Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Karla Walter’

Take Back Labor Day: Week 2 Roundup

Friday, September 12th, 2008

For this week’s installment of our Take Back Labor Day project, we had ten new posts representing the incredible quality and diversity that exists among those who think and write about workplace issues. With a wide variety of topics, including domestic workers, CEO pay, and workplace flexibility, and the representation of powerhouse organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the new Health Care for America Now coalition, and Women Employed, Week 2 was another stellar week.

Kicking off the week, on Monday, September 8, were Dr. David Madland and Karla Walter of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Mark Harbeke of Winning Workplaces.

Madland and Walter, of the Center for American Progress‘s American Worker Project, point out the abysmal record of the current administration when it comes to having the Department of Labor simply do its job of protecting workers.  What’s the solution (besides voting, of course)?  Passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which the next administration should have the opportunity to do.

Winning Workplaces helps small and midsize organizations create great workplaces, and often it’s Mark Harbeke bringing some of the very best workplace practices and hottest workplace trends to our attention.  This post was no exception, as Mark found three different studies that all make it crystal clear that employers have to engage their employees, if they want them to be productive and satisfied with their work.  If you’re too busy to read the handwriting on the wall, just read Mark on a regular basis at the Winning Workplace blog.

Continuing on Tuesday, September 8, were workplace columnist Bob Rosner and Anne Ladky of Women Employed, respectively tackling the hot topics of CEO pay and paid sick leave.

In a bit of workplace Freakonomics, who figured out that CEO performance has an inverse relationship with their house size? No, it wasn’t Bob Rosner, but he tells us about the study that figured out that the larger the CEO’s house, the more likely that shareholders will pay for the CEO’s poor performance. Pay close attention to Bob — you’ll be seeing a lot more of him soon around these parts!

Anne Ladky of Women Employed provides us a great way to track our progress between this Labor Day and next:  have we passed a federal paid sick leave bill?  If not, we’re not done ensuring fairness in the workplace, while a benefit considered standard by most professionals—paid sick time—is unavailable to millions of lower-paid workers, including 22 million women.

Wednesday, September 10 featured two titans among lawyers who represent workers:  Paul Tobias and Ellen Simon.

Paul Tobias, who can count founding Workplace Fairness and the National Employment Lawyers Association among his myriad of career accomplishments, uses Labor Day to identify a number of necessary changes we need to our employment laws for workers to get a fair shake.  As he remarks, we all hope that the presidential candidates will take note of these needed changes and actually fix them during the next administration.

Ellen Simon, one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States, tells us about a recent surprisingly positive Supreme Court decision (Sprint v. Mendelsohn), which gives us a slight bit of hope that the Court — not especially known for its friendliness to workers — will actually enforce the long-standing rules of evidence, even when to do so might benefit workers.

Thursday, September 11, was a somber day of remembrance for many of us.  Blogger Jason Gooljar looked back to the very origins of the Labor Day holiday, while Chai Feldblum and Katie Corrigan looked to the not-too-distant future of the flexible workplace.

Jason Gooljar, blogger Working Families Party Man, points out what even the most worker-friendly among us might not know about Labor Day: that it was proposed as a September holiday to prevent the celebration of what was considered a much more radical observance:  May Day.  While we may now observe a watered-down holiday, we don’t have to have a watered-down global labor movement, and Jason tells us why that’s important.

Chai Feldblum and Katie Corrigan, who co-direct the Workplace Flexibility 2010 campaign at Georgetown Law, talk about how many workers have extreme difficulty juggling the competing demands of work, family, and community involvement.  Workplace flexibility (including telecommuting, phased retirement, and flexible work arrangements) is a solution which can ultimately bring about more effective business, a stronger workforce, and healthier families — if enough businesses choose to embrace flexibility principles and practices.

Week 2 wrapped up on Friday, September 12, but we didn’t slack off at the end of the week, with Melvina Ford and Jason Rosenbaum tackling two urgent workplace problems:  the lack of sufficient legal protections for domestic workers, and the lack of adequate health care for many, if not most, American workers.

Melvina Ford, Executive Director of the DC Employment Justice Center, identifies a problem hardly confined to the DC metro area:  the exploitation of domestic workers who cook, clean, and take care of children and seniors at home.  She correctly notes that many current laws weren’t written with domestic workers in mind, and either exempt them entirely or do not adequately protect them.  Some recently enacted laws show promise in educating oft-exploited workers about their rights, but we need to do even more to ensure that domestic workers are fairly compensated for their often back-breaking work.

Jason Rosenbaum, writing for the recently formed Health Care for America Now! coalition, makes a relatively obvious but incredibly overlooked connection:  a healthy worker is a better, more productive worker, and sick workers who lack adequate insurance sap productivity.  Yet both businesses and employees face skyrocketing health care costs as a result of insurance company intervention.  Yes, health care is an economic issue — and a vitally important one that we are forced to address in the days ahead.

