Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for October, 2017

Hotel Housekeepers: Tipping as Hazard Pay?

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

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The New York Times has an article about failure of most hotel guests to give low-paid, hard-working housekeepers a much appreciated tip. Aside from the hard work they do,  the Times also notes the hazards of the job.

Angela Lemus, a housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill who makes $19.91 per hour, said through a translator that in addition to scrubbing tubs and taking out trash, she sometimes has to clean blood or other medical waste from rooms….Desk clerk jobs don’t require the flipping of heavy mattresses or exposure to cleaning chemicals that can lead to respiratory and other health problems. Ms. Lemus, for example, developed an allergy to the latex gloves she was required to wear while cleaning. “It went on for years, and it got so bad my hands started to bleed,” she said. “I couldn’t let people see my hands.”

And let’s not forget musculoskeletal disorders from lifting bed mattresses and the threat of workplace violence from guests.

But are these really the same issue?  Are tips the solution to dangerous working conditions, or is elimination of hazards the solution to safe working conditions?  The Occupational Safety and Health Act says that all workers have a right to a safe workplace, whether they receive tips or not.

Implying the tips make it OK to work in hazardous conditions makes them sound like “hazard pay” and hearkens back to the good old pre-OSHA days where workers allegedly agreed to “assume” the risks of a job in return for a paycheck.

We’ve supposedly come a long way since then. Workers — even hotel housekeepers — deserve a living wage (including tips) for their work, AND workers have right to a safe workplace.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

Congress Just Killed Your Right to a Day in Court

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Last week, 50 Senators joined Vice President Mike Pence to kill one of the most important advances in consumer rights in years.

By casting the tie-breaking vote to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s arbitration rule – which allowed consumers to band together to sue banks, financial institutions and credit card companies – Pence showed just how much power Wall Street has amassed on Capitol Hill and on Pennsylvania Avenue. It also unmasked the alarmingly cozy relationship between GOP leaders and the bank executives who defrauded millions of consumers and exposed their most important information to Equifax hackers.

As I told one reporter , “This was the Wells Fargo Immunity Act.”

Public Justice was proud to be a leading voice in the effort to defend the CFPB rule and help consumers fight back against the big banks that defraud their own customers. But make no mistake:  This vote was a big setback for consumer protection, but it did not kill the resolve of those of us who will continue to fight alongside the CFPB in order to give Americans their day in court.

Now that consumers have learned what’s at stake, there’s going to be more pressure from constituents for lawmakers to stop the kinds of behavior we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Equifax, among others. This vote, though heartbreaking for those of us who believe in protecting the little guy, may well turn out to be a huge catalyst for future change.

With your help, we will keep fighting to keep the courthouse doors open.

This blog was originally published at Public Justice on October 30, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Paul Bland has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads Public Justice’s legal and foundation staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy.

GOP Smash-And-Burn Tax Plan Does Nothing for Workers

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Congressional Republicans are selling a trickle-down tax scam times two. It’s the same old snake oil, with double hype and no cure.

A single statistic explains it all: one percent of Americans – that is the tiny, exclusive club of billionaires and millionaires – get 80 percent of the gain from this tax con. Eighty percent!

But that’s not all! To pay for that unneeded and unwarranted red-ribbon wrapped gift to the uber wealthy, Republicans are slashing and burning $5 trillion in programs cherished by workers, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Look at the statistic in reverse, and it seems worse: 99 percent of Americans will get only 20 percent of the benefit from this GOP tax scam. That’s not tax reform. That’s tax defraud.

Republican tax hucksters claim the uber rich will share. It’s the trickle down effect, they say, the 99 percent will get some trickle down.

It’s a trick. Zilch ever comes down. It’s nothing more than fake tax reform first deployed by voodoo-economics Reagan. There’s a basic question about this flim-flammery: Why do workers always get stuck depending on second-hand benefits? Real tax reform would put the rich in that position for once. Workers would get the big tax breaks and the fat cats could wait to see if any coins trickled up to jingle in their pockets.

House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed Republicans’ primary objective in messing with the tax code is to help the middle class, not the wealthy. Well, there’s a simple way to do that:  Give 99 percent of the tax breaks directly to the 99 percent.

The Republican charlatans hawking this new tax scam are asserting the pure malarkey that it provides two, count them TWO, trickle-down benefits. In addition to the tried-and-false fairytale that the rich will share with the rest after collecting their tax bounty, there’s the additional myth that corporations will redistribute downward some of their big fat tax scam bonuses.

