News & Commentary

February 19, 2023

Will Ebeler

Will Ebeler is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary, the Department of Labor issues child labor fines to one of the country’s largest food sanitation providers, a federal court orders Starbucks to stop firing union organizers, tech layoffs affect immigrant workers, and graduate students at the University of Southern California vote to unionize.

As Fred reported in November, last year the Department of Labor found that Packers Sanitation Services Inc., a food sanitation services provider, had illegally employed at least 30 children in meatpacking plants across eight states. The Department announced Friday that the true number was over 100 and that PSSI had paid a $1.5 million fine for hiring children to clean dangerous power equipment using hazardous chemicals. The affected children worked at thirteen facilities, including plants run by Tyson Foods, JBS Foods, and Cargill—three of the country’s largest meat distributors. As the Washington Post reports, child labor violations have been on the rise, and the number of children found to be illegally employed in hazardous occupations has almost doubled since 2015.

A federal court in Michigan issued a nationwide injunction barring Starbucks from firing its employees for union organizing. The National Labor Relations Board had sought the injunction in the case of Hannah Whitbeck, a shift supervisor and union organizer who was fired last April. An administrative law judge ruled in October that Starbucks had illegally fired Ms. Whitbeck for her union activity, a decision that Starbucks is currently appealing to the Board. Starbucks temporarily reinstated her in January, and the company had argued that reinstating Ms. Whitbeck eliminated the basis for the injunction. The court, in deciding the injunction was appropriate, noted that the reinstatement offer was made only weeks ago and concluded that without the order, Ms. Whitbeck would still be vulnerable to retaliation. The NLRB is currently prosecuting the firing of roughly 50 other Starbucks employees and is likely to bring more cases as it continues its investigation. Workers United, the union organizing Starbucks locations, has accused the company of retaliating against over 200 organizers. Starbucks plans to appeal the decision.

Tech companies have laid off more than 200,000 employees since the start of 2022. While layoffs can be stressful for any worker, a Los Angeles Times article this morning highlights the unique challenges faced by immigrants in the country on H-1B work visas. The Times explains that these workers have 60 days from their layoff to find a new employer willing to sponsor them, or be forced to leave the country. Sakshi Nanda, a former employee at a health technology company, described every day as “a race against time.” Many of these employees have been in the United States for years as they wait to become permanent residents and have had children, purchased homes, or otherwise integrated into their communities. The number of workers experiencing this difficulty is unclear but likely significant: 85,000 H-1B visas are granted annually and as many as 70% of Silicon Valley tech workers were born outside the US.

Finally, graduate student workers at the University of Southern California have voted to unionize by a margin of 1,599-to-122. The Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee-United Auto Workers will represent 3,000 Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Assistant Lecturers at USC. This vote is the latest in a string of unionizing efforts at universities across the country; as Greg reported two weeks ago, academic workers have voted to unionize at several institutions in the past several months.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.