Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘DOL’

Trump administration tip-stealing plan is getting hammered

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

The Trump Labor Department’s proposal to let bosses steal workers’ tips—$5.8 billion of them—is under heavy fire. After news broke that the department hid the data showing how bad the plan would be for workers, House Democrats demanded that the Labor Department show its work:

Four House Democrats, in an oversight letter sent Feb. 2 to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, asked the DOL to fork over copies of all analyses completed as part of the tip pool rulemaking process. […]

In addition to demands for the DOL to divulge its analyses, the Democrats want a copy of all communication between the DOL and White House Office of Management and Budget pertaining to the quantitative economic analysis.

And the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General said it was reviewing what happened and how. And 17 state attorneys general filed a letter opposing the rule change:

If implemented, the rescission would greatly harm millions of employees in the United States who depend on tips and would create the real potential for customers to be deceived as to whom will receive and benefit from their tips.

The tip-stealing proposal is also unpopular with the public: a poll conducted for the National Employment Law Project found 82 percent of people opposed.

None of this means that Trump’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, is going to back down. But once again the Trump administration is making clear where it stands—definitely not with workers.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on February 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Here’s How Trump’s Labor Department Quietly Gave Bosses Even More Power Over Their Workers

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

On January 5, the Department of Labor (DOL) quietly took a step to bolster the legal power of bosses over their workers by reissuing 17 previously withdrawn opinion letters. Developed at the end of George W. Bush’s final term, the letters had been withdrawn by the Obama administration, which discontinued the practice of issuing opinion letters altogether.

Opinion letters address specific questions submitted to the DOL by either employees or employers. The party then receives an official interpretation from the DOL Wage and Hour Division (WHD) detailing how the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act is implicated in their case. That opinion can then be used as guidance in future litigation. Other employers can also rely on an opinion letter, even if they didn’t request it themselves, as long as the facts are similar.

Critics of opinion letters point out that they take a long time for the labor department to craft (the George W. Bush administration averaged just 28 a year), and they only address one company’s specific situation—despite the fact that they can be used to the advantage of other employers in future cases.

There’s another big critique of opinion letters: They make it easier for employers to fight labor violation claims in court.

“Employers love opinion letters,” Patricia Smith, former Obama administration solicitor of labor, told In These Times. “They’re viewed by many as Get-Out-of-Jail Free cards.”

This sentiment was echoed by Michael Hancock, who managed the WHD opinion process for Bush’s final term. “It’s no secret that the opinion letter process largely serves the interest of employers; it gives them a legal defense if their practices comport with what the opinion letter says, even if the Department of Labor was wrong in what the opinion states,” he told Bloomberg last March. “It offers a serious and real significant defense to employers.”

Employers typically have the resources to pay their attorneys to talk with WHD officials before they request an opinion, so they can make sure they only ask if they are going to get a favorable result. The process is further skewed toward employers if the administration they’re requesting opinion from is employer-friendly—a fact that is certainly true of the Trump administration.

The Obama administration ended the established practice of issuing opinion letters and decided to issue a small amount of informal guidance documents instead. Last June, Trump’s labor secretary Alexander Acosta announced that he was withdrawing two of the informal guidance documents, a move that was hailed by business groups, as the documents both benefited workers. One of the letters dictated that subcontractors could be held liable if they failed to comply with FLSA requirements. The other offered an interpretation of “joint employers” and required some businesses to comply with the FLSA’s overtime rules.  That same month Acosta announced that opinion letters were returning.

Lawyers who say that they received favorable opinions for employers during the George W. Bush administration explained to Bloomberg how the process worked. Christopher A. Parlo, who represents management clients, said, “In the past you could go to DOL and lay out a scenario for them and they would give you their informal view on how that situation might play out. And if you didn’t believe that the result was one that would help your client or industry, you could choose not to ask for formal opinion. I thought that was a great process.”

