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American Workers Are Not Happy

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Americans are not happy. And for good reason. They continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. And every time they make the slightest peep of complaint about a system rigged against them, the rich and powerful tell them to shut up because it is all their fault.

One percenters instruct them to work harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.

The barrage of blaming has persuaded; workers believe they deserve censure. And that’s a big part of the reason they’re unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President. And yet, it is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, unemployment is low and the stock market is high. But skyrocketing stocks benefit only the top 10 percent of wealthy Americans who own 84 percent of stocks. And while more people are employed than during the Great Recession, the vast majority of Americans haven’t had a real raise since 1979.

It’s bad out there for American workers. Last month, their ranking dropped for the third year running in the World Happiness Report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative.

These sad statistics reinforce those in a report released two years ago by two university professors. Reviewing data from the General Social Survey, administered routinely nationally, the professors found Americans’ assessment of their own happiness and family finances has, unambiguously, declined in recent years.

But if Americans would just work harder, everything would be dandy, right?

No. Not right. Americans work really, really hard. A third of Americans work a side hustle, driving an Uber or selling crafts on Etsy. American workers take fewer vacation days. They get 14, but typically take only 10. The highest number of workers in five years report they don’t expect to take a vacation at all this year. And Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries.

Americans labor 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, and 499 more than the French, according to the International Labor Organization.

And the longer hours aren’t because American workers are laggards on the job. They’re very productive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the average American worker’s productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950.

If pay had kept pace with productivity, as it did in the three decades after the end of World War II, American workers would be making 400 percent more. But they’re not. Their wages have flat lined for four decades, adjusting for inflation.

That means stress. Forty percent of workers say they don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense. Twenty percent can’t pay all of their monthly bills. More than a quarter of adults skipped needed medical care last year because they couldn’t afford it. A quarter of adults have no retirement savings.

If only Americans would work harder. And longer. And better.

Much as right-wingers have pounded that into Americans’ heads, it’s not the solution. Americans clearly are working harder and longer and better. The solution is to change the system, which is stacked against workers.

Workers are bearing on their backs tax breaks that benefited only the rich and corporations. They’re bearing overtime pay rules and minimum wage rates that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. They’re weighted down by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unionization efforts and kneecapped workers’ rights to file class-action lawsuits. They’re struggling under U.S. Department of Labor rules defining them as independent contractors instead of staff members. They live in fear as corporations threaten to offshore their jobs – with the assistance of federal tax breaks.

Last year, the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court handed a win to corporatists trying to obliterate workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions. The court ruled that public sector workers who choose not to join unions don’t have to pay a small fee to cover the cost of services that federal law requires the unions provide to them. This bankrupts labor unions. And there’s no doubt that right-wingers are gunning for private sector unions next.

This kind of relentless attack on labor unions since 1945 has withered membership. As it shrank, wages for both union and nonunion workers did too.

Also last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can deny workers access to class-action arbitration. This compels workers, who corporations forced to sign agreements to arbitrate rather than litigate, into individual arbitration cases, for which each worker must hire his or her own lawyer. Then, just last week, the right-wing majority on the court further curtailed workers’ rights to class-action suits.

In a minority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the court in recent years has routinely deployed the law to deny to employees and consumers “effective relief against powerful economic entities.”

No matter how hard Americans work, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has hobbled them in an already lopsided contest with gigantic corporations.

The administrative branch is no better.  The Trump Labor Department just issued an advisory that workers for a gig-economy company are independent contractors, not employees. As a result, the workers, who clean homes after getting assignments on an app, will not qualify for federal minimum wage (low as it is) or overtime pay. Also, the corporation will not have to pay Social Security taxes for them. Though the decision was specific to one company, experts say it will affect the designation for other gig workers, such as drivers for Uber and Lyft.

Also, the Labor Department has proposed a stingy increase in the overtime pay threshold, that is, the salary amount under which corporations must pay workers time and a half for overtime. The current threshold of $23,660 has not been raised since 2004. The Obama administration had proposed doubling it to $47,476. But now, the Trump Labor Department has cut that back to $35,308. That means 8.2 million workers who would have benefited from the larger salary cap now will not be eligible for mandatory overtime pay.

It doesn’t matter how hard they work, they aren’t going to get the time-and-a-half pay they deserve.

Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich. Look at the tax break they gave one percenters in 2017. Corporations got the biggest cut in history, their rate sledgehammered down from 35 percent to 21 percent. The rich reap by far the largest benefit from those tax cuts through 2027, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center. And by then, 53 percent of Americans – that is workers not rich people – will pay more than they did in 2017 because tax breaks for workers expire.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted the corporate tax cut would put an extra $4,000 in every worker’s pocket. They swore that corporations would use some of their tax cut money to hand out raises and bonuses to workers. That never happened. Workers got a measly 6 percent of corporations’ tax savings. In the first quarter after the tax cut took effect, workers on average received a big fat extra $6.21 in their paychecks, for an annual total of a whopping $233. Corporations spent their tax breaks on stock buybacks, a record $1 trillion worth, raising stock prices, which put more money in the pockets of rich CEOs and shareholders.

That’s continuing this year. Workers are never going to see that $4,000.

