Today’s News and Commentary — March 28, 2017

President Trump repealed a rule yesterday requiring federal contractors to disclose labor law violations.  Per The Hill, the “blacklisting rule” implemented by President Obama was intended “to prevent the government from contracting with businesses responsible for wage theft or workplace safety violations at any point within the last three years.”  Business groups supported the rule’s repeal, while other commentators noted the repeal could contradict Trump’s stated promises to working-class voters of improving job prospects and working conditions.

Another action by President Trump is frustrating efforts by employers to find seasonal workers.  NPR reports that “a cap will soon kick in on the number of short-term work visas provided under the H-2B program, which brings in low-skilled labor for nonagricultural jobs that U.S. employers say they can’t fill closer to home.”  The cap particularly disadvantages employers in the Northern United States, where the demand for seasonal workers begins later in the year.  A bipartisan group of senators has called for an audit of the HB-2 program to ensure the maximum number of visas are awarded, while progressives have noted problems with the program.  For his part, President Trump has espoused opposition to hiring foreign workers but has hired dozens of foreign workers under the HB-2 program at his hotels and resorts.

Universities continue to oppose efforts by graduate students to unionize.  Most recently, The Cornell Daily Sun notes a series of questionable anti-union communications by Dean Barabara Knuth of the Cornell Graduate School through an online forum.  In particular, “the Ask a Dean forum has been a breeding ground for conflict.  Administrators claim they are addressing legitimate concerns from students — who are always anonymous — while union organizers claim that it is the University’s method of circumventing the agreement reached between the two sides in May that prevents professors or administrators from trying to persuade graduates to vote ‘no.'”

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Today’s News and Commentary — February 28, 2017

The fate of several of President Obama’s signature labor and employment policies could soon hang in the balance.  The Hill reports that “President Trump is facing pressure to roll back union-friendly policy changes made by the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In particular, the Chamber urged Trump to target “policies that hold companies accountable for labor violations committed by their partners, speed up union elections, and allow small groups of workers to organize multiple unions inside a single company.”  Meanwhile, a Washington Post columnist notes that the Republican Congress is targeting President Obama’s “Fair Pay and Safe Workforces” executive order aimed at ensuring the compliance of federal government contractors with labor laws.

As President Trump acts, Americans work confidently while those without or about to lose work struggle.  USA Today highlights data from payroll company ADP which shows that American workers are increasingly “shifting into new sectors, such as a marketing manager who leaves retail for finance.”  Notably, “in eight of the 10 major industries tracked by ADP, the share of job-switchers who came from a different industry increased from late 2014 to late 2016 while the share swapping jobs within the same industry fell.  That’s up from seven of 10 sectors that met that criteria in the third quarter.”  ADP attributes such shifts to a tight labor market and worker confidence.  Many workers are, of course, struggling.  USA Today also features the story of John Feltner, an Indiana machinist whose union job is being outsourced to Mexico.  Feltner “is left to wonder how Middle America will endure in the age of offshoring moves such as the one [his employer] is executing.”

The reports of sexual harassment of female engineers at Uber continue to make headlines.  According to The New York Times, “the company dismissed the head of its engineering efforts for failing to disclose a sexual harassment claim from his previous job.”  If Americans are surprised by the allegations, many female engineers are not.  The CBC interviewed women in the tech world who note the commonality of harassment and misogyny in the industry.

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Guest Post: An Obama Executive Order That Trump Should Love

Sharon Block served in the Obama Administration as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor.  In February, she will become the Executive Director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program.  Chris Lu served in the Obama administration as the Deputy Secretary of Labor, and is now a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center.  This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

As former political appointees in the Obama administration’s Labor Department, we can think of few areas where we are in agreement with Donald Trump.  In fact, we have fundamental differences with him about how to build an economy that works for everyone.

Yet, we share his belief that government needs to do more to lift up American workers.  If the new president is interested in delivering on his promise of creating jobs and growing wages for workers, there’s an executive order already in place that he should support.

Every year, the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on procurement contracts.  By some estimates, one quarter of all American workers are employed by a federal contractor — that’s millions of families whose livelihoods are connected to the federal procurement system.

In 2014, Barack Obama signed an executive order called “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” that was premised on two fundamental principles: doing business with the federal government is a privilege, not a right; and taxpayer money should only go to companies that are abiding by the laws that protect American workers.  Under the Obama executive order, the federal government would give contracts only to companies that pay their workers the wages they’ve earned, protect the health and safety of employees, and prohibit discriminatory practices.

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Today’s News & Commentary — August 15, 2016

At the New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum and Michael D. Shear weigh in on President Obama’s “embrace” of executive power.  As they describe, “President Obama has sought to reshape the nation with a sweeping assertion of executive authority,” and “[a]n army of lawyers working under Mr. Obama’s authority has sought to restructure the nation’s health care and financial industries, limit pollution, bolster workplace protections and extend equal rights to minorities.”  President Obama’s actions specifically targeting the workplace include raising the minimum wage for several hundred thousand federal contract workers; requiring contractors to let their workers take paid sick days; banning discrimination against LGBT workers; and increasing workplace protections for all workers at businesses holding federal contracts.  As Joseph Geevarghese, director of Good Jobs Nation, put it, “What the president was ultimately doing was holding up the United States government as a model employer.”