The 17 Bush administration opinions that are being revived refer to a variety of topics, from year-end non-discretionary bonuses to salary deductions for full-day absences. Smith told In These Times that it was hard to know exactly what kind of impact these specific opinions would have, but said she thought that the move was at least partially symbolic: a signal to employers that the pro-business policies of Bush’s labor department have officially returned. “The message is, ‘We’re back,’” she said.

National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens issued a strong statement regarding the move, calling it “another example of how this administration is siding with big business to make it harder to get paid for working overtime and to make it easier for companies to reap the benefits of young workers’ labor without paying a cent for it.”

There’s a good chance that the WHD, which issues the opinion letters, will be soon be run by Trump nominee Cheryl Stanton, who is expected to be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate early this year. Stanton served as the White House’s principal legal liaison to the Labor Department under George W. Bush and spent years defending companies in labor cases. She’s also had an unpaid wage scandal of her own: In 2016 she was sued for allegedly failing to pay her house cleaners.

For the first time in over eight years, employers will be able to ask the White House for advice when they get tied up in legal battles. It seems quite probable that the pro-business forces dominating the Trump administration will have a lot to give.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Modern-day Braceros: The United States has 450,000 guestworkers in low-wage jobs and doesn’t need more

Friday, March 31st, 2017

On César Chávez Day, lost in all the news about the Trump administration’s criminalization and scapegoating of immigrants and attempts to withhold federal funds from cities with policies that protect immigrants, are the 450,000 low-wage-earning migrant workers employed in the United States through the H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 visa temporary foreign worker programs. Many of the workers in these temporary visa programs are in a precarious situation and vulnerable to abuse and retaliation at the hands of employers and their agents.

These “guestworkers” often arrive in the United States in debt, and are tied to and controlled by their employers. Research shows guestworkers are often paid lower wages than similarly situated U.S. workers, and earn wages similar to those of undocumented immigrant workers. This is reminiscent of the Bracero Program—a large guestworker program in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that admitted hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to work temporarily on U.S. farms and in other low-wage occupations—and which César Chávez fought against. Chávez knew that exploited, indentured, and underpaid workers would degrade labor standards for all workers in the United States, including immigrants. After scandals, political pressure, and President John F. Kennedy campaigning against it, the program was terminated in 1964.

Sadly, America has not learned its lesson. The United States is repeating an historical mistake, once again admitting large numbers of guestworkers in low-wage occupations. With the possibility looming that the Trump administration will reduce enforcement and oversight in guestworker programs—which will be further exacerbated if Trump’s proposed 21 percent budget cuts to the Department of Labor (DOL) are enacted—the United States may once again face scandals like the one where the bodies of guestworkers who died in a traffic accident were not immediately claimed, because farm labor contractors and agricultural growers argued over who their employer was.

A snapshot of today’s low-wage guestworker programs

The H-2A program allows employers to hire workers from abroad for agricultural jobs that normally last less than one year, including picking crops and sheepherding. There is no numerical limit on H-2A visas, and in recent years, the H-2A program has grown sharply, doubling over the past five years to 134,000 workers, and accounting for nearly 10 percent of the crop labor force.

H-2B workers are employed in seasonal (nine months or less) low-wage nonagricultural jobs like landscaping, forestry, food processing, hospitality, and construction. There is an annual numerical limit of 66,000, but workers often stay longer than one year or have their stay extended. Despite the cap on the H-2B program, a “returning worker exemption” allowed 85,000 new visas to be issued in 2016.

The J-1 visa is part of the Exchange Visitor Program, a cultural exchange program run by the State Department that has 14 different J-1 programs, including programs that permit Fulbright Scholars to come to the United States, but also five de facto low-wage guestworker programs. J-1 workers in low-wage occupations are au pairs, camp counselors, maids and housekeepers, lifeguards, and staff restaurants, ice cream shops and amusement parks and national parks like Yellowstone. Only one of the five programs is numerically limited: the Summer Work Travel program is capped at 109,000 per year.

