News & Commentary

November 29, 2020

Jacob Denz

Jacob Denz is a student at Harvard Law School

Restaurants and bars would have more latitude to pay workers the tipped minimum wage of only $2.13 per hour under a new Department of Labor regulation, Bloomberg Law reports. Under the proposed final rule, employers could pay the lower tipped minimum wage regardless of how much time an employee spends performing non-tipped duties. Under the Department of Labor’s current interpretation of the law, employers must pay the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour if an employee spends more than 20% of work time on non-tipped duties. The rule is part of a larger business-friendly regulatory package during the President’s final weeks in office that also includes looser standards for classifying workers as independent contractors and affirmation of exemptions from anti-discrimination requirements for religiously-affiliated federal contractors.

The Trump administration is also moving quickly to make major changes to the federal civil service itself, according to The Washington Post. Under an executive order the President issued two weeks before the election, career employees at federal agencies would be reclassified to remove their job protections. The employees would then be open to removal by President Trump before Joe Biden takes office. The Office of Management and Budget is now moving to implement the changes, which would affect the overwhelmingly majority of its employees, along with the Office of Personnel Management. Congressional Democrats have requested an accounting of any planned changes at dozens of agencies, and some are already vowing to block the reorganization through legislation. The National Treasury Employees Union has filed a lawsuit arguing that the executive order is an illegal attempt to supersede statutory civil service protections.

Hospitals across the United States are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, The New York Times details. Workers at the University of Wisconsin Health’s University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin took out a two-page newspaper ad last Sunday in an attempt to inform the public about the risk that the hospital would need to turn away patients due to lack of capacity. In St. Louis, the Catholic hospital group SSM Health has already turned away about fifty patients during the past month. There is a shortage of nurses to deal with the high number of COVID-19 patients as many are out sick, quarantining, or caring for sick family members. The strained capacity has led hospitals to increase the hours of the remaining nurses and require them to care for more patients at a time. Even so, patients sometimes wait days in emergency rooms because intensive care units are full, and busier nurses are not always available to care for assigned patients and prevent injuries. Hospitals have insufficient personal protective equipment, forcing many nurses to buy their own. Rural hospitals with limited capacity must transfer most patients to larger regional hospitals that are already at or near their own capacity limits. Meanwhile, patients who have already been infected with COVID-19 in the past will further increase the strain on hospitals as they return for treatment for ongoing complications from the virus.

Holiday shopping season has an unusually sinister dimension this year as higher demand will worsen labor, health, and safety conditions for retail and warehouse workers, The Guardian recounts. Both in-store and online shopping are expected to increase significantly and many workers are out sick, placing greater pressure on those who remain. The labor organization United for Respect is demanding $5-an-hour hazard pay for Amazon warehouse workers after the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos rescinded a $2-an-hour hazard pay program in June. A Brookings Institution report found that Amazon and Walmart have been among the least generous retailers to their workers even while Bezos and the Waltons have seen their wealth skyrocket since the pandemic began. Walmart closed on Thanksgiving this year but subtracted the day from each employee’s accrued time off.

Almost a dozen Black workers at cryptocurrency startup Coinbase say they complained of racist or discriminatory treatment before leaving the company, The New York Times chronicles. Alleged racist incidents included explicit invocation of racist stereotypes by management, tokenizing Black employees by asking them to be present when reporters took photographs, and passing over Black employees for promotion in favor of less experienced white employees. The company says that it investigated allegations presented in several internal complaints and found them to be unsubstantiated. About three percent of Coinbase’s employees are Black, less than half the tech industry average.

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