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Posts Tagged ‘Economic Policy Institute’

California laws protect undocumented workers from abuse by the boss

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

Undocumented immigrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in the U.S., with employers all too often targeting them for abuse, paying them less than the law requires, and basically using ICE to put down worker organizing efforts. But California, which has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrant workers of any state, is leading the way in protecting them and penalizing abusive employers, the Economic Policy Institute’s Daniel Costa reports.

Seven laws enacted since 2013 send a message to employers: the law still applies. You don’t get to break labor laws just because your workers are undocumented.

  • California’s AB 263 (2013) prohibits employers from using threats related to immigration status to retaliate against employees who have exercised their labor rights. For example, if an employee complains to an employer about wages owed to her, and if the employer retaliates with threats related to the worker’s immigration status as an excuse to discharge or not pay the worker, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) can investigate and fine the employer, or the worker can bring a civil lawsuit against the employer. Employers guilty of retaliation based on immigration status may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and the employer’s business license may be temporarily suspended.

Several other laws expand or clarify AB 263, including penalties for filing or threatening to file false reports and say that an “employer’s business license may be revoked (not just suspended temporarily) if the employer is found to have retaliated against an employee based on immigration status. In addition, a lawyer who participates in retaliatory activities on behalf of an employer may be suspended or disbarred.” Making threats about someone’s immigration status can lead to criminal extortion charges. Also:

  • California’s AB 450 (2017) can provide due process for workers in the face of an I-9 worksite audit and discourage employers from using the I-9 audit process to retaliate against employees. Under AB 450, employers are prohibited from providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with access to nonpublic areas of the workplace and employment records when ICE has not obtained a warrant or subpoena, and AB 450 requires employers to notify workers when ICE plans to conduct an audit and inform workers about the details of the audit. Employers can be fined $2,000 to $5,000 for the first violation, and $5,000 to $10,000 for each additional violation. In addition, employers are prohibited from requiring their existing employees to reverify their work authorization at a time or manner not required by federal immigration law, and may face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.
  • California’s SB 54 (2017), also known as the California Values Act, includes a provision that has the potential to make courts and government buildings more accessible to unauthorized workers (by decreasing the risk of detention by ICE agents while pursuing claims for workplace violations by employers). In light of increasing immigration enforcement activities at courthouses and state government buildings by ICE, unauthorized immigrant workers will face significant difficulties accessing the judicial system and due process. SB 54 provides for the upcoming publication (by October 2018) of model policies for ensuring that public facilities “remain safe and accessible to all California residents, regardless of immigration status.” These model policies have the potential to provide unauthorized immigrant workers with greater certainty that ICE agents will not be present in California courtrooms, thus creating a safer environment for immigrants to access the legal system and obtain due process.

But the fact that these laws were necessary goes to show how much exploitation, retaliation and abuse undocumented immigrants face on the job—and California is just one state. In too many places, these laws don’t exist to protect the workers who need them.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Labor Department scrubbed analysis that said its proposal would rob billions from workers

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

The Department of Labor decided to scrub an analysis from its proposal affecting tipped workers after it found workers would be robbed of billions of dollarsaccording to former and current department sources who spoke to Bloomberg Law.

In December, the Labor Department proposed a rule that rescinded portions of Obama-administration tip regulations and would allow employers who pay the minimum wage to take workers’ tips. The department said the proposed rule would allow “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, who don’t typically receive tips, to be part of a tip-sharing pool. But the rule also wouldn’t prevent employers from just keeping the tips and not redistributing them.

The department never offered any estimate to the public of the amount of tips that would be shifted from workers to employers. The work of analyzing costs and benefits to proposed rules is legally required for the rulemaking process, Economic Policy Institute noted. EPI did its own analysis and found that tipped workers would lose $5.8 billion a year in tips as a result of this rule. Women in tipped jobs would lose $4.6 billion annually.

After seeing the annual projection showing that billions of dollars would transfer from tipped workers to their employers, senior department officials told staff to revise the methodology to lessen the impact, according to Bloomberg Law. After staff changed the methodology, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were still not satisfied with the analysis, so they removed it from the proposal, with the approval of the White House.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for improvement of wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers, has opposed the proposed rule and said it would push a majority-women workforce “further into financial instability.”

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Washington Post in December that “the administration is giving a windfall to restaurant owners out of the pockets of tipped workers.”

A department spokesman told Bloomberg Law that the department would likely publish an “informed cost benefit analysis” as part of any final rule but did not answer the reporter’s question about why the department wouldn’t allow the public to react to the analysis it created. The spokesman also claimed the department is acting in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute governing the ways agencies move forward with regulations. Two purposes of the APA is to make sure there is public participation in the rulemaking process, including by allowing public commenting and make sure the public is informed of rules. The public only has until Feb. 5 to comment on the proposal without viewing the department analysis. But the public could view the Economic Policy Institute analysis created to replace the department’s shelved one.

