Today’s News & Commentary — May 19, 2017

Unless AT&T officials come to a labor agreement with AT&T workers by 3PM EST today, thousands of workers across 36 states and DC will walk off the job in a three-day strike.  This would be the first strike ever for AT&T Mobility workers.  The labor dispute covers 40,000 workers across the country.  One particular sticking point in the dispute is AT&T’s offshoring of jobs to foreign contractors.  AT&T workers are represented by Communications Workers of America (CWA), which also represents Verizon workers, nearly 40,000 of whom went on strike one year ago.

An anonymous senior budget official leaked that President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would require states to provide six weeks of paid leave to both mothers and fathers.  The federal government would not subsidize the program; instead, states would be entirely responsible for identifying and implementing the required cuts and taxes to cover its costs.  The payments would come through pre-existing unemployment insurance programs.

Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta spoke at a meeting of G20 Labor and Employment ministers concerning “women succeeding in a 21st century economy.”  Speaking on employment policies that could help women succeed in their workplaces, Secretary Acosta touted providing more apprenticeships outside of the construction trades, where apprenticeships were traditionally and still are quite common.  In particular, Acosta advocated for more apprenticeships in the tech sector to address the perceived skills gap and labor shortage within tech-related fields.

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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A Blueprint for Progressive Federalism: Washington State’s Portable Benefits Bill

The gig economy has been coming under a lot of fire lately.  Last month, The New Yorker skewered Lyft and other businesses for their grueling work culture, running the headline: “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.”  It pointed to the cautionary tale of Mary, a Lyft driver who — nine months into her pregnancy — started experiencing contractions behind the wheel and still decided to pick up passengers on her way to the hospital, right before she gave birth.  Lyft thought Mary’s story was “exciting.”  Others found it disturbing — especially because Lyft provides neither maternity leave nor health insurance.

This kind of story is not unique to Lyft.  Most employers in the gig economy classify their workers as independent contractors, not employees, thus excluding them from basic protections such as minimum wages and overtime pay.  And as the gig economy grows, this means that as much as 40% of the American workforce could lack an adequate social safety net.  In response, some local governments are taking action, experimenting with new benefit schemes for gig workers.  Many of these experiments are promising.  But cities and states should be careful, when creating new protections, not to displace the existing protections that workers are already entitled to.  To avoid this risk of “regressive federalism,” local governments should legislate against the background of employment law, building on it rather than bargaining it away.

This month, legislators in Washington state proposed a bill that establishes a portable benefits system for gig workers.  The bill offers a useful blueprint for progressive federalism, showing how local governments can help update the social safety net for the gig economy.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 17, 2017

At the New York Times, Gary Rivlin discusses the question of free college, and suggests that the first two years of college should be free for anyone attending a public school (i.e. community college or the first two years of a four-year state school).  The idea comes from Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who first laid out her theory in a 2014 paper co-written with Professor Nancy Kendall.  In it, Goldrick-Rab and Kendall proposed the following: “If you complete a high-school degree, you can obtain a 13th and 14th year of education for free in exchange for a modest amount of work while attending school.” The authors pinpointed large sums of federal money, including billions of dollars in Pell grants that have ended up going to for-profit colleges, that could be used to fund their plan.  The proposal is not without its critics, and as Rivlin puts it, “Two years of free college is not a panacea.” However, it “would give more people hope, at least, in an economy that now pretty much requires skills well beyond the ones taught in high school.”

WNYC reports that Rodney Frelinghuysen, the most powerful congressman in New Jersey, wrote a fundraising letter to a board member of a local bank in which he warned the board member about the political activities of one of the bank’s employees. The letter asked Frelinghuysen’s supporters to donate to his next election because he is under attack, and included a handwritten asterisk positing that “One of the ringleaders [of the groups attacking Frelinghuysen] works in your bank!”  Attached to the letter was also a news article quoting the employee, Saily Avelenda, who was later confronted by her boss with both the letter and the article.  According to Avelenda, “I had to write a statement to my CEO, and at my level as an assistant general counsel and a senior vice president, at this employer it was not something that I expected.”  Coverage is also available at the Washington PostNPRand Slate.

Moreover, as a result of Frelinghuysen’s actions, the Campaign for Accountability has filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics.  According to The Hill, the Campaign for Accountability “noted that that the House Ethics Committee has warned lawmakers that communicating with private businesses could be construed as ‘pressure to take action in order to please the Member.’ ”

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 16, 2017

Noncompete agreements — once limited to senior executives — are now a widespread practice, locking in almost one fifth of American workers.  This includes low-wage workers at fast-food chains and factories.  A recent report from The New York Times revealed how such agreements can harm workers, preventing them from finding new jobs or embroiling them in costly legal battles.  This morning, the Editorial Board called for an end to “such morally dubious practices.”  It pointed to California  — where state law makes noncompete agreements generally unenforceable — as one potential blueprint for reform.

Waymo has scored a big win in its lawsuit against Uber.  Yesterday, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction, barring one of Uber’s star engineers — who is accused of stealing trade secrets — from working on its self-driving car program for the duration of the litigation.  Wired has more.

Ford is cutting jobs, Reuters reports.  The auto manufacturer plans to shrink its salaried workforce in North America and Asia by as much as 10%, in a move that could attract the ire of the Trump administration.  President Trump has promised to expand jobs in the auto industry — earlier this year, he took credit for Ford’s decision not to shift its manufacturing plants to Mexico — but this most recent announcement (which will likely affect thousands of American workers) is a serious setback.

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Do Workers Realize How Much Collective Bargaining Scares Employers?

In February, teaching fellows in eight departments at Yale University voted in favor of union representation.  Rather than bargain with the teaching fellows’ union, Yale has insisted upon first exhausting its appeals, apparently hoping that Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-named appointees to the National Labor Relations Board will come to its rescue.  In the meantime, some of the teaching fellows have embarked upon a hunger strike, generating a great deal of publicity, and inflaming tensions on campus as right-wing student groups have taken to taunting the hunger strikers.

At the same time that this controversy has been brewing at Yale, employer trade associations have been aggressively lobbying Congress to do something to overturn the NLRB’s decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, which makes it easier for workers to bargain with lead firms that exercise power over their terms and conditions of employment.

When I think about the events at Yale and the employer community’s reaction to Browning-Ferris, I find it reassuring that collective bargaining still seems to strike so much fear into the hearts of employers.  And yet, workers don’t seem to realize this.  Instead, the share of the economic pie that workers get continues to shrink, while the percentage of workers in unions is also declining.  And, instead of joining together with their co-workers to bargain collectively, some workers have turned to a billionaire demagogue who tells them they should let him be their voice since he alone can solve their problems.

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Guest Post: Curtis Ellis Considered to Lead the Bureau of International Labor Affairs

Bloomberg/BNA’s Ben Penn is reporting that the White House is considering appointing Curtis Ellis to lead the Bureau of International Labor Affairs at the Department of Labor.  Ellis, a Steve Bannon associate, has written that he believes progressives “literally” want the death of white working people and that the Obama Administration sought to “liquidate” American workers through TPP.  He also called job training for unemployed workers “re-education and extermination.”  As the head of ILAB, Ellis would be responsible for representing the Department of Labor in international forums.  Read Penn’s full report here.