A corporate tax break isn’t some sort of Wall Street baptism that will convert CEOs into believers in the concept of paying workers a fair share of the profit their labor creates.

Corporations have gotten tax breaks before and haven’t done that. And they’ve got plenty of cash to share with workers right now and don’t do it. Instead, they spend corporate money to push up CEO pay. Over the past nine years, corporations have shelled out nearly $4 trillion to buy back their own stock, a ploy that raises stock prices and, right along with them, CEO compensation. Worker pay, meanwhile, flat-lined.

In addition to all of that cash, U.S. corporations are currently sitting on another nearly $2 trillion. But CEOs and corporate boards aren’t sharing any of that with their beleaguered workers, who have struggled with stagnant wages for nearly three decades.

Still, last week, Kevin Hassett, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, insisted that the massive corporate tax cut, from 35 percent down to 20 percent, will not trickle, but instead will shower down on workers in the form of pay raises ranging from $4,000 to $9,000 a year.

Booyah! Happy days are here again! With the median wage at $849 per week or $44,148 a year, that would be pay hikes ranging from 9 percent to 20 percent! Unprecedented!

Or, more likely, unrealistic.

Dishonest, incompetent, and absurd” is what Larry Summers called it. Summers was Treasury Secretary for President Bill Clinton and director of the National Economic Council for President Barack Obama.

Jason Furman, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who once held Hassett’s title at the  Council of Economic Advisers, called Hassett’s findings “implausible,”  “outside the mainstream” and “far-fetched.”

Frank Lysy, retired from a career at the World Bank, including as its chief economist, agreed that Hassett’s projection was absurd.

Hassett based his findings on unpublished studies by authors who neglected to suffer peer review and projected results with all the clueless positivity of Pollyanna. Meanwhile, Lysy noted, Hassett failed to account for actual experience. That would be the huge corporate tax cuts provided in Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986.

Between 1986 and 1988, the top corporate tax rate dropped from 46 percent to 34 percent, but real wages fell by close to 6 percent between 1986 and 1990.

Thus many economists’ dim assessment of Hassett’s promises.

The other gob-smacking bunkum claim about the Republican tax scam is that it will gin up the economy, and, as a result, the federal government will receive even more tax money. So, in their alternative facts world, cutting taxes on the rich and corporations will not cause deficits. It will result in the government rolling in coin, like a pirate in a treasure trove. That’s the claim, and they’re sticking to it. Like their hero Karl Rove said, “We create our own reality.”

Here’s Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, for example: “This tax plan will be deficit reducing.”

If the Pennsylvania politician truly believes that’s the case, it’s not clear why he voted for a budget that would cut $473 billion from Medicare and $1 trillion from Medicaid. If reducing the tax rate for the rich and corporations really would shrink the deficit, Republicans should be adding money to fund Medicare and Medicaid.

While cutting taxes on the rich won’t really boost the economy, it will increase income inequality. Makes sense, right? Give the richest 1 percenters 80 percent of the gains and the remaining 99 percent only 20 percent and the rich are going to get richer faster.

Economist Thomas Piketty, whose work focuses on wealth and income inequality and who wrote the best seller “Capital in the Twenty First Century,” found in his research no correlation between tax cuts for the rich and economic growth in industrialized countries since the 1970s. He did find, however, that the rich got much richer in countries like the United States that slashed tax rates for the 1 percent than in countries like France and Germany that did not.

This Republican tax scam is a case of the adage that former President George W. Bush once famously bungled: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on October 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

After 41 Years, The Teamsters Reform Movement Is Finally Building Power

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

In the beginning, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was full of spunk. But they didn’t have any union leaders on their side, nor many rank and file supporters, nor much strategy about turning around a corruption-riddled union.

“When they said we didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t totally false,” says Ken Paff, who has led the TDU almost since its founding 41 years ago. “We knew what we didn’t know.”

In time, the TDU learned how to become a thorn in the union’s side, challenging its contracts, finger pointing to officials’ corruption and lopsided multiple salaries, and electing reform-minded members to local and national positions.

At its 41st convention from October 27 to 29 in Chicago, TDU will mark last year’s national campaign that fell only 6,000 votes short of ousting James P. Hoffa. He has led the nearly 1.3-million-member union since 1999, four years longer than his father, James R. Hoffa.

But the TDU is not “just about elections,” Paff says.