No wonder they’re unhappy. The system is working against them.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

Philadelphia Just Passed the Strongest Fair Scheduling Law in the Nation

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, just enacted the most sweeping bill yet to give low-wage workers some control over their schedules.

The city’s new law, which passed the city council on Thursday, will require businesses with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations worldwide to provide employees their schedules at least 10 days in advance. If any changes are made to their schedules after that, employers will owe employees more money. Employers will also be required to offer more hours as they become available to existing employees who want them rather than hiring new people, and they’ll be banned from retaliating against those who either request or decline more hours.

The law is poised to have a huge impact: A recent survey conducted by UC Berkeley found that among food and retail sector workers in Philadelphia, 62 percent receive their schedules less than two weeks ahead of time and two-thirds work irregular or variable schedules. Almost half usually work 30 hours or less each week even though less than 15 percent have a second job to supplement their incomes.

“It seems that employers are being less and less cognizant of their workers’ needs and home lives,” noted Nadia Hewka, an employment lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which advocated for the bill. “This would just put a little bit of balance back into that equation.”

The effort to help workers control their schedules started around a year ago, when advocates convened to discuss how Philadelphia could take action on its own to improve living standards for its residents. “Philadelphia is a very high-poverty city,” Hewka noted. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. So advocates were interested in “anything that we can do to raise the bottom just a little bit.” But thanks to a state preemption law, the city can’t raise the minimum wage—that power is reserved for the state government. So the city council has turned to a number of other measures that can make life for working people easier: paid sick leave, an anti-wage theft ordinance, a salary history ban, ban the box legislation and now a fair scheduling law.

“What I know is that I can’t be paralyzed just because the state has limited our capacity to be able to directly raise the minimum wage,” said Helen Gym, the first-term councilmember who introduced the fair workweek bill. “We have to talk about other things that impact people’s lives and could also improve them.”

The former community organizer came into the council looking for something that could “really grapple with this incredibly vast and intractable situation around deep and entrenched poverty in our city.” As she spoke with low-wage workers and those who work with them—teachers, lawyers, anti-poverty advocates—everyone brought up how unstable schedules were disrupting people’s lives. “This was a major, major issue,” she said.

“As a municipality, we have to do something,” she added. “We have the authority and the responsibility to act here as one of the largest cities in the country.” Her colleagues apparently agreed: “It has been one of the most popular bills to move through our council in a while,” she said.

While other places, such as Oregon, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, have similar scheduling legislation, Philadelphia’s goes further by covering workers in all industries, not just those in retail. “Of all the bills that exist around the country, ours will be the most far-reaching,” Gym noted. Hewka credits the involvement of UNITE HERE Philly, which represents hotel and restaurant workers and advocated for the bill.  

Hewka sees the new law as an anti-poverty measure.  It’s difficult “when you don’t know how many hours you’re working and how much you’ll be earning by the end of the week or the end of the month to make the bills you need to make,” she said. Someone’s income isn’t just determined by her wage, but by how many hours she works. A more predictable set of hours, and the ability to get more as they become available, can make a big difference.

And there are other benefits to a steady schedule. Hewka noted that many people feel that if minimum wage workers don’t like their pay they should get better jobs. “How are you supposed to improve your lot in life and go to school if your class schedules are set and your work schedule always changes?” Hewka noted. It’s also nearly impossible to hold down a second job to make ends meet if the first one is constantly shifting.

The bind is particularly tight for parents. “When [workers] are not allowed to have a say in their schedules,” Hewka said, “it impacts their entire family.” One big hurdle is finding childcare to fit a work schedule when that work schedule is constantly shifting.

On top of that, parents have to get their children to school, doctors’ offices, after-school activities and other appointments. Poor families are also often navigating the demands of welfare offices or child services, Hewka pointed out, all of which typically require daytime appointments. “All of these systems assume that you’re available to do these tasks,” she said. She has even had clients fail to show up to meetings in her office because they had to be at work instead.

“Jobs don’t recognize [workers’] humanity, let alone these kinds of demands on their lives,” she added. “You’re spinning plates up in the air with all of these things in your life. A work schedule changing can really cause everything to come crashing down.”

Gym hopes not just to improve Philadelphians’ working lives, but to make a bigger impact. “We’re trying to change the way in which we talk about poverty and the nature of work these days,” she said. “Not only did we set a standard for what happens around the state, but we sent a message across the nation that we need to see an economic justice agenda.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert, a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, New York Magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Washington state gets paid family leave

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

 Paid family leave is becoming law in Washington state. The state legislature passed and Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a law giving workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for birth, adoption, or the worker’s own or a family member’s medical condition, and up to 16 weeks in a year:

The Washington state program would benefit low-wage workers because those earning less than half of the state’s weekly average would receive 90 percent of their income—to a maximum of $1,000 per week. The benefits are based on a percentage of the worker’s average weekly wage and the state’s weekly average wage, which was $1,133 in 2016.

The program is largely funded by workers, who will pay a premium of 0.4 percent of their wages each paycheck into a state-run insurance fund. This would cost a minimum-wage worker about 3 cents an hour, according to the bill’s sponsor. Employers are responsible for picking up at least 55 percent of the medical leave premium—or more if they choose to do so.

