Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘wages’

Jobs Report: Change Still Needed

Friday, July 8th, 2016

The June jobs report – a cheery 287,000 new jobs, with unemployment ticking up to 4.9 percent – is cause for both relief and concern.

The relief is that jobs creation picked up after the slowdown of April (revised upward to 144,000) and May (revised downward to 11,000). Even subtracting the 35,000 jobs “created” by striking Verizon workers returning to work, the June report suggests an economy that is continuing to grow and generate jobs.

The continuing concern is the pace of that growth. Jobs creation is slowing, down from a monthly average of 229,000 last year, to 196,000 in the first quarter, and now to 147,000 in the second quarter. Yet over 15 million people are still in need of full-time work. The percentage of Americans of working age who are employed or looking for work is at 62.7 percent, still below pre-Great Recession levels. Average hourly wages ticked up by 2 cents in June, and wage growth remains slow – 2.6 percent over the past year – far below the levels associated with previous recoveries.

This is the last jobs report before the political conventions formally kick off the presidential campaign (which already feels like a recurring and unending nightmare). For Clinton and Democrats, the report provides some relief that the economy isn’t slowing dramatically. For Donald Trump and the Republicans, it provides continued evidence that the economy isn’t soaring. Working families are likely to continue to wonder when they will begin to share in the recovery.

For Democrat Hillary Clinton, these conditions pose particular perils. President Obama will want Democrats to tout his success – record months of private sector jobs growth, over 14 million jobs created since 2010, seven years of economic growth, unemployment down by more than half since the Great Recession he inherited, the strongest economy in the industrial world.

But most Americans aren’t sharing in the rewards. Median family incomes haven’t recovered to pre-recession levels. The wealthiest 1 percent captured a staggering 52 percent of the rewards of growth from 2009 to 2015. And now a weaker Europe post-Brexit and a stronger dollar suggest that our trade deficits will worsen, putting more pressure on jobs and wages.

Americans are looking for change, not for more of the same. Trump will be spouting that message, with a mix of bluster and preposterous policy to support it (build the wall, slash trillions in taxes, renegotiate the debt, and so on). Clinton and Democrats need to make a clear case on how they will change this economy to work for the many – generating more good jobs, higher wages, and a better deal for working people. More of the same offers no way out.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on July 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

The War on Workers’ Comp

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

Stephen FranklinFor nearly a century, millions of workers have endured punishing jobs in construction, mining and factory work—jobs with high levels of work-related disability and injury. As a tradeoff for the dangers, they’ve had the assurance of workers’ compensation if injured permanently on the job. Employers accepted this deal, albeit sometimes grudgingly, because it  removed the possibility of being sued over work-related injuries.

But as labor has weakened and Republicans have won control of more and more statehouses, states have slowly chipped away at workers’ compensation benefits.

Since just 2003, more than 30 states have passed laws that have “reduced benefits for injured workers, created hurdles for medical care or made it more difficult for workers to qualify,” according to a recent investigative series by ProPublica and NPR. Some of the harshest cuts came in California, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kansas, Indiana and Tennessee. Today, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), many injured and disabled workers “never enter the workers’ compensation system.” OSHA also estimates that workers’ compensation covers only about 21 percent of the lost wages and medical bills encountered by injured workers and their families.

Illinois, long a union stronghold, could nevertheless join the pack of those closing the doors for some to workers’ compensation if right-wing millionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner gets his way.

Traditionally, when companies hired workers, they bought their work histories. That is, they assumed responsibility for the physical problems employees developed over years of difficult work. But Rauner wants to narrow eligibility for compensation dramatically, requiring an injury to account for at least 50 percent of the claim.

Rauner’s argument is that workers’ compensation was designed for “traumatic” injuries, and that including repetitive injuries which accrue over time, effectively requires employers  to pick up non-workplace injuries. He contends that changing this standard would put Illinois on the same track as many other states.

John Burton, a veteran workers’ compensation industry expert, disagrees.

“What the governor is proposing is to take a lot of cases that have been compensable for the last 50 years and to throw them out,” he said.

One of these is Steve Emery.

The third-generation coal miner rode the wave downward, working in one mine after another as the industry collapsed. Then his hands, once powerful enough to manage the grueling job of breaking up large chunks of coal with a sledgehammer, failed him.

The spiraling numbness in his wrists and hands ended with a doctor saying he would never work in a mine again. He was 50 years old and had spent more than 30 of them in southern Illinois mines.

After a four-year battle with insurance companies arguing that Emery’s injuries were not job-related, he received $1,815 a month in workers’ compensation—enough to live on, but one just about one fourth of what he used to earn

Under Rauner’s proposed rules, Emery might not have received workers’ compensation at all. Democrats asked Emery to tell his story at an Illinois State House hearing last year as an illustration of the workers who would be left out in the cold under Rauner’s plan.

Dave Menchetti, a veteran workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago, adds that the shift proposed by Rauner would be “extremely difficult for doctors,” who are not trained to quantify the causes of injuries. “It would severely prejudice older workers and workers in heavy industries because those are the kind of workers who have pre-existing conditions.”

So what happens when business-minded workers’ compensation reformers get their way?

What the bottom looks like

A federal commission that examined workers’ compensation laws in 1972 was “disturbed” by the wide divergence of rules between states, and an “irrational fear” driving states and employers to search for “less generous benefits and lower costs.”

“We were talking about a race to the bottom,” explains Burton, a Republican, lawyer and economist, who led the groundbreaking study.

The study recommended mandatory federal standards; none were ever put in place.

And the race hasn’t abated, Burton says.

Indiana offers an example of what happens when a state wages the race to the bottom.

Starting decades ago, as Indiana’s leaders sought out factory jobs to supplant the state’s mostly rural economy, they embraced  a low-cost, employer-friendly workers’ compensation system. And it has stuck, as the state’s Senate has largely stayed under control of the GOP.

Workers in Indiana must wait seven days before receiving benefits (as opposed to three in Illinois). While permanently disabled workers in Illinois can receive benefits for life, Indiana caps benefits at 500 weeks, just under 10 years.

To qualify for permanent total disability in Indiana, workers must meet a “pretty high bench.” as Terry Coriden, a former chairman of the Worker’s Compensation Board of Indiana, describes it. “If you can be a greeter at any type of store, then that type of employment could be deemed to be reasonable, which would preclude you from total permanent disability,” he says.

Only 45 workers out of 597,058 who filed claims between 2005 and 2014 received permanent total disability status in Indiana, according to statistics from the Worker’s Compensation Board of Indiana. The rate was twice as high in Illinois, according to data from the National Council on Compensation Insurance provided by Burton. Only 13 percent of the Indiana workers who filed claims over those years qualified even for permanent partial impairment.

And the system simply pays out less.

Consider the case of a steelworker in northwest Indiana who suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over two-thirds of his body after being hit by hot metal and slag from a blast furnace.

