Today’s News & Commentary — February 22, 2017

The influx of refugees into upstate New York has helped revitalize previously-suffering communities.  As the New York Times reports, “[t]he impact has been both low-budget and high-tech”: refugees have provided local businesses with inexpensive, willing labor; foreign-born students have enrolled — paying tuition and fees — at upstate schools; and street-level entrepreneurs have opened new shops.  Somewhat ironically, the cities’ struggles made them popular locations to settle refugees.  Because people left, housing prices dropped, and refugees came in and were willing “to put in the sweat equity that a lot of people weren’t anymore.”  That, in turn, “put properties back on the tax rolls.”

The Wall Street Journal also weighs in on the benefits that refugees bring to the economy. In addition to providing a key source of labor, many refugees “bring a resilience and level of expertise that makes them well-suited for learning on the job.”  According to a study from the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 28% of the refugees over the age of 25 who settle in the U.S. arrive with at least a bachelor’s degree.  The Wall Street Journal notes that skills from abroad may not always translate, and some employers have found that refugees need help with translation services, resume writing, American-style management techniques, and tips for navigating their new lives.  Despite potential training challenges, however, refugees can provide companies with  “a strong competitive advantage,” enabling them to better understand, for example, the needs of clients in key markets across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Chief Judge Patricia Elaine Campbell-Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims recently held that the government had violated the FLSA by failing to examine whether it was required to pay employees who continued to work during the partial government shutdown in 2013.  That those workers were later paid for their time was irrelevant. The Washington Post explains that the decision entitles workers to minimum wage pay for the hours they worked between October 1 and October 5, 2013.  Judge Campbell-Smith ordered the government and the plaintiffs to calculate amounts due and report back by April 7.

The New York Times editorial board posits that blaming robots for job loss, “while not as dangerous as protectionism and xenophobia, is also a distraction from real problems and real solutions.”  The Times points out that if automation were rapidly accelerating, labor productivity and capital investment would be increasing as well.  But the data shows the opposite: in the 2000s, labor productivity and capital investment decelerated.  The problem lies instead with “politicians, who have failed for decades to support policies that let workers share the wealth from technology-led growth.”

Today’s News & Commentary — February 20, 2017

A former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler Rigetti, penned a brave blog post yesterday detailing her repeated sexist treatment while working for the ride-hailing company. She writes about being harassed; how she and other women engineers were discriminated against; and how Uber’s management and human resources were not just unresponsive, but actively fought back against her. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report how, later yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that the company would be launching an investigation into the allegations.

In the Washington Post, Jared Bernstein reminds us why the Department of Labor is so important in today’s times. Specifically, Bernstein talks about the “fissured workplace,” the term coined by David Weil to describe an increasing distance between employers and workers due to franchising, subcontracting, and outsourcing. This reality led the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division—which was run by Weil during the Obama Administration—to be more proactive about monitoring FLSA violations. Furthermore, such a “fissuring” places renewed importance on divisions within the department like OSHA.

Acquisitions and sales are adding to worker tensions overseas. McDonald’s may sell its Hong Kong and China operations to a large franchisee, which the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions warns may affect worker pay. Currently most workers earn just above the current minimum wage in Hong Kong—roughly $4.20 per hour. In the UK, General Motors may sell their Vauxhall business to the French car company PSA, according to Reuters. The purchase is being influenced by “overcapacity at existing sites, Britain’s move to leave the European Union and pension liabilities,” prompting talks with trade unions.

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.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 16, 2017

Employees at Boeing’s South Carolina plant voted against unionization yesterday.  The company stated that 74 percent of employees who cast votes in the election voted against the union.  The International Association of Machinists’ lead organizer, Mike Evans, released a Facebook video statement saying that the workers had determined that “at this time they don’t need representation.”  The New York Times situated this loss for the machinists in the context of other union losses in the South.  Read more here.

As reported yesterday at OnLaborAndrew Puzder has withdrawn his nomination to be the next secretary of labor.  In the aftermath, commentators are wondering what this means and who will be nominated in Puzder’s place.  Benjamin Wallace-Wells at the New Yorker suggests that Andrew Puzder’s nomination made Donald Trump’s populism “less credible” by “[giving] Democratic populists not just villainy but a villain.”  At Slate, Jordan Weissmann cautions Democrats that their victory may not be much cause for celebration.  He states, “[i]n the end, Puzder’s nomination seems to have been sunk by the combined weight of his flaws, but it’s hard to shake the sense that immigration was the decisive issue.”  Weissmann also notes that the next nominee will likely be as bad as Puzder on labor rights and worse on immigration issues.  In particular, he points to Peter Kirsanow as a likely contender.  Yesterday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to discuss who would replace Puzder.

The Washington Post reports that immigrant workers in D.C. and around the country are planning “A Day without Immigrants” boycott to demonstrate the importance of immigrants in the American economy and protest President Donald Trump’s policies in this area.  Immigrants are being called on “not to attend work, open their businesses, spend money or even send their children to school.”  Trump’s recent immigration actions include an executive order released on January 25, 2017.  The order greatly increases the categories of immigrants deemed a deportation priority.  Following this executive order, there have been reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and arrests of more than 600 people across the country.  Yesterday, the New York Times highlighted the detention of Daniel Ramirez Medina, who received a work visa through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  Medina’s detention has inflamed fears among immigrants and immigrant rights activists because President Trump has given mixed signals regarding the future of the DACA program.  While Medina has yet to be released, other DACA recipients were released shortly after their initial arrests.  Read more here.