Some senior attorneys at worker rights’ groups say that the lack of analysis could violate the APA if the department publishes the full analysis with the final rule, as the spokesman said it would, but doesn’t do so during its proposal. That would prove that the department could have created the analysis earlier but decided not to, lawyers told Bloomberg Law last week.

This wouldn’t be the first time the administration has been accused of not properly adhering to the ADA.  Many states are claiming the administration violated some part of the Administrative Procedure Act. Only a couple weeks into Trump’s presidency, Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America sought to overturn an executive order mandating that federal agencies eliminate two regulations for every regulation they create. The executive order also required that net costs of regulations on people and businesses be $0 in 2017.

The groups argued that this clearly violates a clause the APA. Judge Randolph Moss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard arguments in the lawsuit in August and said, “It’s like a shadow regulatory process on top of the regulatory process.” However, it’s not clear if the rule has been implemented in practice. Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America are still waiting on a ruling.

Economists, labor experts, and worker advocates from the National Employment Law Project, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ROC United, and the Economic Policy Institute reacted to the news with outrage.

Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former Chief Economist to Vice President Joseph Biden, said he has developed a “high outrage bar” over the past year but “this failure to disclose handily cleared that bar.”

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at Economic Policy Institute, said she believes  EPI’s analysis is pretty close to whatever the department of labor came up with in its shelved analysis.

“The basic economic logic is that it is really unlikely that back-of-the house workers would get any more pay if this rule were to be finalized … If employers do share those tips with them, it is likely it will be offset by a reduction in base pay. I don’t think take-home pay would be affected by this rule at all,” Shierholz said.

Shierholz added, “It is likely that the DOL found something in this ballpark too and it’s not surprising that there is just no way to do a good faith estimate and also maintain the fiction that this rule is not terrible for workers, so in that light you can see why it is no wonder that they tried to bury it.”

When asked whether any group planned to sue the department over its decision not to show the analysis to the public, Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said her organization sent a request to the department asking that it withdraw the rule but that she has not heard back from the department.

“We haven’t decided what further action we may take,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) released a statement demanding that the department drop the effort to propose this rule:

“This botched cover-up of evidence proving President Trump’s policies help businesses steal billions from workers shows exactly what President Trump truly cares about: helping those at the top squeeze every last penny from families trying as hard as they can to get ahead. Now that their real priorities have been exposed, President Trump should tell Secretary Acosta to abandon this effort immediately.”

This story was updated with additional quotes from economists, labor advocates, and politicians.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 1, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Union membership rose in 2017

Friday, January 26th, 2018

This is somewhat unexpected: overall union membership rose by 262,000 workers in 2017, while union density stayed at 10.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel warns against reading too much into the numbers, but pulls out the following interesting data points:

  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.

That last point is particularly interesting, since the South has long been such a challenge to union organizing, and since Republicans are bent on making the union organizing environment in the rest of the nation much more like the South has historically been.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Wisconsin bill would ban cities from passing worker-friendly laws

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Wisconsin is considering a bill that would prevent local governments from enacting worker-friendly ordinances relating to overtime, discrimination, benefits, and wages. On Wednesday, the Senate held a public hearing on the GOP-backed bill.

The bill, Senate Bill 634, would prevent local municipalities in Wisconsin from increasing the minimum wage, stop enforcement of licensing regulations stricter than state standards, and prohibit labor peace agreements (in which employers agree to not resist a union’s organizing attempts). The bill also specifically says that no city, village, or town can prohibit an employer from soliciting information on a prospective employee’s salary history, because uniformity on employer rights is a “matter of statewide concern.” Since research shows that women are paid less right out of college compared to male counterparts and there are large racial wage gaps, proponents of these ordinances say that prohibiting employers from asking about salary history could help narrow the pay gap.

Madison City Attorney Mike May told Wisconsin-State Journal in December that the “biggest impact” would be on protected classes under Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance. If the bill became law, May said it would mean that discrimination based on student status, citizenship, and even being a victim of domestic abuse would all be “fair game for discriminatory practices.”

“This bill attacks workers, our rights and our democratic processes,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, testified during the hearing. “This bill is about power, the power to overreach and tell citizens in their own communities that they don’t know what’s best for them.”

Wisconsin state Democratic senators Robert Wirch and Janis Ringhand voiced their opposition to the bill in statements on Wednesday. Both senators focused on how the bill could affect municipalities’ power to pass ordinances pertaining to sexual harassment.

“We need to be expanding avenues for victims of sexual harassment and assault to get justice, and not making it harder,” Wirch stated.

