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Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Blair Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Greene County Commissioner, knows coal. As a mine worker for 40 years and then a politician in southwestern Pennsylvania, he knows how important coal is to both the identity and economic stability of his community. He’s even called the White House a few times since President Donald Trump took office, asking the president—who ran on a platform of supporting coal miners that he argued had been forgotten by Washington—to renew health insurance for thousands of retired coal miners.

But he doesn’t think that anything Trump does will bring coal jobs back to levels seen in the industry’s heyday.

“The coal industry is going to be around for years, but to bring it back—that’s not going to happen. [Utilities] are not going to invest in fossil-fueled power plants,” Zimmerman said. When he talked about the promises Trump made to places like Greene County, a community of just over 36,000 situated on the state’s southwest border, Zimmerman laughed, raising his voice a little.

“He doesn’t have a plan. That was all political B.S.,” Zimmerman said. “He said it just to get elected.”

And it worked, because of places like Greene County—in November, Trump overwhelmingly carried the county’s vote, beating Hillary Clinton by 40 points.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s actions to help coal communities have been limited to cutting environmental regulations that experts say will do little to help bring mining jobs back.

Meanwhile, Trump’s skinny budget, released in March, would cut funding to seven of the 12 federal programs aimed at revitalizing struggling coal communities. Since 2015, these programs have functioned together under the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. These Obama-era programs include things like workforce training, to help unemployed coal miners obtain necessary skills for finding new jobs, and economic development, to help new businesses move into these communities. According to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Trump’s proposed budget would cut at least $1.13 billion from these programs. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners.”

“Having the administration fund programs that direct money into economic development in the coalfields is really the only way to truly help people right now that are living and working in these communities,” Veronica Coptis, a lifelong Greene County resident and executive director of Coalfield Justice, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners, but more concerned with ensuring that coal companies continue to have more control.”

In Greene County, where the unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent(about two percent higher than the national average), POWER Initiative funds have been hugely useful for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, a body that oversees programs aimed at helping job seekers find employment and learn skills in southwest Pennsylvania.

Ami Gatts, who has worked for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board for 25 years, rising to the position of director two and a half years ago, said that the board has received over $1.5 million in POWER Initiative funds, which has paid for things like supportive services to help unemployed workers get computers or transportation for school, or training seminars aimed at helping out-of-work miners obtain new skills. Through POWER Initiative funding, for instance, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board can reimburse companies up to $8,000 taking a chance on an untrained worker. The employee gets a full salary, while the company is taking less of a financial risk on its new hire.

“When you cut those funds, we don’t have the money to train people to make a skilled workforce,” Gatts said. “It’s going to affect our employers, and it’s going to affect the people who need those skills. It’s very detrimental.”

Beyond cutting programs, however, Gatts said that Trump’s rhetoric about coal jobs coming back has a paralyzing impact on coal communities, where many workers would rather go back to familiar jobs than embark than learn a new trade or skills. Many unemployed coal workers have been hesitant to take advantage of the workforce training services provided to the community?—?because they are convinced that the coal industry, with Trump’s help, will rebound to its former glory.

“Every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

“Every time they put out hope, it stymies people. They just stop and they don’t move forward,” Gatts said. “Change is not something people welcome, and every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

The story of the fall of the coal industry has been one of a steady, decades-long decline, with the number of coal mining jobs falling from 177,500 in 1985 to just over 50,000 today. As both a candidate and as president, Trump has made a great many promises to coal communities devastated by a rise in automation and competition from natural gas and renewable energy. He has promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. He has pledged to repeal environmental regulations aimed at protecting streams from mining pollution, and has promised to do away with other regulatory burdens that he argues have been killing the coal industry.

But while these moves may boost coal production slightly—and line the pockets of coal executives in the process—they will do little to stem the production of cheap natural gas or slow the automation of the coal industry. Utilities have already said that Trump’s recent actions have not changed their outlook on coal as an energy source, nor have the actions caused utility executives to reconsider previously scheduled coal plant closures. In short, Trump’s regulatory assault will do little to bring back coal jobs to the regions where he’s promised relief.

Mining jobs paid well—an average of $60,000 a year for people just starting in the industry. And finding unemployed miners jobs that pay similar wages is not easy—especially when workers lack particular skills that employers are looking for. Many unemployed miners, as well as potential employers, are either unwilling or unable to take on the financial burden of paying for a particular kind of skill training, which is why POWER Initiative funds have been so crucial for entities like the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board in trying to address the gap between unemployed workers and potential employers.

“In order to get the skills, you need to have money to pay for the training,” Gatts said. “If you take that away from us, you’re not going to be offering our employers any trained workers.”

Both Gatts and Commissioner Zimmerman note, however, that POWER Initiative funds can only go so far—and that it means little to the community to have a trained workforce without opportunities for employment within the community.

“The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

“We have to bring in other industries, and support the guys that are here now in the coal industry,” Zimmerman said. “The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

Both Zimmerman and Gatts are looking to the technology sector as a potential new industry for Greene County—they argue that since tech work really only requires an internet connection, companies could find lots of potential workers in economically-depressed coal communities, as long as those communities have access to education and training. It’s a strategy that is similar in many ways to candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan for revitalizing coal communities, which involved federal support for local education and training programs as well as major investment in expanding broadband access for rural communities.