“This new law is an affordable and predictable solution to providing an important benefit for life’s emergencies,” Sara Reilly, co-owner of Darby’s Café and Three Magnets Brewing Co. in Olympia, Washington, said in a statement.

How’s that for a much-needed piece of good news? But of course every time a state or city passes a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, or paid family leave, it’s a reminder of how far short our federal laws fall, and how much of a fight we have to elect Democrats to Congress and the presidency before we can change this.

 This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor for DailyKos. 

On International Women’s Day, not all women can go on strike

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

On International Women’s Day, the organization that spearheaded the Women’s March over Inauguration Weekend is leading “A Day Without a Woman”—a call to action for women around the world to take the day off from paid and unpaid labor, to shop only at women-only or minority-owned businesses, and to wear red in solidarity. They’re hoping to send a strong message about women’s economic power and build a coalition in support of women’s rights to counter the Trump administration’s agenda.

But some women—particularly immigrants, low-wage workers, and working mothers—cannot participate in a national strike because they’re worried about losing their jobs or because they rely on their daily income.

Maricela, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who didn’t want to be identified by her full name because of fear of reprisal from federal immigration agents, is one of many women who is unable to take the day off work on Wednesday, even though she is supportive of the strike’s goals.

“I would like to support this strike, but I can’t do that,” Maricela said.

Maricela has worked as a housekeeper in Austin, Texas for the past 17 years. Losing a day’s worth of income would strain her family’s finances. One day’s wages translate to having money for groceries, gas, financial support for her children, and remittances saved up to send to her parents in Mexico, she told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.

Taking Wednesday off could also put her at risk of being fired. She said her employers rarely sympathize with the significance of these nationwide labor events. And if she is fired, her lack of immigration status would make it difficult for her to find other clients.

Maricela wishes she could participate because she is otherwise a staunch advocate for civil and immigrant rights.

“That feels uncomfortable for me because I’m always involved in civil rights and I would like to continue to support and fight,” Maricela said. “It’s important for me and other women.”

But she said she will support the day in other ways. As suggested by national organizers, Maricela will not buy anything on Wednesday.

This kind of abstention could have strong economic impact on the U.S. economy since immigrants like Maricela make up a growing share of the consumer buying power. As the nonpartisan policy center Immigration Policy Council pointed out in 2015, Latinos and Asians “wield $2 trillion in consumer purchasing power, and the businesses they owned had sales of $857 billion and employed 4.7 million workers at last count.”

And after Wednesday passes, Maricela will remain an advocate for progressive immigration policies in her community. After the recent enforcement raids throughout the country, she has been “very involved” in holding weekly “Know your rights” workshops to help people understand what to do if agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency show up at their door and ask to see their papers.

President Donald Trump’s comments about Latinos have made her feel targeted and “like a criminal,” a feeling that has only heightened her fear of deportation since he was elected. She said the stereotypes and slurs against the immigrant community are unfounded.

Aside from advocating for her rights as a woman, she wants people to see her as simply human.

“Trump says we are bad people, but I don’t think we are bad people,” Maricela said. “We are working really, really hard. Nobody gave us nothing, only our work. I do not feel safe.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on March 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA.

More U.S. Workers Have Highly Volatile, Unstable Incomes

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The U.S stock market may be at record highs and U.S. unemployment at its lowest level since the Great Recession, but income inequality remains stubbornly high.

Contributing to this inequality is the fact that while more Americans are working than at any time since August 2007, more people are working part time, erratic and unpredictable schedules—without full-time, steady employment. Since 2007, the number of Americans involuntarily working part time has increased by nearly 45 percent. More Americans than before are part of what’s considered the contingent workforce, working on-call or on-demand, and as independent contractors or self-employed freelancers, often with earnings that vary dramatically month to month.

These workers span the socioeconomic spectrum, from low-wage workers in service, retail, hospitality and restaurant jobs—and temps in industry, construction and manufacturing—to highly educated Americans working job-to-job because their professions lack fulltime employment opportunities given the structure of many information age businesses. As Andrew Stettner, Michael Cassidy and George Wentworth point out in their new report, A New Safety Net for an Era of Unstable Earnings, what all these workers have in common are highly volatile, unstable incomes and a lack of access to the traditional U.S. unemployment insurance safety net.

“The programs we have to help people are very biased toward traditional incomes,” says Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “Volatility in earnings is a really big problem.”

“Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it”

Published by The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, in collaboration with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates for policies that expand access to work and labor protections for low-wage workers, the report found that those in the contingent or nontraditional workforce “experience nearly twice as much earnings volatility as standard workers.”

It also found that because of this situation, between 2008 and 2013, three out of five prime earners experienced at least as much as a 50 percent drop in their month-to-month income. Half experienced month-to-month income drops of more than 100 percent.

“This broad issue of underemployment,” says NELP senior counsel George Wentworth, “there’s less of a light on it and these people are not showing up in national unemployment figures. But these workers are struggling and many of them are not making ends meet.”

Central to this problem is that most workers now employed part time are making less than what they made previously, working full time. At the same time, their part-time or independent contractor status means they are likely not eligible for a full complement—if any, in the case of self-employed freelancers—of standard employment benefits, including employer paid health insurance or any form of unemployment insurance, explains Wentworth.