The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill on Wednesday, but it’s still concerning that it’s being considered. Wisconsin Republicans have trifecta control of the state and have been successful in pushing a number of anti-worker bills through the legislature. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is nationally known for his long record of supporting anti-union bills. He signed bills that stripped the majority of Wisconsin’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and made Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, which means workers can decide not to pay fees to unions because the union has to represent them regardless.

The Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Council of Churches, League of Wisconsin Municipalities and some labor unions oppose the bill, according to the Associated Press. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and groups representing various businesses support the bill.

Nick Zavos, government relations officer in Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s office, told Wisconsin State-Journal that the mayor is “deeply concerned about the direction (the legislation) represents,” with particular emphasis on the preempting of local ordinances relating to employment discrimination.

Wisconsin is not an outlier in considering this kind of legislation. As city governments have pushed for better labor standards, states across the country have passed laws to preempt increased protections for workers. At least 15 states have passed 28 preemption laws like this one that cover labor issues such as paid leave, minimum wage, and fair scheduling, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s August 2017 report. As the report notes, historically, preemption laws were used to set minimum statewide standards for workers that local governments couldn’t lower. These recent laws are doing the opposite. 

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Lifelong Wage Warrior Larry Mishel Takes On Trump’s Tax Scam

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

Lawrence Mishel, the outgoing President of the Economic Policy Institute, is finally – after 30 years at the progressive economic research organization – seeing one of his wishes come true. Leaders in both major political parties are talking about wage stagnation, and how to address it.

“I’ve always wanted to elevate the concerns about people’s paychecks as the salient economic issue,” he said in an interview in his downtown Washington office.

The bad news is that the stagnant wages conversation is being co-opted by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to sell a tax cut bill that will primarily benefit corporations and the wealthy.

Even so, Mishel counts that as progress. When Mishel joined the then-embryonic EPI as its first research director in 1987, all of the major right-wing think tanks denied that wage stagnation among the working class was a problem, even though EPI was among the first to show the trend unfolding, using the federal government’s deep trove of economic data. Few Democrats recognized the issue, either, Mishel said.

Today, “what’s interesting is there is so much of a dedication on the Trump team to link everything they are going to do to good jobs and wages, something that Democrats have not always done, for mysterious reasons,” Mishel said, pointing as an example the administration promoting its tax bill as “a $4,000 pay raise to workers.”

“The polls show that not many people buy it, even among Republicans, but it’s interesting that this transformation has happened,” Mishel said.

A Lifelong Passion

Mishel has had a lifelong passion for the plight of workers, going at least as far back as his Philadelphia boyhood and days at Penn State University. At Penn State, he combined that passion with a passion for economics, and after receiving advanced economics degrees from American University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he went to work as an economist for several unions, including the United Auto Workers; United Steelworkers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO.

When Mishel became president of EPI in 2002, the think tank was beginning to gain a reputation as being more than an advocate of pro-worker policies; it has a reputation for rigorous, fact-based scholarship and economic analysis that is relied on by a broad range of scholars, journalists and lawmakers. Its “State of Working America” reports have become a bible for people seeking to understand the economy from a Main Street point of view.

This month, Mishel hands over the reins of the EPI presidency to Thea Lee, who was previously deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO and a leading spokesperson for the union on issues like the impact of trade policy on workers.

But Mishel says he’s not going to disappear; he plans to continue to do research for EPI. “I want to tell the narrative about how wages were suppressed,” he said, particularly to make the point that four decades of stagnant wages for the working class is the result of, to borrow from the title of an EPI publication, “failure by design.”

An Economic Conundrum

The current state of the economy presents a classic economic conundrum. Economic textbooks say that with today’s national unemployment rate, 4.1 percent, we should see wage inflation caused by a tight labor market.

The last time the national unemployment rate averaged 4 percent, in 2000, wages rose on average about 5 percent a year, as shown in this wage tracker by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. In 2017, the wage tracker shows wage growth in 2017 hovering around 3.4 percent. EPI research further finds that this substandard wage growth has been even worse for people at the lower end of the income scale, whose wages in 2016 grew only about half as much as those of the top 20 percent.

“A true sign of a robust economy is rapid wage growth, and we don’t see wages growing that much faster than inflation, even with roughly 4 percent unemployment,” Mishel said.

Barring a last-minute surprise, passage of the Trump administration/Republican tax bill this week appears inevitable. Asked to what the American economy might look like a year after the tax bill is passed, Mishel predicted a continued stock market rise because companies, already flush with cash and finding themselves flooded with more, will continue to choose to use that cash to buy back their shares rather than invest in creating new jobs.