In international news, the South African government is exploring instituting a minimum wage. Last year, a governmental panel studying the issue suggested a minimum wage of approximately $1.50 an hour, which would result in earnings of roughly $250 a month.  While this sum seems small, it is close to the median income in South Africa, a country with an unemployment rate of 27 percent.  Proponents of the measure argue that the minimum wage is a much needed step to reduce income inequality while opponents fear that it will create job loss.  Read more here.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Those celebrating should be careful not to run affront of labor and employment law.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch notes that “when a gift is received unexpectedly from a co-worker on Valentine’s Day of all days, it raises the creep level to litigation status.”  Their special correspondent advises readers to keep their celebrations out of the workplace.

Donald Trump’s selection for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, continues to face difficulties with his nomination.  According to CNN, four Republican senators – “Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia” – are withholding support for Puzder pending his confirmation hearings.  Republican leaders will lobby the four senators, but if they cannot be swayed Trump may replace Puzder.

After a long campaign, a little over 3,000 Boeing workers in Charleston will finally vote tomorrow on unionization.  The New York Times reports that the election represents a key test of the strength of organized labor in the early days of Trump’s presidency.  Boeing was enticed to open the plant in South Carolina in large part because of reduced labor costs relative to their operations in the Seattle area, partly driven by the lack of unionization.

In other news, graduate students at colleges and universities continue to mount union organization campaigns.  Organizers and students continue to make their case at Duke University and the University of Maryland, for example.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 13, 2017

Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to President Trump, stated Sunday that the White House is weighing its options following last week’s decision by the Ninth Circuit to suspend Trump’s Executive Order halting immigration from seven predominately Muslim countries, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Miller told Fox News that these options included new executive action or seeking an emergency stay at the Supreme Court, and said “We are considering and pursuing all options.”  President Trump also stated Sunday that the administration would be ramping up immigration enforcement in several cities, tweeting “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise.  Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”

Politico reports that farmers in California, many of whom, just months ago, voted for President Trump in the hopes that he would relax regulation, are becoming increasingly worried that he will fulfill his promise to deport the illegal immigrants who make up a good deal of their workforce.  As an international example of immigration restrictions causing labor shortages, the New York Times reports that Japan, after successfully limiting illegal immigration into the country now faces severe labor shortages in its blue-collar industries.  In attempts to alleviate the shortage while maximizing restrictions on immigration, the Japanese government has devised government-sponsored training programs which allow foreign workers to enter the country as “interns” in low-wage industries.  However, critics say that the workers receive no more training than average manual laborers in the industry.  Additionally, the program has exposed these workers to employer abuses such as wage theft, particularly because the trainee visas require the worker to remain with the same employer while they are in the country.  Although almost 200,000 foreign workers are employed through the program, the labor shortage persists, with calls from some political actors to expand the program or establish a formal guest-worker system.

As an increasing number of states and counties pass paid sick-leave laws, JD Supra notes that the legislation has given rise to growing conflict over the laws’ enforcement.  For example, Cook County passed an ordinance in October which required employers to allow covered employees to accrue 40 hours of paid sick leave a year, but so far four Cook County suburbs have already opted out of the ordinance.  Nevertheless, such laws are becoming increasingly common; Connecticut was the first to pass paid sick-leave in 2011, with six states, thirty cities, three counties, and Washington D.C. following with their own paid sick-leave requirements since then.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 8, 2016

Yesterday, Republican lawmakers “proposed sweeping changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws” in the form of House Study Bill 84 and Senate File 213.  As the Des Moines Register explains, the new bills would limit mandatory negotiations for most public-sector union workers (public safety workers such as firefighters and police officers are exempted) to base wages only; negotiations over issues like health insurance and overtime would be prohibited.  The bills would also require unions to go through a certification process before each new contract negotiation.  Additional coverage is available at the New Republic, which also provides a brief historical overview of collective bargaining law in Iowa.

The New York Times reports that New York is attempting to revive the once-thriving, now-troubled garment industry.  City officials have increased efforts to create a new garment industry in Sunset Park, including a $115-million renovation of the city-owned Brooklyn Army Terminal, which will expand manufacturing space by 500,000 feet.  They have also partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America in order to assist companies with modernizing their manufacturing processes and workplaces.

Can Andy Puzder survive?  That’s the question Politico asks, noting that Puzder has faced allegations of beating his wife, began his career working for “one of the most notorious mob lawyers in the country,” and just admitted that he employed an undocumented immigrant as his house cleaner and didn’t pay taxes on her employment.  Despite these scandals, however, Puzder is “somehow . . . still standing.”

In other news, the New York Times observes that the appeals panel that heard oral argument yesterday in State of Washington v. Donald Trump “appear[ed] skeptical of Trump’s travel ban.”  The Times also notes that nearly 130 companies, most of them from the tech industry, filed an amicus brief in support of Washington State.