The talk during the upcoming convention, according to Paff, will focus on winning strong contracts, converting part-time jobs into full-time work, boosting wages that start for some at $11 an hour and protecting pensionsthat have been under attack. And then there’s what the group has focused on since its start: developing leaders, he adds. The union’s problem, he explains, “is not such bad leaders, but that we need more leaders.”

It’s a strategy of constant activity that the TDU honed as it became one of a handful of reform movements inside the nation’s largest unions. And it has survived with a small Detroit-based staff and about 10,000 members, of whom half are behind on their dues, according to Paff. TDU has six full-time staff, all of whom earn the same salary, as well as two part-timers, Paff explained.

Paff joined the group in 1978 as a full-time national organizer. But he didn’t fit the stereotype of a hardscrabble trucker. He had an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and had worked as a schoolteacher. He was driving for a trucking company in Cleveland when he lined up with the union dissidents. For inspiration, he studied the work of the Miners for Democracy, learning about their battle within the United Mine Workers union.

Looking for a way to make an impact, TDU began campaigning against the contracts signed by the union. It was a gutsy strategy, since the group had no voice within the union. “They [the contracts] were terrible, and members knew it. And they [union leaders] didn’t have to pay any attention to the members,” Paff recalls. The group won a lawsuit requiring the union to put its contracts up for a majority vote. After a major publicity push, members voted down the union’s master freight agreement in 1987.

“That really caused people to take notice,” Paff says.

But the real turning point came in 1989, when the U.S. government took control of the union in a consent order—and said the union had to hold its first-ever rank-and-file election. The government described the union as virtually a “wholly owned subsidiary of organized crime.

The union sought to put off the election, which finally took place two-and-a-half years later. Ironically, that was a gift for the TDU. “It was perfect for us. We weren’t able to hold an election and we lined up Ron Carey to win,” Paff recalls. Carey’s 1991 election led to reforms across the union.

But the changes were short-lived. An election victory by Carey in 1996 was overturned, and he was barred from the union by a court ruling as a result of election wrongdoing by his aides, leading to a new election. Hoffa beat a TDU-backed candidate in 1998 and has been in power ever since.

For the last 35 years, the TDU has hectored the union about officials’ salaries. Its latest report, issued in 2016, showed, that 46 union leaders earned over $200,000 in 2015. Hoffa earned $387,244 in salary and compensation in 2015, the TDU reported. He was ranked as the highest paid leader of a major union in 2016, according to news reports.

John Coli, the once-powerful head of Chicago area Teamsters, was among the highest-paid Teamsters in 2015, with $337,215 in salary and compensation, according to the TDU. He was indicted this year by federal officials for an alleged extortion scheme that netted him $325,000 from a major Teamster employer in Chicago. A major internal investigation of union corruption that focused on Chicago collapsed in 2004, allegedly when Chicago Teamster leaders protested to Hoffa.

By constantly pointing to the union’s high salaries and voicing the concerns within the union, Paff claims that the attention helped spur changes. “Once we got the right to vote, we started driving down the salaries. [Jackie] Presser made $500,000 in the 1980s, and today they make in the 300,000s,” Paff says.

Some of the TDU’s challenges have not disappeared, however. At the union’s last convention, only 8 percent of the delegates were aligned with the group. Furthermore, TDU has been unable to raise the money required to run a major national campaign. Hoffa and his slate spent about $3 million on the national election in 2016.

And yet the Teamsters United slate, backed by the TDU, won in the Midwest and South, sweeping the votes in the Chicago area for the first time ever. One of its candidates for vice president came within roughly 4,000 votes of winning, according to Paff. The vote totals “show you the discrepancy between the rank-and-file and local officials,” he adds.

With many more Teamsters coming from jobs outside prisons and public services—the union’s traditional trucking base—the union is seeing more members who don’t have the same interests or long-term loyalties to Hoffa and his supporters. Paff sees yet more potential for change. At 71 years old, he expects to pass the baton to others in the coming years.

There’s no expectation within the TDU that jobs are passed down to family, friends or long-term allies—as is the case in some unions, he says. Paff underscores, “We still have people out there who can help.”

 This article was originally published at In These Times on  October 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative 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.

The pay gap and sexual harassment must be addressed simultaneously

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

Over the past few days, more and more men have continued to resign or at the very least publicly confront accusations of sexual harassment, and this trend shows no sign of slowing down.

