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 21, 2017

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61, an Iowa union local, filed suit against the state on Monday, reports the Washington Post. The union alleges that a new law which prohibits public sector unions from negotiating issues such as health insurance and supplemental pay is unconstitutional.

Austria has approved new rules to encourage companies to give hiring priority to domestic workers for new jobs, according to the New York Times. The new rules will halve non-wage labor costs for three years for companies which create new jobs and hire people in Austria changing jobs or registered as unemployed. Graduates of an Austrian educational institution and other highly-skilled foreign workers may also qualify for the reduction. The plan may run into opposition from Brussels, as it seems to run against the European Union’s principle of free movement of people.

The Chicago Bears and the NFL Players’ Association are gearing up for an unlikely battle in the Illinois Legislature, reports the Associated Press. The two are on opposite sides of the question of how long injured professional athletes should be allowed to earn workers compensation benefits. Currently, injured players can earn benefits until the age of 67, like all other workers; the Bears want payments to end at the age of 35 or five years after the player suffered injury.

Abortion Restrictions as Forced Labor in the Age of Trump

The new administration has made no secret of its intent to dismantle remaining protections for reproductive rights.  Despite the fact that 79 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, President Trump and Vice President Pence have both made statements indicating their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is likely to be hostile to reproductive rights.  The administration has also made moves to defund Planned Parenthood via the global gag rule, entrench the Hyde amendment, and repeal the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.  A drastic anti-choice bill was introduced in Congress that would ban abortion after six weeks, a point at which many people do not even know they are pregnant.

These attempts to constrict reproductive choice are not only an affront to the basic principles of liberty and privacy that underlie this country’s abortion jurisprudence, but also a threat to the labor rights of anyone capable of becoming pregnant.  Should the new administration’s assault on reproductive rights come to fruition, many of those capable of becoming pregnant will be coerced into pregnancy and parenthood—a kind of labor they did not choose.  These burdens will be placed most severely on low-income women and women of color who cannot afford to access reproductive services.  Cuts to funding and services will further negatively impact trans men, who already face ignorance and discrimination when trying to access reproductive healthcare.

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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.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 17, 2017

President Trump has announced his new nominee for Labor Secretary and it is Alexander Acosta.  According to the Washington Post Acosta currently serves as Dean of Florida International University, and formerly served as Supreme Court Justice Alito’s law clerk, when Alito sat on the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  Acosta previously held the role of assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President George W. Bush and served for four years as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.  The Guardian reports that in his term at the Justice Department Acosta “defended the rights of Muslim Americans, once asking the ….department to intervene on behalf of an Oklahoma teen who had been told to remove her headscarf at school.”  While at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Acosta oversaw a number of high profile cases including the prosecution and controversial plea deal made with hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein who was accused of sexually abusing underage girls.

Acosta’s labor experience includes some years of private practice at Kirkland and Ellis and one year on the National Labor Relations Board, where he took part in over 125 cases.  According to Politico, a Democratic NLRB member –Wilma Liebman– who worked with Acosta said “I would say he’s very smart and he’s an independent thinker,” and that “while unions may not ‘be thrilled with every decision he’ll make…they’ll get a good hearing.’”  President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka tweeted a statement that read in part, “Working people changed the game on this nomination. Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration.”  Notably, if confirmed, Acosta would be the first Latinx member of Trump’s cabinet.

In other news, Business Insider reports that yesterday’s “A Day Without Immigrants” protest led to multiple McDonald’s around the country closing, or reducing services for the day. The Day was organized to protest President Trump’s hostility toward immigrant communities, and highlight the extent to which people in the United States rely on labor provided by people who are immigrants.  Some took part by staying home from school or refraining from making purchases, and the Davis Museum at Wellesley College used black cloth to cover all pieces of art that were created or donated by immigrants. “A Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations were held in big cities across the country including Chicago, Austin, New York City, Charlotte and Washington, D.C. On March 8, the organizers of the Women’s March are calling for a similar demonstration, “A Day Without a Woman.”

And a group of over 50 businesses and trade organizations, including the National Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association, sent a letter to House Education and Workforce Committee this week asking Congress to pass legislation that would override the NLRB’s joint employer standard, which defines those who have even “indirect” and “potential” control over workers’ conditions as joint employers. The group is advocating for a return to the NLRB’s “direct control” standard.

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.

Puzder to Withdraw from Nomination for Secretary of Labor

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, is expected to withdraw from consideration before his confirmation hearing tomorrow.  With four firm Republican votes against him, with as many as twelve possible, top Republican Senators urged the White House to withdraw Puzder’s nomination. Puzder’s spokesperson has not yet released a statement. Read more from Reuters here.