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This is the elaborate system Congress created to protect sexual predators on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed reported that numerous woman on the staff of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) say the congressman repeatedly sexually harassed them. Conyers’ conduct allegedly included “requests for sexual favors…caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public.” In at least one case, a woman who rebuffed Conyers’ advances says she was fired.

Yet until last night, Conyers’ behavior was secret. Why? There is no better place to be a sexual predator than the U.S. Congress.

Congress has created an elaborate system that protects sexual predators on Capitol Hill, including members of Congress and their staff. In the private sector and elsewhere in the government, victims of sexual harassment have the option of immediately filing a lawsuit and getting their grievances heard in court. But Congress has created a much different set of rules for victims who work on Capitol Hill.

The 180-day statute of limitations to request “counseling”

In order to pursue accountability for a sitting member of Congress for an alleged incident of sexual harassment or assault, a victim must file a written notice with the Office of Compliance within 180 days of the incident. If they don’t act within 180 days, they have no ability to pursue their claims. As reporting on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and others reveals, it can take years for victims to feel comfortable coming forward.

Furthermore, the form to file such a complaint is password protected; a victim must call the Office of Compliance to get the password to initiate the process.

The 30-day “counseling” period

After filing the complaint, the person alleging harassment or assault must participate in a 30-day counseling period. Yes, in Congress, the victims of sexual harassment must submit to counseling, as if there is something wrong with them. During this period, no one else — including the alleged harasser — is even notified the complaint has been filed.

The Office of Compliance puts a sunny face on this process, saying it “provides the employee with an opportunity to assess his/her case before deciding whether to pursue the claim(s) beyond counseling.” In other words, the process starts with a 30-day waiting period in which the victim is given the “opportunity” to consider dropping the entire matter.

The 15-day statute of limitations to request mediation

After going through the counseling process, the alleged victim has just 15 days to file a request for mediation. If they fail to do so, the claim is extinguished. The form to request mediation is also password protected and must be obtained from the Office of Compliance.

The 30-day mediation period

After the counseling process, the alleged victim is still prohibited from filing a case in court. Rather, they must enter mandatory, confidential mediation which lasts at least another 30 days. The mediation period involves “the employing office, employee, and [Office of Compliance] mediator.” The purpose of the mediation, according to the Office of Compliance, is to “resolve the dispute.”

The individual alleging harassment or assault is also required to keep this mediation secret. “All mediation shall be strictly confidential, and the Executive Director shall notify each person participating in the mediation of the confidentiality requirement and of the sanctions applicable to any person who violates the confidentiality requirement,” according to the poorly named Congressional Accountability Act, which governs the process. The alleged perpetrator may not even be involved in this process, even if the claim is settled. John Conyers, whose case was settled through mediation, claimed he was unaware of any allegations against him — although sources tell BuzzFeed he did know.

There are also indications of misconduct within the Office of Compliance. Conyers’ settlement was confidential but documents were leaked by someone to Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and professional misogynist, who shared the documents with BuzzFeed.

The taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlement

As part of the mediation process, the parties can reach a settlement to resolve the dispute. But this settlement is not paid by the person who actually conducted the sexual harassment. Rather, the settlement is paid by you, the taxpayer. “[O]nly funds which are appropriated to an account of the Office in the Treasury of the United States for the payment of awards and settlements may be used for the payment of awards and settlements under this chapter,” the Congressional Accountability Actstates. This is why Conyers did not have to pay a penny of his own money to settle claims against his alleged victims.

According to the Washington Post, the Office of Compliance has paid more than $17 million over the past two decades to settle complaints regarding violations of workplace rules, including but not limited to sexual harassment cases. But BuzzFeed’s reporting indicates this doesn’t get at the scope of the problem. At least one settlement with a woman who alleged Conyers harassed her was paid from Conyers’ office budget, not from the Office of Compliance.

The 30-day waiting period and 60-day statute of limitations for filing a complaint

After making it through counseling and mediation, the victim must wait 30 days before doing anything. It’s unclear what this waiting period is for, other than to pressure the victim to accept a settlement offer or drop the claim. The victim then has just 60 days to either file an administrative complaint with the Office of Compliance or file a case in federal district court. The form to file an administrative complaint is also password protected. If the victim does not take any action within 90 days of the end of mediation, the claim is extinguished.