On Wednesday, former President George H.W. Bush apologized for groping actress Heather Lind (with a caveat that it was an “attempt at humor“). On Tuesday, Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of The New Republic, apologizedfor “offenses against some of my colleagues in the past” after Emerson Collective, a for-profit organization, stopped supporting Wieseltier’s project, a new magazine. On Monday, a top labor executive who led the Fight for 15 campaign resigned. Former and current Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staffers told BuzzFeed that SEIU Executive Vice President Scott Courtney had sexual relationships with young female staffers who were later promoted. Last Friday, Lockhart Steele, editorial director at Vox Media, was removed from his position after a former Vox employee, Eden Rohatensky, wrote a post on Medium that led to a company investigation. (Rohatensky did not mention Vox or anyone at Vox by name but did say “one of the company’s VPs” put his hands on them and started kissing them.)

The alleged sexual harassment and assault has ranged from the entertainment industry to the financial industry. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Fidelity, a financial services corporation, has its own problems with sexual harassment. Also on Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that 38 women came forward to accuse Director James Toback of sexual harassment. It took a few hours for the number of women accusing Toback to double, and now, the reporter says that a total of 193 women contacted him since his initial expose.

But if companies are going to tamp down on sexual harassment, they need to do more than spend money on sexual harassment training and hope that’s enough. As Vox reported, sexual harassment trainings have become a legal precaution more than anything, and the data shows that they are not effective at lowering incidents of harassment. Trainings often help people realize what counts as workplace harassment, but they don’t actually change change their views or actions. Instead of simply holding trainings and hope they work, employers must make it clear that there is a culture of accountability and transparency for everyone, even executives and people who consistently provide results for the company — or the “rainmakers.” They also have to ask themselves important questions about the performance review process and how it determines pay, because women’s lack of economic power in their workplaces often makes them vulnerable targets for sexual harassment. Are senior employees held accountable for their biases in performance reviews?

Brit Marling emphasized this point when she told her own story about sexual harassment and a meeting with Harvey Weinstein that sounds like so many others. As in many other cases, Weinstein’s assistant said the meeting had been moved from a hotel bar to his hotel suite. When she got there, Weinstein asked her to shower with him. She left the room, but as it all unfolded, Marling said she was very aware of the power he had over her career. She wrote:

Men hold most of the world’s wealth. In fact, just eight men own the same wealth as 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity, the majority of whom, according to Oxfam, are women. As a gender whole, women are poor. This means that, in part, stopping sexual harassment and abuse will involve fighting for wage parity.

Last year, the gender wage gap widened, according to a March Institute for Women’s Policy Research analysis. The ratio of median weekly earnings for women working full time compared to men decreased by 1.4 percent. Even improvements in the economy don’t help women get better-paying jobs, since those usually go to men, in part because of occupational segregation that pays women less when they are in fields dominated by women.

Bias in performance reviews certainly doesn’t help. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, shared her findings on individual annual performance reviews and bias in Harvard Business Review. Cecchi-Dimeglio found that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback, not positive feedback or critical objective feedback and that traits that were considered negative in women were often interpreted as positive in men. Where a man was considered careful for taking his time on a project, a woman was told she had “analysis paralysis.” Women’s successful performance in the office was often perceived to be the result of hard work or luck rather than abilities and skills.

Cecchi-Dimeglio said that the solution to dealing with some of these issues of gender bias include using more objective criteria, making reviews more frequent, which appeared to cut down on gender bias, and using a broader group of reviewers. A 2008 study by Emilio Castilla focused on the impact of lack of transparency and accountability on performance appraisal and performance pay.It found that employers adopting merit-based practices and policies, which are meant to motivate employees and foster a meritocracy, can actually increase bias and reduce equity in the workplace if the policies have limited transparency and accountability. The study noted that some experts on performance evaluation practices say that there should a separation of performance appraisals and salary discussion, in part because employees will focus more on the monetary amount they receive than the feedback, and managers can “manipulate performance ratings to justify salary increases” they want to give to certain employees.

Another 2012 study also reinforces the idea that transparency and accountability are central to dealing with pay inequities. Janice Fanning Madden, a Wharton real estate professor and a professor of regional science and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at the gender pay gap among stockbrokers.Madden found found that women were assigned inferior accounts, so they would earn lower returns and commissions, and as a result, they would be less likely to receive support staff, nice offices, and mentors. Using information about sales transferred by management from one broker to another, she analyzed performance and found that when women had clients who had the same potential for high commissions, they produced the sales results as men. This demonstrates the need for accountability for senior executives who are as subject to gender bias as anyone else.