The big winners will be stockholders and corporate executives. Workers? Not so much. A boost in stock prices at best only benefits the third of American workers who have meaningful stock holdings, primarily retirement accounts. And even among that group of workers, the average retirement account stock portfolio is less than $100,000.

“The rising stock market is not a sign that the economy is doing well,” Mishel said. In fact, an overheated stock market, disconnected from the pulse of the Main Street economy, is prone to the kind of explosive bubble-burst that the nation saw in 2008.

What We Need Instead

What we need instead, Mishel said, is structural changes that will lead to real wage growth and improved working-class living standards. Those policies include:

• Raising the minimum wage, which Mishel said would have ripple effects beyond low-wage workers to boost the take-home pay of about 30 percent of the workforce.

• Targeting job creation in areas of high unemployment, which are disproportionately communities of color. Ultimately, government policy should be to ensure that every person who wants a job has access to a job, publicly funded if necessary. “You want a situation where employers are chasing after workers, and not workers chasing after employers. When employers are chasing after workers, wages go up,” Mishel said.

• Rebuilding the collective bargaining system. In 2016, only about one in 10 workers belonged to a labor union, a close to 50 percent decline from 1983. Nearly half of those work in the public sector. In private companies, fewer than one in 16 workers – less than 7 percent – belong to a union. If unions are stronger, Mishel said, “workers in non-union employers benefit as well, because their employers will follow the lead of the employers where collective bargaining is setting the standard. …I don’t think we will ever get robust middle-class wage growth or have the vibrant democracy that we need without reestablishing collective bargaining.”

• Assuring what Mishel calls “day-one fairness,” which would include eliminating such practices as misclassifying full-time workers so they are not eligible for health benefits or overtime, or forced arbitration and noncompete clauses that prevent workers from challenging bad worker policies or even leaving a bad employer to work for a competitor.

Having Their Moment

When Mishel is presented with the view that Donald Trump’s presidency and right-wing control of Congress has placed many of these policy goals further out of reach, he offers a contrarian view.

“The right is having its moment now,” he said, “but what has happened, though, is that the traditional stranglehold on the Democratic Party policy agenda by what you could call the corporate Democrats and their friends has been broken… The center-left policymakers have moved much closer to where the Economic Policy Institute has always been. So [with] the next wave of candidates and the next wave of legislation that comes if and when Democrats have electoral victories, we will do a lot better than we did during the Clinton era or the Obama era.”

Examples include the increased willingness of the Democratic Party mainstream to embrace universal health care, a $15 minimum wage by 2023, and support for collective bargaining for all public employees, Mishel said.

With this change, “you will see the Economic Policy Institute emerge as a much more important source of policy proposals,” Mishel predicted. “Our time will come again; there may be a Democratic House in 2019, and who knows about the Senate? Nothing is for sure, but it is not as grim as ‘the Democrats will never get back.’”

The People Can Win

In the meantime, Mishel advises people concerned about the state of the American worker to not think of the economy as “broken.”

“People walk around as if we have a bad economy,” Mishel said. “We don’t have a bad economy. It’s been built to do what it is doing, which is skimming the most for those at the top.”

That should be heartening, he went on to say, because changing the economy is “a matter of organizing and policy and mobilization.” That work won’t be easy, he said, but “the people can win.”

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on December 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole is communications director of People’s Action, and has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

The Trump Administration’s Backdoor Plan to Erode the Rights of Workers to Act Collectively

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

On October 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that implicates the very concept of collective action. NLRB v. Murphy Oil asks whether it is a violation of workers’ rights to force them to enter into arbitration agreements that prohibit collective or class litigation. Such agreements, often entered into as conditions of employment, require workers who want to sue their employers to do so individually in a private arbitration setting, rather than as a class of aggrieved workers who can pool their resources and knowledge. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, more than 60 million U.S. workers have now lost access to the courts because of such forced arbitration agreements.

Now, the Trump administration is entering the fray, submitting a brief to the Supreme Court in the Murphy Oil case aimed at advancing an anti-worker legal theory poised to erode protections for workers outside of the union context.

Such efforts could have far-reaching implications. In a 1997 paper for Arizona Law review, professor of law emeritus Jack Greenberg argued, “Civil rights and class actions have an historic partnership,” with class actions routinely used “to challenge discrimination in employment, education, the use of public facilities and housing, to assert prisoners’ rights, and to promote welfare reform, to name just a few areas that conventionally are put in the civil rights category.”

More recently, the NAACP went further, arguing in an amicus brief submitted in August 2016 to the Supreme Court that “American democracy depends upon our unwavering commitment to equal opportunity. Federal labor law honors that commitment by guaranteeing employees the right to challenge workplace discrimination through concerted activity, including picketing, striking and group adjudication of workplace rights.”