As the report notes, “Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it.”

Policy recommendations

Both Stettner and Wentworth explain that historical policy responses—and those set up to help workers laid off during the Great Recession—focus on traditional employment situations. Typical unemployment insurance is also biased against those who take up part-time or self-employment gigs while they’re looking for new full-time jobs by reducing unemployment payments. Some states have partial unemployment benefits designed for part-time workers, including those who’ve involuntarily had their hours reduced, but these vary widely. The report found that for workers whose hours are cut from full time to part time, “ten states would replace half of their lost earnings while fourteen states would provide no benefits at all.”

To address what’s becoming the new normal for U.S. workers, the report makes several recommendations. It proposes that states offer partial unemployment benefits to workers earning less than 150 percent of what they’d qualify for weekly if they were laid off (rather than working part time). This would substantially improve coverage for workers whose hours have been cut or who take part-time jobs after losing fulltime jobs.

“It also should be easier to file for these benefits,” says Stettner, explaining that current work documentation requirements don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how part timers work and get paid.

The report also recommends broadening unemployment insurance support for work-sharing programs. Work-share programs, explains Wentworth, are designed to help employers avoid layoffs by retaining their existing workforce but with reduced hours.

The report proposes beefing up existing financial support for work-share programs to reduce the impact to employees of reduced hours. “This is basically for high road employers,” says Wentworth.

The report also recommends a pilot program to provide unemployment insurance to freelancers who don’t have a traditional employer relationship. This is perhaps the most challenging of the report’s proposals since it seeks to address circumstances that extend well beyond the issue of reduced hours. Ideas include giving freelancers better access to certain tax credits in ways that help even out swings in earnings. It could also involve building on international examples such as professional guilds in Europe, where people contribute in order to draw benefits when needed, Stettner explains.

These proposals go beyond and build on those already being discussed at the state, local and federal level to require employers to provide more stable scheduling, pay a minimum number of hours if workers are called for a shift and that protect workers who request schedule changes. They would also begin to address the situations of the estimated 19.1 million Americans who depend solely on freelance income and are currently without any employment safety net.

“We’re just scratching the surface to understand how to come up with a better set of market-based and government solutions,” says Stettner. “We’ve created a whole view of the world that now applies to only about half the working people in America,” he says. “We have this huge divide we need to hammer on. It should concern everyone.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

The Hope From Audacity: Fight for $15 Pulls Off “Most Disruptive” Day of Action Yet

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

David MobergChicago—The movement known as Fight for $15 started in New York City as a surprise one-day strike. The workers’ demands then were simple and bold. They wanted a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to organize a union.

The workers who initiated the campaign could no longer tolerate lengthy debates over penny increases to the state, local and federal minimum wages. They called for more than double the federal minimum wage, which stood then—and now—at $7.25 an hour.

This was a dream that seemed not only aspirational but downright crazy when Fight for $15 first launched. And it was put forward by some of the workers with the greatest need—occupants of the virtually interchangeable jobs of the vast modern low-wage economy. These are the jobs that people take not just as a first job, but as the first of dozens of similar jobs in a career with little progress.

To mark its fourth anniversary this week, the Fight for $15 organization staged its largest and “most disruptive” national action to date, which included strikes, non-violent civil disobedience and actions at major airports like the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Even though it still has a long way to go, Fight for $15 had reason to celebrate.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) credits Fight for $15 with winning an increase of $61.5 billion in annual wages over its first four years, mostly through state and local minimum wage increases. In other instances, employers boosted workers’ pay under public pressure.

On balance, these victories for roughly 19 million workers yielded a total raise more than 10 times larger than the raise U.S. workers received from the last federal minimum wage hike in 2007, according to NELP. By Fight for $15’s accounting, its actions have raised wages for 22 million workers.

Still, employers in the United States pay less than $15 an hour to some 64 million workers.

Over the past four years, Fight for $15 has reached beyond its base in fast food restaurants and launched organizing efforts with a broad range of poorly-paid workers: home care and child care workers, early childhood teachers, university teaching assistants, Uber and other ride-share company drivers, airport workers and many others. It has also inspired more tightly organized, conventional unions to reach out to other low-paid, low-skilled workers, such as car washers and retail sales clerks.

As the organization has grown, Fight for $15 has taken up new tactics and demands, in part reflecting the preoccupations of its members. While its two core demands remain a $15 minimum wage and union rights, the organization now also calls for an end to structural racism, to police killings of black people and to deportations of immigrants.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) credits Fight for $15 with winning an increase of $61.5 billion in annual wages over its first four years. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

“We can’t keep living like this”

Before 6 a.m. Tuesday, a cool fall day, a crowd of several hundred protestors gathered outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the gentrifying but still largely working-class and immigrant neighborhood of Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s northwest side. Supporters unfurled a banner from a nearby grocery store. It read: “We Demand $15 and Union Rights, Stop Deportations, Stop Killing Black People.” The crowd chanted slogans, ranging from the humorously blunt (“We work, we sweat. Put $15 on our check!”) to the bluntly militant (“If we don’t get it. Shut it down!”) and the over-optimistically heroic (“El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!” Spanish for “United, the people will never be defeated”).

