Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Government Workers’

Low-wage federal workers still want their shutdown pay, please

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

It will take Lila Johnson months to rebound from the financial hit she endured earlier this year, going for weeks without pay during the federal government shutdown.

A contracted custodian who has worked for the past 21 years at the Department of Agriculture, Johnson still has not been reimbursed for her lost income, and her rage at President Donald Trump — who forced the shutdown in a bit to procure funding for his border wall — continues to grow. “It was just ridiculous for him to act the way he did as a leader,” Johnson told ThinkProgress.

“He punished the people, held us hostage because of something that he promised his voters. He promised his voters that he was going to build the wall. He’s the one who promised Mexico was going to pay for the wall,” she said.

“And when he couldn’t get his way, he was like, ‘I’m going to shut everything down.’ And that is not leadership of running the United States.”

A great-grandmother in her seventies, Johnson cleans bathrooms four hours per night, five days a week. Two months ago, for 35 days — the longest U.S. government shutdown in history — she went without pay.

The hit on her income has left Johnson in a financially precarious position, scraping, scrimping, struggling more than ever to get by. She is holding out now for her tax refund. “Maybe that will pull me up more than I am now,” she said.

While 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or forced to work without pay, Trump held a nation captive over his border wall, the construction plans for which read like scribbles from his dream journal: it is to be a “powerful wall,” perhaps a “steel barrier,” or maybe, actually, a “smart wall” utilizing drones and sensors.

Needless to say, the wall has not arrived, in any form. Nor, for federal contractors like Johnson, has back pay. Although federal employees were eligible for and ultimately received back pay, the federal contractors who were also affected by the shutdown have not. (Since they are privately hired, estimates about just how many federal contractors there are range pretty widely, with some estimates putting the number nationwide at more than a million.)

The government pays third-party companies for contractor work, which means contractors don’t get paid unless their services are actually used.

Last month, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced a bill to ensure back pay for federal contract workers: the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, which “aims to help low-wage federal contractor employees—including janitorial, food, and security services workers—who were furloughed or forced to accept reduced work hours as a result of the recent government shutdown.”

Since it was engineered for low-wage workers, the bill had its limits: payments would be capped at $965 per worker per week. But Trump refused to sign a spending package that included back pay for contractors.

“It’s not fair for the American people to live the way they’re living because [Trump] is selfish,” Johnson said. “He only thinks about what he wants. That’s the mind of a child, to me. That’s not leadership.”

“There is an important piece of unfinished business from the past government shutdown that we still need to resolve: providing back pay for the employees of federal contractors who lost over one month’s pay,” Smith said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“These thousands of Americans work shoulder to shoulder with federal employees for all of us — many as security guards, cafeteria workers, and people who clean office buildings—and they must be made whole. Several of my Republican colleagues and the entire Democratic caucus supports this effort, so we should be able to find a solution.”

During the shutdown, stories about these contractors — who overwhelmingly are immigrants and people of color —  made headlines. There was a Smithsonian museum security guard whose car was repossessed, another who rationed her children’s asthma medicine, still others applying for food stamps and fearing eviction. The shutdown’s financial toll on contractors lingers like a hangover the country can’t shake.

In a statement, Jaime Contreras, a vice president at 32BJ SEIU, the guild which represents over 600 federally-contracted workers, said the union “will not rest until federal agencies pay the men and women who clean and secure federal buildings the back pay they deserve and need for bills they still can’t afford to pay.”

These workers “live paycheck to paycheck and faced eviction, power shut off and hunger among many hardships during the Trump shutdown,” Contreras said.

Among them is Julia Quintanilla, who has been working as a custodian at the Department of Agriculture for 28 years. Along with other contracted workers, she cleans about 60 offices a day. Quintanilla remembers the shutdown during President Barack Obama’s tenure as just “a little bit” of a problem.

The 35-day shutdown under Trump “was a disaster,” she told ThinkProgress through a translator. Even with assistance from her church, her union, and her family, she was “scraping by” without her paycheck. By the time the shutdown was over, it had completely wiped out her savings.

“It was thousands and thousands of people who were affected — and actually devastated, that’s the right word,” she said. “We were devastated by this.”

For the month or so she was out of work, Quintanilla alternated attending protests with her union, which helped collect donations and distribute gas coupons, and going to churches to get free food, “just trying to get by,” she said.

She lives intermittently with her son and permanently with her mother and her three-year-old grandson, who has severe muscular and developmental disabilities; he cannot walk or speak.

Her mother “needs medicine and that’s very expensive,” Quintanilla said. “So we’re still feeling the pain of the money that we lost.” She also has outstanding debt with family members who lent her money to tide her over during the shutdown.

The entire experience has left her rattled and anxious. “This makes you think about it all the time,” she said. “So when you hear about possible future shutdowns, it weighs heavy on your mind, in a way that it might not have before.”

