Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘fairness’

Workplace Advice: My Fair Share

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

DavidMy Fair Share is a cross-post from Working America’s Dear David workplace advice column. David knows you deserve to be treated fairly on the job and he’s available to answer your questions, whether it is co-workers making off-handed comments that you should retire or you feel like your job’s long hours are causing stress.

Question:

What can you do about not being paid a fair wage for the work you do? I make a lot of money for the company I work for feeding a robot up to 4,000 packages per hour. How do I get some of the money I make for the company through high production paid to me?

—Marty, Indiana

Answer:

“We make it, they take it.” If the last 40 years have anything to teach us, it’s that if we leave it up to them, too many bosses don’t feel like they need to share fairly—if they even share at all. Check this out. It used to be that as worker productivity increased, so did a worker’s wages. But sometime in the 1970s that stopped being the case. Today, even as most workers are struggling in a stagnant economy, big banks and corporations are posting record profits. If you’re feeling squeezed, it’s not your fault.

 As long as you’re being paid at least the minimum wage, there’s no legal requirement that a wage be “fair.” So who should get to decide what’s “fair”? You already know what can happen when the boss gets to be the decider—so the key is not to leave it only to your boss! And to act collectively.

It starts by you getting together with at least one other person at your workplace who feels the same way you do. Do this first—there are certain legal protections that kick in for you once this has happened. Meet up someplace outside of work, and compare notes. Who else can you talk to who would stand with you? Make a list, get folks together again and ask others what improvements they’d like to see at their workplace. This has been said before, but these are all important first steps. Together you may decide that you are ready to take something up with your boss right away. Or you could decide that you will be more successful negotiating if you first form a union. This process might take some time, and it’s worth it to move cautiously. Whatever you decide—you are stronger acting as a group than if you act alone. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 30, 2012. Reprinted with Permission. 

About the Author: David at Working America focuses on answering submitted questions about workplace fairness and workplace rights around the country. Working America is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and is the fastest-growing organization for working people in the country. At 3 million strong and growing, Working America uses their strength in numbers to educate each other, mobilize and win real victories to improve working people’s lives.

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.

Two Worlds: Waiters Who Starve, And Those Who Don't

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

jonathan-tasiniTwo sides of the planet. Two different systems. Two different realities for workers–and, therein, lies the lesson: economies are about power, and values.

Over in the U.S., if you are a waiter in the food industry, you are screwed, as Mark Bittman outlined in his column a few days ago, on the backs of a searing indictment called “The Hands That Feed Us”. Bittman writes:

Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.

This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us. Written by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the report surveyed nearly 700 workers employed in five major sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.

The upshot: Our food comes at great expense to the workers who provide it. “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U).[emphasis added]

All this comes because of the pathetic “special minimum wage”–$2.13 an hour–paid to restaurant workers:

Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.

Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.

Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.

And, as a reminder, even the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, as

I’ve pointed out for a number of years

, is far below what it should be. It should be at least $20-an-hour, if you take into account how much productivity has risen over the past 30 years.

But, now, let’s take a trip half a planet away–to Australia where I have the pleasure of hanging my hat for a bit. The national minimum wage will go up to about $16-an-hour on July 1st. Waiters make that–and usually as much as $20-an-hour. Oh, and don’t forget they also are covered by the national health care plan (called “Medicare” here).

And, so, my Aussie friends are usually mildly annoyed when I add a tip to everything I eat–including coffee. It’s not that Aussies don’t tip–they do. But, it’s seen as an extra, a little more for particularly good service or when it seems appropriate. But, no one tipping a waiter here thinks that, in doing so, they are making a difference between a waiter making the rent or going broke. It’s not that waiters are rich. It is simply that they can do their job and earn a fair wage.

That’s the difference: exploitation U.S.-style versus a fair wage Aussie-style.

That is about basic values, morality and, ultimately, power.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Too Much Squeezing and Too Little Respect

Monday, September 1st, 2008

If we have Mother’s Day to celebrate mothers, Father’s Day to celebrate fathers, and Valentine’s Day to celebrate lovers, it makes eminent sense to have a day—Labor Day—to celebrate the nation’s workers. Far too often the accomplishments of the nation’s workers—whether it’s producing the food we eat or protecting us from hurricanes—are ignored, instead of honored. Labor Day should be a day in which the nation dedicates itself to the proposition that its workers—indeed every worker—deserves respect and fair treatment.

