Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘childcare’

I Work with Mark Janus. Here’s How He Benefits from a Strong Union.

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Like everyone else in the labor movement, I’m nervously awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which would weaken public sector unions by letting workers receive the benefits of representation without contributing toward the cost.

But I’ve got a unique vantage point: I work in the same building as the plaintiff, Mark Janus.

We’re both child support specialists for the state of Illinois, where we do accounting on child support cases. I do this work because it’s fulfilling to help kids and single parents get the resources they need to support themselves.

What convinced Mr. Janus to join this destructive lawsuit? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know it’s much bigger than him. He’s the public face, but this case is backed by a network of billionaires and corporate front groups like the National Right-to-Work Foundation.

But the truth is, even Mark Janus himself benefits from union representation. Here are a few of the ways:

1. Without our union, Mr. Janus’s job would probably have been outsourced by now.

A drastic provision in the state’s “last, best, and final offer” in 2016 would have given Governor Rauner the right to outsource and privatize state employees’ jobs without accountability. Our union is all that’s preventing critical public services from being privatized.

Our agency would be at particular risk, because Illinois already has a longstanding contract with a scandal-ridden, for-profit corporation called Maximus to perform some of our agency’s functions. They modify child support orders and interact with employers about income withholding—pretty simple tasks, yet state employees regularly have to correct their work. If they were to take over more complex tasks, we can imagine how badly that would go! Their concern is for profit, not kids.

If the governor could get away with it, it’s very likely he would expand the Maximus contract to privatize jobs like mine and Mr. Janus’s. He already did something similar to nurses in the prison system. But our union has to be consulted before the state can outsource anything. And when they do outsource, we monitor the contract and discuss how long it will continue. I go to those meetings for our union. Right now, instead of letting management expand its deal with Maximus, we’ve been pressing to cut that contract.

2. Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-negotiated raises.

Over his years working for the state, Mr. Janus has earned general wage increases and steps that would not have been guaranteed if not for the union.

3. The public—including the parents and kids Mr. Janus serves—has access to resources like childcare that our union has fought to defend.

Our union allows us speak up together on matters far beyond money. When Governor Rauner tried to cut childcare benefits for low-income single parents, we teamed up with outraged community members and made him back off. And when the budget impasse was forcing domestic violence shelters to close their doors, we kept pushing for years until a veto-proof budget was passed.

4. Our union blocked the employer from doubling the cost of Mr. Janus’s health benefits.

 

In negotiations the state has pushed to double our health insurance costs and drastically reduce coverage. The employer declared impasse and walked away from the bargaining table. AFSCME took the matter to the Labor Relations Board and the courts—securing a temporary restraining order that prevents the governor from imposing his extreme demands.

5. We make sure Mr. Janus’s office is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

As a union we deal with health safety issues large and small. In the department that rescues children from household abuse and neglect, we’re continually pushing for sufficient staffing. The stakes are high: one member was killed on the job after she went out on an urgent call alone.

Other matters are less dramatic. In state office buildings we solve problems like flooding, mold, leaky windows, and toxic pigeon feces. One building had someone creeping up on employees in the parking lot, so we worked with management to get better lighting and security patrols.

In the building where Mr. Janus and I work, the heating and cooling system is extremely old. Twice a year they bring in a computer from 1982 to switch from heat to air conditioning for the summer, and vice versa for the winter. So when the weather fluctuates, we work to get portable heating or cooling units deployed where they’re needed.

Many of these are ongoing issues, where our union acts as a watchdog. We have a health and safety chair on the union executive board. Any time a problem comes up, he starts by approaching management to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, he can file an OSHA complaint plus a high-level grievance.

6. Thanks to our union, Mr. Janus will retire with a pension.

Our union has fought to save the defined-pension that Mr. Janus will receive upon retirement. A coalition of unions including AFSCME took the issue to court—and won. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that employees’ pension benefits cannot be cut.

7. Mr. Janus can get sick and still have a job when he comes back.

Before this job I worked without a union, in the retail industry, where I experienced what it means to be an at-will employee. Three absences would cost an employee their job—even if they called in sick and provided a doctor’s note.

8. Our union ensured that Mr. Janus could be fairly hired, regardless of his politics.

In public service our ultimate bosses are elected officials. There was a time in Illinois when to be hired or promoted, you were expected to make a contribution to the political party in power. But a 1990 Supreme Court case called Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois put an end to that. Today our union enforces a triple-blind system for fair treatment in hiring and promotions, making sure seniority is followed. It’s one more way that even Mr. Janus benefits from having a union on the job.

This blog was originally published at Labor Notes and In These Times. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donnie Killen is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois and vice president/executive steward of AFSCME Local 2600.

Childcare Workers Need a Living Wage

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

seiuWhen a group of young fast food workers decided to lift their voices on the job and join together in the demand for better wages, no one believed anything tangible would come from it. Two months ago, those same workers won $15/hr.

Their action and bravery sparked a global movement known as the Fight for 15, and as a childcare worker who cares for other children while barely making enough to care for myself, I am proud to be in the Fight For 15. We deserve to be able to take care of our families just as well as we take care of the children in the classroom.

Enough is enough.

Nearly half of all workers across the country make less than $15 an hour – workers in fast food, home care, child care, airports and universities. We are uniting with low wage workers throughout the country because poverty wages must end.

We are in the streets because the cost of living continues to increase while wages remain stagnant. About one in seven childcare workers lives below the official poverty line. In many regions, preschool and childcare workers earn a fraction of what’s required for a minimally decent standard of living.