The crowd included local politicians like Cook County Commissioner and recent insurgent mayoral candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and workers whose jobs worsened recently as well as many others whose jobs have never been good. Uber driver Darrell Imani represented one of the newest companies whose workers have turned to Fight for $15 to protect what they fear losing. When he started driving for Uber a couple of years and about 12,000 rides ago, he typically earned roughly $25 an hour, or $40,000 a year.

“Now we can barely pay for gas and services,” he lamented. “We can’t keep living like this. We can’t. Uber drivers are on strike for living wages. I love doing it, but I want to be able to pay the bills. I’m trying to organize the group to be a union. Uber is making billions of dollars, but we are the ones who are making it for them.”

Also in the crowd was Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, a large local union. He has a long history of trying, and often succeeding in organizing implausible groups of workers. In Detroit, Kelleher briefly organized hamburger chain outlets. He managed to organize widely dispersed home care workers in Chicago and other parts of Illinois. And just a few years ago, he led a march of retail clerks and fast food workers down North Michigan Avenue, the swank shopping strip of downtown Chicago.

“It has solidified in my mind that organizing can’t just be about wages, hours and working conditions,” Kelleher says. “It also is not just traditional organizing. This [Fight for $15] is the wave of the future. Workers want a union, and you can build organizations off of this. That’s the challenge.”

Organizing in the future may look much more like earlier periods of American labor history when “open shops” were common, meaning that individual workers could join or not join a union, Kelleher said. Open shops could become the rule again, as a result of the spread of right-to-work laws and the possibility of conservative judges overruling unions’ right to collect a “fair share” of normal dues to cover expenses of representing workers who do not join the union.

Kelleher’s home care workers’ union started along the model of an open shop, then won an agreement to have the state government “check off,” or collect, dues. But the Supreme Court later ruled that the home and child care workers in Kelleher’s union were not full-fledged state employees and, therefore, the union could not have dues deducted from their paychecks. The union now collects dues itself from about 65,000 of its more than 90,000 members, a remarkable achievement given how dispersed those workers are.

If employers think an open shop will weaken unions by making them less stable, Kelleher cites an unattributed maxim: “Where you don’t have permanent organization, you have permanent war.”

“With a union, you’re stronger”

The airport strike at O’Hare, the world’s fourth busiest airport, was one of the more dramatic actions. A year ago, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 launched a campaign to organize about 2,000 O’Hare workers, employed by a modest number of contractors for tasks that include cleaning airplane cabins, providing transport for passengers with mobility problems, handling baggage and other services.

Forty years ago, these workers were employed directly by each airline and wages and benefits were attractive. But those arrangements collapsed under pressure from strong outside forces. Airlines increasingly subcontracted work to independent, specialized firms, which competed for work from the airlines and thus felt pressure to cut labor costs.  And with deregulation of the airline industry, the carriers were subject to pressures to cut cost, which was easier to do when they employed contractors rather than direct hires.

Also, there was an economy-wide shift towards what David Weil, now the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, called the “fissured workplace,” where more powerful elements of the enterprise or workplace try to minimize their responsibility for anything except maximizing profits. President Ronald Reagan’s breaking the strike and union of the air traffic controllers further legitimized an anti-worker strategy that airline managers can deploy. One of the consequences is that from 2002 to 2012 outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled from 25 percent to 84 percent.

Despite having multiple employers, with a varied workforce, “workers’ resolve is very strong,” says Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1. An estimated 400 workers at O’Hare took part in the strike Tuesday.

“I think workers know the airlines can pay,” Balanoff says. “The airlines haven’t talked to us yet, but I think we got their attention,” and he believes the union has the political as well as industrial strength to prevail.

Andrew Pawelko hopes that’s true. A former auto paint detail worker, he now works as the lead in a cabin cleaning crew for Prospect, a major contractor to big airlines.

“I like cleaning and detail work,” he says, but “the job needs more pay.”

Pawelko, who took part in the strike, makes $12.50 an hour; members of his crew make $10.75. At a previous job, the employer persuaded workers to get rid of their union. A short time later, Pawelko’s benefits were cut.

“Union rights,” he says, “100 percent we need it, all of us.”

Rasheed Atolagbe-Aro, 50, a recent immigrant from Nigeria, is another strong union supporter who joined the strike, partly because of issues concerning safety and the high pressures at work.

“It’s high risk,” he says. “The spray used to clean is at a very serious level. But you’re fired if you refuse to come to work. With a union, you’re stronger.”

Although Fight for $15 is not a union, it can provide a way to fight on behalf of broad policies that help all low-wage workers, even if it has not yet created or even defined more localized vehicles to deal with individual member grievances, contracts and other traditional union tasks like signing up members, collecting dues and providing services. Such are some of the concerns about the group’s unconventional, loose structure, its lack of emphasis on formal membership and dues and its heavy financial dependence on the 1.8 million-member SEIU.

Can even a financially-strong union continue to underwrite such an ambitious undertaking?  What is the optimal amount of SEIU control over Fight for $15?

