News & Commentary

April 10, 2019

Yesterday, House Democrats introduced a groundbreaking new bill to fight workplace sexual harassment. The #BeHeard Act (Bringing an End to Harassment By Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace Act) was written to ensure that the promise of #MeToo movement is made real in the lives of low-wage workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlaws workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment — but the law includes a carveout for employers with fewer than 15 workers. The Be Heard Act would close that loophole by extending Title VII’s protections to all employees, including 12 million people employed by small businesses or in domestic work who are currently left behind by the law. The Be Heard Act would also expand Title VII to cover independent contractors.

The Be Heard Act would also eliminate the federal sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. The federal minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour for workers who earn tips. Thus, in most states, the legal minimum wage for tipped workers is much less than for non-tipped workers. If a workers’ an hour plus tips doesn’t add up to the minimum wage, restaurants are supposed to supplement servers’ wages to match the regular minimum wage — but restaurants frequently violate this rule, stiffing workers who can’t bring in enough tips on a slow night. Tipped workers like servers, bartenders, and manicurists say that the two-tiered minimum wage fosters discrimination and harassment because workers can’t afford to anger harassing customers when, as one waitress told the New York Times, “a significant portion of my income is how men feel about me that day.” To address this, the Be Heard Act would eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, instead requiring that employers pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as everyone else. The bill would also ban mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements and create a grant program to help low-wage workers pay for legal help.

Auto workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant yesterday filed an NLRB petition for a union election to join the United Auto Workers (UAW). The petition marks UAW’s second attempt to unionize the plant following a contentious 2013-2014 campaign at Chattanooga, which is the only Volkswagen plant where workers don’t have bargaining power. The Chattanooga campaign figures prominently in ongoing debates about works councils and alternate forms of worker voice. In 2013, Volkswagen officials floated the idea of a “German-style works council,” but never implemented one because the firm concluded a works council without a union would violate U.S. labor law. To learn more about the debate over works council in Chattanooga and their potential legality, check out OnLabor’s analysis here and here.

Freelancers want to start a union — but the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover them. Freelancers, as independent contractors, are excluded from NLRA’s right to organize, along with farmworkers, domestic workers, and government employees. At Teen Vogue, Kim Kelly writes about how freelancers are organizing to improve working conditions in their industry even without the NLRA’s protections.

The a key committee of the Colorado General Assembly just passed a bill that would make intentional wage theft a felony. OnLabor has an ongoing debate over criminalization of wage theft — you can read Terri Gerstein and David Seligman’s argument for criminalization here and Ben Levin’s argument that the “impulse to use criminal law for ‘progressive’ ends is dangerous”  here and here.

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