Since 2015, Greene County has been partnering with a nonprofit called Mined Minds, which was started by tech consultant Amanda Laucher, who was born in Greene County but moved to Chicago to work in tech. Together with her partner Jonathan Graham, Minded Minds has begun offering coding bootcamps to teach software development and tech skills to unemployed miners and others in Greene County and the surrounding area.

“We strongly believe that there is talent in these areas,” Graham told ThinkProgress. And he said the program is mutually beneficial. “The tech industry is continuing to grow and getting a talented workforce is difficult and expensive.”

Graham and Laucher also offer their students both pre-apprenticeships—a combination of real world tech work and continuing workshops—as well as full apprenticeships. Mined Minds also works with companies from Silicon Valley to New York to help place graduates of the programs in tech jobs that can be done remotely, so that graduates don’t have to leave their homes, once they have completed the bootcamp and apprenticeships.

The Mined Minds programs, thus far, are self-funded, but POWER Initiative Grants have helped the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board pay for some of the associated training costs for Greene County residents. Mined Minds also recently applied for their own POWER Initiative funds, with the hopes of expanding their boot camps and reaching more residents in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I think as a model, it makes sense. Having the support of grants means that we’re not taking all the risk ourselves in trying to bring more industry into an area,” Graham said.

He said that if the Trump administration were to cut POWER Initiative funding, it would slow—but not completely derail—their ability to expand their training programs.

“Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

But for Gatts, who has worked in economic development in this community for over a decade, losing federal funding would be a blow.

“I do think these programs are very necessary,” she said. “Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at ngeiling@americanprogress.org.

Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.

Skepticism

People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have not followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

The Legal Implications of Online Whistleblowing

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

davidyamadaIn Monday’s news, the Golden Corral discount buffet chain got some unwanted national publicity when the YouTube video above, showing how raw meat and other foodstuffs to be served to customers was stored outside near a dumpster at one of its Florida restaurants, went viral. The video was taken supposedly during a health inspection(!) and posted by one of its own chefs. (For details about this incident and similar instances involving the retail food industry, see Olivia Waxman’s article for Timehere.)

Online whistleblowing

The posting of the video to YouTube was a classic example of online whistleblowing.

Websites, blogs, and social media in general have given rise to workers sharing stories of illegal and unethical behavior online, sometimes in lieu of pursuing internal reporting and legal complaint options that they believe will be ineffective. With the ready availability of public forums such as YouTube and Facebook and work-specific sites such eBossWatch and Glassdoor, workers can take their concerns directly to a broader audience.

Some forms of online whistleblowing involve self-identification; others are anonymous. Some mention specific employers and bosses; others do not.

Legal implications

Such online expression should be undertaken with caution, because questions of whether or not it is protected under the law are far from settled.

The Golden Corral chef who posted the video apparently has not lost his job. If he’s fired, it’s possible he’ll have a legal claim under some food safety law, or perhaps a state-based claim for wrongful termination on grounds that his termination violated public policy.

Nevertheless, we need to start with the fact that most U.S. workers are hired at will, which means that they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Finding an exception to this broad rule would be the main challenge facing any lawyer representing  a client who was fired for online whistleblowing.

Don’t count on claiming First Amendment protections. Private sector workers are not covered by the First Amendment’s free-speech protections, with one exception (Connecticut); public sector workers are covered only in limited instances when the expression relates to a public concern.

Various whistleblower laws and anti-retaliation provisions are most applicable when someone has filed a formal complaint or at least reported illegal or unethical behavior internally. These protections, on the whole, are less to cover reports posted to various Internet sites.

During the past two years, media coverage of National Labor Relations Board decisions concerning social media has led some people to believe (erroneously) that they have a more or less absolute right to criticize their boss on Facebook. It would take a legal memo for me to explain all the reasons why this is not true. Some workers, mostly union members and non-management employees acting as a group, would be covered. Most other employees would not.

It is worth adding that not all unethical behavior raises a direct legal issue. Also, a wrongful accusation of illegal or unethical behavior posted publicly could lead to a defamation claim, especially if it receives widespread attention.

For more

For those interested in learning about the legal and public policy implications of online whistleblowing concerning employment conditions, Professor Miriam Cherry of St. Louis University School of Law has authored a 2012 law review article, “Virtual Whistleblowing” (link to pdf). Here’s the abstract posted to her Social Science Research Network page:

“With the advent of YouTube, blogs, social networking, and whistleblower websites such as WikiLeaks, the paradigm of whistleblowing is changing. The new paradigm for “virtual whistleblowing” is increasingly online, networked, and anonymous. While whistleblowing can take place in many contexts, this symposium article concentrates on the impact of technological changes on employment law whistleblowing. My contention for some time has been that existing regulation has been inadequate to cover existing forms of whistleblowing. Therefore, it is not surprising that existing whistleblowing laws have also failed to keep pace with the changes brought by modern technology. If older laws cannot be made to fit the new paradigm of virtual work, it is necessary to reassess and determine what changes in the law might fit new forms of whistleblowing more appropriately. This article hopes to begin that conversation.”

As Prof. Cherry’s article indicates, this is a murky area under current employment laws for workers and their employers alike. Those who contemplate engaging in some type of virtual whistleblowing should not blithely assume that their identities cannot be discovered or that the law protects them from retaliation. In situations where these factors matter, it would be prudent to obtain legal advice.

This article was originally printed on Minding the Workplace on July 9, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Yamada is a tenured Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.  He is an internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying, and he is author of model anti-bullying legislation — dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill — that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.  In addition to teaching at Suffolk, he holds numerous leadership positions in non-profit and policy advocacy organizations.

 

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