News & Commentary

July 27, 2018

Vail Kohnert-Yount

Vail Kohnert-Yount is a student at Harvard Law School.

The Massachusetts House voted on Tuesday to pass a bill requiring companies seeking large state and local government contracts to disclose workplace safety violations. The bill is a response to the 2016 deaths of two workers, Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins, in a trench collapse at a Boston construction site. While the company, Atlantic Drain Services, and its owner, Kevin Otto, face charges of manslaughter, a federal investigation found the company had previously been cited for numerous OSHA violations and violated 18 different regulations leading up to the collapse. Boston subsequently enacted an ordinance that requires city contractors to disclose OSHA violations and for applicants with “a history of engaging in unsafe, hazardous or dangerous practices” to be denied permits. The House bill would not automatically deny contracts to violators, but it would make violations part of the review for contract awards. It remains to be seen whether the Senate will vote on the bill before the formal legislative session ends on Tuesday.

The California Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Starbucks and other employers in California must pay hourly workers for the time they spend off the clock on tasks including closing the store, setting an alarm, and locking the door. Starbucks employee Douglas Troester’s lawsuit, in which he argued he was entitled to be paid for the time he spent closing the store after he had clocked out, was initially rejected by a U.S. District Court on the grounds that it was minimal. Ultimately, the California Supreme Court said the cumulative effect of denying employees’ pay for a few extra minutes of work each day was significant. “That is enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares,” Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote. “What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis‘ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”

Disneyland workers called off a planned four-day protest in Anaheim, California, after reaching a tentative agreement with Disney management to improve wages and benefits for resort employees. Workers, including custodians, ride operators, and restaurant staff, had been preparing for “Shantyland,” a demonstrated described by SEIU-United Service Workers West as “an interactive encampment featuring displays that reveal the hard truth about how Disneyland treats employees and helps create poverty and homelessness throughout Orange County and the Anaheim area.” On Monday, a coalition of four unions representing Disneyland employees reached a tentative agreement with the Disneyland Resort, and instead workers are cautiously celebrating their victory.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering banning companies from offering their workers free meals, a common practice in the tech industry, as local restaurants complain about a lack of business. The ordinance wouldn’t apply retroactively to existing employee cafeterias, but instead to new construction in the city, and is backed by restaurant industry lobbying groups like the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. A similar ordinance has already been enacted in nearby Mountain View, exemplifying the growing tension between large tech companies and their surrounding communities.

Marisa Franco, co-founder of Mijente, a national Latinx organizing network, penned an op-ed in The Guardian yesterday asking employees in the tech industry to “unite to defeat America’s deportation machine.” Employees of Microsoft, Salesforce, and Amazon are protesting their employer’s contracts with agencies including ICE, CBP, and DHS, following in the footsteps of Google employees who successfully pressured their employer to cut its contract with the Pentagon to use artificial intelligence to help drone warfare. While tech companies continue to defend their work, Franco encouraged their employees to continue their activism, saying that the Google campaign worked because of “the magnitude and consistency of internal pressure that finally got the company to abandon its amoral work.”

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