Yet, in recent years, the rights of most Americans to engage in concerted legal has greatly diminished. In a 2015 investigative series on this trend, The New York Times reported that, starting in 1999, a “Wall Street-led coalition of credit card companies and retailers”—with soon-to-be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts Jr. involved—engineered a plan to get rid of class action lawsuits, because such lawsuits allow individuals to pool their power against companies.

Years later, in a pair of cases decided in 2011 and 2013, with John Roberts Jr. as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court narrowly held that companies could include contract provisions that require plaintiffs to go through arbitration instead of court, while waiving their rights to class actions.

A federal judge interviewed in 2015 by the Times explained that the result is that now, “business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach.”

The Times study of thousands of arbitrations—most of which are not publicly available—found that more and more consumer and labor and employment cases are being funneled into arbitration. Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 215 percent rise in arbitrations in labor cases over the previous four years. This represents a privatization of the justice system.

Furthermore, in many instances, the funneling of cases to individual arbitrations rather than class actions pressures workers into foregoing the process altogether. Looking at 2010 to 2014, the Times found that Verizon and Time Warner Cable, which have 140 million subscribers combined, faced only 72 arbitrations. After all, who would go up against an outmatched opponent alone?

It is understandable that workers would bow out, given that such arbitration settings are favorable to the employer. Unlike judges who are assigned cases randomly, arbitrators are chosen by the parties, meaning they are chosen regularly to arbitrate before the same corporations. If arbitrators against the corporations too often, there is a strong likelihood that the arbitrators will not be chosen again and therefore lose business in the future. This creates a financial incentive for arbitrators to side with corporations. The Times series notes that dozens of arbitrators “described how they felt beholden to companies. Beneath every decision, the arbitrators said, was the threat of losing business.”

Various attempts have been made to protect individuals from these arbitration provisions, including state laws holding these provisions to be unconscionable, as well as legal arguments claiming that such provisions violate federal anti-trust rules. But these arguments have failed at the Supreme Court. What has remained is the National Labor Relation Board’s (NLRB) position that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects workers’ substantive rights to join together in class actions. Section 7 provides that workers have “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The NLRB has taken the position that employment class actions constitute “other concerted activities,” which are protected under labor law. And workers cannot sign away these rights, in the same way that they cannot sign away the right to form or join a union. The Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals agreed with the Board that the employer violated workers’ rights by making them sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers, but the Fifth Circuit held otherwise.

This split in the circuits made the issue ripe for Supreme Court review, and the matter was indeed appealed to the Supreme Court in September 2016, and accepted for review by the Supreme Court in January 2017. At the time, President Obama’s Solicitor General filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the NLRB’s position. But Trump’s Solicitor General later changed this position in order to side with employers.

In this case, the Trump administration expresses a view of labor law in the Solicitor’s brief that completely reorients workers’ rights. The brief acknowledges that Section 7 of the NLRA contains what it terms “core” rights, which relate to unionizing and collective bargaining, but pushes aside all other concerted activities as only contained in “residual language” and therefore not deserving of the same level of protections. Such a reading of labor law effectively states that the law’s protections only apply to workers’ activities as they relate to unions.

However, the NLRB clearly states that “the law we enforce gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the [NLRB] will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away.” These rights are far broader than the Trump administration acknowledges in its brief before the Supreme Court, and any limitation of them would greatly diminish the few rights workers have in the workplace.

This week, management-side Republicans gained a majority on the NLRB, and soon a management-side Republican will become the agency’s General Counsel. This new conservative Board is likely to shift labor law away from worker protections, as was the case during the George W. Bush years. However, Trump’s Solicitor’s argument goes much further. It invites the Supreme Court to formally bifurcate and limit workers’ rights to act collectively.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

 About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Divide and Conquer: Employers' Attempts to Prohibit Joint Legal Action Will be Tested in Court

Thursday, September 28th, 2017
On Monday, October 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the most consequential labor law cases to come to the Court in a generation, which could fundamentally alter the balance of power between millions of American workers and the people who employ them.

So why are so few people paying attention?

At first glance, the cases may seem dry and complex, as they involve 80-year-old laws that most people have never heard of. But the issue at stake is actually quite simple: should your employer be able to force you to give up your right to join your coworkers in a lawsuit challenging working conditions as a condition of getting or keeping a job?

The federal courts of appeals for the Seventh and Ninth Circuits say the answer should be no. They point to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a law passed by Congress in 1935 to end “industrial strife and unrest” and restore “equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” The NLRA gives workers the right to join unions and to “engage in other concerted activities” for “mutual aid or protection,” and it makes it illegal for employers to “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise” of those rights.