Numerous media reports and legal proceedings have documented how H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 guestworkers are treated poorly. For example, Buzzfeed News asked whether H-2A and H-2B are “The New American Slavery?” and Politico Magazine reported this week that the State Department covered up and lied about thousands of complaints received from J-1 workers. Immigrant worker advocates have been sounding the alarm bells about all three programs for years, but the employers who hire guestworkers continue to lobby for more visas and fewer rules that protect workers.

So, how many workers are employed in these three programs? Calculating the number of workers is not straightforward, and the government does not publish reliable data by visa. Using the same methodology I developed in this report, I estimate in Table 1 below that there were over 270,000 low-wage workers employed in the H-2A and H-2B programs in 2016.

 
Table 2 shows that the number of J-1 workers in low-wage occupations was 167,960 in 2015, and the number in 2016 was likely similar (2016 data on J-1 are not available).

Modern-day low-wage guestworker programs larger than Bracero at its peak

The grand total of guestworkers employed in low-wage occupations in all three programs in 2016 is 438,190 (Table 3), close to half a million, but many were not employed in the United States for the entire year. On average, H-2A workers were in jobs certified to last for seven months, more than half of the H-2B workers counted were employed for the entire year, and most J-1 workers counted were employed for four months, but one-third worked for the entire year.

Comparable estimates for the number of temporary Bracero workers are difficult to come by. The most commonly cited statistic is that there were almost 450,000 Braceros “admitted” in the peak year of 1956, meaning that this many workers authorized through the Bracero program entered the United States. However, using admissions to count unique workers, as many reports have done, is misleading. For example, the number of H-2A workers admitted in 2015 was more than 2.5 times the number of visas (a proxy for the number of workers) issued that year, in part because some H-2A workers live in Mexico and commute daily to jobs in the Arizona and California deserts, generating an individual, counted admission each time they enter the United States.

A Bracero worker’s job could last from six weeks to six months, also making it difficult to count the actual number of workers. To get a better measure of how many Bracero workers there were and what their impact was on the labor market, the DOL calculated the average annual number of Bracero workers, generating an estimate of full-time equivalent workers. The table below, from a 1973 study, shows 125,700 full-time equivalent (FTE) Bracero workers in 1956, the peak year for admissions, suggesting a ratio of 3.5 Bracero admissions per FTE job. The peak year for FTE Braceros was in 1959, at 135,900. (Ignore the number of “immigrants” below, which represents Mexican nationals who became permanent residents in those years.)

A similar “annual average” calculation of temporary, low-wage foreign workers present in the United States in 2016 would be lower than 438,000; but how much lower depends on the length of time that each individual worked in the United States. However, no matter how you count, there’s no question that there are more low-wage guestworkers today than there were Bracero guestworkers in the peak year for either Bracero admissions or FTE workers.

Lobbying blitz around guestworker programs is already underway, and will be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement

Through an executive order, President Trump has already redefined the priorities for deportation so broadly that nearly every unauthorized immigrant is now considered a priority for detection and removal, and his administration is expected to step up enforcement against unauthorized migration on the southern U.S. border and at worksites within the interior of the United States. This will impact the five percent of the U.S. labor force that is comprised of unauthorized immigrant workers. Two-thirds of the entire unauthorized population has lived in the United States for at least 10 years, and unauthorized migration over the Mexico-U.S. border is at historically low levels, which means the Trump administration will mostly be trying to remove long-term residents who are integrated into the United States through employment and family ties.

If a significant number of unauthorized immigrants are removed and fewer new workers arrive, employers are likely to request more guestworkers, particularly in agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, and construction. Employers seeking new workers are likely to pressure the Trump administration and Congress to create new temporary foreign worker programs and/or expand the current programs, as well as to loosen and curb the enforcement of rules that protect migrant and U.S. workers. Specifically, employers are pressing Congress to eliminate the requirement to provide housing for H-2A workers and they want to remove the cap on H-2B visas.