Whew:  health care, CEO pay, domestic pay, the Supreme Court, the Department of Labor:  you name it, we covered it in week 2, if it’s important in today’s workplace.  And next week continues the fine tradition we’ve established this month:  with at least five guest bloggers continuing the quality posts you’ve seen all month.  Stay tuned!

Bush Shirks Role as Top Labor Cop

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Every year nearly 6,000 American workers are killed on the job and many more are bilked out of an estimated $19 billion in wages by their employers. Unfortunately, workers do not have the protections they need and deserve because President Bush’s Department of Labor has failed to effectively police low-road employers, and unions—which give workers a voice on the job and help to ensure laws are followed—have been under attack and therefore shrinking in size.

Laws exist to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and employer wage theft. Unions lobbied hard and won comprehensive wage-protection laws passed during the FDR administration and occupational safety laws enacted during the early 1970s. Minimum wage and overtime rules, anti-discrimination laws, and workplace safety standards create a guaranteed floor for all American jobs. They also require the Department of Labor to police American workplaces and penalize scofflaw employers.

However, negligent firms often ignore these rules, and Bush’s Department of Labor has shirked its role as top labor cop. Irresponsible employers know that they will be rarely penalized for workplace abuses, and when they are, penalties will likely be so low they will not hurt the firm’s bottom line. In recent years, wage theft investigators assessed fines on only 6 percent of known lawbreakers. Moreover, in 2006 the average workplace safety penalty for serious violations that “pose a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm” was only $881.

The risk of employer abuse is especially high for workers in traditionally low-wage and potentially dangerous industries. According to recent reports, at least 50 percent of garment, nursing home, and poultry employers are in violation of the basic minimum wage and overtime protections. At least one in ten meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year, but safety inspectors are only able to inspect about 75 of the more than 5,000 meatpacking plants each year.

And it’s not only workers who get cheated. Employers who play by the rules and treat their workers with respect can’t compete with irresponsible firms who cut corners with employee safety and wages.

Although Bush’s Labor Department is leaving workers to fend for themselves, unions can give workers an important voice in standing up to employers who flout the law. Labor unions empower workers to speak out against employer abuses and can defend whistleblowers from employer retaliation. Moreover, as on-the-ground experts, unions can provide important targeting information to worker-protection agencies. Indeed, the workers that are the most abused by their employers are frequently low-wage, non-union labor. These disempowered workers are also the least likely to report workplace abuse.

Unfortunately, these days it is rare for any American worker to be unionized—only 8 percent of the American workforce belongs to a labor union compared to one-third of private-sector workers in the decades after World War II. The reason: Existing laws make joining a union a Herculean task that few are able to undertake. Employers legally can force workers to attend anti-union meetings, including “one-on-one conversations” with supervisors, and often pressure workers to reveal their private preferences for the union. When employers who oppose unionization break the law, penalties are weak and insufficient. Workers are illegally fired in about one-quarter of union organizing campaigns, but they can at best hope to recover their lost wages and get reinstated in their jobs, often after years of legal battles. And if workers prevail against these odds, employers often refuse to negotiate with the union.

An important step toward improving workplace safety and wage standards is to give workers a stronger voice through increased unionization. Congress can reduce the barriers to joining a union by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would allow an employee to choose to join a union by signing a membership card—a system that works well at the small number of workplaces that choose to permit it—and also promotes good-faith bargaining so that employees can negotiate a first contract. The act does not deny workers their right to vote in a union election, as some conservatives maintain, but rather allows workers to choose between signing a membership card and having an election.

The House of Representatives has already passed this important legislation, and although a majority of senators support it, opposition from a few conservatives has prevented the bill’s passage. The next president must prioritize the protection of workers’ rights both through better enforcement of existing wage theft and worker safety law, and through inducing the Senate to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

About the Authors: Dr. David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project at American Progress. He has written academic articles and books as well as op-eds and commentaries on a range of economic issues, including retirement, economic insecurity, health care, campaign finance, taxes, and public opinion. He has a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and received his B.S. from the University of California at Berkeley. Madland’s dissertation was about the political reaction to the decline of the defined benefit retirement system.

Karla Walter is a Policy Analyst with the American Worker Project at American Progress. Karla focuses primarily on the improving the economic security of American workers by increasing workers’ wages and benefits, promoting workplace protections, and advancing workers’ rights at work. Prior to joining American Progress, Karla was a Research Analyst at Good Jobs First, providing support to officials, policy research organizations, and grassroots advocacy groups striving to make state and local economic development subsidies more accountable and effective. Karla earned a master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Cross-posted at the Center for American Progress website.

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