Weekend News & Commentary—April 15-16, 2017

Yesterday, in dozens of cities across the U.S., tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand that Trump release his tax returns.  Reuters explains that organizers of the “Tax March” wanted to draw attention to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.  The marches were planned for April 15 because it is the traditional filing deadline for U.S. federal tax returns (this year the filing date was pushed back two days).

Politico reports that the “clock is ticking” for expanding the number of available H-2B visas.  The H-2B visa program permits business to hire temporary, non-agricultural foreign workers, with a cap of 66,000 visas per year.  The 2015 spending bill exempted returning workers from the cap, and business leaders are pushing for Congress to do the same in 2017.  Although a House appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2017 already includes the exemption, business leaders are lobbying the Senate to do the same by April 28, the date by which Congress needs to pass a spending bill to keep the government functioning.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts Leo T. Sorokin presided over a two-hour hearing regarding two City Hall aides charged with extortion for “allegedly threatening to withhold permits for the Boston Calling festival in September 2014 unless organizers hired union workers.”  According to the Boston Globe, a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office asserted that the aides thought they were advancing Mayor Walsh’s agenda.  Attorneys for the defense countered that the aides acted as city workers seeking jobs for constituents, that they had the right to negotiate the use of City Hall Plaza, and that the prosecutors “have failed to show that the defendants received anything of value for allegedly urging the labor union jobs.”  As Attorney Thomas Kiley argued, “A violation of the National Labor Relations Act is not the same as [extortion].”

The DOL is Best Hope for Senate Cafeteria Workers

In late 2015, Senate cafeteria workers made headlines when they organized to demand that Restaurant Associates, the exclusive caterer at the U.S. Senate, pay a living wage (covered here and here in our News and Commentary).  The workers’ efforts included strikes and walkouts and received high-profile, bipartisan supportWashington Post columnist Catherine Rampell posited: “This story was supposed to have a happy ending.”  But that happy ending has proven elusive.  Despite securing higher wages in a new contract, the workers are being reclassified into lower pay grades and seeing their raises shrink.  Now that media attention has dwindled, the Department of Labor (DOL) represents the workers’ most immediate hope for vindication.

Background: Privatization of the Senate Cafeteria and the Fight for a Living Wage

In 2008, Democratic leadership privatized the Senate cafeterias in order to cut costs.  Restaurant Associates won the contract bid and now employs 115 food-service workers in the Senate.  The company is owned by the British firm Compass Group, whose annual profits exceed one billion dollars.

The contract with Restaurant Associates came up for renegotiation on December 1, 2015.  Targeting that critical moment, Senate cafeteria workers lobbied to secure living wages.  They staged strikes and walkouts, and the national media embraced their stories.  The public was surprised to learn that one worker had been homeless for five years, one was a single mother moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet, and many others were working long hours at second, supplemental jobs.  One worker was being paid more at KFC than she was at the Senate.  The workers partnered with Good Jobs Nation, which has been active in the Fight for $15 (profiled in our Fast Food News series) and is funded largely by unions.

When Restaurant Associates signed a new seven-year contract in December, it included substantial raises and appeared to be a victory for the workers.  Though it fell short of the $15-mark, the minimum wage rose from $10.50 to $13.30, and the average rose from $11.50 to $14.50. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a win.

Reclassifications Under the New Contract

Under Service Contract Act (SCA), which controls wages of federal contractors and subcontractors, a worker’s title determines his or her wages.  These titles and responsibilities are laid out in the Directory of Occupations, which are federal regulations promulgated by the U.S. DOL.  It is a violation of federal law to misclassify workers under the SCA. Continue reading

Today’s News and Commentary–January 16, 2015

Lawmakers in Washington state have introduced legislation that would raise Washington’s minimum wage to $12 per hour over four years. Washington’s current $9.47 per hour minimum is already the highest in the nation.

The proposal comes as a poll conducted by the prominent polling firm Hart Research Associates revealed that 75% of Americans—including 53% of Republicans—support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020, and that 71% of Americans believe the minimum wage for tipped workers should be increased so that all workers are subject to the same wage floor. According to the poll, 63% of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage to $15 by 2020.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine is rumored to be preparing a bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour over three years, with no increase for tipped workers, whose minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 per hour for two decades. The rumored bill also would not tie the minimum wage to inflation. As reported, Collins’s bill falls well short of the increases most Democrats have been calling for.

On Wednesday federal district judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush, struck down the second part of a Department of Labor rule that was designed to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to many home healthcare workers. In Wednesday’s ruling, Leon invalidated the portion of the rule interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption for workers providing “companionship services” more narrowly so as to extend that act’s overtime and minimum wage guarantees to a large number of home healthcare workers. Leon said this interpretation was impermissible. Last month, he struck down the other major provision of the rule, which would have extended FLSA’s protections to home healthcare workers employed by third-party providers. The Department of Labor is considering appealing both decisions.

Democrats in the House of Representatives this week revealed a bold new plan to boost wages and increase tax progressivity that is designed to put more money in the pockets of low and middle income Americans. The far-reaching plan, spearheaded by prominent Representative Chris Van Hollen, would (1) establish a large tax credit for Americans earning less than $200,000 a year, (2) triple the tax credit for child care, (3) grant additional tax advantages to those who save for retirement, and (4) create tax incentives to encourage companies to raise employee pay, among other provisions. The plan suggests Democrats may be shifting toward a new political strategy in the wake of their losses in the 2014 midterm elections. This new strategy focuses on aggressive action to bolster economic conditions for working people. The Democrats’ plan would finance the low and middle class credits with a tax increase on the very wealthiest Americans.

Continue reading