“We’re hoping to build this movement,” Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, said as she stood on a balcony at O’Hare along with more than a thousand members and supporters of Fight for $15, noting that Fight for $15 mustered actions in 340 cities and 20 airports in a single day, combining rallies and marches with more logistically-complicated tactics, such as civil disobedience. “Our plan is not to shape the organization into unions as we have known them, but something different.”

Henry takes inspiration from the way that the labor movement in Denmark, for instance, has raised fast food worker wages and workplace standards dramatically by sitting down and talking with corporate leaders in the field to negotiate an agreement. She says she hopes to do the same, perhaps within the coming year, by sitting down with McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—the big three in burgers—to negotiate an industry-wide agreement.

“Workers say a union is the way jobs become good jobs, the way to have a voice,” she said. “Organizing is the way to improve our lives.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

420,000 More Workers in Cook County Will Soon Have Paid Sick Leave

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

ltcoyngtThe United States of America: land of liberty, bastion of opportunity, the world’s leading economic power.

But if you’re a low-wage worker and wake up sick, you’d better clock in on time or you risk losing your wages and even your job.

Paid time off for illness, taken for granted in professional sectors and much of the developed world, remains out of reach for millions of American workers. The United States is the only major developed country that does not guarantee paid sick days to all workers by law. Federal data show that more than one-third of private sector workers throughout the United States do not receive paid sick leave.

A disproportionate number of those without paid sick days are women, people of color and people with low incomes. Though women are the primary caregivers in most families, they also make up the majority of workers in low-wage jobs that do not offer paid sick days. Access is particularly bad for Hispanic workersresearchers have found that less than half get paid sick days, compared to 60 percent of workers overall. And for both women and men, federal data show that the highest paid workers overwhelmingly have access to paid sick days, while most of the poorest workers do not.

But this month, the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Illinois took a major step toward changing that. The board approved legislation that guarantees paid sick days to all workers in the county, bringing the Chicago suburbs in line with the city. Chicago passed its own paid sick leave ordinance in June.

Under the ordinance, Cook County workers will be eligible for 40 hours, or about five days, of sick time per year, the same as workers in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reports that more than 900,000 workers in the county don’t currently have paid sick days, including 420,000 in the suburbs. The new laws in Chicago and Cook County will take effect July 1, 2017.

Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy for the advocacy group Women Employed, helped campaign for the law.

“All employees—no matter their occupation—should have the peace of mind to know they can take time off work for their own illness or to care for a sick family member without fear of losing their job or a day’s pay,” says Josephs.

Cook County workers will be eligible for 40 hours, or about five days, of sick time per year, the same as workers in Chicago. (Arise Chicago Facebook)

Cook County workers will be eligible for 40 hours, or about five days, of sick time per year, the same as workers in Chicago. (Arise Chicago Facebook)

Cook County’s decision is the most recent victory in what seems to be a growing movement for paid sick leave. Since 2006, 38 localities in the United States have passed sick leave legislation. This year alone, 12 paid sick leave laws have been passed across the country, including in Vermont and major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.

Also this year, the momentum for paid sick leave reached the Obama administration. At the direction of the President, the Department of Labor issued new rules requiring federal contractors to provide up to 56 hours, or more than a week, of paid sick leave per year, which will impact more than a million workers when they go into effect.

Tamara Green, 29, did not have access to paid sick leave until recently. A few years ago, she was working for a major fast-food chain in New York City. She was also taking care of her mother, who is HIV positive. One day, her mother fell ill unexpectedly and Green asked her boss if she could leave. Her boss told her that if she left, she would consider it a walk-off and she would not be paid.

“How do you keep going if someone you love is ill or, God forbid, dies, and you’re not there because your boss said she needed you to drop some more fries?” asked Green. “That’s not OK.”

Paid sick leave benefits more than individual workers like Green. Research has found that giving workers the ability to stay home when they’re sick without sacrificing their wages benefits public health and the economy. Paid sick dayslead to higher rates of preventative medical care, including mammograms and Pap tests, decrease workplace injuries and reduce rates of illness.

Opponents have argued that sick leave laws burden businesses or force them to make pay cuts. But an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that sick leave poses minimal costs to employers. The cost of paid sick leave policies to employers in Seattle, for example, was less than one percent of revenue on average. What’s more, research indicates that the costs of paid sick leave would be at least partially offset by benefits to employers like reduced turnover, increased morale and increased productivity.

The building momentum for paid sick days suggests that local lawmakers as well as the general public are seeing these benefits. National surveys have shown that the majority of the public supports laws that would mandate paid sick leave.

But at the state and federal level, it’s an uphill battle. Between 2000 and 2013, state legislatures in 10 states—the majority of which were controlled by Republicans—passed laws that prohibit local governments from mandating paid sick days. The Healthy Families Act, which would mandate paid sick time to most workers nationwide, has been stuck in Congress for years.

At her new job, Tamara Green finally has access to paid sick days. She says knowing that she can care for herself or her mother during an emergency means she no longer has to choose “health over wealth,” and she hopes to see the day when no one in the world has to make that choice.