The secret administrative hearing

The administrative proceeding, unlike a federal court case, is also confidential and presents another opportunity for a perpetrator to keep the allegations secret. The hearings are closed to the public. (The hearing officer is empowered to dismiss any claim without a hearing if he or she judges the claim to be “frivolous.”) The responding party is not the individual that engaged in sexual harassment, but the office that employed that person. A record of the proceedings are only made public if the victim is successful.

If the victim disagrees with the decision, he or she must appeal first to the board of the Office of Compliance. After the Office of Compliance issue their decision, the victim may appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. That means there will be no independent evaluation of the evidence, rather the appeals court simply reviews for arbitrary or capricious application of the law, a very high legal standard.

If the victim wins in the administrative hearing, the payment is made from taxpayer money. They are not entitled to receive civil penalties or punitive damages under the law. This keeps both the awards and the settlements fairly low. Over 20 years, Congress has paid $17.1 million to 264 victims, a figure that includes sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination — an average award of about $65,000.

A federal case against a congressional office, not the person engaging in sexual harassment

After all this, a victim still cannot sue a member of Congress or other staff member who engaged in sexual harassment. Rather, if a victim choses to forgo the administrative hearing, he or she can file a federal case against the office where the sexual harassment allegedly occurred. In this case, victims are still not entitled to civil penalties or punitive damages. This makes the choice to file a suit, in most cases, prohibitively expensive since even a successful case will not bring in a large award.

Whatever money is awarded still is not paid by the sexual harasser but by taxpayers.

With more recent scrutiny on the systems in place to hold accountable powerful men accused of assault and harassment, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) recently introduced legislation to reform this process. Their bill would make counseling and mediation optional. It would also require hearings to be completed within 180 days after the complaint is filed. Complaints under the new legislation could also be filed anonymously. Members of Congress who personally engage in sexual harassment would be required to pay their own settlements and awards, rather than using taxpayer funds for this purpose.

The proposed bill — called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act, or ME TOO Congress — still requires an administrative complaint or civil action to be filed 180 days after the alleged incident.

Gillibrand and Speier’s bill has attracted three co-sponsors in the Senate and five in the House. All of Gillibrand’s co-sponsors are Democratic women. Speier’s co-sponsors include three Republican men.

This article was published at ThinkProgress on November 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Judd Legum is the founder and editor in chief of ThinkProgress

Forced Arbitration Protects Sexual Predators and Corporate Wrongdoing

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Fox News.  Sterling Jewelers.  Wells Fargo. 

What do they all have in common?  For years, they successfully kept corporate wrongdoing secret, through forced arbitration.

Buried in the fine print of employment contracts and consumer agreements, forced arbitration clauses prohibit you from going to court to enforce your rights.  Instead, employees who experience harassment and discrimination, or consumers who are the victims of financial fraud or illegal fees, are sent to a private arbitration forum.  Frequently designed, chosen, and paid for by the employer or corporation, in arbitration everything is conducted in secret. People who suffered the same abuses often can’t join together to show how rampant a problem is and confront a powerful adversary—and people are less likely to come forward at all, because they have no idea they aren’t alone.

When Gretchen Carlson sought her day in court over sexual harassment allegations against Roger Ailes, her former boss at Fox News, Mr. Ailes’s lawyers had a quick response: send the case to forced arbitration.  After she filed suit, he also invoked a clause that reportedly required absolute secrecy: “all filings, evidence and testimony connected with arbitration, and all relevant allegations and events leading up to the arbitration, shall be held in strict confidence.” It was only because she resisted that clause through a creative legal theory that her allegations were made public—unleashing a tsunami of claims of sexual harassment by Ailes and others at Fox News.

Hundreds and maybe thousands of former employees of Sterling Jewelers, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate behind Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, known for advertising slogans such as “Every kiss begins with Kay,” were allegedly groped, demeaned, and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed.  The evidence of apparent rampant sexual assault was kept secret for years from other survivors and the general public through gag orders imposed in forced arbitration.

The same thing happened at American Apparel, where employees and models were forced to arbitrate sexual harassment claims and keep the details secret, and the proceedings were reportedly a sham.