Ariane Hegewisch, a researcher at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research who focuses on workplace discrimination, said that although Fidelity’s performance evaluation system, which women at the company have been critical of, may appear to be fair, it is lacking accountability for senior management. Hegewisch gave an example of a common problem in businesses and organizations.

“So the section heads have been told you have the power to assess people and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of control or monitoring of what they are doing,” Hegewisch said. “There are organizations where the HR department scrutinizes what section heads do and that has an element of performance accountability for those decisions, and that seems to be missing to some extent in the Fidelity system.”

Hegewisch added, “What it is interesting about this is that it was clearly not only women who felt aggrieved by this system. It was also some men who said it was unfair and led to inequitable outcomes and to favoritism.”

When it comes to sexual harassment claims, the situation is similar, Hegewisch added. People need to know that there is accountability for senior employees and rainmakers. There also needs to be transparency so that people know why someone left the company.

You can’t have the best designed systems if the culture is not supportive or the hierarchy is not seen as supportive. It will not generate the results that you want,” Hegewisch said. “We’ve told organizations to set up external complaint lines for sexual harassment cases. And then it turns out that in some organizations, they hand it over to HR and tell them who it is and nothing happens anyway.”

Even if a company is handling sexual harassment claims well, it needs to clear to employees what happened or why someone was dismissed. Of course, there are sometimes legal barriers to companies disclosing information about someone’s misconduct.

“If you do the right thing and pretend it was for a different reason, [it matters that employees] know about it and believe this was a way the company is backing them up when something like this happens. You have to be able to communicate it and if you can’t communicate it, you’re tying yourself up,” she said.

When it comes to reporting harassment, Hegewisch said, “There has to be some proof that people can take away that this is an issue that is serious that the company takes seriously.”

That means setting up systems to keep senior managers in check, not simply setting up a training for employees on what sexual harassment is. Since 2010, harassment complaints at the federal level stagnated or slightly rose, according to recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data. The report explained that the sexual harassment training provided over the past few decades has not been effective as a prevention tool, according to an EEOC report.

Researchers also recommend that employers try to achieve a gender balance at every level of their organization to reduce harassment and that employers need to provide assurances that people who report harassment will not be retaliated against. They need to guarantee protection against non-employer retaliation and confidentiality of complaints, when possible. The policies on how to report harassment should be clear to employees and any training on harassment should include an explanation of what constitutes employer retaliation.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

Forced Arbitration Protects Sexual Predators and Corporate Wrongdoing

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Fox News.  Sterling Jewelers.  Wells Fargo. 

What do they all have in common?  For years, they successfully kept corporate wrongdoing secret, through forced arbitration.

Buried in the fine print of employment contracts and consumer agreements, forced arbitration clauses prohibit you from going to court to enforce your rights.  Instead, employees who experience harassment and discrimination, or consumers who are the victims of financial fraud or illegal fees, are sent to a private arbitration forum.  Frequently designed, chosen, and paid for by the employer or corporation, in arbitration everything is conducted in secret. People who suffered the same abuses often can’t join together to show how rampant a problem is and confront a powerful adversary—and people are less likely to come forward at all, because they have no idea they aren’t alone.

When Gretchen Carlson sought her day in court over sexual harassment allegations against Roger Ailes, her former boss at Fox News, Mr. Ailes’s lawyers had a quick response: send the case to forced arbitration.  After she filed suit, he also invoked a clause that reportedly required absolute secrecy: “all filings, evidence and testimony connected with arbitration, and all relevant allegations and events leading up to the arbitration, shall be held in strict confidence.” It was only because she resisted that clause through a creative legal theory that her allegations were made public—unleashing a tsunami of claims of sexual harassment by Ailes and others at Fox News.

Hundreds and maybe thousands of former employees of Sterling Jewelers, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate behind Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, known for advertising slogans such as “Every kiss begins with Kay,” were allegedly groped, demeaned, and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed.  The evidence of apparent rampant sexual assault was kept secret for years from other survivors and the general public through gag orders imposed in forced arbitration.

The same thing happened at American Apparel, where employees and models were forced to arbitrate sexual harassment claims and keep the details secret, and the proceedings were reportedly a sham.

We don’t yet know if Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein used forced arbitration to suppress allegations of his decades-long campaign of sexually harassing, abusing, and assaulting young assistants, temps, employees and executives at the Weinstein Company and Miramax.  But the clauses may well have played a role, and his nondisclosure agreements and secret one-by-one settlements worked to the same effect.

