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Shutdown pain drags on for federal contractors, who won't get back pay unless Democratic bill passes

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

One of the key post-shutdown tests for Senate Republicans will be this: Do federal contract workers get back pay? Those workers, many of them among the lowest-paid in the government, didn’t get back pay after the 2013 shutdown, and it will only come this time through a separate bill, which Democrats have introduced, including up to $965 a week in back pay plus any sick days that people used to get through the shutdown.

The shutdown caused pain for hundreds of thousands of workers, perhaps most of all for these workers largely earning between $450 and $650 a week, more than a thousand of them in the expensive Washington, D.C., area, and without any guarantee, or even strong hope, of getting back pay when government reopened. Unemployment benefits weren’t a good answer, as one Smithsonian security guard discovered: The checks took weeks to start arriving and were hundreds of dollars short of his pay.

National Portrait Gallery cleaning supervisor Audrey Murray-Wright told the Washington Post that she couldn’t afford her blood pressure medication—which presumably would have been particularly important as she looked at a stack of bills she was behind on—but the worst part was that “I never, ever want to tell my son, ‘Don’t drink all that milk so you can save your brother some.’”

These people do important work for the government, for low pay. They deserve back pay every bit as much as if their checks came directly from the government rather than through a private company with a government contract. So, will Senate Republicans vote for, and Donald Trump sign, a bill to make them whole?

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on January 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. 

Shutdown forces federal workers to consider career changes just to make ends meet

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Federal workers and contractors are growing increasingly weary with the partial government shutdown as they begin to feel the financial squeeze, leading many to reconsider government work.

Last Friday, many federal workers missed their first paychecks since the shutdown began on December 22 over demands from President Donald Trump that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. On Saturday, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, currently stretching into its fourth week, at 26 days.

ThinkProgress spoke with federal workers and contractors who are making tough choices about whether or not to look for other jobs, or stay in the federal government even if they are able to get back to work soon. The employees quoted in this story asked not to be identified by their actual names out of fear of retaliation.

“It has just been a nightmare”

Drew, a federal worker within the Department of Agriculture, said the shutdown is particularly difficult for them as they’re in their 20s and in the beginning of their career. When asked what they’re doing to stay afloat financially, Drew said they’re not going anywhere or doing anything that requires spending money. They have cancelled any unnecessary regular spending.

“I covered bills for this month but it’s a question of next month of whether I will be able to make it because I do unfortunately live paycheck-to-paycheck and my savings are rather limited,” Drew said. “It’s been terrible for my economic situation. It’s been terrible for my personal life. It has just been a nightmare.” 

A 2017 CareerBuilder report that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck. Drew added that it’s particularly tough that they can’t help cover expenses for their group house, which affects everyone else they live with.

Anne, a contractor who works with the Bureau of Lands Management, has started filing for unemployment. Contractors did not receive backpay during the 2013 shutdown and it isn’t expected that they will receive backpay after this one, unlike federal workers. Even the process of filing for unemployment reminded her that she isn’t considered as affected by the shutdown as federal workers. One of the questions she had to answer was whether she was a federal employee affected by the shutdown, but since she’s a contractor she was told to answer that she had been laid off due to lack of work.

“We have to be careful and not spend money, or make trips, or eat out, or go to movies as much, but I have some coworkers who are a lot more worried. They have kids, and in some cases supporting their entire family,” she said. “We have some savings, enough to cover me for probably a month, but if not, I’ll join up with some of my other coworkers and start looking for another job, which sucks but I am not there yet.”

Drew and Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that they believe the shutdown may result in a wave of federal workers leaving their government jobs.

“I think most workers on the federal level think if we stick around long enough [President Trump] will be out of office and this whole thing will blow over and I am seriously reconsidering that approach,” Drew said. “I think everyone I know has been trying to stay there to be a force of good or consistency in whatever agency they’re working for and a month-long period to reconsider what you’re doing with your life and your place in the federal government is more than enough to make some people feel like they want to seriously change their mind.”