We don’t yet know if Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein used forced arbitration to suppress allegations of his decades-long campaign of sexually harassing, abusing, and assaulting young assistants, temps, employees and executives at the Weinstein Company and Miramax.  But the clauses may well have played a role, and his nondisclosure agreements and secret one-by-one settlements worked to the same effect.

And forced arbitration clauses do not only hide wrongdoing in sexual harassment cases.  Corporations also use forced arbitration to isolate victims and cover up massive, widespread wrongdoing in the financial sector.

For example, forced arbitration clauses found in legitimate customer accounts let Wells Fargo block lawsuits related to the 3.5 million sham accounts it opened; as a result it kept its massive scandal secret for years, and then lied to Congress about it.  People began trying to sue Wells Fargo in 2013, but cases were pushed out of our public courts into secret arbitrations, and Wells Fargo continued creating fake accounts.

KeyBank, like Wells Fargo, has also used forced arbitration to keep disputes secret and block relief for people charged overdraft fees when their accounts weren’t overdrawn.  A court recently ruled “unconscionable” KeyBank’s provision requiring a customer to “keep confidential any decision of an arbitrator.”  But the court allowed KeyBank to force the plaintiff to arbitrate his case individually, despite the fact that thousands or millions of KeyBank customers were subject to the same abuses. These customers were not permitted to come together to challenge these abuses as a group in court, because of forced arbitration.

By imposing secrecy and isolating victims, forced arbitration shields corporate wrongdoing and leaves it more difficult for those harmed to hold the wrongdoers accountable.  That’s why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a rule earlier this year prohibiting banks, payday lenders and other financial companies from using forced arbitration to cover up widespread frauds, scams and abuses.  This is a first step in the right direction of restoring Americans’ rights to challenge predatory practices.  But some in Congress have threatened to block this important protection. 

Earlier this year, Congress and President Trump overturned rules that prohibited employers with federal contracts from forcing employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or sexual assault claims, or claims alleging discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or religion.  In so doing, they took power away from women facing sexual harassment and returned it to those trying desperately to keep that harassment under wraps.

We cannot tolerate another blow against Americans seeking to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable.  The CFPB’s rule must be permitted to go forward. 

This blog was originally published at Public Citizen Litigation Group’s Consumer Law & Policy Blog on October 23, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Emily Martin is General Counsel and Vice President for Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. She oversees the Center’s advocacy, policy, and education efforts to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunity for women at work and to achieve the workplace standards that allow all women to achieve and succeed, with a particular focus on the obstacles that confront women in low-wage jobs and women of color.

Oregon passes law protecting workers from predatory scheduling by bosses

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Good news for Oregon workers in the retail and fast food industries. The state has become the first to pass a law protecting workers from some of the worst scheduling abuses employers love so much.

One in six Oregonians receive less than 24 hours of notice before their shifts, according to a survey the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center published in February.

Now, Oregon is mandating that the state’s largest employers in the retail, hospitality and food service industries — those with more than 500 workers — give employees their schedules in writing at least a week ahead of time.

They’ll also have to give workers a 10-hour break between shifts, or pay them extra.

Refinery 29 interviewed some workers about how the law would affect their jobs; according to Tia Raynor:

I worked for an international company that owns a bunch of coffee shops in airports. So while I was working there, they told me that I would have a set schedule. Within seven months, my schedule had changed eight times.

“I am a veteran with PTSD, due to being in Iraq a couple of times, and I was not able to go to my group counseling sessions because my schedule got changed.”

Laws like this should be on the Democratic agenda at all levels: Democratic state legislatures could be passing scheduling protections just as Republican state legislatures pass anti-abortion and anti-union laws, and if Democrats want to campaigning to retake Congress on a good jobs agenda, this belongs right alongside minimum wage and paid leave.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos Labor on August 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos. Previous. she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College and the Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of “I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers.”