And forced arbitration clauses do not only hide wrongdoing in sexual harassment cases.  Corporations also use forced arbitration to isolate victims and cover up massive, widespread wrongdoing in the financial sector.

For example, forced arbitration clauses found in legitimate customer accounts let Wells Fargo block lawsuits related to the 3.5 million sham accounts it opened; as a result it kept its massive scandal secret for years, and then lied to Congress about it.  People began trying to sue Wells Fargo in 2013, but cases were pushed out of our public courts into secret arbitrations, and Wells Fargo continued creating fake accounts.

KeyBank, like Wells Fargo, has also used forced arbitration to keep disputes secret and block relief for people charged overdraft fees when their accounts weren’t overdrawn.  A court recently ruled “unconscionable” KeyBank’s provision requiring a customer to “keep confidential any decision of an arbitrator.”  But the court allowed KeyBank to force the plaintiff to arbitrate his case individually, despite the fact that thousands or millions of KeyBank customers were subject to the same abuses. These customers were not permitted to come together to challenge these abuses as a group in court, because of forced arbitration.

By imposing secrecy and isolating victims, forced arbitration shields corporate wrongdoing and leaves it more difficult for those harmed to hold the wrongdoers accountable.  That’s why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a rule earlier this year prohibiting banks, payday lenders and other financial companies from using forced arbitration to cover up widespread frauds, scams and abuses.  This is a first step in the right direction of restoring Americans’ rights to challenge predatory practices.  But some in Congress have threatened to block this important protection. 

Earlier this year, Congress and President Trump overturned rules that prohibited employers with federal contracts from forcing employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or sexual assault claims, or claims alleging discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or religion.  In so doing, they took power away from women facing sexual harassment and returned it to those trying desperately to keep that harassment under wraps.

We cannot tolerate another blow against Americans seeking to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable.  The CFPB’s rule must be permitted to go forward. 

This blog was originally published at Public Citizen Litigation Group’s Consumer Law & Policy Blog on October 23, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Emily Martin is General Counsel and Vice President for Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. She oversees the Center’s advocacy, policy, and education efforts to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunity for women at work and to achieve the workplace standards that allow all women to achieve and succeed, with a particular focus on the obstacles that confront women in low-wage jobs and women of color.

When VPP Companies Kill

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Over the past month, two workers have been killed at companies participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs: Nucor Steel in Decatur, Alabama where Melvin Gant Jr. fell into a vat of the waste products of finished rolled steel, and a contractor at Valero Oil Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ezequiel Guzman Orozco, who died after allegedly falling from a scaffold.

I say “allegedly,” because Valero claims that the worker, an employee of Brand Energy Solutions, actually died from a heart attack, although “the medical examiner’s office said preliminary notes from Guzman Orozco’s autopsy showed there was blunt-force trauma to his body.”  The Valero case appears to be a VPP double-whammy as the contractor, Brand Energy Solutions at Valero, is also a VPP participant.

Participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program are supposed to be the best of the best.  The purpose of the program, according to OSHA is to “recognize employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.” But, of course, the VPP program is more than just a recognition program, it also exempts VPP participants from programmed inspections — those inspections that stem from National or Regional Emphasis Programs, or any other OSHA targeting program.

Despite the goals of the program, sometimes things don’t go as expected, as we have seen recently at Valero and Nucor.

It will be interesting to see how OSHA deals with these fatalities. At the beginning of the Obama administration, VPP had come under significant criticism for allowing unqualified companies — even companies that where workers had died and had received willful citations — to remain in VPP.  In fact, a 2009 fatality at a Valero facility was highlighted by The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby in an article on hazardous conditions at VPP facilities that are allowed to remain in VPP despite evidence of major safety and health problems. In response to these problems, and in an effort to ensure that no company could simultaneously be a member of VPP and OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program at the same time,  OSHA issued a new policy in 2013 setting up a process for terminating VPP sites that had experienced fatalities or received a willful violation, but providing an opportunity to appeal the termination to the Assistant Secretary. Deaths among the contractors of VPP participants were considered to be the same as the death of an employee of the participant itself. Nucor has a history of fighting fatality-related terminations, even going to Congress to block OSHA’s actions. Valero, as we have seen, is claiming that the death was not work-related.

