U.S. has gone down over the last 25 years, the workplace violence rate was decreasing in the 90s and now it’s getting worse,” said Rebecca Reindel, the AFL-CIO’s senior safety and health specialist on the call with media. It’s increased more than 100 percent, for example, in private hospitals and psychiatric hospitals. And women are bearing the brunt, suffering two-thirds of these incidents.

Those findings line up with a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. It found that health care workers experience injuries from workplace violence at “substantially higher” rates than the rest of the workforce, ranging from five to 12 times the rate of the overall workforce depending on the type of facility. For example, nursing and residential care workers had a rate of 35.2 per 10,000 workers, compared to 2.8 for the workforce as a whole. Patients are the most common perpetrators, and workers most frequently report being hit, kicked, or beaten. The GAO also found that rates are getting worse, not better. But the full extent of the problem still isn’t known because health care workers are so unlikely to report incidents.

Perhaps even worse than injury and illness are the high rates of deaths on the job. In 2014, 4,821 workers were killed at work, an increase from the year before, the AFL-CIO reports. More troubling, the rate of death inched up, from 3.3 workers killed per 100,000 in 2013 to 3.4, showing that even if raw numbers went up because more people were at work, the share being killed is also increasing. On top of that, an estimated 50,000 people died from diseases they picked up from their jobs. That all works out to 150 workers dying every day from dangerous work conditions.

Violence is again a big problem when it comes to fatalities, accounting for 16 percent of all traumatic workplace deaths, or 765 total, in 2014. But other causes in industries beyond health care also had disturbingly high numbers. The highest was in transportation and material moving, with 1,346 deaths on the job in 2014, followed by 902 in construction and extraction. The oil and gas industry notched the highest number of fatalities it ever recorded at 144 and had a rate nearly five times the national average. And the leading cause of death at work is transportation incidents, particularly roadway crashes.

Beyond the cost of life and safety, the economic cost of injury and illness at work is also huge, estimated to be somewhere between $250 and $370 billion each year.

That cost could be alleviated by investing more in the agency meant to police workplaces to ensure workers’ safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created in 1970, has saved more than 532,000 people since then, according to the AFL-CIO report. But it could be doing far more. There are just 1,840 inspectors tasked with monitoring the country’s 8 million workplaces under its jurisdiction, working out to one inspector for every 74,760 workers. That means a workplace will see a state OSHA inspector once every 97 years, on average, and a federal one just once every 145 years. Over the last quarter century, “the capacity of the government to oversee and enforce safety and health has gotten a lot worse,” said Peg Seminario, Director of Health and Safety at the AFL-CIO.

But even when OSHA does inspect and uncover dangerous conditions, the fines it levies are a drop in the bucket. The average penalty for a serious violation of safety regulations was $2,148 from the federal agency and $1,317 for a state one. Even killing a worker doesn’t cost much: The median penalty was $7,000 at the federal level and just $3,500 in states. “This clearly isn’t enough to deter,” Seminario said, “to cause employers to change their practices.”

Kay wants to see much more done to ensure her safety at work. “I love my job and I love the work that I do,” she said. “I want to continue to help patients who are suffering.” But to do that without fearing for her health, she thinks it’ll take increased security measures, better policies, more training for staff, and better reporting of incidents.

And she wants to see OSHA do something about it. There is no federal standard when it comes to workplace violence. “We need a standard,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on April 27,  2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog