Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Employment’

Jobs Report: Under The Sunny Headline, Deep Roots Of Discontent

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Isaih J. PooleThe latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms what voters felt when they went to the polls Tuesday: Job growth continues slowly but inadequately, built on a weak foundation of weak wage growth and low labor force participation.

There were 214,000 new jobs created in October, the report said, with the unemployment rate at 5.8 percent. It’s enough to prompt optimistic headlines, but as we’ve said repeatedly, this is well under the rate of growth we really need to make workers whole after the damage done by the 2008 recession. We’ve been living with unemployment above 5.8 percent since August 2008 – more than six years.

We still have an economy in which 32 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than 26 weeks – that’s almost 3 million people who the job market still does not have room to accommodate. The labor-force participation rate remains at a historic low, under 63 percent. Job growth continues to be concentrated in low-wage service jobs, with only modest increases in manufacturing, construction and other blue-collar occupations. Public-sector job growth barely budged upward.

Wage growth year-over-year remains stuck at about 2 percent, which in effect is virtually no growth at all when inflation is taken into account. Wages should be growing at a rate of 3.5 percent annually to remain consistent with the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation target, so there is plenty of room to raise wages without raising fears of inflation.

This is the economic climate that drove voter anger and frustration Tuesday. It motivated voters to approve minimum-wage-increase referendums whenever they were on the ballot, even as they voted out Democrats who support a minimum wage increase but did not present a bold vision for how to rebuild middle-class prosperity.

Here’s where the tragedy of Tuesday’s election results come into sharp relief. Republicans were more successful than Democrats in tapping into voters’ economic anxiety, even with their record of blocking the policy changes needed to address the causes of that anxiety.

A major infrastructure investment program, done while borrowing costs are near zero, would have bolstered construction, manufacturing and other higher-age sectors. But that effort has now been held hostage to a deal to let corporations off the hook that have stashed profits overseas to avoid corporate taxes. Now that Republicans control the Senate as well as the House, we will see that deal go forward as a bipartisan “compromise” to show that Washington can “get things done.” Never mind that by any reasonable standard letting the nation’s biggest corporations keep billions of their ill-gotten gains from shifting profits overseas is too high a price to pay for the trickle of extra dollars that would be yielded for infrastructure.

There is even less of a chance that a Republican-controlled Congress, believing that every economic challenge is a nail that requires the hammer of top-end tax cuts and government spending cuts, will send increased state and local funds to the nation’s pockets of high unemployment. The Economic Policy Institute released a chart this week that showed that every state but two has shown a decline in the percentage of the working-age population with a job. The drop has been 3 percent nationally, and 28 states have percentages below the national average. Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico and Arkansas – have declines that more than double the national average.

That shows how in so many ways, what gains there are in the economy are not broadly shared. This will not be fixed, as Republicans are saying, by repealing the Affordable Care Act, building the Keystone XL pipeline, and by cutting corporate taxes. We need to invest in infrastructure, clean energy, education from preschool to affordable college, and in the communities that are always left behind in a you’re-on-your-own economic climate. Voters who in frustration voted out Democrats who failed to present a vision for how this can be done will now have to join a movement to ensure that Washington and the nation cannot duck these issues in the months and years ahead.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on November 7, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141107/jobs-report-under-the-sunny-headline-deep-roots-of-discontent.

About the author: Isaiah J. Poole 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.     

We Cannot Build a Strong, Equitable Economy on Low-Paying Jobs

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Mary Kay HenryWhat started out last fall as a one-day walkout at fast-food restaurants to protest poverty-level wages and stand up for basic human dignity has transformed into a movement that has captured the public interest.

I’ve been privileged, especially in recent weeks, to talk to institutional partners, policymakers and media about why low-wage workers across the country are risking their jobs and forgoing a much-needed day’s pay to work toward a better future for themselves and their families. We will be better off when hardworking people have enough money in their pockets to put back into their communities and generate more jobs, and SEIU members are proud to back these workers in their pursuit of economic justice and better lives for their families.

I traveled to New York City on Wednesday, to talk to Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about the fast-food strikes. How in the world did this happen? I told Kendall Fells, an organizer from Fast Food Forward, it is because of the courage of the strikers, such as Shay Kerr and Shakira Campbell.

Shay has worked at McDonald’s in East Flatbush, N.Y., for six months. She earns minimum wage and, because sometimes her hours are cut for no reason, she can’t rely on a set pay every week. Since she cannot make ends meet on her wages, she has been bouncing around shelters. She’s fighting for a union so she can make a better life for herself and her 6-year-old son. Shakira is leading an action tomorrow at her store to be put back on the schedule. Their stories echo stories I’ve heard from workers all around the country.

Shakira, Shay, and many others who I have had the privilege of meeting in recent months are helping the public understand that, contrary to what some believe, these positions aren’t being filled by teenagers. Anyone who thinks they are is nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

More than 4 million people work in the food service industry. Their average age is 28. Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family. The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.

This means middle-class jobs are disappearing while low-wage jobs are growing. If we simply accept this as fact, then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will only grow worse. And that is just wrong.

We cannot build a strong, equitable economy on low-paying jobs. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. McDonalds earned $5.5 billion just last year; other fast-food restaurants and retail chains are similarly profitable. They can afford to raise wages.

Americans have a long history of sticking together to fight for something better. SEIU can be proud of how we are fighting on so many fronts, from winning commonsense immigration reform, to delivering on the promise of the Affordable Care Act, to telling our elected officials to invest in vital public services, and to organizing in various sectors to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. All of our members are involved in these campaigns to help workers strengthen and grow our union. As we do it, we know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.

We are united to make a path to power for all workers; winning a just society; and leaving the world a better and more equal place for next generations to come.

This article originally appeared on SEIU blog on August 8, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Walmart: Portrait of a Job Killer

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Image: Mike HallWhenever communities, lawmakers or activists question or criticize Walmart for the way it treats workers—the low-pay, the stores’ impact on the communities—the retail giant pulls out a well-worn script with a simple message, “Walmart creates jobs and if there’s one thing this economy needs, it’s more jobs.”

Setting aside the quality of the jobs for another day, is Walmart telling the truth? Sure doesn’t look like it, according to Salon’s Kathleen Geier, who matches Walmart’s claims against in-depth research from universities, economists, government studies and other sources. Here’s what she finds:

Contrary to Walmart’s self-glorifying mythology, the retailer is anything but a job creator—in fact, it is a huge job killer. Not only that, destroying jobs is an essential component of Walmart’s anti-worker business model.

She cites a study led by Economist David Neumark—who, by the way, has written against raising the minimum wage in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Using data from more than 3,000 counties, [the] results show that when a Walmart store opens, it kills an average 150 retail jobs at the county level, with each Walmart worker replacing about 1.4 retail workers. These results are robust under a variety of models and tests.

2009 study by Loyola University found that the opening of a Chicago Walmart store was “a wash,” destroying as many jobs as it created. According to the report, “There is no evidence that Wal-Mart sparked any significant net growth in economic activity or employment in the area.” Says Geier:

In short, when Walmart comes to town, it doesn’t “create” anything. All it does is put mom-and-pop stores out of business.

Walmart’s job-killing spree doesn’t stop at the city limits. The remains of once good jobs are scattered throughout Walmart’s entire supply chain. Its cut-throat drive for lower prices, writes Geier, squeezes suppliers to deliver goods at the lowest possible prices and that means cutting labor costs—aka jobs.

Read the full article.

Walmart’s using that specious jobs argument in its fight to block a living wage law in Washington,D.C. Find out more here.

Article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW  on August 6, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety

NLRB Truth: 10 Reasons Why the National Labor Relations Board Matters

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallA radical decision by Republican-appointed federal judges threatens to destabilize the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if the Board loses a quorum in August. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that two recess appointments made by President Barack Obama in January 2012 were invalid and now NLRB decisions made while those appointees served on the Board are being challenged based on the D.C. Circuit opinion and placed on hold pending resolution of this issue by the U.S. Supreme Court.  This puts many workers across the country in dangerous and unfair situations that hurt them and their families.  The Senate could go a long way towards fixing the problem by confirming five nominations the president has made to the Board, but Republicans continue to obstruct the process in an effort to disable the NLRB and prevent it from protecting the rights of American workers.  Some, like Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have taken the extreme position that the NLRB should be “inoperable” and have vowed to block all nominations to the Board.

Here are ten examples—real stories from workers whose jobs and lives are negatively impacted by Republican obstruction—of why we need a functioning NLRB:

1. Dexter Wray, Alaska: Dexter worked as a maintenance engineer at a Sheraton in Anchorage.  His manager pressured him and several of his co-workers to decertify their union and told them to lie to the NLRB.  When they told the truth, Dexter and two of his co-workers were fired.  The NLRB ruled that the firings and coercion were illegal, but the hotel has refused to rehire them.  Dexter didn’t work for six months and incurred a large medical debt when he lost his health insurance.

2. Michelle Baricko, Connecticut: Michelle is a certified nursing assistant at West River Health Care.  She and her co-workers were locked out for months during contract negotiations.  The hospital’s owner, HealthBridge/CareOne, declared that negotiations were permanently stalled and implemented its own contract, which the employees did not agree to.  The NLRB obtained a court injunction for the company to stop its unfair labor practices, but HealthBridge declared bankruptcy and was able to escape its obligations to the employees. The Board and the employees’ union have appealed the decision.  Michelle was forced to sell her home and still struggles to provide for her three sons.

3. Kathleen Von Eitzen, Michigan: Kathleen is a baker at Panera Bread who organized 17 of her coworkers to form a union.  The company fought back, firing one employee and cutting Kathleen’s pay, giving her a negative evaluation because of her organizing.  The NLRB found that Panera violated the workers’ rights and ordered the company to pay back and compensate employees for cutting their hours. Panera appealed and the case is now stalled in federal court.  Kathleen’s husband has had two heart attacks and can’t work full time.  They can’t afford insurance because of her low pay and their home is now in foreclosure.

4. Susana Salgado Martinez, Nebraska: Susana was fired from Greater Omaha Packing Co., a meat packing plant, after she and fellow employees were accused of planning a strike.  She and her co-workers complained that the production line was moving too fast for several new, inexperienced workers to keep up with and that they were not being paid adequately.  A judge found that Susana and her co-workers were illegally fired and ordered that they be reinstated with back pay.  The case is pending before the NLRB.  Over the last year, she has been unable to find steady work and her family had to file for bankruptcy.

5. Juan Lopez, New Mexico: Juan worked as a janitor for Merchant Building Maintenance.  He and several of his fellow employees complained about sexual harassment, disrespectful treatment by a supervisor and the failure to receive a promised pay raise.  The company temporarily lost the contract that Juan was working on in the Santa Fe Public School District.  When the company was rehired by the school district, Merchant refused to rehire the workers who complained.  The NLRB found that failure to rehire those employees was illegal and that they should be reinstated and given back pay.  The company has refused to comply with the ruling.  Juan has been unable to find steady work since then and has had to skip paying some of his bills.

6. Clarence Adams, New York: Clarence is a Marine and Iraqi veteran who was fired by Cablevision for asking to meet with management, under the company’s “open-door” policy, to discuss stalled contract negotiations.  Two regional offices of the NLRB issued complaints against the company for illegally firing workers and for failing to bargain in good faith.  The company has filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals to prevent the complaints from being enforced.  Meanwhile, Clarence is struggling to provide for his family.

7. Jack Conway, Ohio: Jack and 15 other workers at aluminum products company KLB Industries were locked out during union negotiations.  Five years later, KLB has refused to reinstate the workers or give them back pay as the NLRB and U.S. Court of Appeals have ordered.  Conway hasn’t found regular work since the lockout and has exhausted unemployment insurance.  He barely survives on the $200 a week that the United Auto Workers (UAW) provides to him and the other locked-out workers.

8. Anonymous, Virginia: An employee at BaySys Technologies posted a comment on Facebook about not receiving paychecks on time.  The company fired him or her and threatened to sue the employee for violating a non-disclosure agreement.  The NLRB ruled the firing was illegal and ordered the company to reinstate him or her with back pay.  An appeals court enforced the order, which couldn’t have happened without a functioning NLRB.

9. Richard Salinas, Washington: After Richard and his fellow employees at Oak Harbor Freight Lines went on strike in 2008, the company stopped paying into the workers’ pension and health care trust funds.  The NLRB found this to be an illegal action and ordered the company to reimburse the funds for the missed payment and make up for personal losses the employees incurred when their health coverage lapsed.  The Court of Appeals has delayed enforcing the decision because of the uncertainty about the NLRB.  Richard said he’s close enough to retirement that the missed payments won’t affect him much, but he’s worried about how the loss will affect his younger co-workers.

10. Dave Preast, West Virginia: Dave was a miner at the Cannelton mine in Smithers, W.Va., when the mine was purchased by a new company.  The new owner refused to give him a job because of his union membership.  The NLRB has ruled twice that the refusal was illegal, but Dave and 84 other miners have not been rehired or given the back pay they deserve.  Dave has a 16-year-old son who has needed several surgeries for a life-threatening heart condition.  Luckily, he was able to cover the surgeries through the state’s CHIP program and Medicaid, otherwise the costs could have bankrupted the family.  As of now, Dave is doing odd jobs to make ends meet, but without reinstatement he’ll be forced to live on $500 a month when he retires.

There are many more stories of workers whose lives and livelihoods are in crisis because of this NLRB fight.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO NOW on July 11, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Unions to Blame for Economic Woes? 'Oh, Please'

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Jackie TortoraToday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board ridiculed the absurd notion from the Missouri state Senate that somehow union members (teachers, nurses, secretaries, pothole fixers and home health care workers) are to blame for the state’s economic woes. “Oh, please,” the board responds. 

In its editorial, the board points out Missouri state workers are the lowest paid in the country.

Early Tuesday morning, while some of those workers were helping roll over your grandma or grandpa at the nursing home so they didn’t get bed sores, the Republicans who lead the state Senate set things right. They gave initial approval to a bill that will make it a little harder for the unions that represent those public employees to collect fees that might be used to elect thoughtful people to elected office.

The board says that the Republicans in Missouri didn’t want to feel left out of the union-bashing that occurred in Wisconsin and Michigan, so they followed suit pushing through legislation crafted by “their corporate overlords in the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes cookie-cutter legislation written by corporate lawyers to enhance their bottom lines.”

In one of the last key legislative weeks before the spring break, the Senate:

  • Raised taxes on poor people.
  • Cut taxes for rich people.
  • Hurt teachers, nurses and other public employees.

The S.B. 29 paycheck deception bill, which makes it harder for unions to collect fees from its members (which are voluntary), is such a “farce,” the board adds, that its sponsor, state Sen. Dan Brown (R), was unable to explain its purpose. 

First responders, police and firefighters are exempt from the bill. 

Call your representative now at 888-907-9711 and urge him or her to oppose paycheck deception, “right to work” for less and anti-prevailing wage bills.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on March 12, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is an blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Cop Sues for Overtime for E-mail Checking

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

mike elkA Chicago police offer is suing the city for overtime pay after being forced to answer emails outside of work. The lawsuit could have far reaching effects for the many employees across industries who are expected to respond to work emails in off hours. From AP:

“Everybody can relate to this because people are being asked all the time these days to work for free and they are being told to work for free using their phones,” attorney Paul Geiger said.

Earlier Wednesday, attorneys for both Allen and the city told a judge they had agreed on the wording of documents that will be sent to other officers asking if they want to join the lawsuit.

According to the suit, police brass pressured subordinates in the department’s organized crime bureau to answer work-related calls and emails on their BlackBerrys, and then also dissuaded the officers from filing for overtime.

“A culture has developed where police officers feel compelled to work for free in order to possibly gain a promotion and/or maintain their coveted assignment,” according to a plaintiff filing.

This post was originally posted on Working In These Times on Feb. 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected].

Why Picket Lines Matter

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Vega.   I spent so much time on picket lines as a kid that when I thought my dad’s rules were too strict, I would run to build a sign on a stick and try to talk the neighbor kids into marching around the house with me. I learned early on the power of a picket to protest unfair treatment.

That right is more important today than ever. As our economy has shifted toward a more contingent workforce, companies are increasingly hiring workers as part-time or temporary, or labeling them as independent contractors. This leaves workers more vulnerable to abuse while also shielding companies from accountability. When warehouse workers unpacking Walmart goods in a Walmart-owned warehouse were cheated out of their wages, the retail giant responded that those workers were hired through a temporary agency and are not the company’s responsibility.

These kinds of working conditions make it all the more important that workers be able to share their stories with the public. Consumers have the right to know about the kinds of labor practices they are supporting when they shop at a particular store. In this economy, where workers have so little bargaining power, the ability to picket an employer to expose unfair conditions is more important than ever.

That’s what makes the recent California Supreme Court decision in Ralphs Grocery Co. v. UFCW Local 8 so important. The court upheld two provisions of California law that protect the right of workers to picket. The Moscone Act protects peaceful picketing and communicating about the facts of a labor dispute on “any public street or any place where any person or persons may lawfully be.” Labor Code Section 1138.1 restricts injunctive relief to stop picketing unless a company can show substantial and irreparable injury, the commission of unlawful acts and several other factors. Ralphs sought to invalidate those state statutes, which would have silenced California workers from such peaceful protest.

In upholding California law, the court maintained a critical protection for working people. What is at stake here is far more than where in a shopping center picketers are allowed to stand. The picket line was—and still is—an essential tool in building the American middle class. Workers standing together, making their case in the court of public opinion, helped bring about the eight-hour day, the weekend, prevailing wage, anti-discrimination laws and so many other protections. It also helped working people win wages and benefits that allowed them to buy homes, send their children to college and give back to their community through taxes, service and time.

In essence, the picket sign has enabled generations of working people to achieve the American Dream. Given the economy we face today, it’s time for the next generation to start making signs and marching to demand those same opportunities.

Why Picket Lines Matter,” by Caitlin Vega, originally appeared on the California Labor Federation’s blog Labor’s Edge. You can also view it on AFL-CIO NOW, posted on January 7, 2013.

A Bill to Make Employers Less Mean to Pregnant Women

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands–as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip–or her mind–as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.

Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the job. Yet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as the New York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”

It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate–and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted.

The bill expands on legislation passed in the 1970s that protects women from discrimination related to pregnancy. Those earlier policies have been interpreted in such a way as to let companies refuse to make reasonable adjustments for pregnant workers. Similarly, federal and state family-and-medical-leave acts protect women from discrimination related to a seeking medical care, including for pregnancy. But many expecting mothers are left unprotected by these measures; the FMLA for example covers only unpaid leave–not the paid leave time that’s essential to protect the health of workers and their families–and generally only workplaces of 50 or more employees.

The PWFA would not shield expectant women from mistreatment altogether. The “undue burden” clause may give employers some leeway, for instance, to refuse to provide accommodations in job duties or schedules for a mom-to-be. Still, the measure would press firms to make sensible modifications for pregnant workers, such as no longer lifting heavy weights.

As with many women’s rights issues, this is also a matter of economic fairness. About 60 percent of women who gave birth in a given year also worked during that time, according to recent data; many moms are primary breadwinners, too. Making workplaces more pregnancy-friendly isn’t about coddling women; it’s about putting pregnancy on par with other medical or physical challenges workers face. Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership, noted in an email to Working In These Times:

The result for working pregnant women is that they are too often forced to quit or take unpaid leave because their employer denies them reasonable accommodations that are lawfully required for other workers with temporary disabilities.

Losing work a double-blow for pregnant women who need to prepare financially for a new member of the household. Even if they’re not outright fired, Crawford points out, “some employers force pregnant workers into unpaid leave prematurely, which means that women are forced to take a heavy financial hit just as they are about to give birth.”

Moreover, if a pregnant woman is unfairly fired, she may have trouble simply getting hired as a new mom, which some employers may see as a liability. (Not to mention affording quality child care so she can hold onto that new job).

The National Partnership also notes major health implications for women who lose a job during pregnancy, and for their babies: The stress incurred may raise “the risk of having a premature baby and/or a baby with low birth weight.” If she can earn more before having the baby, she can potentially take more time off for maternity leave–meaning more time for bonding, breastfeeding and other essential nurturing tasks for parents that our labor structure tends to ignore.

Ironically, companies themselves suffer when they arbitrarily dismiss workers for pregnancy or childbirth-related reasons, because high workforce turnover is counterproductive in the long run.

Yet many workplaces still make women bear the brunt of the cost of childbearing. So next time you graciously offer your bus seat to a pregnant woman, just think about how our politicians fail to stand up for the labor rights of those who do the work of bringing us into the world.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Makers, Takers and $2-A-Dayers

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Michelle ChenOne official measure of poverty around the world is surviving on $2 per day or less. It’s a condition many Americans could barely imagine living in. And yet the official data suggests that while politicians insist the U.S. is insulated from such deprivation, a large share of the country is feeling a cold draft from the “Third World.”

A set of new analyses from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), drawing from a study of income data by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, shows that for well over a million households, many of them with children, are besieged by hardship of an epic magnitude:

The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day — which the study terms “extreme poverty” — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million, the study finds… The number of children in extremely poor households also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The World Bank’s $2-per-day metric derives from widespread cliche in humanitarian circles, generally used to describe poor countries in the Global South. But while some question the usefulness of such simplistic measures, the phrase has a unique application in a country that’s historically represented the top of the human development scale. And one reason why the U.S. has so many people stuck at the bottom is because in many communities, this inequality is practically written into the law, with public assistance programs virtually enforcing the extreme poverty line.

Since bipartisan welfare “reform” under the Clinton administration, which precipitated the gutting of programs and erosion of benefit levels over time, the poorest households have become mired in outmoded welfare systems that don’t correspond to real social needs:

Benefits are below half of the poverty line in every state.  For a family of three, benefits are only about $2 per person per day in Mississippi and Tennessee and only slightly more than $2 per person per day in Alabama and South Carolina, for example.

It’s basic math: Add the recent recession to years of wealth-hoarding by the richest Americans, factor in endemic socioeconomic, racial and gender inequality, and you get polarization that’s global in scale and intensity. This is reflected in each individual whose daily standard of living is worth the cost of a Wall Street financier’s morning coffee.

Although the stimulus package enacted by the Obama administration gave a temporary boost to welfare programs, those dollars have dried up. The safety net is further unraveled, according to the CBPP, by a block-grant funding system in which the benefit “does not increase in response to increased need.” Meanwhile, recently proposed budget cuts to federal housing assistance (from both the White House and Congress) would raise the cost of rent for hundreds of thousands of struggling families. In other words, the “ownership society” is effectively disowning its neediest members.

Extreme poverty is acutely painful for already vulnerable demographics. The largest jump in $2-a-day poverty—a stunning three-fold increase since 1996—hit female-headed households. Children in poverty, who face long-term barriers to education and healthcare, and are disproportionately black and Latino(but including many whites as well), tend to carry these hardships into adulthood.

According to CBPP researcher Arloc Sherman, these trends affirm other research suggesting that “it has become harder to access welfare.” Since the reforms of the 1990s, which instituted onerous work requirements and other restrictions, the percentage of very poor families covered by TANF has tumbled.

On the other hand, what’s left of the safety net continues to play a critical role in preventing total devastation for many.  “I suspect for those who lost jobs in the recession, Unemployment Insurance—thanks in part to [The Recovery Act]—played a big role in keeping people’s cash incomes above $2 per person per day,” Sherman told In These Times.

While the presidential hopefuls race to outdo each other in gratuitously denigrating the poor (along with people of color, single women and other time-honored scapegoats), it’s important to keep in mind that these populations don’t fit the standard caricatures of welfare queens and freeloaders.

The CBPP’s research also reveals that the population that uses public assistance–those conservatives demonizeas the “entitlement society”--primarily consists of old folks, people with disabilities–oh, and people with jobs. In fact, “People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.” So in a labor market offering about one slot for every four job-seekers, a good chunk of those  “entitlements” go to the very same “hardworking Americans” that right-wing rhetoric contrasts with the supposedly undeserving poor.

The right pushes a delusional narrative of country divided between “makers and takers”—the productive go-getters versus the welfare-hungry sloths.  But when you crunch the numbers, it becomes all too clear who the real takers are: the ones who make it harder for everyone else to make a living.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes,com.

I Couldn't Afford to Go to Work Today

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

It’s crazy, but it’s true: I could not afford to go to work today.

I have a 45-minute commute to and from work, which costs me about ten dollars in gas each day. I’m down to six whole dollars, after paying what bills I could with my last paycheck. There are still unpaid bills, but there’s nothing I can do about them right now. I’m mostly worried about how the hell I’m going to feed my daughter until my next check on Friday.

This is not a position I ever expected to find myself in. I have a full-time job at a distribution center for a well-known retailer. The company has weathered the Great Recession pretty well, all things considered: overall sales are off by only 1%, a variance which until recently would have been seen as a business hiccup. But I find that the recession itself has given the Powers That Be at my job an excuse to do whatever they damn well please to their full-time employees.

The infuriating details are below the squiggle.

What frustrates me the most is that I shouldn’t even be in this position. I’m employed full-time, and I’ve been with this company for over five years–yet I cannot get ahead, no matter what I do. The reason why has much to do with the company’s recently-adopted position that full-time employees aren’t really an essential part; that is, they’ve come to believe that only salaried employees really matter. They don’t even call us non-salaried workers “associates” any more. Now they refer to us as “unskilled labor.”

About a year ago, my company announced a pay freeze for all full-time employees. This was done, we were told, in response to the economic dowturn. The reasons made sense at the time, and we took the news in stride. But lately, it’s starting to seem like something else. It seems there is money to be had…but not by most of us.

The pay freeze occurred at about the same time that the outgoing CEO was receiving a million-dollar severance package. Salaried employees–supervisors, managers, and such–were ostensibly included in the pay freeze, although they would continue receiving their monthly bonuses, typically three to five hundred extra dollars per paycheck. The Director of Operations (enjoying a salaried position, of course) actually joked out loud, “Whew! I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to buy that new car!” Ha-fuckin’-ha, asshole. Turned out, it wasn’t just a joke: two months later, he was coming to work in a shiny new Lexus convertible.

The average worker on the floor makes $8 or $9 an hour, which is barely enough to support any size family. Supervisors, meanwhile, start out at the equivalent of $25 an hour (with bonuses and other perks on top of that); managers and up are pulling six-figure salaries, at least. Now, on the face of it, I don’t mind that they make more. It’s how they go out of their way to make sure they get most of what’s left as well, to hell with everybody else, that has me and my co-workers silently enraged and visibly demoralized.

Following the pay freeze, management has raised the productivity bar on us twice: that is, we must do more work in less time to avoid getting disciplined or fired. How much we produce beyond the 100% “standard” determines our “incentive” pay. Whenever they raise the productivity bar, our incentive payouts go down. Those who can’t keep up are let go; those who do keep up are bringing home chump change. And few of us want to work very much harder than necessary to keep our jobs, since working at 200% production yields a paltry $45 (not much of an “incentive” there). So they’ve fired several people and not hired replacements, leaving the rest of us to double-up–and in some cases, triple-up–on the workload and attendant responsibilities. From 150 people a year and a half ago, we’re now down to fifty; those of us left are still doing the work of 150. In the end, the reduced staff just further fills their pockets.