Drew said they think a lot of people who have worked for the government for a decade or longer will either leave through early retirement or by changing jobs. They added that a lot of people have already started looking for new jobs, which means the government could lose considerable talent and consistency in agencies.

Lee said the administration has been “hostile” to government workers since it began.

“There’s already a Baby Boomer brain drain and retirements in federal government due to Clinton and Bush administration hiring freezes,” Lee said. “This will just expedite that.”

Workers blame Trump and Republicans

Most of the federal workers and contractors who spoke with ThinkProgress said they put at least some of the blame on Trump, as well as Republican members of Congress. A majority of Americans share their views. According to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS, a market and survey research firm, 55 percent of people surveyed said Trump is more to blame for the shutdown than Congressional Democrats. President Trump’s approval rating has also dipped five points since last month.

“I’d put the blame 90 percent on Trump because his leadership is not good,” Anne said. “He’s not playing the game well. He’s drawing a line in the sand and he is not willing to cross it. He’s not even negotiating at this point. That’s what politics is about it’s about negotiation and he’s not doing that. He’s failing.”

Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is worried that the media coverage has been centered only on House Democrats and the president.

“There’s an entire other legislative body. People should be pressuring [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] to at least let the Senate vote up or down,” he said.

Drew said the blame should be shared by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. 

“This could have been avoided by the Congress that was leaving and they could have negotiated something earlier on when they had a full Republican house and Senate. Something could have gone through,” they said. “I assign blame for wall funding and wall funding was a tactic used by Trump to explain a very complicated issue. It has blown itself up into this one issue he has overwhelming support on and he is trying to stay behind it and it’s just not working.”

Most of the workers and contractors who spoke to ThinkProgress said they felt their communities were aware of how the shutdown affected workers, but when Anne visited family in New York for the holidays, she said they didn’t seem aware that she wouldn’t get paid.

“They were like, ‘oh yeah you’re going to get paid right?’ So I had to explain that a lot. Like, ‘no I’m not getting backpay,’” she said.

Her grandfather, who is conservative, appeared to feel differently about the shutdown once he knew how it would affect her, she said.

“He was like, ‘Oh who cares, shut it down.’ But when I explained to him how I was affected, he got kind of quiet and didn’t say anything. By the time we had to say goodbye, he said, ‘I hope you get back to work soon.’ So I think the awareness is not great, but it’s definitely growing.”

Lee said a conservative family member “changed his mind about the Republican Party” after the 2013 shutdown.

Workers say they are also exasperated that they are unable to continue projects that would benefit Americans, particularly marginalized groups. Anne noted that the Bureau of Land Management has recreational land that they are unable to keep safe and clean. Migration corridors, which maintain wildlife populations, for instance, are going to be delayed. Drew said that the USDA is unable to follow up with organizations on grant work, while Lee expressed concern about how people served by HUD will be affected by the shutdown.

“I have fielded a call from resident in HUD’s housing choice voucher program that needed a reasonable accommodation due to her disability,” Lee said. “Her housing authority wasn’t accepting her medical documentation and I needed colleagues in the field to help her file her fair housing complaint and potentially reach out to the housing authority to resolve the issue informally.”

He added, “She’s probably homeless right now.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

The Trump Economy Myth and Job-Killing Policies

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Making America Great Again; every time a U.S. company hires a hundred people, or even a dozen, President Trump’s support network blasts out the message that this is what he’s doing. Now they’re crowing that unemployment fell to 4.5 percent in March, even though many say this number underrepresents how many people are actually out of work.

Only 98,000 jobs were actually gained in the month, about half of what economists had expected. And even if these new jobs are something to crow about, it’s not as if they have anything to do with Trump.

Propaganda is one thing, but Trump’s actual policies will hurt job and wage growth once they kick in.

Obama Momentum

Remember when President Obama had been in office a few months, and the fiscal year 2009 deficit was reported to be $1.4 trillion? Right-wing propaganda outlets showed charts drawn to convey that the 2009 budget deficit was his fault.

The 2009 fiscal year budget ran from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2009. Obama’s first budget year began the following month. The 2009 budget deficit wasn’t an “Obama deficit,” is was a Bush deficit. Obama did not have time to do anything. For the same reasons, the 2017 economy, and any health it has, is still Obama’s.