The Washington Post reports that the Department of Labor is trying to incentivize states to create their own paid family leave programs.  Last week, DOL announced that it will grant $1.1 million to six states and municipalities — Denver; Franklin, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; and Hawaii, Indiana and Pennsylvania — to research how much it would cost to open public aid to its residents.  As it currently stands, the U.S. guarantees only 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, and only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — guarantee paid family leave for all workers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, car companies once flocked to Mexico due to its abundant supply of cheap labor.  Now, however, demand has outstripped supply.  In order to attract and retain workers, auto makers are raising wages, offering retention and retraining programs, and providing bonuses for employees who agree to stay.  Others, in an effort to avoid raising wages, have offered “perks” like English classes, use of soccer fields, and referral bonuses.  Still, wages — and working conditions — remain a source of contention: this summer witnessed workers’ rallies for higher pay and better working conditions.

Today’s News & Commentary — May 25, 2016

Don’t blame Joe Camel for the nicotine poisoning of Indonesian Children. Human Rights Watch released a report that thousands of children working in Indonesia’s tobacco industry are exposed to nicotine and pesticides, usually without protective clothing, and suffer from nausea, headaches and dizziness. Child laborers rarely receive health education or go to health clinics when they become ill, and organizations do not know what the long-term effects will be. According to the New York Times, most Indonesian tobacco is sold on the open market, making it difficult to trace the supply chain back to one of the country’s 500,000 family-run tobacco farms.

Are unions and environmentalists friends or foes? Zoe Carpenter at the Nation contends the alliance is stronger than ever, despite conflicts on the surface. Last week, the New York Times published letters to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka from the leaders of seven construction unions, who were “enraged” that philanthropist Tom Steyer was participating in the labor-led Super PAC to defeat Donald Trump. The unions view Steyer’s environmental activism—especially his campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline—as antithetical to the partnerships between the building trades and the American Petroleum Institute. Despite the internal labor battles, Carpenter sees the AFL-CIO’s intentions to partner with Steyer as a sign that labor and climate change activists are closing the historical gulf between them.

In California, labor and environmental activists have a more harmonious relationship—uniting against Governor Brown. The Los Angeles Times reports that a coalition opposes the governor’s plan to increase affordable housing projects because it allows developers to sidestep local regulations and state environmental standards. Affordable housing advocates want to bypass the environmental review process to avoid delays in construction at a time when the state faces a dearth of affordable housing. But the State Building and Construction Trades Council sees the state’s environmental rules as an important mechanism to protect both natural resources and well-paying jobs for workers.

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Today’s News & Commentary — April 16, 2015

Yesterday, thousands of employees in an estimated 200 cities rallied for a $15 minimum wage, Politico reports. The Los Angeles Times reports that nearly 1,000 demonstrators rallied in Los Angeles. The Chicago Tribune reports that many adjunct professors participated in rallies in Chicago. As we’ve covered previously, adjunct professors often earn poverty-level wages, and have joined to the Fight for $15 movement to advocate for a minimum of $15,000 per course that they teach.

The New York Times editorial board notes that the protests may force presidential candidates to take strong positions on whether they support a $15 minimum wage. They argue that “real leadership” requires not just supporting a higher minimum wage, but also “supporting the protesters’ parallel demand for the right to organize without retaliation” which would make it easier for collectively bargain with service-sector employers.

The Washington Post reports that Federal contractors and the Federal Government itself routinely violate the Service Contract Act, which sets minimum wage and benefit requirements for federal contracts. The Service Contract Act is a federal law governing federal contracts that it intentionally sets the required wages and benefits for contractors above the federally-mandated minimum wage. It, along with several similar bills, were designed to “establish the federal government as a ‘model employer’ to be emulated by the private sector.” However, due to complicated eligibility rules, it’s hard to for the Department of Labor to ensure that federal contractors comply.

Huffington Post and Pew’s Stateline report that ten states, in conjunction with the federal government, are launching pilot programs to help long-term unemployed worker secure new jobs. The pilot programs are targeted toward workers who are long-term unemployed and who have been participating in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) program for significant period. The programs implement new job training targeted at the specific difficulties that these populations might have in gaining new skills and obtaining new jobs. Federal and state officials hope that these programs may become national models.


Weekend News & Commentary — April 11-12

Writing in The Washington Post, Lydia DePillis explains difficulties the federal government has had complying with minimum wage laws for federal contractors.  Responding to the recent complaint brought by contractors at the National Zoo, covered by OnLabor, DePillis explains that the Service Contract Act and similar laws are difficult to administer because coverage is fluid and work-dependent and worker complaints have to be brought by the Department of Labor.  She notes that the Obama administration has undertaken significant efforts to boost enforcement, but many advocates feel the efforts are inadequate so long as the Department of Labor is overburdened and call for a version of “high road contracting”.

Bloomberg reports that, despite the possibility of gay marriage being legalized nationwide, anti-discrimination laws in many states do not protect gays like they do women and racial minorities.  While public opinion disfavors discrimination and there has been backlash to new proposals in Indiana and Arkansas that were seen to protect the right to discriminate, there is still widespread misinformation regarding the legal right to fire based on sexual orientation and the pace of remedial legislation has been slower than that extending marriage.

According to The Boston Globe, a bill has been introduced to the Massachusetts State Senate that would “expand benefits for permanent disfigurement under the Worker’s Compensation Act,” eliminating existing requirements that the scarring be to the face, neck or hands and increasing compensation.  Massachusetts eliminated coverage for disfigurement other than that to the face, neck or hands in 1991.  The legislation has no timetable but is widely supported.

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