The two main themes of my book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, are that America’s workers are being squeezed economically and treated with less and less respect. This declining respect has taken several disturbing forms. First, many companies and managers treat their workers with a shocking callousness. A Wal-Mart cashier in Kansas City told me that managers were so stingy about bathroom breaks that some cashiers ended up soiling themselves. A computer engineer was laid off while his eight-year-old was visiting on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Corporate managers told Myra Bronstein, a software engineer in Seattle, that as long as the company did well and she worked hard—she put in many 14-hour days—she would have a job. But one day the company suddenly fired Bronstein and 17 other engineers, telling them that if they wanted any severance pay, they had to spend the next four weeks training the workers from India who would be replacing them. “We felt sucker-punched,” Bronstein told me. I remember a janitor in Houston—who made $5.25 an hour after a decade on the job—telling me, “They treat us worse than animals.”

Another sign of diminished respect is the way many managers cheat employees out of wages. Managers at Wal-Mart, Pep Boys and Family Dollar admitted to me that they secretly erased hours from workers’ time records because of fierce pressures from above to minimize costs. At many stores and restaurants, managers strong-arm employees into working off the clock, threatening to write them up unless they work several hours unpaid. It’s galling that many of these victims of wage theft earn less than $10 an hour and are barely scraping by. The growing number of lawsuits over wage theft underlines that something is badly broken in the nation’s workplaces.

This declining respect has also translated into a worse economic deal for millions of workers. During the economic expansion that began in November 2001, corporate profits soared and productivity per worker rose more than 15 percent. Nonetheless, hourly wages have actually slid since then, after inflation, while median income for working-age households has fallen by $2,000 this decade. At the same time, health and pension benefits are deteriorating and job security shriveling. That the nation’s corporations have not shared their increased prosperity, profits and productivity with their workers also shows that something is broken.

In The Big Squeeze, I write of other ways that companies show little respect for their employees. Workers have a right to unionize, but many corporations (and their union-busting consultants) flout the law to keep out unions, by, for example, firing the workers who lead organizing drives. And some companies, most notably FedEx Ground, insist that workers are independent contractors even as judges and labor officials say the companies maintain such tight control over everything these workers do that it’s a sham to call them independent contractors.

To put it crudely, many companies seem to treat their workers like chumps—to be squeezed on wages, pushed to the limit and discarded when no longer needed.

What this nation needs is a movement to revalorize its workers—and what better day to launch such a movement than Labor Day. Plain and simple, revalorization would mean treating workers with a newfound respect, to start treating them as if they and their concerns matter. For too many years, the American worker has not been part of the conversation. For too long, the nation’s workers are viewed as Bud drinkers, NASCAR fans, Oprah watchers, members of the ownership society, but not as workers qua workers. For too long, the nation’s politicians, news media and public discourse have largely ignored the struggling worker (except every four years when presidential candidates descend on factories in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with TV cameras in tow). All this has made it easier for corporations to continue squeezing workers ever so quietly and for many political leaders to ignore workers’ problems (while cozying up to corporate donors).

Fortunately the nation has begun paying more attention to workers in recent months because of the economic downturn and the presidential campaign. Here’s hoping that after the next president is inaugurated on Jan 20, the nation’s beleaguered workers will not again be ignored and forgotten.

Labor Day should be a day to help push the nation’s workers—and their problems—onto center stage.

About the Author: Steven Greenhouse has been covering labor and workplace issues for The New York Times since October 1995. He joined the Times in 1983 as a business reporter, covering steel and other basic industries. He then spent two-and-a-half years as Midwestern business correspondent based in Chicago and then five years as the paper’s European economics correspondent, based in Paris. He then spent four years in Washington D.C. for the Times, covering economics and foreign affairs.

He has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also has a J.D. from the New York University School of Law.

For more information on his book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, see the Web site stevengreenhouse.com.

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