Meanwhile, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association (VPPPA) continues to lobby for a bill that would make VPP permanent by writing it into the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The bill has been introduced every year for the past fifteen years, and is currently cosponsored by Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Gene Green (D-TX) and Martha Roby (R-AL). Labor and most Democrats have generally opposed the bill as unnecessary, and also because the current version prohibits participant fees to support the program, fails to require union agreement with their employer’s participation and weakens criteria for admission to the program.

But the main problem with VPP — at least according to the VPPPA — remains unresolved: the failure of the program to grow over the past several years. The reason for the program’s failure to grow is lack of funding.  Under the Bush administration, the program tripled in size, growing to the point where OSHA no longer had the resources to maintain the integrity of the program. There was an enormous backlog of VPP reapproval applications, which meant that hundreds of sites were not being reviewed to ensure that they were still qualified to be part of VPP.  Under the Obama administration, OSHA chose to focus its resources on the program’s integrity (e.g. ensuring scheduled reapprovals) rather than growing its size. The fact that OSHA has not had a budget increase since 2010 has meant that the number of participant have slowly declined as some participants have dropped out or been terminated, while few resources are available to bring in new members.  Neither Trump’s proposed budget nor the budget proposals of the House or the Senate will change this equation much. And, as we reported yesterday, OSHA’s main hiring focus at this point seems to be on inspectors, not compliance assistance staff — which is as it should be.

OSHA has held two stakeholder meetings to “recalibrate” VPP “so that it continues to represent safety and health excellence, leverages partner resources, further recognizes the successes of long-term participants, and supports smart program growth.”  Additional comments were accepted through today.  We shall see what comes out of these discussion. Given the budgetary impedements to growth, the need for OSHA to focus on its core tool — enforcement — and VPPPA’s refusal to consider viable solutions like a fee-based program or graduating long-term participants out of VPP, it’s unlikely that any ideas will surface that will significantly change the program.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on October 20, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

Can federal workers blatantly discriminate against LGBTQ people? Jeff Sessions isn’t sure.

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

During Wednesday’s Justice Department Oversight Hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the Department of Justice’s new “religious freedom” guidance. In particular, Durbin was concerned about how the guidance might enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination, asking Sessions to respond to several hypotheticals.

“Could a social security administration employee refuse to accept or process spousal or survivor benefits paperwork for a surviving same-sex spouse?” Durbin asked.

There was a long pause. “That’s something I never thought would arise, but I would have to give you a written answer to that, if you don’t mind.” Sessions responded.

Durbin countered, “I’d like to have that,” then launched right into another hypothetical. “Could a federal contractor refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts?”

“Likewise, but I would say to you — are you citing Title VII for this? Or the guidance? I’m not sure that’s covered by it, but I’ll look.”

It is highly unbelievable that Sessions had never considered these examples prior to Wednesday. More than two years ago, when he was still in the Senate, Sessions was one of the original co-sponsors of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a bill that would grant those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage a license to discriminate. Many of the provisions in the new guidance mirror FADA’s language.

 In response to that bill’s introduction, the ACLU and LGBTQ advocacy groups pushed back, saying that it would be used to prop up discrimination. The ACLU, in particular, outlined FADA’s “parade of horribles” in a 2015 blog post, including the following two:
  • [It would] permit government employees to discriminate against married same-sex couples and their families – federal employees could refuse to process tax returns, visa applications, or Social Security checks for all married same-sex couples.
  • [It would] allow federal contractors or grantees, including those that provide important social services like homeless shelters or drug treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people or anyone who has an intimate relationship outside of a marriage.

Those are nearly identical to the hypotheticals Durbin asked Sessions to respond to on Wednesday. Still, years after they’d been highlighted by advocacy groups, Sessions claimed they had somehow never occurred to him before.

After Sessions’ dodged Durbin’s hypotheticals, the senator asked the attorney general to comment about the fact that “people are discriminating in the name of their own personal religious liberty.”

Sessions responded:

Yes, I would say that wherever possible, a person should be allowed to freely exercise their religion and not to carry out activities that further something they think is contrary to their faith. But at the same time, if you participate in commercial exchanges, you have limits on what you can do under those laws — public accommodation type laws. And so the balance needs to be properly struck — and I think we have. Those issues were discussed as we wrestled with this policy.

It’s unclear with whom Sessions discussed those issues. The Department of Justice apparently held “listening sessions”, but has refused to name which groups it consulted. The reason the public even knows these consultations took place at all is because the Alliance Defending Freedom — an anti-LGBTQ hate group that defends business owners who discriminate and challenges nondiscrimination protections in the name of “religious freedom” — bragged that it had participated in them.