Like Quintanilla, Johnson is the primary caretaker for her family. She’s raising two great-grandsons, ages 6 and 14, and has since they were babies. Even with money she gets from the government for being their legal guardians, a foster care stipend of $850 per child per month, Johnson relies on her income from her contract work. After taxes, she typically takes home $756 every two weeks. Once the shutdown was over, “I had to work for a whole month before I even got a decent check.”

Johnson, too, “was basically blessed as far as people reaching out to me, helping. My family helped as much as they can, but they have their own life to live, so I basically just did the best I could.” She also had some assistance from church and friends “that carried me through.”

For many of her bills — car note, credit card — she asked that companies be lenient giving her time to pay what she could, and “they were pretty reasonable.” Support came from just about everywhere, it seems, except for the federal government, which employed these contractors — and initiated and prolonged the shutdown — in the first place.

“I still have those moments when I thought about, not only myself, but I thought about everyone else,” Johnson said. “Because my heart went out to other people, too. If I was going through what I was going through, I can imagine the pain that other people have that didn’t have nothing… That was very stressful, just to see those people trying to take care of their families,” she said.

“Some had to sell their cars. Some couldn’t pay their bills and didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Some didn’t even have money to pay for their childcare,” she said.

“It was just more stressful to see other people going through what I was going through.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jessica M. Goldstein is a reporter for ThinkProgress covering culture and politics.

This week in the war on workers: Federal job levels are low but Trump wants to drive them lower

Monday, January 16th, 2017

 

 

Donald Trump says he’s all about jobs, but at the same time he wants a federal hiring freeze. Supposedly there are just too many federal workers and the government should save money by getting rid of them. Here’s the reality:

  • There were an average of 2.8 million federal employees in 2016, representing only 1.9 percent of the nation’s 144 million civilian[2] jobs. This share ties with 2015 for the lowest federal share ever recorded, with data going back to 1939, and it’s far below its post-World War II average of 3.3 percent. (See Figure 1.)
  • The number of federal jobs rose by just 18,000 (0.6 percent) over the last eight years; in contrast, the number of jobs in the country grew by 11.3 million (8.3 percent) during the same period.[3]
  • The number of federal jobs as a share of the nation’s population in 2016 was tied with 2014 and 2015 for its lowest share on record.

Not to mention, these federal jobs include little things like the Centers for Disease Control, Medicare, national parks, food inspection, and other services and protections that many of us kinda like. “Freeze federal hiring” is something that sounds good to some people if you strip it of the specifics so they don’t think about what exactly is being cut. If Trump followed through with the kind of big cuts he’s implying, chances are it would not be a popular move.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on January 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

New House rules allow Congress to slash the pay of individual federal workers

Friday, January 6th, 2017

The Republican House majority proposed and passed a rules package on the eve of the GOP seizing control of the House, Senate, and the White House, and it contains more than a few surprises.

Republicans received widespread constituent outrage in response to a proposal to gut an independent congressional ethics office and bring it under the thumb of lawmakers, and they rolled it back in response. But the rules package contained other significant changes , including rules expanding Congress’ power to haul private citizens to Capitol Hill for testimony, and the revival of an obscure rule that would allow Congress to individually target and slash the pay of government workers and programs.

The Holman rule, named after the congressman who first proposed it in 1876, was nixed by Congress in 1983. The rule, now reinstated for 2017, gives any lawmaker the power to offer amendments to appropriations bills that could, legislatively, fire any federal employee or cut their pay down to $1 dollar, if the lawmaker so chooses.

Congress has always had the “power of the purse”: through the appropriations process, the legislative body can broadly cut the budget of any government agency. This Holman rule, however, allows lawmakers to exercise this power with laser focus and to target individual civil servants. A majority of the House and Senate would have to approve any such amendment.

Terminations or pay cuts passed through the Holman rule would override any civil service or other employment protections. Union leaders are particularly concerned with how the law might impact employees covered under collective bargaining.

“The jobs and paychecks of career federal workers should not be subject to the whims of elected politicians,” said the National President of American Federation of Government Employees, J. David Cox Sr., in a statement. “The Holman Rule will not only harm our hardworking federal workforce, but jeopardize the critical governmental services upon which the American people rely.”

The rule would allow Congress to target civil servants for political or ideological reasons. Lawmakers could, for example, specifically target civil servants who work on or speak publicly about climate change, or they could vote to drastically reduce the salary of IRS executives responsible for scrutinizing conservative groups.

The rule is particularly concerning coming only a few weeks after the Trump transition team asked the Energy Department for a list of scientists who have worked on climate change, and for the State Department to submit details of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.

The Trump transition team said that the survey sent to the Energy Department, which asked for a list of individual researchers by name, was “not authorized.” In a statement about the request to the State Department, the transition team issued a statement saying that the inquiry was to help President-elect Trump “ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected.”

Democrats, who voted against the rule package as a block just as Republicans voted for it, railed against the change.

“This rules package provides [the Congressional Majority] with the surgical tools necessary to reach into the inner workings of the federal government and cut away each part and employee that runs afoul of their ideological agenda,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), whose northern Virginia district is heavily populated with government workers.