This corporate lobbying blitz has already gotten underway, as many low-wage employers have become addicted to having indentured employees who can’t complain or legally search for a better U.S. job. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board called for more guestworkers in low-wage jobs, warning of a “growing labor shortage” in agriculture and construction. But they failed to mention that the earnings of most farmworkers are still extremely low and that the latest JOLTS data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are three unemployed construction workers for every job opening—not exactly signs of a dire shortage.

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have a soft spot for employers seeking low-wage guestworkers. At a recent hearing, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue and Democratic Senator Kristen Gillibrand discussed and described the H-2A program as too “cumbersome” for farm employers, even though there is no limit on the number of H-2A workers they can hire and DOL has processed 99 percent of applications in a timely way in 2017. Low-wage nonfarm employers persuaded 32 legislators to sign a bipartisan letterasking the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to audit the H-2B program in an effort to build support to expand the program (by exempting returning workers from the 66,000 a year cap). Republican-sponsored legislation to do just that—exempt returning H-2B workers from the annual cap—was introduced in the House this month, with two Democratic co-sponsors.

Does the United States need to expand its modern-day Bracero programs?

Changing and loosening the rules in work visa programs could lead to a quick doubling of the number of low-wage guestworkers in the United States. Is one million low-paid, exploitable, indentured workers—who have no path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship—what the U.S. economy needs? César Chávez would say, “No!” Migrants who come to the United States and contribute to the economy should be afforded civil, human, and labor rights, and a chance to become American.

Furthermore, the number of jobs for workers with a high school degree or less has not yet recovered to the pre-recession levels of late 2007, and wages for less-educated workers have stagnated. In other words, labor market indicators do not suggest the United States needs more low-wage guestworkers. Then why are employers and Congress fixated on this? Changing the low-wage labor market in this manner deserves a fully informed public debate and Congress should be held accountable. Any expansion of low-wage guestworker programs should not occur through deregulation at the federal agency level or via must-pass omnibus appropriations legislation, as has occurred time and time again over the last decade.

This article was originally posted at EPI.org on March 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Costa has been director of immigration law and policy research since 2013, having joined EPI in 2010 as an immigration policy analyst. An attorney, his current areas of research include a wide range of labor migration issues, including the management of temporary foreign worker programs, both high- and less-skilled migration, immigrant workers’ rights, and forced migration, including refugee and asylum issues and the global migration crisis.

Mad Again: Illinois AG Tracking Down Paving Co. That Skirted $100,000 in Prevailing Wages

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Steve CooperA lawsuit filed against Thoele Asphalt Paving by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan claims the contractor underpaid its employees by over $100,000 on a public works project.  The Department of Labor had demanded back pay for the workers from the contractor but Thoele failed to pay.  Now, they are demanding the back pay plus “penalties of 23 percent of the compensatory damages, punitive damages of 2 percent of the compensatory damages per employee, costs, attorney’s fees and other relief the court deems just.”

According to the Madison-St. Clair Record:

The Department of Labor alleges Thoele Asphalt Paving was a subcontractor that general contractor Baxmeyer Construction hired to repair rip rap along Illinois Route 100 between Alton and Grafton. The construction company also transported materials to work sites for the completion of the project, according to the complaint filed Oct. 4 in Madison County Circuit Court.

Later, the Department of Labor received a complaint about Thoele Asphalt Paving in which a person reported that it did not comply with the Prevailing Wage Act, the suit states. The Department of Labor conducted an investigation and found that Thoele had violated the act, the complaint says.

According to the lawsuit:

“Thoele Asphalt Paving failed to comply with the provisions of the Prevailing Wage Act because it failed to pay the claimants in the amounts as indicated,” the suit states. “The aggregate sum of underpayments owed to all claimants for the work performed on the public works project and required by the Prevailing Wage Law is $108,392.95.”

This article was originally printed on We Party Politics on October 15, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Cooper is the editor of We Party Patriots. He manages its Twitter (@WePartyPatriots) and Facebook (/WePartyPatriots) accounts, so there are many ways to contact him. Cooper is an avid chef and musician.

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