Given Sessions said in an interview last week that he believes such discrimination should be allowed in the case of the anti-gay baker whose case is headed to the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to imagine how he might respond to Durbin’s hypotheticals, if pressed.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news. In 2014, The Advocate named Zack one of its “40 under 40” in LGBT media, describing him as “one of the most influential journalists online.” He has a passion for education, having received a Bachelor’s in Music Education at Ithaca College and a Master’s in Higher Education at Iowa State University, and he relishes opportunities to return to classroom settings to discuss social justice issues with students. He can be reached at zford@thinkprogress.org.

The National Park Service has a serious workplace harassment problem

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

In a week that has exposed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Hollywood, a new federal survey released Friday by the Department of the Interior points to a similar culture within the agency’s National Park Service (NPS).

According to the survey, some 39 percent of NPS employees say they have experienced harassment or discrimination on the job. “In the last year, over 10 percent of NPS employees experienced sexual harassment, almost 20 percent reported experiencing gender-based harassment, and 0.95 percent reported experiencing sexual assault,” Buzzfeed reported.

The survey also shows a lack of faith in the federal agency to take care of their employees whenever they experience any kind of harassment. Seventy-five percent of National Park Service employees who said they had been harassed said they did not report the incidents, with half of that group citing their concerns that it wouldn’t have made difference anyway. Thirty-three percent explicitly stated that they “did not trust the process.”

In January of 2016 the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General reported that it had “found evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” in multiple national parks, including the Grand Canyon National Park’s River District, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia, and De Soto National Memorial in Florida.

As with any occupation that is rooted in “outdoors culture,” an emphasis is placed on masculinity in the Park Service, often resulting in a lack of female park rangers.

In Texas, where only 8 percent of the state’s 500 game wardens were women, some members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained to the state in 2012 about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance, according to in-depth reporting by HuffPost. Similarly, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service in California filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 over the same issues women in the Texas parks service were facing.

The Department of the Interior has begun to take steps to address the numerous allegations of harassment and discrimination that have seemingly flown under the radar or been ignored for decades. Ahead of the release of the survey, the agency said it would add more staff to the NPS Employee Relations and Labor Relations team, in addition to backing employee support groups and training sessions.

In a Friday news conference at the Grand Canyon, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addressed his commitment to ending the culture of harassment at the NPS.

“In the past, ‘zero tolerance’ has been an empty phrase — instead of taking action, our leadership fell back and took no action at all,” said Zinke. “That’s over. We’re going to root out this virus, and it begins with putting a new culture in place that embraces the best of the Park Service’s values.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant and social media coordinator at NPR, where she covered presidential conflicts of interest and ethics coverage. Before moving to Washington, she was an intern reporter at NPR member stations WLRN in Miami and WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. She holds a B.A in Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in political science from Florida State University.

Poultry lobbyists hope Trump will okay dangerous chicken processing speed-up Obama rejected

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The poultry industry really, really wants to process the chickens you eat at rates of more than 140 per minute. Under former President Obama, the USDA considered and then backed off of an increase to 175 chickens per minute going down the line being eviscerated and inspected. Under Donald Trump, the National Chicken Council hopes that the sky’s the limit, asking for plants to be allowed to operate “at any line speed” if they adopt a new inspection system.

The Obama-era cap is an “arbitrary” limit that is holding back the industry’s ability to compete in the global marketplace, the National Chicken Council stated in its petition.

Granting waivers would help the Trump administration achieve its goals of “reducing regulatory burdens on the industry,” the council said, adding that it would help poultry plants cut costs and expand production to meet rising demand.

Because what you really want to hear about the meat you’re eating is that cutting costs was the producer’s primary goal, and that the government went right along with that.

Do chicken eaters trust the safety of that new inspection system? The jury is out on that and under Trump we can be sure of never getting trustworthy data. But one thing is for damn sure: if line speeds increase, the workers who process chickens will lose limbs.

Poultry workers are almost twice as likely to suffer from serious injuries as workers in private industry, and more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. Two poultry and meat processing plants, Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, are among the 10 companies with the highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations, out of more than 14,000 companies reporting to the federal government, Berkowitz, a former Obama Labor Department official, discovered.

But what are the hands and arms of a heavily immigrant workforce when a bunch of big companies could profit? Nothing, in Trumpworld.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on October 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

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