In fact, when Obama DID do something this is what happened:

That job reversal was the result of actual policies put in place by Obama, not Republican propaganda.

Propaganda, Not Policies

Like almost everything Republican, the Trump administration is almost entirely about propaganda, not actual, rubber-meets-road policy. Healthcare is the best example of this. After years of propaganda opposition to Obamacare, Republicans had no actual coherent, alternative policy plan to put forward, and were unable to come up with one when the opportunity came for them to do it. The actual policies they finally came up with would have caused 24 million Americans to lose their healthcare.

Propaganda might achieve a propaganda goal, policies get actual things done.

As of today, there is no real Trump economic policy in place. He has submitted a ridiculously extreme budget proposal. He has proposed to “study” trade. He has no real “trillion-dollar” infrastructure plan – his budget proposal actually cuts infrastructure spending – and his tax “reform” plan does nothing more than give corporations and wealthy people huge breaks.

Actual Trump Policies Undercut Jobs And Wages

Trump’s actual policies will undercut job and wage growth. Right off the bat, Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate as many 200,000 federal jobs.

Trump is trying to reverse the “overtime rule” that increases the salary threshold for receiving overtime pay from $23,660 per year to $47,476. This rule is a big deal and would mean that would immediately boost the pay of 12.5 million workers, if Trump allows it to go into effect. Even with the rule the percent of workers who are eligible for overtime pay would still be lower than it was in 1975.

Trump’s executive orders also undercut job and wage growth. He has removed protections against wage theft and rights violations by federal contractors, affecting one in five workers.

Another example of actual Trump policies affecting jobs is in the energy sector. Calling climate change a “hoax,” Trump wants to promote oil and coal jobs at the expense of wind and solar jobs. But the U.S. solar power industry now employs more workers than coal, oil and natural gas combined. He wants to gut the auto fuel economy rules, undercutting opportunities for renewable-fuel companies like Tesla to innovate.

Stocks Up But Trump Economy Is A Myth

The stock market has risen under Trump; Tomahawk missile-maker Raytheon stock just went way up. Cruise missile strikes aside, bumps like these aren’t based on economic fundamentals or sound projections, but instead on the expectation of windfalls for corporations and the already-wealthy stock-owning investor class through the huge tax cuts Trump has promised.

But beyond momentary market gains,  the idea of a booming Trump economy is a myth – at least for people who work. There are no actual policies, existing or on the horizon, aimed at actually boosting jobs and wages. Only bluster. In fact, Trump has said we need to reduce American wages to the point where we can be “competitive” with Mexico and China. Yes, he said that.

His executive orders so far undercut jobs and wages. His budget eliminates jobs. His dramatic cuts in the things government does to make our lives and economy better — education, scientific research, regulation, etc. — will eat the seed corn of our future prosperity.

Trump does not offer real policy, only the propaganda of the moment, to be reversed at the next moment if convenient.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 10, 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.

Think It’s Tough for Labor Now? Just Wait Until Trump Takes Office in January

Friday, November 18th, 2016

photo_321703[1]In 63 days, organized labor is going to find itself in a new political reality, which it seems totally unprepared for. Donald Trump will be president; the Republicans will control the House and Senate and one of Trump’s first tasks will be to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. Though Trump was tight-lipped about specific policy proposals, his campaign and the current constitution of the Republican party do not bode well for labor.

Trump’s actions will largely fall into one of four categories: judicial, legislative, executive and at the level of federal agencies. Each potential move will take various levels of cooperation from other branches of government and varying amounts of time to complete.

On Day 1 of his new administration, President Trump can simply rescind many of Barack Obama’s executive orders that benefited large groups of workers. Chief among these were EO 13673, which required prospective federal contractors to disclose violations of state and federal labor laws, and helped protect employees of contractors from wage theft and mandatory arbitration of a variety of employment claims. Similarly, EO 13494 made contractor expenses associated with union busting non-allowable, thereby helping to ensure that workers can exercise their labor rights.

