Workers Need a Bill of Rights

Except for about a month in the summer of 2009 when the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, for the entire twenty-first century any proposal to substantially increase workers’ rights at the national level has had to be prefaced by the comment that, “of course, this is not politically feasible now.”  But rather than just spending the next four years fending off misguided Republican legislation, I think it’s time to step back and focus on principles that should guide workplace legislation.  Toward that end, here are some thoughts on a potential workplace bill of rights.

There might be some other rights that should be included in this list, and maybe folks have ideas about better ways to phrase the various rights.  But, I think it would be helpful for the labor movement, worker advocates, and the Democratic party to start talking about this bill of rights in order to refocus our discussion about jobs.  The measure of a good job, whether it is in manufacturing or the service sector, should be whether it provides these rights to workers.  In addition, we should be thinking about what changes we need to see in our laws to ensure that all workers enjoy these basic rights on the job.  Some of these issues can be addressed at the state level, although of  course, that would mean that these rights would exist in only a handful of states.  Here’s my proposed worker bill of rights – let the debate begin.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 23, 2017

Companies in Utah are struggling to find workers to fill job openings thereby slowing economic growth. While companies are eager to hire more workers to meet increased demand, Utah’s unemployment rate of 3.1% means there are relatively few workers looking for jobs. Companies have begun raising wages to attract more workers; however, automation may also increase as a means to substitute for labor.

Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy is trying to balance the budget with budget cuts and public-sector layoffs; however, the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 is airing an ad opposing this. The Union’s ad argues that rather than cutting services to the disabled or laying-off middle class workers, the Governor should consider higher taxes on the wealthy.

The Economic Policy Institute released a report finding that annually 2.4 million U.S. workers lose $8 billion because of minimum wage violations. Women, people of color, and youth are the most likely to report being paid less than the minimum wage. Although the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigates such violations, the report’s authors note that it has limited staff and is thus unable to fully examine all minimum wage violations.

Michelle Russell with BCG and Lori Lepler with BRANDspeak have a piece in the Harvard Business Review explaining the importance of high-quality apprenticeship programs. They find that such programs led to a 22-percentage-point rise in promotions of female workers, a 5-percentage-point decline in attrition of female workers, and a 20-percentage point-rise in job satisfaction for female employees.



Alito on Work-Life Balance

In an interview published last week in Seminarian Casual, Justice Alito offered some important remarks about work-life balance.  Asked how he has managed to balance “work and family life,” Alito answered:

I have been fortunate to have jobs that allowed me to control my work schedule to a very great degree.  As an appellate judge, I have had to work very long hours, but I have largely been able to choose when and where I have done my work.  I think I attended just about every one of my kids’ athletic events, concerts, and school programs.  That often meant saving my work for late at night and weekends, but I was able to do that.  Very few people today have this luxury, and it is hard for busy people to balance work and family life.  Our society needs to do a better job of making this possible.

As OnLabor readers will be aware, unions play a critical role in making possible the kind of life that Alito rightly celebrates.  Evidence for this union effect is available herehere, here, here and here.  Alito himself has the capacity to enable unions to play this role, and thus to ensure that our society does a better job allowing more of us to balance work and family life.

(Thanks to Andrew Strom for calling this to our attention.)

Service Animals and Employee Mental Health

Mental health conditions are a growing concern for a number of veterans.   According to the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research, about 20% of veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a mental health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.  Leon Laferriere is one such veteran.  His PTSD and anxiety qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as they are mental impairments that substantially limit major life activities, including his ability to sleep.  Laferriere’s psychiatrist prescribed him a support animal that is trained to help him control his anxiety and wake him up from PTSD induced nightmares.  In 2015, Laferriere applied to work as a freight driver for CRST International, one of the country’s largest transportation companies.   Aware of their “no pet” policy, he hoped the company would be willing to accommodate the use of his service dog.  The company denied Laferriere’s request, and earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit, alleging Laferriere was discriminated against because of his disability and unfairly denied a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the ADA.

Laferriere’s discrimination claims are not unique.  According to a Bloomberg BNA analysis of EEOC statistics, claims alleging bias against people with mental health conditions grew to their highest level in 2016, making up 23.3% of all disability related charges filed by the agency, a 40% increase since 2006.  One important way that employers can contribute to the fight against mental health bias in the workplace is by destigmatizing mental illness.  Welcoming service animals for employees suffering from a mental illness can be a powerful way for employers to do so.