But in recent years, more and more employers are requiring their employees to agree, as a condition of working for that employer, that they must resolve any disputes that might come up in the future in a private arbitration proceeding, and not in court. Many of these so-called arbitration agreements also prohibit the arbitrator from hearing more than one employee’s claim at a time—in other words, they ban employees from taking legal action together, either in court or in arbitration. A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute found that 23.1% of private sector, non-union workers, or 24.7 million Americans, work for employers that impose such a concerted legal action ban.

Sheila Hobson was one such employee. She worked at a gas station in Calera, Alabama that was run by Murphy Oil. When she applied to work there, she had to sign an agreement stating that she would not participate in a class or collective action in court, “in arbitration or in any other forum” and that her claim could not be combined “with any other person or entity’s claim.” Two years later, she joined with three coworkers to file a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act. She and her coworkers claimed that they were routinely asked to clean the station, stock shelves, check prices at competitors’ stations and perform other tasks while “off the clock” and without pay. Murphy Oil moved to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing to their arbitration agreement and arguing that each employee had to pursue their claims individually.

The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency created by Congress to enforce the NLRA, stepped in to defend Ms. Hobson and her coworkers. The NLRB ruled that Murphy Oil’s arbitration agreement interfered with its employees’ right to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid or protection in violation of the NLRA. But the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Murphy Oil, leading to this showdown before the Supreme Court.

The crux of Murphy Oil’s position, which is shared by the employers in the cases out of the Seventh and Ninth Circuits that are also being argued on Monday, is that the employers’ bans have to be enforced because of the Federal Arbitration Act. This law, passed back in 1925 at the request of businesses who wanted to be able to resolve commercial disputes privately under specialized rules, says that agreements to arbitrate should be treated the same as any other contracts. And because their concerted action bans are found in arbitration agreements, the employers argue, the FAA requires their enforcement.

But the FAA includes a “saving clause” that allows arbitration agreements to be invalidated on any “grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” One such ground for revoking a contract is that it is illegal, and the Seventh and Ninth Circuit opinions pointed out that a contract that interferes with employees’ rights under the NLRA is illegal and thus unenforceable under the FAA’s saving clause. Moreover, as the NLRB explained, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the FAA cannot take away anyone’s substantive rights; it merely allows those rights to be pursued in arbitration rather than in court. But the concerted action bans in these cases, and those like them that other employers force employees to sign, do take away the very substantive right to join with coworkers that the NLRA guarantees. By preventing workers from banding together in court or in arbitration, these agreements deprive employees of the ability to pursue their concerted action rights in any forum whatsoever.

Given the high stakes these cases present, both employer and employee positions have garnered a large number of friend-of-the-court briefs before the Supreme Court. The Chamber of Commerce has weighed in on the employers’ side, as have other groups representing industry and the defense bar. The Justice Department, which had originally represented the NLRB, switched sides with the change in presidential administration and is also supporting the employers.

Meanwhile a group of ten labor unions pointed out that given the economic power employers wield over employees who need jobs to support their families, “few workers are willing to put a target on their back by bringing legal claims against their employer on an individual basis.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and more than 30 other civil rights groups, including Public Justice, explained how joint legal action has unearthed patterns of discrimination and brought about systemic changes in workplace policies that individual cases could never have achieved, listing 118 concerted legal actions challenging discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability and sexual orientation that would not have been possible under concerted action bans like Murphy Oil’s. The National Academy of Arbitrators disputed the employers’ premise that joint or collective claims can’t proceed in the more streamlined forum of arbitration, noting that labor arbitrators have been resolving group claims in unionized workplaces for decades and that requiring each case against the same employer – with the same evidence – to proceed separately would actually be far less efficient and more costly. Finally, the Main Street Alliance argued that concerted action bans reduce enforcement of minimum wage and employment discrimination laws, which disadvantages responsible businesses relative to corporations that mistreat employees and break the law.

With nearly a quarter of U.S. non-union employees already subject to concerted action bans, a green light from the Supreme Court telling employers to continue this practice will no doubt cause that figure to soar. But Public Justice is hopeful that the Court will follow the plain meaning of the NLRA and find these bans to be the illegal acts that they are—attempts to coerce employees into giving up their right to join forces to increase their bargaining power. That right applies equally whether employees want to join a union, join a lawsuit or join a boycott or picket line. The Supreme Court should stop this employer power grab and reaffirm the right to concerted activity, which is just as important for workers now as it was when Congress established it over 80 years ago.

This article was originally published at Public Justice on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Karla Gilbride joined Public Justice in October 2014 as a Cartwright-Baron staff attorney. Her work focuses on fighting mandatory arbitration provisions imposed on consumers and workers to prevent them from holding corporations accountable for their wrongdoing in court.