“To know that I have that option to take the day off without losing a way to pay my bills, that’s a relief that some people can’t even understand,” Green says. “One missed doctor’s appointment could be the last time to say goodbye.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on October 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Jonathan Timm is a freelance reporter who specializes in labor and gender issues. Follow him on Twitter @jdrtimm.

Minimum Wage Increases On the Ballot In Four States

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Terrance HeathThere’s a lot more going on in this election than the presidential race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Borne out of the dedication and hard work of activists, ballot initiatives give citizens the opportunity to vote directly on legislation and constitutional amendments at the state and local level, sometimes even bypassing the legislature.

This year, People’s Action affiliates in four states have seen their hard work pay off by successfully getting initiatives to increase the minimum wage on the ballot.

 

Arizona

In Arizona, voters will decide whether to pass The Fair Wages and Healthy Families Initiative. The ballot initiative, if passed, will raise Arizona’s minimum wage to $10 per hour in 2017, and gradually raise it to $12 by 2020. It also provides “earned paid sick time,” which workers can use if they or a family member gets sick, and prohibits retaliation against employees who use the benefit. The measure does, however, retain the state’s law on tipping, which allows employers to pay workers who receive tips up to $3.00 less than minimum wage.

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According to Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families:

– A minimum wage worker in Arizona only earns $17,000 per year.
– More than half of minimum wage workers in Arizona are women.
– More than 27 percent of Arizona’s low-wage earners are parents.
– 45 percent of Arizonans don’t have access to earned sick days.

Those numbers tell the stories of people like Riann Norton, a single mother two, who often has to miss work in order to care for her chronically ill young daughter, or Iraq War veteran Luis Cardenas, who came home only to join the ranks of veterans struggling to meet their basic needs with low wages.

The measure is supported by a number of coalition partners, including Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), which is part of the Fight for $15 movement, and organized community members to petition fast-food chains like McDonald’s and grocery stores like El Super to pay their workers living wages.

Colorado

Colorado’s State Minimum Wage Amendment will raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.30 per hour effective January 1, 2017, and increase it by $0.90 every January, until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. After 2020, the wage will be adjusted for increases in the cost of living. The law allows employers to pay employees who also make tips up to $3.02 less than minimum wage.

The Colorado People’s Alliance, which worked to get the initiative on the ballot, says that nearly half a million Coloradans will see their wages increase if the measure passes — including 263,000 women, or 22 percent of female workers in the state. One in five Coloradans would get a raise, and 86 percent of them will be adult workers over 20 years old. Currently in Colorado, full-time minimum-wage workers earn about $300 per week, or $17,000 a year.

According to a recent University of Denver study, increasing Colorado’s minimum wage would pump up to $400 million into the state’s economy and raise the standard of living for one in five households.

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About 400,000 Colorado households, half of those families with children, will see higher incomes if the amendment passes.

Colorado’s minimum wage amendment currently holds a 13-point lead in the first publicly released poll on the proposal. Of likely 2016 general-election voters, 55 percent support the amendment, while 42 percent oppose it, and 3 percent remain undecided. That’s good news for workers like Marilyn Sorenson, a home health care worker who finds after more than 20 years, her paycheck hasn’t kept up with her basic expenses; and business owners like Vine Street pub owner Kevin Daily, who says that increasing the wage will boost productivity by lowering workers’ financial stress, and increase the number of people “with more money in their pockets so they can afford a beer and a meal.”

Maine

The Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, Question 4 on Maine’s state ballot this year, will increase the general minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The initiative also increases the wage for tipped workers from half of minimum wage to $5 an hour in 2017, then increases it by $1 every year, until it is equal to the general minimum wage by 2024.

Republican Governor Paul LePage joined business groups in an attempt to push a smaller wage increase through the state legislature. Republicans on the legislative budget committee took the budget hostage, saying they would only negotiate new spending if Democrats supported a smaller wage increase. However, none of the competing proposals passed the House, so there is no competing measure on the ballot.

According to a study by the nonprofit poverty relief group Oxfam, Maine has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the Northeast. “So 32 percent of Maine workers are currently paid less than $12 an hour,” says Mike Tipping of the Maine People’s Alliance. Neighboring states Vermont and New Hampshire came in at 26 and 24 percent, respectively.

Washington

Washington state’s Initiative Measure No. 1433 will increase the state’s minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020. The initiative will also require employers to provide paid sick leave and follow related laws. Washington’s Democratic governor Jay Inslee volunteered to help Raise Up Washington collect signatures for the initiative, and spoke out in favor of it:

“No one who works 40 or more hours a week should struggle to make ends meet,” Inslee said. “And no parent should have to choose between staying home to take care of a sick child or losing a paycheck. Initiative 1433 will lift up workers and families across this state and boost our local economies.”

Washington’s initiative will help women in two important ways. Women are the primary breadwinners in almost half of all households with children. But women make up 60 percent of minimum wage workers in Washington state. Women are also 10 times more likely to stay home with a sick child than their male partners.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-58-34-pm

If the initiative passes, women will earn more, and will no longer have to choose between their jobs and their families.

Other Initiatives

Increasing minimum wage isn’t the only progressive issue on the ballot this year:

– In Maine, Question 2 will create an additional 3 percent tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $200,000 per year. The revenue from the increase will be earmarked to help fund K–12 public education.