At the agency level, Trump will have the opportunity to fill vacancies on the five-person National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), effectively turning what has been one of the most pro-worker boards in recent memory into one that is more concerned with employers’ interests. The NLRB is one of the more politicized federal agencies, and it is not uncommon for a new NLRB to overturn a previous board’s rulings. A conservative board would put into jeopardy recent gains, including the requirement of joint employers to bargain with workers, the rights of graduate students to form unions, the rights of adjuncts at religious colleges to form unions and the protections from class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements, which effectively block access to justice for too many.

Similarly, Trump can immediately dismiss the entire Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) and appoint his own members. The FSIP is a little-known federal agency that functions like a mini-NLRB to resolve disputes between unionized federal employees and the government.

Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

At the legislative level, various anti-worker bills sit ready for a GOP-led push. Perhaps chief among them is the National Right to Work Act, which would place every private sector employee (including airline and railway employees currently under the Railway Labor Act) under right-to-work. Right-to-work is the misleading law that prohibits unions from requiring that workers represented by the union pay their fair share. Such a bill was introduced last year by Sen. Rand Paul, and it had 29 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump announced on the campaign trail that his “position on right-to-work is 100 percent,” so this will likely be an area where he has common cause with the GOP-controlled Congress.

At the judicial level, there is also a strong possibility that we will see a sequel to the Friedrichs case at the Supreme Court. Friedrichs was widely anticipated to bar fair share fees and place all public sector employees under right-to-work, but ended in a deadlock after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. It is likely that any Supreme Court justice that Trump chooses will be as critical of fair share fees as Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and would provide a critical fifth vote in changing long-standing precedent regarding the allowance of such fees. Groups like the National Right to Work Committee and Center for Individual Rights often have cases in the pipeline that could be pushed to the Supreme Court when the opportunity arises.

Similarly, at the judicial level, Trump will likely have his Department of Labor drop appeals to court decisions that enjoined or overturned pro-worker rules, such as the rule requiring union-busters to disclose when they are involved in an organizing campaign. Dropping the appeals would be an easy route to kill the rules, rather than going through a more time consuming rulemaking process to rescind them.

All indications are that labor has been caught unprepared for a President Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress and Supreme Court. With such broad control over every branch of government, Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on November 17, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

L.A. Port Strike Today Over Federal Contractor Wage Theft

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

dave.johnson

 

“An order that creates a culture of legal compliance could have a transformative impact on American industry.” George Faraday, Legal and Policy Director at Good Jobs Nation

 

Truck drivers and warehouse workers working for federal contractors at the Port of Los Angeles are striking for 48 hours to draw attention to wage theft and other violations. These workers work for companies that contract with the federal Department of Defense. They say they have been misclassified as “independent contractors”, had their wages stolen and have been retaliated against for exercising the right to organize.

The workers are doing this because President Obama’s Fair Pay & Safe Workplaces Executive Order protecting low-wage workers on federal contracts from wage theft and other labor law violations takes effect today. Contractors are supposed to start reporting whether they are found in violation of wage theft and other labor laws and regulations. Later the government can use this information in the decision process for awarding contracts.

On a press call discussing today’s strike, Jaime Martinez, a port worker, explained that he has worked for K&R, a federal contractor, for 19 years. “We are on strike today for issues including respect and and wage theft. We earn very low wages, with no benefits and no workers compensation because we are classified as independent contractors.”

Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order

July’s post, Obama’s ‘Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order’ explained,

President Obama’s executive order cracks down on federal contractors who break hiring, health and safety, and wage laws. It also prohibits employers from requiring mandatory arbitration agreements with employees of federal contractors, in order that workers can get their day in an actual court instead of being forced to appear in front of an arbitrator picked and paid for by the company when there is a dispute involving the Civil Rights Act or related to sexual assault or harassment.

Specifically, the new rules require companies that bid on federal contracts to disclose wage and hour, safety and health, collective bargaining, family and medical leave, and civil rights violations from the prior three years. Federal contractor hiring officers are to take serious violations into account before awarding contracts. These officers will be issued guidelines on whether certain violations “rise to the level of a lack of integrity or business ethics.”