After that, they eliminated sick time for all non-salaried employees, telling us it was because the old sick-time policy was being “abused” (abused how–by people getting sick?!) It’s all to “save some money,” we’re told…even though the company, as I said, isn’t doing much worse than years past. And over the last couple of months, it’s become clear where all that “saved” money is going: directly into the pockets of the supervisors and managers.

We’re no strangers to this company’s cold calculations, and how little they care for anyone but the precious few who belong to the Salaried Class. They use this state’s “right to work” status to do whatever the hell they want and get away with it. For example: they fired an epileptic for being “unreliable.” They fired another woman for trying to get our insurance to cover infertility treatments. The company has been sued many times, but, unbelievably, has yet to lose a case.

And that’s not the half of it. But for now, let’s just say that management and HR routinely cover each others’ asses, so they can do whatever they want and get away with it. It’s a comfy little clique they’ve made for themselves, and apparently all that matters is their special little group.

So while most of us have spent the last year trying to keep up with inflation, our bills and the crazy cost of gasoline, supervisors and managers have continued receiving hefty monthly bonuses. The rest of us get to enter a raffle for a chance to win a $25 “in-house” gift card for all our hard work–just enough to get one piece of merchandise. Gee, thanks. Some of my coworkers could barely cover monthly expenses in December, much less afford Christmas gifts. At least a lucky few of us had gift cards, though. Now we can take home the same crap we push out the door all day. It’s nice to know they care.

But here comes the real smack in the face: just before the holidays, the supervisors and managers had themselves a big party at work. They tried to keep it secret by calling it a “closed-door, high-level meeting,” but we “nobodys” have eyes and ears everywhere and it wasn’t long before we learned the truth. It was a catered lunch, at which the holiday bonuses were handed out. These were thousand-dollar checks, mind you, and separate from their usual monthly bonuses. On top of that, they were given not-inexpensive gifts like fancy heated car-seat covers and custom-embroidered coats (which they now wear around like status symbols). And after that, they had an “everybody wins” raffle in which MORE monetary prizes were handed out, ranging from $500 to $2000.

Must be nice. Tell us again…why can’t we have annual cost-of-living raises? Oh, right: because the company’s strapped for cash, and reinstating our raises might drive down the stock value. Can’t have that, now, can we?

A week after the higher-ups had their big shindig, management announced that this year’s annual holiday party was cancelled…”Because the company can’t afford it.” Gee, I wonder where all that money went?

So here I sit, at home, with six bucks to my name and no way to afford both a Chef Boyardee dinner for my daughter and the commute to the job that used to support me. I’m left to wonder how I’m going to afford gasoline, power, the car payment and and the house payment while they can somehow afford new motorcycles and sportscars.

It’s the same old “Austerity for thee, but not for me” mentality. It’s twisted, and it’s wrong.

I see in this the 99% vs the 1% in microcosm: those who labor the least literally get almost everything there is to be had, while those who actually DO THE WORK get exactly jack-shit. Management can operate with complete impunity, doing whatever the hell they want with no consequences, while the rest of us work in fear that the next cut might include our jobs. There are two sets of rules: one for them, and another for the rest of us (salaried people, for example, can show up late and leave early without penalty). There is no place for those who get ill, because they simply “cost too much.” The working class is worthy only of mockery, because if they were “somebody,” they’d already be part of the Salaried Class. In this environment, $25 gift cards are metaphorical slaps in the face.

We need something we can LIVE ON. I need a wage that allows me, at the very least, to afford to go to work! Many of us, myself included, are looking for another job; some fortunate ones have left already, but I don’t need to describe how tough it is to find something else. And there’s no guarantee that we won’t find the same kind of bullshit still going on, wherever we might end up.

No…it seems that we blue-collar Joes and Jills won’t ever get what we need–what’s FAIR–until those who mind the coffers–in both business and government–stop enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on February 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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