I have raised four great kids as a childcare worker by picking and choosing which bills to pay. I have over 15 years of experience and still only earn $8.50 an hour. One day I would like to move up and lead my own classroom but that’s not possible with my CDA (Child Development Associate Credential. There is no room for the expense of additional classes in my tight budget.

11 million Americans have won raises since the first fast food strike. We are winning because we are united in the fight for a society we want: one where we can give our families a good life, support our communities, and leave a more safe and stable world for future generations. I am all in on this fight and you should be too.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in November, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

Can Au Pairs Legally Be Paid Less Than $5 An Hour?

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Bryce CovertBeaudette Deetlefs, who goes by Bella, thought being an au pair in the United States would be a great opportunity. The agency she applied to told her she’d travel with her host family on vacation, earn enough to put money into savings, and be treated like a member of the family.

But the when she arrived in Salt Lake City from her home country of South Africa, the reality turned out to be completely different. “What the company told us before we came here, and what actually happened when we got to America, was two different things,” she said. She says her host family wasn’t comfortable her living in the house, which made things tense, and wouldn’t take her on vacation. Sometimes she would be left behind with no food, and the pay was meager.

“The way [the agency] presented it is you can save money,” she said. “It’s not possible with a family that wants you to pay for everything … The pay we get is not enough to save and do stuff with.”

Federal regulations say the J-1 Visa Program, which governs au pairs, must comply with American minimum wage laws. A State Department pamphlet says as much. But a lawsuit Deetlefs and other au pairs have filed alleges that the 15 agencies in the U.S. illegally paid less than minimum wage. Agencies require host families to pay a minimum stipend of $195.75 a week, and because au pairs put in 45-hour weeks, the hourly wage comes to just $4.35. The agencies say that these wages comply with the guidelines set by the Department of Labor and the State Department.

“The State Department has regulations that are specific to au pairs, not even just the J-1 program,” said Matthew L. Schwartz, a lawyer from Boies, Schiller & Flexner working on the case. “They say explicitly that the sponsors are in charge of ensuring that au pairs are paid in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act [FLSA],” the law that requires all American workers to be paid minimum wage and overtime.

Go Au Pair President Bill Kapler, one of the agencies named in the lawsuit, said his company simply complies with guidelines sent to it by the government when it tells families that the minimum weekly payment is $195.75. “We truly believe it’s what we’ve been told to do,” he said. “If the Department of Labor comes back and says, ‘We’ve changed some rules,’ we’ll follow whatever the rules are.” He pointed out the program “is not meant to be a labor thing at all,” but is run by the State Department to further foreign relations goals. Many other agencies named in the lawsuit declined to comment.

At the heart of the issue may be whether or not the host families can deduct the cost of room and board from what they pay. The complaint filed on behalf of the au pairs claims that families can’t deduct the costs of food and lodging against the minimum wage given that the program requires them to provide those things. But a 2007 letter from the State Department sent to the agencies and shared with ThinkProgress, indicates they may deduct 40 percent of an au pair’s compensation as the room and board credit, thus bringing their weekly stipend for 45 hours a week to $195.75 under the federal $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

Schwartz said that State Department has since withdrawn that notice and instead clarified that au pairs have to be paid in accordance with minimum wage laws. “We believe that the State Department pulled down the June 2007 notice because they realized it was erroneous once Towards Justice filed this suit,” he said. “We’re very confident in our view of the law.”

Either way, the deductions still wouldn’t account for higher state minimum wages, which the lawyers for the au pairs argue agencies would have to comply with. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. have higher wage floors than the federal government does.

The lawsuit also argues that the agencies engaged in anti-trust behavior by conspiring to keep wages so low and in false advertising by making promises to the au pairs that didn’t turn out to be true for many of them. Kapler of Go Au Pair denied that the agencies coordinated on wages or that it made any promises in its advertising beyond “the facts and the rules.”

The complaint brought by Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the nonprofit Towards Justice, and the au pairs argues that the program has been plagued by low wages from the beginning. Started in 1986, sponsors paid just $100 a week for 45 hours of work. This caught the attention of the General Accounting Office in 1990, which issued a report saying that the au pair program was a “full-time child care work” program and the au pairs had to be treated as full-time employees. Later clarifications made it clear they had to be paid according to American wage and hour laws.

The low wages fit into the larger child care picture in the United States, in which care is expensive but also doesn’t pay workers very much. “It’s one more signal that the child care system is broken,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

The current situation doesn’t work for anyone. “It’s broken on both sides,” Blank pointed out. “Parents are really struggling to pay for child care … then the people who are paid for child care don’t get paid enough, don’t get benefits, and don’t get treated well.”

Median pay for U.S. residents who provide child care is just $9.38 an hour, more than what au pairs can expect but on par with fast food employees, bar tenders, and parking lot attendants and less than people who care for animals in zoos or homes. Their pay increased just 1 percent between 1997 and 2013 — barely keeping up with the rising cost of living. At the same time, however, the cost of care for an infant can reach as much as $16,500 a year, on average, and eats up a bigger portion of families’ budgets than food, rent, or, in many states, public college tuition.

So au pairs can be “a solution for families,” Blank noted. The complaint itself notes that “the sponsors extract premiums from families seeking affordable childcare with the sales pitch that even with significant sponsor fees, au pairs are significantly cheaper than other childcare options available in the United States.” In many cases, this is likely true.

Even if the au pairs prevail in their lawsuit against the agencies, it won’t fix this broken system. But Deetlefs hopes it changes things for people brought over to care for American children. She herself was fired from her position when she got involved in the lawsuit and is currently back home in South Africa. But she says it’s not about her. “The whole purpose for me is to make it better for the au pairs that come after us,” she said. “We already had a bad experience and I wish to spare them that.”

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on July 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

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