News & Commentary

April 16, 2023

Will Ebeler

Will Ebeler is a student at Harvard Law School.

In this weekend’s news and commentary, unions at Rutgers University paused a week-long strike after reaching a framework for a new agreement; France’s Constitutional Council upheld the constitutionality of a plan to raise the country’s retirement age; a former employee of Smoothstack Inc. filed a class action over alleged wage theft; and a new research paper explained algorithmic wage discrimination by gig companies.

A strike at Rutgers University was paused on Saturday after negotiators reached a “framework” for an agreement between the University and three striking unions. As Morgan covered on Monday, the unions collectively represent 9,000 lecturers, faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral assistants, and counselors. The strike had been ongoing since Monday and shut down classes at the University all last week. The framework includes a variety of improvements for members, including pay raises, job security for adjunct and nontenure-track faculty, and union representation for graduate fellows. The unions clarified that some issues remain unresolved and will need to be addressed before members vote on an agreement. In a statement, they said that “if we do not secure the gains we need on the open issues through bargaining in the coming days, we can and will resume our work stoppage” and also promised informational pickets next week.

On Friday, France’s highest constitutional court approved key elements of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Polls show that two-thirds of French citizens oppose the bill. As Greg has covered, last month France’s government used an executive order to push through the plan without a parliamentary vote. France’s prime minister Élisabeth Borne asked the Constitutional Council to review the constitutionality of the proposed law. The Council upheld the increased retirement age while striking down minor elements of the law. The rejected elements were designed to increase employment for older workers; the Council held that these measures weren’t appropriate in a bill primarily focused on the social security budget. The Council also rejected a request by the bill’s opponents to order a citizens’ referendum on an alternate proposal that would have kept the retirement age at 62. President Macron now has two weeks to enact the law. He has repeatedly said the change is necessary to avoid annual deficits that could reach $14.8 billion by 2030. On Friday night, French citizens protested across the country and unions called for mass protests on May 1. 

A former employee of Smoothstack Inc. has accused the technology staffing company of wage theft. John O’Brien filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday alleging that Smoothstack makes new hires sign a Training Repayment Agreement Provision (TRAP) which subjects its employees to a $24,000 penalty if they quit before completing 4,000 billable hours of work—or approximately two years of full-time work. In addition, the complaint alleges that during the employees’ training period, Smoothstack refuses to pay its workers for more than 40 hours of work per week, even when they have to work 80 or more hours. According to the complaint, the TRAP violates the Fair Labor Standards Act because it “functions as an unlawful kickback of wages to Smoothstack that brings employees’ wages well below minimum wage” if they leave their jobs before they complete 4,000 billable hours of work. Mr. O’Brien is hoping to certify the lawsuit as a nationwide class and collective action. As Cristina discussed in January, employers in a variety of industries have increasingly been using TRAPs to suppress their workers’ wages.

Finally, a forthcoming Columbia Law Review paper offers insights into what its author calls “algorithmic wage discrimination” by app-based gig companies. As the LA Times explained last week, Veena Dubal, a professor at UC Hastings law school, shows that “workers are being paid different amounts for the same amount of work that is conducted for the same amount of time.” A delivery driver for Uber might make $6.50 for a delivery in one set of conditions but $4.25 in another. Or two Uber drivers sitting next to each other might be offered different rates for the same trip. As Professor Dubal explained, delivery companies collect and use information about drivers to “calculate the exact wage rates necessary to incentivize desired behaviors.” In addition, a recent shift by Uber to an upfront-pricing model—which offers a flat fee for drivers to accept or decline, rather than a metered fare like traditional taxis—has led to across-the-board pay cuts and made it easier for Uber to use algorithmic wage discrimination. And Professor Dubal argued that these measures, which obscure common problems among gig drivers, makes it more difficult for workers to organize to improve their working conditions. Finally, by obscuring the factors that go into setting pay, algorithmic wage discrimination can lead to disparate impacts. Uber’s own internal data shows that women drivers make 7% less than men, and the gig workers who work the most hours are most likely to be minorities, so Professor Dubal raised concerns that the new model would re-create and entrench “existing gender- and race-based hierarchies.”

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