New CFPB Rule – a Poster Child for Regulation

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

The new CFPB rule is critically important in its own right, but it is also interesting to view the battle over this rule as a microcosm of the fight we so often see between free market devotees and fans of regulation. Bankers, credit card issuers, payday lenders and the Chamber of Commerce have urged for many years that consumers should be free to “choose” to resolve disputes through individual arbitration – supposedly a quicker, cheaper better mode of dispute resolution as compared to litigation and class actions.  In contrast, those who oppose forced arbitration assert that such arbitration is unfair for consumers and bad for society as a whole.  Ultimately this battle between free marketeers and pro-regulation forces turns on principles of economics, psychology, and political philosophy, as I have detailed elsewhere.

While those who oppose regulation urge that financial consumers should be free to choose to resolve future disputes through individual arbitration rather than through class actions, empirical studies and common sense tell us that consumers do not knowingly choose a contract based on the arbitration clause.  We do not focus on such clauses, we do not usually understand them and our human psychology leads us to be overly optimistic that no disputes will arise in any event.  Nor would it make sense for all consumers to spend the time and energy to try to figure out such clauses.

We also cannot count on the miracle of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to ensure that financial service companies act in the best interest of consumers.  The lack of perfect competition, customers’ lack of complete information, the impact of clauses on third parties and the unequal initial distribution of resources all ensure that the market will not miraculously do what is best for customers.

Philosophically, how can one argue with a straight face that clauses imposed unknowingly in small print contracts are supported by principles of freedom or autonomy?  As Professor Hiro Aragaki has explained, perhaps autonomy supports freedom from contracts of adhesion more than freedom of contracts of adhesion.

So, we need regulation. What should the regulation look like? Is forced arbitration the quicker, cheaper, better form of dispute resolution that its advocates suggest? Do class actions help consumers or do they only enrich the lawyers who bring them? The CFPB used extensive empirical investigation to answer these questions.  It found that (1) financial consumers are typically unaware of the arbitration clauses to which they are subjected; (2) only miniscule numbers of financial consumers actually bring claims in arbitration; and (3) financial class actions, e.g. over improper check bouncing charges, have brought billions of dollars of benefits to millions of consumers and also imposed non-monetary sanctions, all helping to deter future illegal conduct.  Thus, CFPB concluded that, at minimum, it should prevent financial companies from using arbitration to insulate themselves from class actions.  It issued the rule to achieve that end.  The new CFPB rule also requires companies to submit additional information to CFPB regarding their arbitration programs so that CFPB can conduct additional analyses and decide whether more/different regulation may be needed.

Hurrah for the CFPB!   Its new rule is supported by psychology, economics, and political philosophy.  Nonetheless, the new rule is under serious threat.  Congress may consider proposals to gut the rule as early as next week, and the Acting Comptroller of the Currency is threatening to void it on the ground that allowing financial consumers to sue in class actions would threaten the soundness of the banking system.

The CFPB says otherwise, and expresses surprise that such a claim is being made at the tail end of a very public three year study.

Let’s now all take what steps we can to preserve this rule against the attacks that are coming in Congress, from elsewhere in the bureaucracy, and in the courts.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) just issued a new rule prohibiting financial service providers from using forced arbitration to prevent their customers from suing the company in class actions.  While many of us believe this rule is a “great win for consumers,” others are trying to gut it in Congressin the courts, or through administrative action by the Comptroller of the Currency.

Jimmy John’s Fired Workers for Making a ‘Disloyal’ Meme. A Court Just Ruled That’s Okay.

Friday, July 14th, 2017

In a decision emblematic of the new climate of Trumpian governance, a federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled on July 3 that it is acceptable for the boss of a fast-food chain to fire workers for the sin of being “disloyal.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a ruling issued by the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a case spawned by a labor organizing drive at the Jimmy John’s fast-food chain. The court held that Miklin Enterprises, the owner of Jimmy John’s franchises in Minneapolis, had the right to fire six pro-union advocates because they demonstrated “disloyalty” by distributing flyers in 2011 that implied the company was selling unsafe food contaminated by employees obliged to work while sick with the flu.

The organizers designed and distributed memes that showed images of identical Jimmy John’s sandwiches. One was “made by a healthy Jimmy John’s worker,” the other by a “sick” worker. “Can’t tell the different?” the poster continued. “That’s too bad because Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days. Shoot, we can’t even call in sick. We hope your immune system is ready because you’re about to take the sandwich test.”