With All Eyes on DACA, the Trump Administration Is Quietly Killing Overtime Protections

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

On September 5, the administration of Donald Trump formally announced that they won’t try to save Obama’s overtime rule, effectively killing a potential raise for millions of Americans. This disturbing development has largely slipped under the radar during a busy news week, marked by Trump’s scrapping of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Twenty-one states and a number of business groups sued the Obama administration last September, after the Department of Labor (DOL) announced the new rule, accusing the former president of overreach.

That lawsuit led to Amos Mazzant, a federal Obama-appointed judge in Texas, putting the rule on hold last November, shortly before it was set to become law. On August 31, Mazzant struck the rule down, and—less than a week later—Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) declined to challenge the District Court’s decision. In a court filing, a DOJ lawyer said that the administration would not appeal.

The Obama administration’s rule would have raised the overtime salary threshold considerably. The threshold hadn’t been increased by any administration to adequately reflect wage growth or inflation, which means that many workers only see overtime pay if they make less than about $23,660 a year. Obama had scheduled that number to be bumped up to about $47,476 after reviewing 300,000 comments on the subject.

“The overtime rule is about making sure middle-class jobs pay middle-class wages,” former Labor Secretary Tom Perez told reporters on a call after the rule was announced in May 2016. “Some will see more money in their pockets … Some will get more time with their family … and everybody will receive clarity on where they stand, so that they can stand up for their rights.”

While the overtime rule faced predictable opposition from Republicans and business groups, it also received backlash from some liberal advocacy organizations. In May 2016, U.S. PIRG, the popular federation of non-profit organizations, released a statement criticizing Obama’s decision. “Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate,” said the group.

Critics of the statement pointed out that U.S. PIRG’s opposition suggests they have employees not being paid for overtime despite their low wages. The group was slammed by progressives for supporting a regressive policy when it benefited their economic interests.

The DOL claimed that the rule would mean a pay increase for about 4.2 million Americans, but the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) contends that the DOL’s figure is far too low. According to EPI, the DOL’s analysis fails to take the impact of George W. Bush’s overtime policies into account and relies heavily on statistics that were generated before he took power. EPI estimates that, because of changes to employee classifications in 2004, roughly 6 million workers had their right to overtime destroyed.

The EPI’s study of the overtime rule determined that about 12.5 million workers would have been impacted if it had been implemented. A wide range of workers would have potentially seen a pay increase, including 6.4 million women, 1.5 million African Americans and 2.0 million Latinos, the EPI concludes.

“Once again, the Trump administration has sided with corporate interests over workers, in this case, siding with business groups who care more about corporate profits than about allowing working people earn overtime pay,” Heidi Shierholz, who leads the EPI’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, told In These Times.

The Trump administration’s move might be disappointing for workers’ rights advocates, but it’s hardly surprising. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump vowed to kill the overtime rule if elected. “We have to address the issues of over-taxation and overregulation and the lack of access to credit markets to get our small business owners thriving again,” he said in an interview. “Rolling back the overtime regulation is just one example of the many regulations that need to be addressed to do that.”

While many pundits have focused on Trump’s unrelenting series of failures and scandals, his administration has quietly waged a fairly successful war on labor. In addition to nixing one of Obama’s most notable policy achievements, the Trump administration is also poised to stack the National Labor Relations Board with a pro-business majority, has proposed major cuts to the Labor Department and has rolled back safety protections for workers.

Last month, Bloomberg reported that Trump’s Labor Department had created an office specifically designed to reconsider government regulations. The office will be run by Nathan Mehrens, the anti-union lawyer who is also in charge of the department’s policy shop.

Trump geared much of his campaign rhetoric toward the U.S. worker, vowing to dismantle exploitative trade agreements and bring back jobs. However, his administration has simply emboldened the anti-labor forces that have dictated economic policy for decades.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Labor Day 2017: Working People Take Fewer Vacation Days and Work More

Friday, September 1st, 2017

Working people are taking fewer vacation days and working more. That’s the top finding in a new national survey, conducted by polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the AFL-CIO in collaboration with the Economic Policy Institute and the Labor Project for Working Families. In the survey, the majority of America’s working people credit labor unions for many of the benefits they receive.

In response to the poll, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

Union workers empowered by the freedom to negotiate with employers do better on every single economic benchmark. Union workers earn substantially more money, union contracts help achieve equal pay and protection from discrimination, union workplaces are safer, and union workers have better access to health care and a pension.

Here are the other key findings of the survey:

1. Union membership is a key factor in whether a worker has paid time off. While 78% of working people have Labor Day off, that number is 85% for union members. If you have to work on Labor Day, 66% of union members get overtime pay (compared to 38% of nonunion workers). And 75% of union members have access to paid sick leave (compared to only 64% of nonunion workers). Joining together in union helps working people care and provide for their families.