“It undermines civil service protections; it goes back to the nineteenth century,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a floor speech on Tuesday. “Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself, and this rule change will enable them to make short-sighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) offered the bill. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said he considered it unlikely, but not impossible, that lawmakers might use the power of the bill to cut huge swaths of government workers.

“I can’t tell you it won’t happen,” he told the Post. “The power is there. But isn’t that appropriate? Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people’s payroll?”

Even if lawmaker don’t use the new provision, its revival sends a clear message to federal employees that their livelihood is now subject to the whims of elected officials. That alone could have a chilling effect on the civil service and on work that runs counter to the Republican ideological agenda.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on January 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laurel Raymond is a General Reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her: lraymond@thinkprogress.org

Contract for Disaster: How Privatization Is Killing the Public Sector

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

mtm0ndg4mjmzmzyxodm5mzc4Privatization is bad news for federal, state and local government workers, and the communities where they live. That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by In the Public Interest, a research group focused on the effects of privatization.

The study, “How Privatization Increases Inequality,” explores the role privatization plays in the American economy—compiling data on the estimated $1.5 trillion of state and local contracts doled out each year.

“A lot of decisions are small,” says Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, but “if you add all that up, it’s very significant.”

Many government workers in the United States enjoy a robust structure of pay and benefits, including pensions, health care and paid time off. Workers operate in a structured environment that acts, as the report says, as a ladder of opportunity. A clearly outlined framework of positions and pay grades, backed by enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, makes government jobs particularly friendly to women and people of color—20 percent of public sector jobs are held by Black workers, while nearly 60 percent of public sector jobs are held by women.

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

(Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

For decades, work in the public sector has been a gateway to a middle-class life. But that’s changing.

Cohen notes that the Right managed to make privatization an ideological project. This shift has generated huge profits for corporations and harmed public sector workers and their unions.

“They want to contract out not because it makes sense, but because that’s their jobs. They’re right-wingers,” he says.

Privatized workers have lower rates of unionization, are paid less than their publicly-employed counterparts, don’t have access to benefits and experience high turnover, the report shows. Sometimes they work side-by-side with government employees, as at the University of California system, something that Cohen says is deliberate.

“Part of the strategy of management is to contract out part of the work to keep the pressure on the non-contract part of the work,” he says.

That strategy leaves workers shortchanged—literally. In 2013, the National Employment Law Project found that one in five federal contractors it interviewed was using Medicaid for health care, while 14 percent needed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP). Reliance on federal benefits shifts costs from employers to taxpayers.

Contract employees are caught in a poverty trap that hurts not just them, but their communities. Workers who aren’t making money aren’t spending it, dragging down local businesses and creating a ripple effect in regional economies.

The report argues that poor recordkeeping and limited transparency make it extremely difficult to gauge the effects of contracting, and that the public needs to have access to such information. Legislators, advocates, unions and workers should be invested in how, when, where and why contract labor is used.

Is it improving services while keeping standards high for workers? Or is it being used as an ostensible cost-cutting measure, harming workers and shifting expenses to taxpayers and their communities?

We’re seeing a new era of work in America, and the move to contractors over directly-employed government workers is highlighting that shift as well as its consequences. For government workers, privatization is an economic shell game, and they are losing.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on September 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

S.E. Smith is an essayist, journalist and activist is on social issues who has written for The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, AlterNet, Jezebel, Salon, the Sundance Channel blog, Longshot Magazine, Global Comment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Reproductive Health Reality Check. Follow @sesmithwrites.

Walker Scales Hypocrisy Summit with Worker ‘Recognition’ Awards

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Image: Mike HallSome might call it gall, others might say chutzpah.  I’m leaning toward calling it two-faced with several words preceding it that got me into a lot of trouble with my mother when I was a kid.

But whatever you decide to call Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s announcement that he has launched a series of state employee recognition awards rewards just weeks after his long and bitter fight to eliminate their collective bargaining rights, it’s hypocrisy at its worst. (Speaking of hypocrisy, check this out from Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich.)

Walker’s action comes just days after he appointed the partner in a union-busting Milwaukee law firm as the new commissioner and chairman of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC). That’s the state body that decides disputes between state workers and management and now with Wisconsin workers’ rights eroded is even more important.

First the “coveted” awards and then a word about the new labor commish.

Walker says that his new State Employee Recognition awards program is his way of saying “thanks” for the hard work and dedication of state workers and to “highlight the most outstanding employees with recognition. ” Walker’s sincerity just oozes out of that quote. Brings the word “smarmy” to mind, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Walker’s new WERC chair, James R. Scott, comes to his post straight from the law firm Linder & Marsack S.C. which tells prospective clients:

Since our founding, we have aggressively represented our non-represented clients in pursuit of their goal to maintain a non-union status in furtherance of these goals.

Read more from Judd Lounsbury at the Uppity Wisconsin blog, including cases where Scott “specifically fought against government workers.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 12, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

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