The Minneapolis union campaign, launched by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’), has been high-profile from the start. First erupting in 2010, the effort quickly developed into an intense legal fight at the NLRB before advancing to the federal courts. It even spilled over into the U.S. Congress in 2014 with the revelation that Jimmy John’s routinely required its low-paid sandwich makers to sign questionable “non-compete agreements.”

Threatened with punitive action by the attorneys general in several states, Jimmy John’s rescinded its non-compete policies in 2016, but not before the company’s reputation had been tarnished.

Like the non-compete agreements, the July 3 court decision is an unwarranted attack on labor rights, says William B. Gould IV, a labor law professor at Stanford University and former chairman of the federal labor board.

“The first thing that strikes you is how archaic this feels,” Gould tells In These Times. “The legal basis is from a case in the 1950s when people had a whole different concept of loyalty owed to their employer.

“In those days,” Gould continues, “the assumption was that loyalty was a two-way street: You were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to you. Now, with Uber and Lyft and the others, companies are even refusing to admit that you are one of their employees, so there isn’t much talk about loyalty owed to the employer anymore.”

The July 3 decision turns on the interpretation of ‘loyalty’ articulated in the 1953 Supreme Court case National Labor Relations Board v. Local Union 1229 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, known as “Jefferson Standard” for short. Earlier in the process of the more recent NLRB case, the labor agency’s Obama appointees had ruled that the firing of the workers was an illegal violation of their rights to form a union. But the appeals court decision reversed that decision, asserting that the disloyalty displayed by the pamphlets gave the employer the right to fire the workers, Gould explains.

The court stated, “(W)hile an employee’s subjective intent is of course relevant to the disloyalty inquiry—”sharp, public, disparaging attack” suggests an intent to harm the Jefferson Standard principle includes an objective component that focuses, not on the employee’s purpose, but on the means used—whether the disparaging attack was ‘reasonably calculated to harm the company’s reputation and reduce its income,’ to such an extent that it was harmful, indefensible disparagement of the employer or its product.”

Erik Forman was fired six years ago for organizing a union at a Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis. He told In These Times, “The big takeaway for me is that this ruling means workers do not have the right to tell the truth about their employer,” he said, adding: “The ruling is incredibly slanted towards the employer. They frame our campaign for sick days as an attack on the employer and turn logic on its head. We told the truth about the risk to the public.”

“Employers’ motivation wasn’t just to stop the sick-day campaign,” Forman continued. “It was to stop our unionization effort.”

According to Gould, “This case comes from the 8th Circuit which is the most conservative in the country. It’s the worst circuit in the country for a labor union, or for labor rights.”

The ultra-conservative nature of the ruling may have the unintended benefit of limiting its applicability to workers other than the Minneapolis Jimmy John’s employees, the former NLRB chairman adds. Other judicial districts may not be eager to follow its lead because many traditionally defer to the NLRB in matters of this kind, he says, and few employers will want to take the legal risk of relying on a circuit court ruling that has not been confirmed by the Supreme Court.

The reversal of the Obama-era NLRB decision mirrors action in Congress, where several measures are under consideration to roll back pro-worker measures adopted by the labor board during Obama’s tenure. This week, the U.S. Senate is considering thenomination of two Trump NLRB appointees, both of whom have been criticized as anti-worker by the AFL-CIO.

Carmen Spell, an NLRB representative at the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, would only comment that “(w)e are considering options at this time” on how the agency will respond to the court ruling.

Jane Hardey, a spokeswoman for Jimmy John’s, declined any comment, asserting that the legal case involved only the Minneapolis franchise owner, and did not involve the sandwich chain company itself. Hardey did not respond to a request from In These Times for a telephone interview with Jimmy John Liautard, the controversial founder of the franchise.

According to the Jimmy John’s web site, the rapidly growing chain currently has 2,701 locations in 48 states. The number of employees is estimated at over 100,000.

“The fact that we were fired over six years ago in retaliation for union organizing should tell everyone that you cannot rely on labor law in this country,” says Forman. “Every single decision can now be appealed up to a Trump Supreme Court. We need to find new ways of building and exercising power on our own.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 13, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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’s Daily 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.

Get Back Your Right To Take Your Bank To Court

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Wall Street, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and right-wing Republicans are ganging up again this week against consumers who want to hold financial institutions that rip them off accountable.