2. Working people go to work and make the rest of their lives possible. We work to spend time with our families, pursue our dreams and come together to build strong communities. For too many Americans, that investment doesn’t pay off. More than half of Americans work more holidays and weekends than ever before. More than 40% bring home work at least one night a week. Women, younger workers and shift workers report even less access to time off.

3. Labor Day is a time for crucial unpaid work caring for our families. Our families rely on that work, and those who don’t have the day off and have less time off from work can’t fulfill those responsibilities. A quarter of workers with Labor Day off report they will spend the holiday caring for children, running errands or doing household chores.

4. Women are less likely than men to get paid time off or to get paid overtime for working on Labor Day. Women are often the primary caregivers in their households, making this lack of access to time off or overtime more damaging to families. Younger women and those without a college education are even less likely to get time off or overtime for working on Labor Day.

5. Most private-sector workers do not have access to paid family leave through their employer. Only 14% of private-sector workers have paid family leave through their job. The rest have less time to take care of a family member’s long-term illness, recover from a medical condition or care for a new child. As a result, nearly a quarter of employed women who have a baby return to work within two weeks.

6. Over the past 10 years, 40 million working people have won the freedom to take time off from work. Labor unions have been at the center of these wins.

Recently, the AFL-CIO played a lead role in fights to expand access to paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave in in New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. Individual unions have been at the forefront of new and ongoing fights in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

7. An overwhelming majority of Americans think unions help people enter the middle class and are responsible for working people getting Labor Day and other paid holidays off from work. More than 70% of Americans agree. A plurality of Americans think weaker unions would have a negative impact on whether or not they have adequate paid time off from work. The majority of Americans would vote to join a union if given the opportunity. A recent Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans approve of unions, the highest percentage since 2003.

Read the full AFL-CIO Labor Day report.

This article was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 30, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

The Trump administration is quietly making it easier to abuse seniors in nursing homes

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

The Trump administration is poised to undo rules issued by the Obama administration last year to protect seniors from a common tactic used by businesses to shield themselves from consequences for illegal conduct.

Under these rules, issued last September, Medicare and Medicaid would cut off payments to nursing homes that require new residents to sign forced arbitration agreements, a contract which strips individuals of their ability to sue in a real court and diverts the case to a privatized arbitration system.

But last month, the Trump administration published a proposed rule which will reinstate nursing homes’ ability to receive federal money even if they force seniors into arbitration agreements.

Forced arbitration can prevent even the most egregious cases from ever reaching a judge. According to the New York Times, a 94 year-old nursing home resident “who died from a head wound that had been left to fester, was ordered to go to arbitration.” In another case, the family of a woman who suffered “two spine fractures from serious falls, a large, infected ulcer on her heel that prevented her from walking, incontinence from not being able to get to the bathroom, receding gums from poor hygiene assistance, and a dramatic weigh loss from not being given her dentures,” was also sent to an arbitrator after they sued the woman’s nursing home alleging neglect.

Moreover, as law professor and health policy expert Nicholas Bagley notes, arbitration tends “to favor the repeat players who hire them—companies, not consumers.” Several studies have found that forced arbitration typically produces worse outcomes for consumers and workers. An Economic Policy Institute study of employment cases, for example, found that employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator, and that they typically receive less money if they do prevail.

The Obama-era rules were never allowed to take effect. Shortly after the regulations were announced, a George W. Bush-appointed judge in Mississippi issued a decision blocking the rule—although Judge Michael Mills did caveat his order by stating that “this case places this court in the undesirable position of preliminarily enjoining a Rule which it believes to be based upon sound public policy.”

Important parts of Mills’ opinion rely on dubious reasoning. At one point, for example, he cites a doctrine limiting the federal government’s power to use threats of lost funding against state governments in order to impose similar limits on federal efforts to encourage good behavior by private actors.

But let’s be honest. If the Trump administration wasn’t preparing to end the Obama-era rule, conservatives on the Supreme Court most likely would have done so themselves.

Prior to Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority took such a sweeping and expansive view of companies’ power to use forced arbitration that it is likely the Obama administration’s rules would have been struck down in a 5–4 decision. Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies Scalia’s seat, Republicans once again have the majority they need to shield arbitration agreements.

In the alternative universe where the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election was inaugurated last January, Justice Merrick Garland was likely to provide the fifth vote to uphold the Obama-era rule. But we do not live in that universe. And neither do the many elderly nursing home residents who will be worse off thanks to the Trump administration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received his JD from Duke University and clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His writings have appeared in a diversity of publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, the American Prospect and the Yale Law & Policy Review.

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