In the nine years since, he has undergone 38 surgeries and still has no feeling in parts of his arms and legs.

Before the injury, he was earning as much as $130,000 year because of extensive overtime. Today, he gets $600 a week in workers’ compensation as a totally disabled individual, as well as $2,200 monthly in Social Security Disability income. In order to stay afloat, he has dipped heavily into his savings and his wife has picked up low-wage part-time jobs.

The worker did not want his name used because he feared that the company would retaliate. “I don’t want any blowback from the company until my workers’ comp ends,” he says. “I don’t want them kicking me out of it.”

He is especially concerned, he says, because despite having his employer authorize and provide the majority of his treatment, several recommended procedures were not authorized In Indiana, workers must go to the company’s doctors and follow whatever they prescribe. If they don’t, they lose their benefits.

Steve Emery, in Illinois, saw what happened when he visited a company physician.

His hands were “killing” him when he saw a local Southern Illinois physician of his own choosing in 2010. “The doctor said, ‘We’ll have to do surgery and you’ll never do work again,’ ” he recalled.

Peabody Energy, however, said he had to see the company’s physician in St. Louis. “[The doctor] said, ‘Mr. Emery, did you hurt this way when you was a kid playing baseball or mowing grass?’ ” Emery recalls. “I told him I didn’t play baseball and didn’t push a push mower “ Nonetheless, he says, “They denied my claim ASAP.” Peabody officials in St. Louis did not reply to requests for comment.

Fortunately for Emery, Illinois workers typically have the right to choose their doctor as well as their treatment (unless their employer has set up a “preferred provider” network, in which case they have the right to choose any two doctors within the network). Illinois also allows workers to seek a boost in their payments if they can show that they will suffer from a marked decrease in earnings. Indiana lacks both of these rights.

Low workers’ compensation payouts mean that workers in the state may even have more difficulty getting a lawyer to help them pursue a claim, given that legal fees are set according to the settlements received.

“The well-known truth is that it is hard to make money doing the work,” said Kevin Betz, an Indianapolis lawyer.

The business argument

To justify his plan, Gov. Rauner blames the “high costs” of workers’ compensation with driving jobs to other states, including Indiana.

“Employers are flat-out leaving the state, and they are saying it is because of the workers’ compensation policy,” says Michael Lucci, an official with the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that has received financial support from Gov. Rauner and also supports Rauner’s anti-union right-to-work drive.

There’s no disputing that nationwide, the downward race has paid off financially for employers. Workers’ compensation costs as a percent of payroll fell in 2014 to the lowest figure since 1986, Burton notes. Some of the decline has come from improved safety, but some, he says, has come from restrictions on workers’ compensation.

Lucci’s organization has churned out reams of information backing up the argument that Illinois’ workers’ compensation’s costs are uncompetitive as compared to its neighbors, especially Indiana. For Illinois steelmakers, workers’ compensation costs account for about 7.3 percent of their payrolls, for example, as compared to only 1.3 percent in Indiana, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

That’s just as Indiana intended it. The logic behind its laws is “inducing businesses from other states to Indiana,” explains Coriden.

Experts say that the idea that high costs are actually driving companies to relocate, however, may be little more than a myth.

West Virginia is one of those states that have slashed benefits to drive down costs for employers. But Emily Spieler, a former head of the state’s Workers’ compensation Fund, says it didn’t boost business much in the economically troubled state. Similarly, Spieler, a professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law, says she has yet to see any studies showing a positive financial impact for states. She is also dubious that workers’ compensation is a large enough factor to lead a business to change locations.

Asked for evidence that workers’ compensation costs may be driving firms out of state, officials from the Illinois Governor’s office cited their contacts with employers and site selectors and suggested contacting business groups for more information.

But when In These Times posed that question to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which has been outspoken about the need to drive down workers’ compensation costs in order to remain competitive, Jay Shattuck, a contract lobbyist for the group, said he was not aware of any studies specifying that workers’ compensation alone made Illinois noncompetitive. (He also notes that the Chamber, while supporting most of Rauner’s plan, doesn’t see Indiana’s low payout system as the ideal.)

Victor Bongard, a lecturer in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, is familiar with Indiana’s pitch about attracting businesses through its low-cost workers’ compensation. He agrees that it is one factor in where businesses choose to settle, but “not a determining factor,” he says. He points to California, which “draws business to relocate there and manages to foster lots of new businesses despite its high workers’ compensation costs.”

Cost-shifting—but to whom?

With employers and the states’ workers’ compensation systems paying less, who picks up the bill?

In addition to workers themselves, the federal government is on the hook. These changes shift injured workers from state workers’ compensation programs to the government’s Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) system, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) pointed out in a June 2015 report. OSHA estimated that in 2010, SSDI picked up as much as $12 billion to cover injured and ill workers.

Looking at the District of Columbia and 45 states, where the ranks of workers receiving compensation fell by 2.4 million between 2001 and 2011, researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research said last year that more than one-fifth of the rise in disability income payments appeared to be linked to cuts in workers’ compensation.

The calculations were age-adjusted to take in the growing ranks of elderly receiving the federal Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

“The logic of cutting back on workers’ compensation is that we’ll be tough on these workers,” says Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the organization. “But if you are just shifting the cost from workers comp to disability, you aren’t saving public money.”

Shifting the financial burden raises another problem. The workers’ compensation system was created to make employers responsible for the problems encountered by their employees. The shift to SSDI not only frees them from any financial accountability, but makes it harder for public officials to spot troubled workplaces and jobs.

In Indiana, because worker compensation payments are so low, attorney Richard Swanson said that injured workers who can’t return to their jobs “often make SSDI their first choice for income replacement.” That’s especially the case for older factory workers used to higher wages. “That’s their first question if they cannot return to work due to their work injury. You see it constantly,” he says.

Which way Illinois?

In Illinois, the fate of injured workers has become hostage to a larger political squabble that has left the state without a budget since last July.

Reforming workers’ compensation is part of a broad package of anti-union measures from Rauner, policies that have had no traction in the Democrat-dominated state legislature.

Rauner’s workers’ compensation proposal isn’t as draconian as some of his other policies aimed at workers, such as letting communities strip out numerous issues from collective-bargaining arguments, killing the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act, and allowing local communities to set up right-to-work rules. His cost-cutting proposal would mirror  the national downward trend in workers’ compensation—but he isn’t proposing (yet) the squeezes that states like Indiana, Florida and Oklahoma have put on injured and disabled workers.

But state Democrats think it’s only a matter of time.

“There isn’t much support for ending the workers’ compensation system, which is where the governor is going,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for State Rep. Michael Madigan, the powerful speaker for the State House.

The thinking of the Democrats, and the state’s trial lawyers, is that Illinois has already opened the door to reforms and cost cutting for the workers’ compensation system with the 2011 reforms and they should be allowed to roll out.

And the figures reflecting the impact of a 2011 reform by the state are significant, as reported by the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. The state’s worker compensation premiums dropped from the nation’s fourth highest to the 7th highest between 2012 and 2014—the largest decline among all states. So, too, benefits payments fell by 19 percent between 2011 and 2015.

Whatever Illinois’ private carriers lost in premium income seems to have more than offset by the savings on benefit payouts. After losses in 2009 and 2010, state insurers broke even in 2011 and have since seen profits climb steadily, according to data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. According to Menchetti, “it seems that some of the decision-makers would like stricter scrutiny [of the industry], evident in a provision in House Bill 1287 that has to do with how the Department of Insurance would regulate excessive premiums.”

So it appears that the new law has been a boon for both employers and insurance companies—if not workers.

And if employers’ costs have been dropping, “Is there really need for more reform?” Menchetti asks.

The wrong kind of reform

There’s a case to be made that workers’ compensation needs to be reformed in a different way—to help workers get on their lives, not to force them down the economic ladder and into a bureaucratic hell.  Even in relatively worker-friendly Illinois, Steve Emery saw firsthand the determination of employers and insurance carriers not to give up a cent they don’t have to.

Before his hands failed him, Emery worked six or seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, and was taking home as much as $80,000 a year. He worked at a number of mines across southern Illinois, and the last was the Willow Lake mine, owned by a subsidiary of the Peabody Energy Corp., which calls itself the world’s largest coal producer. It recently declared bankruptcy.

The company shuttered the mine and laid off 400 workers in the fall of 2012. The shutdown took place soon after a worker died, and the company said it had difficulties meeting safety and performance standards there. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had put the mine on notice in 2010 for repeat safety violations.

After filing for workers’ compensation, Emery fought the company for four years. Despite the fact that his exceptionally punishing job had left his hands virtually frozen, his attorney Steve Hanagan says, the coal company considered his injuries not job-related. It is a “typical dilemma” that applies “to many,” he said. “The battle over causation is very common.”

Emery appealed his case to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which found that his his injury was job-related and hindered his ability to work.

“He essentially used his hands more than you can imagine, having bangs and jolts and all kinds of trauma,” said Hanagan. “The causation is quite evident.”

Confronted by money problems as he waded through his workers’ compensation battle, Emery’s marriage broke up. His wife “just couldn’t take it” and they couldn’t keep the house. He moved into a small apartment and started learning how to cope on his $1,815 a month benefits. He never qualified for a pension or had a pension plan despite decades of work in mostly non-union mines.

Emery, whose father and both grandfathers were miners, never expected things to end this way.

“I lost everything, man. My whole life changed.”

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on June 13, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.  He can be reached via e-mail atfreedomwrites@hotmail.com.

New Survey Reports Uber Drivers Are Investing Big in the Company But Get Little Stability

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Don Creery had been driving for Uber in Seattle for several months when in May 2014 the clutch wore out on his Kia Soul. A former music teacher, Creery had enjoyed his work for Uber and said he made enough to live comfortably. So, anticipating much more driving in the future, he took out a $10,000 loan to purchase a brand new Soul with an automatic transmission—a smart investment, he judged, for his career as an Uber driver.

“I never go into debt,” Creery told me, “but this seemed totally logical.”

Initially, everything went according to plan. But soon, Uber would cut the rates it charges customers for rides, effectively slashing the wages of its drivers. The move triggered protests and caused Creery to suddenly second-guess the wisdom of his choice to take out the loan.

“It all of a sudden went from being a good decision to being a bad one,” Creery says. “Before that rate cut, it was a middle-class job as far as money goes, and now it’s not. It’s a lower-class job or in some instances a desperate-class job.

Creery’s experience is not entirely unique, according to a survey of hundreds of Uber Drivers across the country that is being released today. Conducted by the Partnership for Working Families and Coworker.org, an online platform meant to generate worker campaigns, the survey polled more than 300 Uber drivers between March and May of this year and found that a majority of them have, like Creery, made significant personal investments for their future with the service. Fifty-seven percent of Uber drivers have “have bought, leased, or made substantial investments in vehicles to drive for Uber,” according to the report.

Despite having taken on risk to maintain their freelance career with Uber, only 23 percent of the drivers polled see driving for the ride-hailing app as a source of stable income.

“Anecdotally both in and outside the survey, we have heard from drivers who were struggling to make payments on cars that they have purchased to drive with Uber,” says Mariah Montgomery, the Future of Work Strategist for The Partnership for Working Families. “These drivers are investing substantial funds to be able to drive.”

These results appear in tension with survey data that Uber has touted as proving that drivers most often do not rely on the service as their only source of income but see it instead as a convenient, highly flexible way to supplement their existing work. “Uber Fits Around Drivers’ Lives, Not The Other Way Around,” the company declared last year, referring to a survey that states that 88 percent of Uber drivers polled started “driving for Uber because it fits their life well, not because it was their only option.”

Today’s survey, which included drivers who had previously used coworker.org, found that the vast majority (80 percent) of drivers polled identified their wages as a top priority and support raising fares. In recent months, Uber has slashed fares in cities across the country, arguing that the fee reduction will actually benefit workers due to a resulting increase in customer demand. “This survey suggests that drivers don’t necessarily agree,” says Montgomery.

Perhaps in response to such issues, 70 percent of the surveyed Uber drivers—who are independent contractors with no shared setting to naturally meet each other—said they were interested in connecting with one another to communicate about things like maximizing earnings, sharing information and forming drivers’ associations.

In response to a request from In These Times, Uber did not comment on the study’s findings.

Today’s survey also states that it found anecdotal evidence that, after Uber’s announcement in April that it will officially condone drivers receiving tips, the freelancer respondents want the company to go further in facilitating such transactions. Namely, there is no option in the app through which customers can pay a tip via credit card. “Although the survey did not specifically ask Uber drivers about tips, many drivers wrote in that they would like an option for riders to provide tips within the app, like Lyft,” according to the report released today. “One driver wrote: ‘Please put a place [in the app] where people can tip. People want to tip me all the time but do not have cash.’”

The survey’s release coincides with a hearing today where a federal judge in San Francisco will weigh whether or not to accept a proposed settlement in one of the most high-profile legal actions drivers have brought against Uber. In April, the company agreedto pay $100 million to settle two class action lawsuits that alleged the ride-hailing service had wrongfully classified its drivers in California and Massachusetts as independent contractors and thus denied them the rights and benefits of full-employee status.

The proposed settlement infuriated some drivers and advocates, not only because of what appeared to many as a paltry sum for a company valued in the tens of billions of dollars, but also because its terms appeared to have the effect of helping cement in place Uber drivers’ status as independent contractors, the very issue many drivers have most fiercely protested.

As independent contractors, Uber drivers are responsible for paying for their own cars, vehicle repairs, tolls, gas and other inputs necessary for the job. Drivers like Creery, who also sells rides for Lyft and is a leader of an Uber driver association in Seattle, say that being on the hook for such expenses, including interest payments for auto investments, means the job hardly pays a living wage.

Drivers’ own financial borrowing to pay for their vehicles is part of what has propelled Uber’s rapid global expansion. This week, Bloomberg News published a look into Uber’s Xchange program, which offers vehicle leases at subprime rates for would-be drivers with poor credit history—people who often would not otherwise be able to drive for the company. Uber says that Xchange and other financing programs will expand its fleet by 100,000 in coming years.

The company says that Xchange offers a high degree of flexibility by allowing drivers to walk away from a lease at any point after the first month. But several Uber drivers expressed displeasure with the arrangement. One driver told Bloomberg that, like Creer, he could hardly keep up on his vehicle payments after one of Uber’s rate cuts.

“It got to the point that I would drive just to meet my payment,”the driver said. “If you were short on your payment for a week it would roll onto the payment for next week. It starts adding up.”

This blog was originally published on inthesetimes.com on June 2, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Spencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at@spencerwoodman and reach him via email atContactspencerwoodman@gmail.com

Verizon Unions Deliver For American Middle Class

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Dave JohnsonThe long Verizon strike has ended, and the unions won. This means that the American middle class won, too.

Verizon is an extremely profitable company. But even with massive, astonishing profits the company was demanding that its workers provide givebacks, allow employees to be separated from families for months at a time and on top of that allow the company to send more and more call center jobs out of the country. The workers are lucky enough to have unions to fight this – The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). They voted to strike, it was a long, hard struggle, and in the end they won.

Here is a description of what Verizon’s workers achieved for all of us, from the IBEW:

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, Verizon agreed that no additional jobs will be outsourced overseas, while increasing the number of calls routed to domestic call centers. This will result in the creation of 1,300 new call center jobs with 850 in the Mid-Atlantic region and 450 in the Northeast.

“This was the major issue for my members: protecting American jobs and keeping them here at home,” said East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 Business Manager Robert Speer, who represents IBEW Verizon employees in New Jersey. “This agreement makes a lot of progress in reversing the outsourcing trend.”

Verizon also agreed to drop its demand that technicians had to be available to travel outside their home areas for up to two months at a time.

“Our members aren’t just Verizon employees, they’re moms and dads as well,” said Calvey. “We’re glad that we’re able to make sure our members are able to come home to their families every night.”

Also included in the tentative four-year agreement are:

• Wage increases of 3 percent for the first year and 2.5 each year after

• No cap on pensions and three 1 percent increases over the life of the agreement

• Retaining competitive health benefits

• Strong job security language

Why We Need Labor Unions

This shows exactly why we need labor unions.

Verizon did not need to outsource call-center work overseas. Verizon didn’t need to set up highly disruptive work schedules in which workers would be away from their families for weeks at a time. Verizon didn’t need to put a cap on worker pensions. Verizon tried to get these things from their workers anyway, because they are wealthy and powerful. If this sounds like everything you see around all of us with giant corporations trying to snatch more and more away from all of us, just because they can use their enormous wealth and power to do that, you are getting the picture.

Verizon’s workers stood up, banded together in unions, and forced the company back to the drawing board. The company had to come back with a proposal that worked for both the workers AND Verizon’s bottom line. Verizon was hoping to increase its profits even more; but over time the lower-than-hoped-for could likely be overtaken by the increased productivity of a more loyal workforce. (Depending, of course, on whether management follows up with the right strategic decisions and investments.)

This is why all of us need unions. Otherwise we are alone, on our own up against the aggregated wealth and power of giant corporations. Alone we don’t stand a chance. Verizon’s proved that the American middle class can fight back – if they join unions.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on May 31, 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.

Stakes For All Workers Remain Huge In Verizon Strike

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Dave JohnsonNOTE: Shortly after this article was posted, news broke of a settlement in the strike between Verizon and workers represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Workers are expected to return to their jobs next week. IBEW President Lonnie R. Stephenson issued a statement saying, “This tentative contract is an important step forward in helping to end this six-week strike and keeping good Verizon jobs in America.” Verizon’s unionized workers, he said, “look forward to returning to work serving their customers, working under a strong pro-worker and pro-jobs contract.”

With the strike by unionized Verizon workers going into its seventh week, Campaign for America’s Future’s Isaiah J. Poole conducts a short interview with Sara Steffens, Secretary Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

“The picket lines are incredibly strong,” she says in the interview. The striking workers continue to gain support because more people recognize Verizon, as she put it, is “a corporation that doesn’t need a giveback but wants it anyway.”

This is important not just to Verizon’s workers, but for all of us. The April 14 post, “Verizon Workers Strike To Keep America’s Middle Class,” explains that the union’s fight is about a lot more than just their pay, work location and hours.

This is really about the bigger fight between the corporate-dominated economy that puts workers (all of us except a few) last, entirely looking at what benefits the corporation. Work hours, pay, stability, benefits, all are sacrificed to further corporate “flexibility.” So it you are not a wealthy executive or shareholder your life just gets harder and harder, and you have fewer and fewer rights and options.

Another Verizon Strike National Day of Action is being planned for June 2. By then,

… the working families on strike at Verizon and Verizon Wireless will have gone 51 days without pay and over a month without health insurance.

Let’s show Verizon what this fight is all about – making sure the needs of working families are met and protecting good, union jobs for generations to come for all working people in this country.

Join us for a National Day of Action on June 2. Please RSVP and save the date. We’ll be back in touch about events near you and how you can support the fight online.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on May 27, 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.

Does Moving Jobs Out Of The Country Affect What People Here Get Paid?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Dave JohnsonEconomists are still arguing over whether moving our jobs out of the country affects what the people still here get paid. Yes, really.

For example, Jared Bernstein in The Washington Post looks at different studies of the effect of moving jobs out of the country. One study, by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson (referred to by Bernstein as “ADH”), was published in January by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The other, by economist Josh Bivens at the Economic Policy Institute, was published in 2013. Both found that moving jobs out of the country hurt the wages of not just the affected workers but everyone in the surrounding area. The question is, does this wage-depressing effect spread outside the local area?

Bernstein writes, “The analytic question is twofold. First, are American workers really hurt by trade competition, and second, if so, are there spillovers to those not directly in competition with imports?”

To understand the difference … in Bivens vs. ADH, consider two towns, one with two businesses, a factory and restaurant, and the other with just a restaurant. In ADH’s findings, the negative spillover, or diffusion, stays mostly in the first town. The factory takes a competitive hit from cheaper Chinese imports. This, of course, directly hurts the blue-collar factory workers, but it also hurts the restaurant workers, both through demand (fewer factory workers showing up for lunch) and supply (more competition for jobs at the restaurant) effects.

In Bivens’s model, and this is the way most economists think about this (which doesn’t, by a long shot, make it correct), the ADH story holds in town one, but town two also gets hit, even though there’s no factory there facing increased global competition. Displaced workers from town one can’t find enough work there so they head for town two, and the added supply effect puts downward pressure among town two’s restaurant staff members.

It comes down to this. Do laid-off workers stay where they are (ADH), which means the wage-depression stays local? Or do they move elsewhere and compete with people who still have jobs (Bivens), thereby depressing wages there as well?

There’s a simple way to test this. Detroit and Flint are just two examples of cities hit by factories that were closed so employers could pay less in other countries but bring the same goods back here to sell in the same stores (so executives and Wall Street shareholders can pocket the differential for themselves).

So did the laid off workers stay put (ADH) or move (Bivens)? Detroit’s population was 1.85 million in 1950. That fell to 713,777 in the 2010 census. Flint’s population was 196,940 in 1960 and fell to 99,763 in 2013.

They moved. The “effect” did not stay in Detroit and Flint. So everyone else’s wages took a hit, too. Multiply what happened in these two cities nationally and you get the picture. If you don’t get the picture, here is the picture:

OK, it isn’t all that simple. ADH do look at “commute zones,” and there are other factors depressing wages. They cite technology, along with the “decline of unions, eroding minimum wages, the rise of nonproductive finance, and especially the persistent absence of full employment labor markets” as factors reducing worker bargaining power and fostering wage stagnation. Whatever. Bernstein writes the following, which is important especially as we head into an election where Donald Trump is using the costs of trade as a main issue:

Still, the main message from ADH, Bivens, and the rest of us who’ve been trying to raise this cost side of the equation for decades is that these costs are real. They’re acute for many people and places and diffuse to some degree for others. Economic platitudes about how trade is always worthwhile as long as the winners can compensate the losers are an insult in the age of inequality, where the winners increasingly use their political power to claim ever more winnings.

Most of us feel the costs of moving so many jobs out of the country (and calling it “trade”) while a few are making a killing from it. Those few are using their political power to keep the rigged game going.

P.S.: It is important to point out that once again the idea of “trade” in elite discussion is entirely about moving American jobs to places where people are paid less and the environment is not protected, in order to reduce “costs.” They don’t actually mean “trade” as in “they sell us bananas and use the money to buy cars” – because who cares?

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on May 12, 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.

The Verizon Strike Is Not Just About Wages. It Is About Power and Domination Over Workers.

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Gourevitch, AlexanderThis piece first appeared at Jacobin.

Bruce* has worked construction for Verizon for nearly thirty years and he is on strike. Walking a picket outside a Verizon Wireless store, he explains why: “I love this job. It’s outdoors, you get dirty, you get to do things. You see that island over there, I can tell you where each of the manholes are. I’ve been in every one of these buildings here,” he says, pointing to a café, then some office buildings, a travel agency, and a few restaurants. “I don’t like not working, just standing around here. But we gotta do this. I mean, I love this job but I don’t want it for my children.”

Only a few Verizon workers are picketing this Massachusetts location, standing calmly in the signature red shirts of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) holding placards emblazoned “On Strike!”

Their orderly protest stands in contrast to other East Coast Verizon picket lines. In Maryland a Verizon attorney struck a worker with his Porsche. In Westborough, Massachusetts a scab driving drunk hit a picketer, hospitalizing him. Verizon has suspended the health care of all strikers, so that hospital stay was not covered by his normal insurance.

Then there was the altercation outside the City View Inn, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn in New York City. Verizon has been using various hotels as makeshift office-garages, directly dispatching scabs to work sites from their temporary housing.

In response, picketers have been arriving at these hotels at three, four, or five o’clock in the morning, ringing bells, blowing horns and singing loud chants. The strikers have caused such disruption that some hotels refuse to house the scabs any longer.

Verizon has begun to successfully restrict this activity through court injunctions. It has also been getting help from the NYPD. At City View the NYPD once used police vans and contractor trucks to drive scabs to work.

By law police are supposed to remain neutral, which should mean not driving scabs through a picket line. Picketers got upset and a policeman driving one truck panicked, driving the vehicle into one of the striking workers before racing off.

These incidents have special meaning to Verizon workers. The CWA wears red to commemorate Gerry Horgan, who died during the 1989 strike when a Verizon manager drove into the picket line.

Meanwhile, Verizon customers suffer incompetent work by poorly trained replacement managers and scabs. Problems range from the mundane, and sometimes comic—damaged telephone poles duct-taped together, botched wiring procedures, failed phone and FiOS fixes—to the more serious: in Middletown, Pennsylvania, scabs dumped large amounts of polluted water into a roadside ravine, for which Verizon will likely be fined.

Walking the picket with Bruce, I asked him why he wouldn’t want his children working this job. He responded,

Look, if Verizon has its way, it will break the union and turn this into a twenty-dollar-per-hour job with no retirement and little or no health care . . . We’re not asking for some huge raise here we just don’t want to keep giving everything away. They want to reduce our retirement, raise our health care costs, or make this job so miserable that the well-paid people leave. We just want to keep our decent jobs but I don’t know if we’ll be able to. We are trying to stop the bleeding but I don’t know if this job has a future for my children in twenty years. I don’t know if they can live in a decent way.

That workers are simply trying to keep what they already have is a point rarely highlighted in the mainstream strike coverage. In fact, the relatively decent living standards of these unionized employees is what makes this strike so important.

The CWA is one of the few private-sector unions that has been able to win and defend reasonable wages and benefits. In an economy where real incomes for most people have remained stagnant or declined and where the top 1 percent have enjoyed around 90 percent of the Obama recovery’s gains this is significant feat. An effective union like the CWA is one of the few centers stoking resistance to increasing inequality.

The 39,000 Verizon strikers have already shown that they’re not just defending their own interests. One of their main demands has been to protect the jobs of call-center workers, who are not members of the union, and whose livelihoods are threatened by Verizon’s plan to send five thousand jobs offshore.

The CWA even sent representatives to the Philippines, to support call center workers who decided to protest in support of US strikers.

As Fortune reported, they were met with violence from private Verizon security forces and then a “SWAT team of heavily armed Philippine police officers.” This episode highlighted how the strike is challenging a major player in the global production of oppression and economic injustice.

Javier, a technician from New York who now works as a shop steward, says the problem isn’t just about work rules and contract givebacks. It’s about how the Verizon business model is designed to generate massive inequality:

It’s not fair that a CEO can make $18 million [in] salary and the average worker caps out at $86K for field techs. And take federal, state, city out of that, plus what we pay for medical and 401ks.

At Verizon, the CEO to employee pay ratio is 208:1. This isn’t far from the average CEO to employee pay ratio in the United States: 300:1, an increase of more than 1,000 percent in inflation-adjusted terms since 1978.

Yet Verizon’s top management is unsatisfied. It wants more concessions on benefits, more control over its employees, and an even more intensely exploited workforce.

That’s nothing new these days. More unusual, though, is that workers are fighting back. Their fight to keep their benefits has become inseparable from a struggle for power.

Though this is a society that prides itself on its “economic freedom,” the Verizon strike brings to the fore all the indignities, injustices, and outright oppression that saturate the American workplace.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

The strike has been brewing since last August, when the CWA’s contract with Verizon expired. Despite a $5.4 billion profit that quarter and roughly $39 billion in the past three years, Verizon refused a new contract on existing terms.

Instead it demanded concessions like higher health care costs, reduced retirement benefits, outsourcing five thousand jobs, and a right to send workers out of state.

The company’s August refusal is part of a decades-long attempt to strip down contracts and weaken the union, perhaps with the hope of breaking the union altogether and then selling off the landline portion of Verizon’s business.

“The first shot to break the union was in the post–2000 contract,” says Javier. That contract created a two-tier system in which new hires were denied protection from layoffs.

In the years since, the company has managed to win further changes in contract language, gaining more control over workers with respect to schedules, work locations, and hiring and firing.

For instance, the new contract stipulates that workers from Buffalo can be called away from their families to work in Boston. Or, in the contract that expired in August, Verizon has the right to force workers to take some other day than Saturday as an “N-day,” or non-assigned day.

And, to make matters worse, that contract says that Verizon can require up to ten hours a week of overtime in non-summer months, and fifteen hours a week in summer months. This means that Verizon can make Tuesday, rather than Saturday, the N-day, and then force a technician to work a ten-hour overtime shift that day.

“So now they have me in six days a week,” says Javier. “If I had tried to schedule a doctor appointment on Tuesday, my N-day, I have to cancel it [or] they can take disciplinary action. If you miss enough overtime assignments then they can suspend you.”

“The company claims it needs to be able to do all this for workplace flexibility, but it’s just a play by the company to make it difficult for the workers so they leave,” says Javier. That strategy has worked; five thousand union workers have left Verizon since the last time the CWA called a strike in 2011.

Verizon’s new demand is to be able to send workers out of state, away from their families, for up to two months at a time. For instance, Verizon has recently announced a plan to build FiOS in Boston.

Normally, it would have to hire Boston-area technicians, but with Verizon’s new plan they could send technicians from Virginia or New Jersey to Boston, under pain of suspension or firing, to do the engineering, construction, and wiring.

As the out-of-state work issue illustrates, this strike isn’t just about wages and benefits, it is about power and domination. Verizon wants workers that move around like frictionless little atoms, ready to mold themselves to the needs of the company.

Verizon workers, however, insist they are human beings. Resisting schedule manipulation is just the start.

MANAGERS FROM OUTSIDE

Workers are also fighting something Verizon calls theQuality Assurance Program (QAR). The company says it was introduced to keep better time records. But its greater use lies in helping bosses micromanage workers’ time.

Gavin*, who has worked installation and maintenance for more than sixteen years, has experienced the worst effects of QAR.

Recently, after finishing an eight-hour shift, he was commended by a manager for his conscientious work. Yet the very next day he was called in for one of these QAR disciplinary proceedings. Subjected to a barrage of questions, without even knowing what the infraction was, he was then suspended for six weeks without pay.

The infraction turned out to be an error on management’s side. The union fought for Gavin and he was eventually reinstated, though he still lost a week’s pay and retained a mark on his record. Gavin emailed me about his experience:

My union reps fought for me and I was given back everything, but one week of pay, and a sullied record at Verizon . . . When they were asked to produce the proof there was none to be produced, yet I was standing with texts, phone records, and customer testimony as my defense to no avail. Do we operate in a democratic society, or is Verizon and its current regime of rulers somehow an exception to what this country stands for?

Based on my discussions with other Verizon workers, Gavin’s experience is typical. Arbitrary procedures, rulings, and minute control over work are standard fare at Verizon.

For instance, Gavin is allowed a half-hour lunch break, including time traveled from and back to the work site. Anything more can result in serious discipline; a thirty-five-minute lunch can cost a worker six weeks of pay.

“According to Verizon, we are not allowed to take a bathroom break without management approval,” says Javier. “That is an outright disgrace to human dignity.” His manager even demands that workers call him if they wanted to pee:

Unfortunately, when we call him, it goes to voicemail then we can’t leave a message because his box is full. We complained, so now he lets us text him. But a text is not complete, according to him, until he responds. So what am I supposed to wait? . . . If there is no management approval, then if I go then I’m “off the job.” That is a loophole they exploit to suspend us.

In Javier’s view, which I heard many Verizon workers repeat, lower-level managers appear to be under pressure to suspend a certain number of workers or run a given amount of disciplinary proceedings. “The QAR is directly targeted at the lowest 6 percent of the productive technicians,” says Javier, “and we all know there will always be a bottom 6 percent.”

On top of that, the composition of lower-level management has changed. “In the past managers were folks who actually came from the field, and therefore understood what they were managing and could more efficiently address any actual on-the-job concerns,” says Gavin. Now, most lower-level managers are not former engineers or technicians but individuals hired to implement this new disciplinary regime.

“Some of these new managers come straight out of the military, from a tour of service,” says Bruce, shaking his head. “And they’re afraid for their jobs.” Many of these lower-level managers are being forced, under threat of being fired, to scab.

The change in managerial culture, the creation of new disciplinary proceedings, the intensification of work rules, and the increasing enforcement of minor infractions is a regular feature of contemporary American labor relations.

As labor reporter Steven Greenhouse has described, American companies large and small have turned lower-level management into discipline machines, “setting ever-tougher goals for its managers, using sophisticated computer systems to monitor their every move, ousting those who fall short of expectations, allowing managers to use foul language and savage criticism to bully subordinates.”

They are often given impossible quotas or benchmarks, which can be achieved only by making inhuman demands on workers, doing unpaid work themselves, or outright wage theft/time-stealing.

Managers unwilling to do any of those things just get fired and replaced with those mean or desperate enough to do it. Verizon fits right into this pattern, except that its workers have a union with the collective power to push back, as it did in Gavin’s case.

“I think the company has one end in mind to all of this . . . to break the union,” says Javier. “And if they couldn’t break the union per se and have to offer a contract, even if they do it to get smaller and smaller contracts and try to push people out of the company. If they make the conditions so deplorable people will leave.”

Every Verizon worker I talked to agreed, including many who were worried enough that they were unwilling to be quoted even under a pseudonym.

LABOR AND THE LAW

The most successful tactic during this strike has been holding pickets outside hotels housing scabs. That’s why Verizon has sought injunctions against this, and other practices, and in a couple states has had its way.

On May 9, Verizon won a temporary injunction against these pickets in New York City and this injunction was then extended until June 9.

In Philadelphia, Verizon won an injunction permitting no more than six picketers and forcing them to stay at least fifteen yards from Verizon’s retail stores and authorized retailers.

These injunctions occur against the background of already extraordinarily punitive labor law. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act says that workers have a right to strike, but this has been interpreted in the narrowest possible terms, and limited by subsequent legislation.

The subsequent 1947 Taft-Hartley Act banned sympathy strikes, political strikes, and secondary strikes and boycotts, which placed huge legal obstacles to the solidaristic worker action that used to be a regular feature of American labor politics.

Judges have taken what remains of the right to strike and whittled it down even further. One important Supreme Court precedent says that workers may not be fired for going on strike, but in most cases employers are free to hire permanent replacement workers.

You can’t be fired but you can be permanently replaced. Or the employer can threaten to move the entire workplace. You can’t fire any specific individual who threatens to strike, but you can in effect fire them all.

This legal situation has led one commentator to observe, “The ‘right to strike’ upon risk of permanent job loss is a ‘right’ the nature of which is appreciated only by lawyers.” Primarily corporate attorneys and those specializing in union-busting, one suspects.

Striking workers face any number of further restraints, depending on state law and the mood of a judge—all of which puts potential or existing strikers in a bind. Either they exercise their right to strike within the bounds of the law, with little hope of winning and high likelihood of being replaced, or they confront the law itself.

In this environment, only relatively skilled workers, who are hard to replace en masse, can go on strike with some hope of stopping or slowing production. This means workers in sectors like fast food, retail, and agriculture—with the worst pay, fewest benefits, and least amount of workplace control—have the least freedom to defend their interests legally.

That is a problem for all workers who want to exercise their power collectively. It is no surprise that an AFL-CIO president once claimed he would prefer “the law of the jungle” to American labor law. And it is hard to imagine any serious revival of a robust class politics without potentially massive acts of civil disobedience.

LOOKING FORWARD

The Verizon strike is in its fifth week and whatever happens it is not just a strike about Verizon. It is about organized workers facing a punitive company, repressive labor law, and a dwindling membership trying to preserve their power and resist further attacks on their benefits, dignity, and time and personal freedom.

As Javier says, if they are successful, they can be a standard for others to rally around:

If we can set a bar for everyone else . . . then other people, who aren’t in a union, can aspire to raise themselves up to our level. Right now the company wants to push everyone down to the poverty level. If we are able to go on strike and have the right to strike then we can fight not just for ourselves but for other people. We can be something for everyone.

In an unequal, capitalist society like ours, there is no substitute for militant workers, organized on the widest possible basis, who can use the best weapon they have: the refusal to work.

It’s easy to imagine radical alternatives to the status quo. It is far more difficult to generate the social power and political muscle to make any of those visions a reality. But Verizon workers are helping show the way.

*Names have been changed.

This blog originally appear at inthesetimes.com on May 20, 2016. Reprinted with Permission

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

How A Giant Restaurant Conglomerate Teamed Up With Banks To Stiff Its Workers

Friday, May 13th, 2016

AlanPyke_108x108The struggling corporate giant behind The Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and other national restaurant chains is forcing tens of thousands of workers to effectively pay rent on their own money.

Workers at Darden Restaurants chains are routinely told they must accept prepaid debit cards instead of paychecks, according to a new report from the worker organization Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. A quarter of workers surveyed said they asked to be paid some other way and were told the cards are their only option.

The practice helps the company, which came under intense pressure to cut costs from dissatisfied investors a couple years back. But it puts an expensive barrier between workers and their money.

The restaurant conglomerate has roughly 148,000 employees in the U.S. Half of those workers get payroll cards in lieu of standard paper checks. Each card shaves about $2.75 per pay period off of the company’s overhead, saving Darden as much as $5 million per year.

Darden’s bottom-line bliss means pain and chaos for those 70,000-plus workers. The cards come with a litany of fees: 99 cents for using it to pay utility bills, 50 cents if the card is declined at a cash register, $1.75 to withdraw money from an out-of-network ATM and 75 cents just to check the card’s balance. If a worker loses her card, she’ll pay $10 to have it replaced.

As Darden cuts its administrative costs, the banks that provide the cards rack up significant income on the back end. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia researchers put median bank earnings at $1.75 per card per month back in 2012. That suggests Darden’s financial partners are pulling down about $1.5 million a year

Three in four Darden workers get hit with the out-of-network withdrawal fees, according to ROC United’s survey of 200 workers who are paid with cards. Half of them have no access to an in-network ATM near where they live or work, effectively guaranteeing they will be paying fees to access their own money.

And the $1.75 withdrawal fee is only on the card-maker’s side of the transaction. The out-of-network ATM itself will tack on another surcharge, averaging $2.88 per withdrawal — and pushing the worker’s cost to access their pay up to nearly $5 each time they convert the payroll card to actual cash.

More than half of the workers report having a balance hold placed on their cards after using them at a gas pump, a practice gas stations adopted to combat theft when pump prices were up near $4 a gallon. For a restaurant worker whose payroll card is based on the tipped minimum wage — as little as $2.13 an hour — there is hardly any slack to the card’s balance to begin with. Gas station holds can freeze as much as $100 at a time, but even the standard $50 hold can easily mean that the next time that worker swipes her card to pay for something, the machine will see an insufficient balance — and the payroll card company will hit the worker with another 50-cent fee for having her card declined.

Payroll cards like Darden’s have proven popular with low-wage employers in recent years. More than 7 million workers nationwide are now paid using the cards, the report notes — mostly at companies like Darden and McDonald’s that pay workers so poorly that they remain eligible for public assistance programs despite working full time.

The cards proliferated over the past decade, with advocates arguing they would benefit employees as well as generate savings for employers and revenue for banks. Employees without a bank account would avoid check-cashing fees, card proponents noted. But the cards’ own fees aren’t necessarily much cheaper — if at all — and many Darden workers who do have bank accounts report being denied access to standard payroll practices that would avoid fees altogether. One overall evaluation of the pros and cons of the cards from the National Consumer Law Center in 2013 hinged on this question of worker choice, and found the cards could be net beneficial so long as everyone has the chance to opt for a different mode of payment.

In at least one case, card fees ended up pushing workers’ take-home pay below the minimum wage. The workers sued the McDonald’s franchisee who they say forced them to accept the cards as payment, and Chase Bank did something out of character for a high finance powerplayer: It voluntarily gave money back to the workers, refunding all of the fees their payroll cards had incurred.

That case prompted a spate of state legislative actions to police the use of payroll cards more tightly, the ROC United report notes, but roughly half of the states still have no law governing the practice. And even the states that do regulate it in some fashion do not necessarily guarantee workers can access their pay fee-free.

UPDATE MAY 12, 2016 4:07 PM

A Darden representative told ThinkProgress the ROC United report is “completely false,” save for the out-of-network ATM fees and the 50-cent fee for point-of-sale denials, and accused the group of “wag[ing] a campaign of harassment and disparagement against our company for five years.” Starting June 1, those 50-cent fees will disappear, and employees will be able to use an additional 29,000 ATMs nationwide without paying fees, up from 50,000 currently. It is impossible that some managers tell workers the cards are required despite company policy to the contrary, spokesman Rich Jeffers said. “That’s just not the nature of our people, of our leaders in our restaurants,” he said.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites. Follow @PykeA on Twitter.

Maryland To Become The Second State To Guarantee Fair Minimum Wage For Workers With Disabilities

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

CoryHerroMaryland will soon become the second state, after New Hampshire, to phase out the “subminimum wage” for workers with disabilities.

Maryland lawmakers this month passed a bill that would do away with special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked. The law affects all 36 of Maryland’s “sheltered workshops” — nonprofit organizations that hire people with disabilities at subminimum wages to perform basic tasks like assembling products, hanging clothes, or picking up trash.

Some 420,000 Americans with disabilities are employed this way nationally, some at a rate of just pennies per hour. The average Marylander working under this arrangement makes less than $4 per hour — an unjust rate that no longer jives with modern attitudes toward disability, advocates say.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Waldstreicher (D), says the bill is a victory for civil rights.

“By passing HB 420 and SB 417, we have upheld Maryland’s highest ideals,” he wrote in a public statement. “Marylanders are a compassionate, caring people. We believe in the dignity of every individual, in equal rights.”

In addition to boosting wages, the bill aims to desegregate Maryland’s workforce over the next four-and-a-half years. The Department of Disabilities will reallocate state and Medicaid funding to promote employment in “competitive, integrated workplaces” rather than in sheltered, segregated workshops. The state will pick up the tab for planning workers’ transitions to integrated employment.

“People thrive in a diverse workplace,” Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress. “Most of these workers want this transition, and we want to help it go smoothly.”

Legislators have worked closely with the sheltered workshops, and the majority are on board. They were initially concerned that higher wages would displace workers, but the state’s integrated employment plan assuaged their fears.

Disability advocates applauded the legislation, saying sheltered workshops are ineffective and reforms are long overdue.

“[Workshops] offer the employees no opportunities to be part of their community or to make enough money to support themselves,” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network said in a statement commending the Maryland legislation.

“Sheltered workshops often rely on outdated, non-mechanized production processes — which are poor vehicles for developing the skills real employers need in the open market economy,” writes University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos in a report to the National Federation of the Blind.

Indeed, only 5 percent of sheltered workshop employees leave to take a job in the community, according to a 2001 investigation by the Government Accountability Office.

The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress he’s “positive” the governor will sign it into law.

These developments in Maryland are part of a turning tide against paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for eliminating the subminimum wage nationwide.

“We’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage,” Clinton said when a young lawyer with autism asked her about the minimum wage exemption. “There should not be a tiered wage.”

And in 2014 President Obama included workers with disabilities in his federal minimum wage hike — guaranteeing minimum wage for some 50,000 federal contract employees with disabilities.

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on April 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Cory Herro comes to ThinkProgress from California, where he writes columns for The Stanford Daily and tutors rowdy middle schoolers. He likes to play pickup hoops and surf, even though his skills are rudimentary. Cory is pursuing a bachelor’s in public policy with a focus on poverty policy.

On Equal Pay Day, We Could Use Some Sunshine

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Isaiah J. PooleImagine a workplace where everyone clocked in at 9 a.m. and was paid the same day’s wage for the work they did – but the men could get their pay for the day at 3:20 p.m. and leave, while the women had to stay on the job until 5 p.m. to get the same check the men got an hour and 40 minutes earlier.

That’s another way to think of the gender wage gap – with women earning on average only 79 cents for each dollar a man earns – that Equal Pay Day, April 12, is intended to highlight. The“79 percent clock” is being promoted by the National Partnership for Women and Families and MTV as a way to dramatize that wage inequity. If you are a woman, you can enter the start and end of your workday and the calculator will “show you when 79 percent of your day has passed and you (or your female colleagues) are no longer being paid.”

For an eight-hour workday that starts at 9 a.m., that moment is generally 3:20 p.m. But that’s an average; for women of color, the moment at which a woman is no longer compensated for her day could be as early as 1:24 p.m. for Hispanics or as late as 3:44 p.m. for Asian Americans. For unmarried women, that moment comes at 1:48 p.m. – 60 percent of the day – the same moment as African-American women, according to a report released this week by the Voter Participation Data Center that also includes state-by-state data for unmarried women.

Of course, if we could see men and women leaving workplaces at different hours because they weren’t equally compensated for the work they did, there would be less opportunity for denying that the wage gap is real. But salary information is usually confidential, especially in mid-level jobs and above. Often, women who are being unfairly paid for their work don’t even realize they are being discriminated against.

When discrimination is documented, we get, particularly from conservative and Republican politicians, the usual round of denials and excuses. Comments from the 2016 Republican presidential candidates are typical: “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job,” said Donald Trump in 2015, who has also said that determining whether a man and a woman is doing “the same job” is “a very, very tricky question.” Ted Cruz as a senator voted to block a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and has dismissed equal pay legislation as “just empowering trial lawyers to file lawsuits.” (Yes, that’s what lawyers do when laws are violated and people are harmed as a result, but I digress.) John Kasich suggested in 2015 that gender pay disparities are “all tied up in skills” and experience.

The Center for American Progress has published “The Top 10 Facts About the Gender Wage Gap,” and several of those facts address the myths perpetuated by the Republican presidential candidates. The wage gap is real, it does appear among men and women with the same education and experience doing similar jobs, and, according to the CAP fact sheet, “38 percent of the gap is unexplainable by measurable factors,” such as women being concentrated in certain lower-wage occupations or being more likely to have to take unpaid leave to care for family members.

Having Congress pass the Paycheck Fairness Act would go a long way toward reinforcing the already existing Equal Pay Act and getting at the root of gender pay discrimination. A key requirement in the law would be that employers would have to disclose pay information to the federal government based on race, sex and national origin. That would make it easier for the government and individual employees to hold employers accountable for violations of the equal pay laws that already exist but are regularly evaded.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton highlighted her support of the Paycheck Fairness Act atan event sponsored by Glassdoor.com, where she praised Silicon Valley firms like Salesforce and retailers like Gap for succeeding in closing the gender pay gap in their companies.

Bernie Sanders has likewise been a longtime supporter of the Paycheck Fairness Act, including it as the first item of his 10-point women’s rights agenda.

Like the “79 percent clock” that rings an alarm when a person has reached 79 percent of their work day, the Paycheck Fairness Act allows for an alarm bell to ring when workers are not receiving equal pay for equal work. It would bring pay inequities into the light of day, instead of the darkness in which Republican presidential candidates would rather have this issue continue to fester.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives inWashington, DC.

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