The target this time is a rule issued this week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that is designed to restore the ability bank and credit card customers, as individuals or as a group, to take a financial dispute to court.

“Our new rule will restore the ability of groups of people to file or join group lawsuits. In some cases, not only will companies have to provide relief, they will also have to change their behavior moving forward,” said a statement issued by the agency. “People who would otherwise have to go it alone or give up, will be able to join with others to pursue justice and some remedy for their harm.”

However, unsurprisingly, it took less than a day for the guardians of Wall Street profiteering to attack the rule. They are the same people – like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in the Senate and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, in the House – who are working to either get rid of the CFPB entirely or render it toothless.

That’s why People’s Action is launching a petition asking Congress to keep the CFPB arbitration rule and protect the ability of ordinary people to go to court against corporate wrongdoers.

Cotton announced Tuesday that he would be introducing legislation to undo the rule under the execrable Congressional Review Act, the same tool Republicans have been using since President Trump took office to undo a host of Obama-era regulations.

Quoted in The Washington Examiner, “Cotton accused the bureau of “going rogue again” and said that the rule “ignores the consumer benefits of arbitration and treats Arkansans like helpless children, incapable of making business decisions in their own best interests.”

Reuters reported that “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is contemplating a legal challenge and Trump administration officials are also looking at ways to kill the rule.”

Many customers don’t realize that right now, if they believe their bank or credit card customer has ripped them off or otherwise harmed them, they can’t take the matter to court.

That’s because buried in the fine print of more than 50 percent of the nation’s credit card account agreements and more than 40 percent of the bank account agreements, accoording to a 2015 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report, there’s language that says if you want to challenge wrong or unfair charges to your account, you are required to go into a binding arbitration process, rather than take the dispute to a court.

The arbitration process is rigged to favor the financial institution. When The New York Times looked at this process in 2015, it found that few customers used the arbitration process, and when they did, consumers lost roughly two-thirds of the time. The process is also explicitly designed to keep consumers with similar complaints from banding together to confront patterns of bad behavior.

Among other things, arbitration clauses shielded Wells Fargo from a class action lawsuit when its employees were creating thousands of bogus consumer accounts in order to meet sales quotas.

It’s only fair: If you steal from a bank, you’ll be brought before a judge. The same should happen if a bank steals from you – and thousands of others. That’s what the CFPB rule says.

The use of the Congressional Review Act is particularly pernicious because ff these Republicans succeed this won’t be a temporary setback. This fundamentally unfair and undemocratic practice that keeps Wall Street from being held legally accountable for its actions would be permanently locked in, because the act not only invalidates the rule but prohibits an agency from writing a similar rule in the future.

Sign this petition so Congress hears you loud and clear: Keep the CFPB arbitration rule and protect our right to challenge corporate wrongdoers in court.

Republican leaders in Congress are hell-bent on neutering the CFPB or eliminating it altogether, precisely because it takes actions like this to even the playing field for consumers going up against the financial giants.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 13, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah Poole is communications director of People’s Action, and has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

News from Congress: VA Employees' Civil Service Protections Slashed

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

On June 23, 2017, the President signed into law Pub.L. 115-41.  The new statute reduces civil service protections for employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA).

Pub.L. 115-41 renews the push to cut back VA civil service protections, after the prior attempt under the last Administration saw adverse actions reversed at the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and portions of the statute struck down as unconstitutional.

Pub.L. 115-41 is more expansive than the prior statute.  Instead of just applying to Senior Executive Service (SES) employees at DVA, the statute applies to all DVA civil service employees, but different rules apply to different categories of employees.

SES employees and certain other individuals in executive or administrative positions can be removed, suspended, reprimanded, involuntarily reassigned or demoted by the Secretary, with notice and opportunity to respond to the proposal limited to 7 business days and the overall period from proposal to decision limited to 15 business days.  Affected DVA employees lose MSPB appeal rights.  Instead, adverse actions taken under this mechanism may solely be grieved to a new DVA internal grievance process, with a final decision due within 21 days.  Final decisions by DVA are then subject to judicial review.

