Weekend News & Commentary — March 18-19, 2017

On the campaign trail, President Trump pledged that he would create 25 million jobs over the next decade.  Will he keep his promise?  The New York Times thinks not.  The Editorial Board takes aim at the President’s “wheezing jobs effort,” pointing to his recently released budget proposal — which would cut the Department of Labor’s budget by 21% and eliminate several important jobs programs — and his neglect of important job markets, such as the clean energy sector.

President Trump’s labor policies have also attracted the ire of unions and labor leaders.  The SEIU and Food Chain Workers Alliance have announced a general strike on May 1 (#May1Strike), coinciding with International Workers’ Day.  More than 300,000 food chain employees and 40,000 service workers are expected to turn out, The Hill reports, to protest the Trump administration and in particular its hardline stance on immigration.

Meanwhile, the administration’s immigration crackdown has worsened the farm labor shortage in California, The Los Angeles Times reports.  Although farm wages have shot up, few Americans have been willing to accept those jobs — casting doubt on President Trump’s claim that tougher borders will help American-born workers.

Disney will be paying $3.8 million in back wages to 16,339 of its “cast members” as part of a settlement with the Department of Labor.  The DOL’s investigation revealed that Disney resorts in Florida deducted a “costume” expense that caused some employees’ hourly rates to fall below the federal minimum wage.  The Christian Science Monitor has more.

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Today’s News & Commentary — March 13, 2017

The confirmation hearing for President Trump’s Labor nominee, Alexander Acosta, has been rescheduled due to scheduling conflicts.  The hearing is now set for March 22.  In the meantime, Acosta has been meeting one-on-one with senators to drum up support for his nomination.  Several Democrats have still not made up their mind on Acosta, Bloomberg BNA reports, and will continue to scrutinize his reputation.

That reputation is mixed, according to The New York Times.  Some — including immigration advocates and his colleagues at Florida International University — believe that Acosta is “a fair leader” who won’t let his conservative values affect his decisions.  But former colleagues claim that during his time at the Justice Department, Acosta sometimes acted out of political expedience, hiring candidates based on political connections instead of merit.

Can an employee be punished for refusing to participate in genetic testing?  Maybe, if a new bill — H.R. 1313, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act — becomes law.  The bill, which secured House committee approval last week, would allow employers to collect genetic information on employees who participate in workplace wellness programs (read our previous coverage of corporate wellness programs here).  The Washington Post has more.

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The Right to Disconnect

In the digitally connected workplace, it’s not easy to be “off the clock.”  Email — coupled with the widespread use of smartphones — has made many employees available at a moment’s notice.  In the United States, one in three full-time workers check their work email “frequently” outside of normal working hours.  Many report checking their inbox at the dinner table, or even in the middle of the night.  The 9-to-5 job is becoming more like 24/7.

This breakdown of work/life boundaries has led to strong calls for reform.  France recently enacted a new law establishing “the right to disconnect” outside of work hours.  And some companies have already banned the use of email when workers are off-duty.  These efforts signal an important shift in attitudes toward work-life balance.  But the problem of workplace technology is more complicated than these solutions might suggest.  “Work-life balance” looks different for different individuals.  In an attempt to strengthen the boundaries between the professional and the personal, policies insisting on a “right to disconnect” could be making those boundaries too rigid for workers who seek flexibility instead.

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Weekend News & Commentary — February 18-19, 2017

After the embarrassing withdrawal of his last nominee, Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s new pick for Labor Secretary — Alexander Acosta, a “well-respected public servant” — might look like a safe choice.  As the President has pointed out, Acosta has a strong track record: he has already won Senate confirmation for three previous positions, as a senior official in the Justice Department, a federal prosecutor, and a member of the NLRB.  But this time Acosta could face obstacles.  As POLITICO notes, the new nominee has expressed a moderate position on immigration that could put him at odds with immigration hard-liners like Steve Bannon (Breitbart has already criticized Acosta for supporting amnesty for undocumented immigrants and “cheap foreign labor”).  Meanwhile, Acosta’s stance on important labor issues — such as overtime pay — remains unclear, causing concern to labor advocates.  The American Prospect has more.

On Friday, President Trump visited workers at a Boeing plant in South Carolina — only days after they voted against unionization — to reiterate his campaign-trail promises.  Trump pledged to put Americans “back to work” and raise wages (“We love our workers, and we are going to protect our workers,” he declared) but made no mention of the failed union bid, The Atlantic reports.  The President’s “loud silence” on unions is unsurprising — his relationship with organized labor has often been contentious —but union leaders can’t afford to ignore him back.  His support among union members is high, and some of his early moves — such as his rejection of the TPP trade deal and his plan to renegotiate NAFTA — have aligned him with certain unions.  Some union leaders have already reported having productive meetings with the President, and others could follow.  On the unfolding relationship between the President and organized labor, the New York Times has more.