ADA: Service Animals vs. Therapy Animals

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  Employees that meet this requirement may, under Title I, request an accommodation—such as the use of a service animal at work—from their employer.  Although employers are not automatically required to allow service animals in the workplace, they must consider the reasonable accommodation request and must allow the use of a service animal unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 22, 2017

Over the weekend, over 35,000 AT&T workers in 36 states and DC went on strike in protest of AT&T’s failure to provide a satisfactory labor agreement.  Major picket lines formed in New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Workers have alleged that AT&T has cut sick leave and disability benefits, and outsourced many jobs.  Workers return back to work today.

Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron will meet tomorrow with union leaders to discuss labor reform.  President Macron made liberalizing labor and employment regulations a large part of his election platform, including promising to swiftly use executive decrees to unilaterally change labor laws.  Among his proposed changes include making labor negotiations occur on a company-wide rather than industry-wide level.  French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe, appointed by Macron last week, has stated that his government would “go fast” to implement the changes Macron proposes.

The New York Times has published an article on the mixed relationship between Pittsburgh city officials and Uber that’s developed ever since Pittsburgh opened its gates to Uber to make its streets the first testing center for driverless cars.  Mayor Bill Peduto was criticized in the Democratic primary by competitors for being insufficiently demanding of Uber, not getting any commitments from the company to benefit the city in writing.  Peduto previously had celebrated his good relationship with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick; the two personally communicated via text.  But the relationship has gotten strained, with Mayor Peduto alleging that Uber has backtracked on a promise to make its driverless cars free to the Pittsburgh public.  For its part, Uber claims that it has created 675 jobs in the greater Pittsburgh area.

In another article on labor-adjacent issues published yesterday, the New York Times reports on the labor shortage in Utah, where unemployment rates are among the lowest in the country.  Companies are having trouble fulfilling customer demand with the labor shortage, despite offering relatively high wages.  The labor shortage has also stunted Utah’s efforts to mimic Silicon Valley in being a hub for technology.  Many companies have hired out-of-state workers and persuaded them to relocate to Utah to make up for the deficit.

Weekend News & Commentary — May 20-21, 2017

Updating our coverage yesterday, more than 35,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) are striking this weekend after the union and AT&T failed to agree to a new long-term contact by the union’s Friday afternoon deadline.  The walkout forced stores across the country to close, though AT&T insisted that most of its locations were still open.

Laurie Stalnaker with the Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties has an op-ed in the Press-Enterprise discussing the recent efforts of the AFL-CIO to protect undocumented immigrants, and issuing a call for additional solidarity among workers across the political spectrum.

Dueling rallies in Italy on Saturday exposed sharp political divisions on worker and migrant issues as the country turns toward parliamentary elections due to occur at the beginning of 2018.  In Umbria, thousands of supporters of the populist 5-Star Movement marched in support of a guaranteed minimum income for Italian citizens, while in Milan, similar numbers demonstrated against racism and intolerance.  The government’s response to the tens of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean fleeing violence or searching for economic opportunities has boosted 5-Stars’ national profile as it seeks to appeal to poorer Italian voters by melding nationalistic, anti-immigrant messages with an anti-poverty and income inequality platform.

The Canadian government has banned officials from seeking information from social media accounts of applicants for disability benefits, unemployment benefits, and other social programs after reports surfaced that employees were using publicly available information to check details provided in applications.  Senior officials stated that they feared such searches might violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Privacy Act.


Can job applicants bring disparate impact claims under the ADEA?

Americans are living and working longer than in previous generations.  Over the last ten years, the over 45-year-old work force has grown dramatically, from 31.7% of the country’s workforce in 1996 to 39% in 2006 and 44.3% last year.  The percentage is expected to grow even larger, as the number of American workers over the age of 65 is projected to rise sharply.

At the same time, a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco seems to confirm previous studies that show that older workers in general face significant discrimination in hiring, with older female workers facing even more age discrimination than their male counterparts.  Discrimination against older employees may stem from several misinformed worries employers have about hiring older employees, including an assumed lack of flexibility or unwillingness to embrace change, likelihood of leaving employment, and the prospect of longer absences due to sickness.

Older workers may especially face discrimination applying for or working in technology companies.  From 2008 to 2015, employees or applicants at Silicon Valley’s 150 largest tech companies filed 226 complaints of age discrimination, 28% more than racial bias complaints filed against those companies and 9% more than complaints based on gender bias.  While recruiting, tech companies often cloak their prejudice in a desire select employees that can present a youthful, progressive image to customers and investors and often worry that older workers may not be willing to work long hours or stay up-to-date with technical skills.  Whether through deliberate discrimination or facially neutral recruiting tactics (such as hiring only recent graduates), these companies have established a younger workforce than other companies; whereas the median age for an American worker is 42, the median age at companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook are 31, 30, and 29 respectively.

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