Other DVA employees also suffer cuts to their civil service protections.  Under Pub.L. 115-41, affected employees may receive proposed adverse actions from the Secretary, with notice and opportunity to respond to the proposal limited to 7 business days and the overall period from proposal to decision limited to 15 business days.  MSPB appeal rights are retained, but the appeal deadline is cut to 10 business days.  The MSPB administrative judge must issue a final decision within 180 days.  The VA’s burden of proof to support its charges is cut to mere substantial evidence.  The MSPB may not mitigate to a lesser penalty (it must uphold the penalty or reverse entirely).

Pub.L. 115-41 moves into statute the DVA whistleblower office created by Executive Order 13,793.  The Secretary cannot remove, demote or suspend non-executive whistleblowers with active cases before the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) or the DVA whistleblower office without permission of the relevant whistleblower office.

Pub.L. 115-41 also allows the Secretary to disallow retirement service credit for DVA employees who are convicted of felonies.  Pub.L. 115-41 also allows the Secretary to claw back bonuses, awards and relocation expenses paid to DVA employees under certain circumstances.

This blog was originally published by The Attorneys of Passman & Kaplan, PC on July 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

Democrats unveil plan for a $15 minimum wage

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Congressional Democrats have unveiled their strongest minimum wage plan yet. And while Republicans will block this, it’s important to get the word out: this is what we’d be moving toward if Democrats were making the laws.

Their legislation, dubbed the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing it from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $9.20 an hour once it’s passed and then adding about a dollar a year for seven years until it gets to $15. It would rise automatically after that as the country’s median wages rose.

The bill would eventually do away with the separate tipped minimum wage, which currently allows those who earn tips as part of their compensation to be paid as little as $2.13 an hour by their employers. It would increase that rate to $3.15 and then gradually raise it so it would eventually reach $15 an hour.

Seven years is slow, but otherwise, this plan checks some important boxes—in particular, raising the tipped minimum wage and setting it so that the minimum wage rises automatically rather than requiring a fight each and every time it’s raised. If Democrats had done that the last time they raised the minimum wage, it wouldn’t still be stuck at $7.25 an hour nearly eight years after its last increase, years during which it’s lost nearly 10 percent of its purchasing power. The Raise the Wage Act would also ensure that people with disabilities are paid the full minimum wage.

Every single time you talk about lawmakers backing a $15 minimum wage, you have to remember that it’s low-wage workers who pushed $15 into the realm of possibility, organizing around a number nearly $5 higher than the high end of Democratic proposals at the time. Their organizing has changed the discussion—and in two states and several large cities, it’s helped change the law.

We need to change the Congress, though, before we’ll see nationwide progress.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Republicans Repealing A Rule To Stop Wage Theft? It’s Who They Are

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Who could be against rules that try to protect workers from having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk, and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations? See if you can guess who.

Last August, President Obama implemented a ‘Fair Pay And Safe Workplaces’ executive order that aims to stop companies from getting federal contracts if they violate labor and civil rights laws, steal workers’ wages and risk their health and safety. Actually, it just says the government will take violations into consideration, and yes, he waited eight years to implement this.

So of course, Republicans being who they are, have now voted in the House and Senate to repeal this act, exposing workers once again to having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk, and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations.

Obama’s executive order also required companies bidding on federal contracts to disclose if they had been busted for violating federal and state labor laws. Government procurement officers would then try to work with these companies to come into compliance with the laws and could deny contracts if they refused to.

That kind of government meddling against corporate wage theft and health & safety violations was just too much for Republicans. On February 2, the House voted 236 to 187 to get rid of this rule. Three “Democrats” voted with Republicans to protect corporate wage-stealers: Jim Costa (CA 16), Luis Correa (CA 46) and Henry Cuellar (TX 28).

Remember those names, and if you live on one of those districts click this and consider running for office yourself.

On March 6, the Senate voted 49 to 46 to repeal, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces act, with all Democrats voting on the side of protecting workers, and all Republicans voting on the side of protecting corporate wage-stealers.