And lastly, as concerns mount over the threat of automation to human jobs, Bill Gates has come up with a solution: tax the robots.  In an interview with Quartz, the Microsoft founder argues that governments should tax companies’ use of automated labor, raising funds to support other kinds of employment.  Meanwhile, Finland has opted for another solution.  The Finnish government is experimenting with a universal basic income, giving 2,000 individuals a guaranteed income for two years.  The Guardian has more.

Weekend News & Commentary — February 4-5, 2017

The weekend started with some good news, with an above-expectations jobs report released Friday.  January saw 227,000 new jobs and modest wage growth; average hourly wages were up 3 cents at $26.  President Trump has already claimed credit for the strong numbers, predicting that job growth will “continue, big league,” under his administration.
 
Meanwhile, federal workers who want to express dissent against that same administration are turning to incognito forms of communication to do so, POLITICO reports.  In order to avoid rules covering workplace communications, EPA employees — fearing that the President’s incoming appointees will undermine existing policies — are now using an encrypted messaging app to talk strategy.  Similarly, Labor Department employees are using their private email accounts to circulate a letter asking senators to oppose Andrew Puzder’s nomination for Labor Secretary.
 
Speaking of which, the nominee — still facing delays in his confirmation process — continues to attract criticism.  The New York Times investigates Puzder’s early career as a lawyer, when he represented business owners and battled labor regulators in the courtroom.  In one of his biggest cases, Puzder defended his boss (a famous mob lawyer and casino owner) against allegations of squandering $25 million from union workers’ pension funds.
 
Puzder’s opposition to raising the minimum wage has also drawn fire, as the “Fight for $15” and related movements continue to build momentum.  Without a doubt, the importance of a “living wage” has become a central tenet of workers’ activism.  But where does it come from?  JSTOR Daily takes a step back from the debate, pointing out that workers’ acceptance of wage labor — a system that was still decried in the nineteenth century as “wage slavery” — is of relatively recent vintage.  Meanwhile, some commentators are of the view that minimum-wage hikes won’t be enough, in an age of automation, to secure the livelihoods of workers.  Writing for Jacobin, Mark Paul, William Darity Jr., and Darrick Hamilton argue instead for a federal job guarantee that would ensure employment for all.

Weekend News & Commentary — January 21-22, 2017

Only a few days into the Trump presidency, and speculation is rife: what will the new President do next?  In his first few hours in office, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at dismantling the Affordable Care Act — and he is expected to take similar executive action “on a nearly daily basis” for the next month to undo his predecessor’s legacy, The New York Times reports.  Undocumented workers will be anxious to see what President Trump does with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  His options include a gradual wind-down of the program or even immediate repeal (POLITICO provides a rundown of the potential scenarios).  But the President’s tough talk on immigration could have costs.  NPR warns that a crackdown on immigrant workers could leave the United States with a farm labor shortage.

In his inaugural address, President Trump painted a bleak picture of the American economy, evoking a landscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones.”  And while this view is not entirely consistent with reality — as The New York Times points out, the United States is now experiencing one of the longest periods of economic growth in its history — the American worker does face challenges ahead.  President Trump focused on the effects of foreign trade (“The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world,” he lamented), but the graver threat to American jobs might be the rise of automation — something that Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, has publicly supported.  Before exiting office, former President Obama warned that technological advancements like the “driverless Uber” could threaten Americans jobs in the near future.  Recode has more.

Speaking of Puzder, Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary is under attack from women’s groups, POLITICO reports.  The National Women’s Law Center and other groups are pressuring lawmakers in the weeks leading up to Puzder’s confirmation hearing, highlighting the nominee’s less-than-stellar record on women’s issues (including his infamous Carl’s Jr. ads and his work as an anti-abortion lawyer in Missouri).  Mounting criticism has sparked rumors that Puzder might back out of the nomination.

Weekend News & Commentary — January 7-8, 2017

The last jobs report for 2016 came out Friday, marking 75 months of consecutive job growth under the Obama administration.  December saw 156,000 new jobs and wage growth of 2.9%; unemployment held steady at 4.7% (up slightly from 4.6% in November).  The report is consistent with the Fed’s outlook for continued gains in the labor market in 2017, according to The Wall Street Journal.

With the last numbers in, The New York Times looks back at President Obama’s jobs record.  Job growth has not been as robust as under previous administrations, but Obama will be passing an economy near full employment — “something only a few modern presidents have accomplished.”  Meanwhile, NPR sums up Obama’s jobs legacy in just eight charts: under Obama, wages have started to climb, part-time workers who wanted more hours are getting them, and jobs have shifted from manufacturing to other sectors.  Will President-elect Trump be able to build on — or even sustain — the progress made during the Obama era?  Business Insider weighs in.

In other news, it’s official: Kentucky will now become a right-to-work state.  A bill that allows workers to opt out of union dues was approved by Kentucky Republicans Saturday morning, and is expected to be signed into law immediately.  State lawmakers also voted to repeal the prevailing wage law, dealing a serious blow to labor, The Huffington Post reports.  Kentucky will be the 27th state to adopt right-to-work.

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