– In Howard County, Maryland, voters will decide if they want a citizen-funded campaign system, to boost the power of small, individual donations, and encourage more candidates to run without the burden of raising major funds. The initiative, Question A, is supported by Fair Elections Howard, Progressive Maryland, and other progressive organizations.

State and local progressive activists are leading the way and not waiting for Congress to act on important issues that impact America’s working families. As a result, this year’s election could yield a number of progressive victories.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on September 15, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Terrance Heath is the Online Producer at Campaign for America’s Future. He has consulted on blogging and social media consultant for a number of organizations and agencies. He is a prominent activist on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.

U.S. Supreme Court To Decide Whether Class Action Defendants Can Bribe Their Way Out Of Legal Trouble

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

TLeslie Bruecknerhe U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide an issue of huge importance to everyone who cares about access to justice. The question, in Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, is whether corporate defendants in class actions are entitled to bribe class representatives to abandon the rest of the potential class members.

Yes, you read that right. According to the corporation who was sued, it should be allowed to cancel out a class action against it simply by offering to settle the named plaintiff’s individual claims. Under the defendant’s view of the law, corporations accused of ripping off millions of people could avoid accountability by repeatedly picking off the few named plaintiffs who are willing to step forward. Campbell-Ewald has even gone so far as to argue that class representatives are bound by such offers, accepted or not, even if it effectively denies all other class members the ability to obtain any relief at all.

The craziest part about the theory they’ve put forth is that it turns the whole notion of adequacy of representation 180 degrees. As we explained in an amici brief we just filed with the Court (along with the AARP), one of the most basic rules of class actions is that class representatives are supposed to represent the others impacted by the wrongdoing. Not only is this required by Rule 23 (the federal class action rule), it’s also required by the U.S. Constitution (due process, anyone?). This means not just that the class representatives are supposed to be competent, they are also supposed to be loyal to the rest of the class members. And that means the class representatives are not supposed to file potential class actions just to make money for themselves, they are supposed to be standing up for everyone in the class.

But if Campbell-Ewald’s lawyers are to be believed, the basic ethical and constitutional premises of class actions were just flipped. They say that corporate defendants in class actions have the right to bribe class representatives to abandon everyone else. And in their view, even if a class representative wants to do the right thing and reject an individual payday so they can stand for the entire class, Rule 68 strips away that possibility, and the court must dismiss the whole case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

If the Supreme Court agrees with Campbell-Ewald, it could spell disaster for the ability of injury victims to obtain any compensation whatsoever via class action suits. Class actions make it economically possible for injured consumers, civil rights plaintiffs, and low-wage workers to pursue claims for relatively small damage amounts for wrongs that would otherwise go unremedied. A Supreme Court ruling that would allow defendants to shut down class actions simply by “picking off” named plaintiffs could wipe countless cases – and countless consumers and others who would benefit from those cases – off the litigation map.

Hopefully, the Court will see this tactic for what it is: a form of bribery that turns the very idea of class representation on its head.

This blog was originally posted on Public Justice on September 02, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Brueckner.  In 2011, Leslie became the director of Public Justice’s new Food Safety & Health Project. In addition to her litigation work, Ms. Brueckner has taught appellate advocacy at American University Law School and Georgetown University School of Law. She is a senior attorney at Public Justice.

Low-wage industry tries to fearmonger on overtime pay, fails

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Laura ClawsonThe Obama administration will soon unveil its new overtime pay rules, which will mean that millions of additional workers will get overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. Many low-wage employers are obviously upset about this—they’ve been using the weak overtime rules to make salaried employees work more than 40 hours a week for no extra pay, and they like it that way. Industry groups have been trying to make the case for keeping the overtime eligibility level low—it’s currently less than $24,000 a year—but the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey shows just how weak those arguments are, taking a National Retail Federation report to the woodshed:

If the threshold is raised to $42,000, the NRF predicts significant changes in retail employment: while some employers will raise salaries for employees near the threshold to guarantee that they continue to be excluded from overtime protection, many salaried employees (some of whom work 60-70 hours a week for no extra pay) will have their hours reduced and as a result, 76,000 new jobs will be created averaging 30 hours per week. Altogether, half of the retail workforce that is currently excluded from coverage will be guaranteed coverage by the law’s overtime protections. That all sounds pretty good to me.The NRF’s projections are intended to be critical of the Labor Department’s rules update, but I have a hard time seeing why it would be a bad thing to create 76,000 new retail jobs, given that 8.6 million Americans are currently unemployed. Moreover, if I were a poorly paid bookkeeper or clerk in a department store, working 60 hours a week and getting paid no more than if I worked 40 hours, I’d be happy to see my hours cut and the extra work shifted to hourly employees.

Eisenbrey also points out that the NRF report suggests that the lobby group doesn’t think its members are following existing law: One of the requirements to exempt workers from overtime eligibility is that a worker have a managerial role, but the NRF report lists many traditionally non-managerial jobs such as bookkeepers, clerks, and secretaries as exempt from overtime.

Raises for some, fewer hours of work for others, and job creation. Gosh, those are some terrifying predictions for changes in overtime rules.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on June 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a Labor editor since 2011.

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