This bill is waiting for President Trump to sign or veto it. Will Trump, who campaigned on the side of working people, sign this repeal of an act that tries to protect workers from having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations? Heh.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on March 9, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

New Congress on Track to Block Long-Sought Workplace and Public Health Protections

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

An estimated 10,000 Americans die from asbestos-caused diseases each year, a figure that’s considered conservative. Asbestos is no longer mined in the United States but it still exists in products here, perpetuating exposure, especially for workers in construction and other heavy industries. In June 2016, after years of debate, the country’s major chemical regulation law was updated for the first time in 40 years, removing a major obstacle to banning asbestos.

Exposure to beryllium, a metal used in aerospace, defense, and communications industry manufacturing, to which about 62,000 U.S. workers are exposed annually, can cause a severe, chronic lung disease. On January 6, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a rule—more than 15 years in the making—that dramatically lowers allowable workplace exposure to beryllium. OSHA says this will prevent 94 premature deaths and prevent 46 new cases of beryllium-related disease per year.

On April 17, 2013, an explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured hundreds. In late December—after a four-year process involving public, business, governments and non-profit input—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule designed to prevent such accidents, improve community response to and preparedness for such disasters.

Those three examples are among the occupational and public health protective policies finalized by the Obama administration now jeopardized by antiregulatory legislation already passed by the 115th Congress. It remains to be seen if this legislation will become law and actually used. But, says University of Texas School of Law professor Thomas McGarity, the likely outcome is “that this will make people sick and unsafe.”

“Landscape is grim as it is”

In addition to having the ability to pass antiregulatory legislation, Congress has at its disposal the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Passed in 1996 by the Newt Gingrich-led House, it allows Congress to overturn a regulation passed during the last 60 legislative working days of an outgoing administration. What’s more, it prevents the creation of a substantially similar regulation. It’s only been used once, in 2001, to overturn the ergonomics regulation passed by OSHA under President Bill Clinton.

Add to this the Midnight Rules Relief Act, passed by the House on January 4. It amends the CRA, allowing Congress to overturn multiple regulations promulgated during the previous administration’s last six months, rather than individually as the CRA requires. “This allows the House to pick and choose rules that industry doesn’t like and do it all at once,” McGarity explains.

Also already passed by the House is the Regulatory Accountability Act. It includes a provision that could threaten the change made to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) eliminating the provision that prevented the EPA from banning asbestos. As Natural Resources Defense Council director of government affairs, David Goldston explains, “This bill has a provision that says notwithstanding any other provision of law, costs and benefits have to be considered when writing a rule.” Goldston calls this phrase “dangerous,” as it means putting economic costs to industry ahead of costs to human health as TSCA previously required—a requirement the revised bill eliminated.

And, as if these laws weren’t enough to threaten existing regulations, there’s the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act), also already passed by the House. This law essentially says that an agency rule can’t go into effect unless Congress approves it. Or, as University of Maryland Carey School of Law professor Rena Steinzor explained in the American Prospect, “In a drastic power grab, the House has approved a measure that would strip executive agencies of the authority to issue significant new regulations.”

“If the REINS Act becomes law, then Congressional inaction will supersede previous Congressional action on fundamental bedrock popular health, safety and environmental protection laws,” says Public Citizen regulatory policy advocate Amit Narang.

He also points out that if the administration of Donald Trump declines to defend regulations now under legal challenge, they could also be undone. Among the rules now being challenged is OSHA’s long sought updated restriction on occupational silica exposure.

“The landscape is grim as it is,” says Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at the non-profit citizens’ rights advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to OSHA’s limited resources. “There are nearly 5,000 workers dying on the job every year and OSHA’s not able to respond to threats as they’re happening.” Now, she says, “I’m looking at a Congress that would nearly paralyze rulemaking.”

“Designed to smash the system not reform it”

These laws effectively knock the foundation out from under how agencies like OSHA, the Department of Labor and EPA go about creating the network of regulations needed to implement the intent of laws that protect workplace and public health.

“This is designed to smash the system not reform it,” says Goldston of this antiregulatory legislation.

Not surprisingly, the historically pro-big business U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports antiregulatory legislation, as does the American Chemistry Council and National Association of Manufacturers. On the other hand, it’s opposed by American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 250,000 business owners and says the regulations these laws aim to undo are needed to support healthy, thriving workplaces and the economy.

Apart from the CRA, all of this legislation still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law. But with a Republicans in the majority and Trump in the White House, vetoes seem highly unlikely.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on January 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

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