This Is A Big Deal

According to Good Jobs Nation this will affect a large number of workers around the country,

  • A U.S. Senate investigation revealed that federal contractors were responsible for nearly one-third of the largest U.S. Department of Labor penalties for wage theft and other legal violations;
  • A report by the National Employment Law Project found that 1 in 3 low-wage federal contract workers are victims of wage theft; and
  • An analysis by the Government Accountability Office showed that known legal violators have continued to receive lucrative federal contracts because of lax government oversight and enforcement.

“Creates A Culture Of Legal Compliance”

Companies with federal government contracts employ 1 in 4 American workers. Thanks to this executive order they will have to demonstrate a record of labor law compliance, including wage and hour and health and safety laws. On the press call discussing today’s strike Good Jobs Nation’s Legal and Policy Director George Faraday said, “An order that creates a culture of legal compliance could have a transformative impact on American industry.”

Fair Pay Hotline And Website

Also today, Good Jobs Nation is launching the first-ever national legal hotline – 1-844-PAY-FAIR – for federal contract workers to report law-breaking. Information is also available at goodjobsnation.org/payfair,

If you are a worker on a federal contract and you believe that are not receiving the pay and benefits owed to you under federal laws – like the Service Contract Act or the Davis Bacon Act – contact Good Jobs Legal Defense at 1-844-PAY-FAIR or click below.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 25, 2016. 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.

 

Department of Labor May Raise Wages for Disabled Federal Contractors, After All

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Mike ElkLast week, In These Times broke the news that Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors would not apply to the thousands of disabled workers who currently make subminimum wages—some as low as pennies an hour—under “14(c) programs.” Now, In These Times has learned that the Department of Labor is examining its position on this subject.

In a Tuesday morning interview on the Diane Rehm Show on Washington, D.C.’s WAMU, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez referred to 14(c)—an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act that excludes workers with disabilities from minimum-wage protections if they are employed in certified training programs—as “a provision of law that really has worked to the detriment of people with disabilities.”

“[That is] one of the issues that we are examining right now as we prepare to finalize the executive order,” he continued.

Perez’s statement follows a letter issued by more than 25 civil rights, disability and labor organizations calling on the Obama administration to eliminate the use of subminimum wage for federal contractors. “All employees of federal contractors should mean all employees, regardless of disability status,” the letter read. “We believe … that it is both economically sound and morally just to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same wage protections as those without.”

Some disability advocates maintain that jobs paying subminimum wages under 14(c)—known as “sheltered workshops”—must exist in order to give disabled people employment opportunities.

Others, however, argue that several states have phased out the use of sheltered workshops with few ill effects. In 2003, for example, Vermont eliminated such programs altogether. Instead, the state focused on providing training, support and transition services to people with disabilities and their employers. Today, 40 percent of Vermonters with disabilities are employed in “integrated employment” jobs, compared to less than 20 percent of workers with disabilities nationwide.

Advocates say that if the Obama administration were to eliminate 14(c) programs for federal contractors, state and local governments might follow a similar course. In the meantime, they say, they’re heartened by the unprecedented level of support they’re receiving from other organizations, including groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think the real story here is how the civil rights community is weighing in … on the side of the disabled,” says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “This is creating new ground to engage the broader civil rights community on disability issues.”

“14(c) workers can and should do productive work,” says Susan Mizner of the ACLU. “They should be paid a living wage, just as every worker should be paid a living wage. This goes to principles of equity and fairness—issues that are at the core of the 14th Amendment and key to all civil rights movements.”

At the moment, it’s unclear what Obama’s next move will be in terms of raising minimum wage across the board. But Ne’eman reports that there are active conversations taking place between the federal administration and disability advocates.

“This is an issue of fundamental equity for disabled workers,” says Ne’eman. “In the coming weeks, we will be working to send a clear message to the administration that the time for action is now. Twenty-four years after the ADA, disabled workers deserve a fair deal.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 6, 2014.  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.

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