Ross Eisenbrey

View Ross Eisenbrey's biography and publications on epi.org

What Gretchen Carlson and immigrant janitors have in common: forced arbitration

Gretchen Carlson is doing working Americans a real service by suing Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, for sexual harassment. First, when a powerful, high profile CEO like Ailes is called out for disgusting behavior, it reminds workers and their bosses everywhere that women have a legal right to be treated with respect in the workplace.

Carlson is doing something else: she is boldly fighting the latest technique employers are using to avoid justice, to get away with sex or race discrimination, and to escape lawsuits for wage theft—putting binding arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which keeps cases out of the state and federal courts and push them into private dispute resolution systems that systematically favor employers.

Millions of working Americans are subject to arbitration clauses that they don’t even know about. More and more employers are forcing their employees, as a condition of being hired or of remaining employed, to waive the right to sue in a court if their employer violates the law. Workers must accept a process they often don’t understand, where the costs of seeking justice might be far higher even as their chances of winning or obtaining a just award of damages are reduced dramatically.

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Math problems at the Education and Workforce Committee

The system-wide budget for the University of Tennessee is more than $2 billion a year. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) claims that the new Department of Labor overtime rule, which requires time-and-a-half overtime pay for many salaried employees earning less than $47,476 a year, will add $9 million in new costs. This is less than half of 1 percent of the annual budget, yet Rep. Roe claims this will force a 2 percent tuition increase. That does not add up.

Rep. Roe has not presented any evidence that the University of Tennessee will actually experience $9 million in new overtime costs, and given his math problems, there is reason to doubt. But to put his claims in perspective, we should note that without any new overtime or minimum wage costs, the University of Tennessee has been raising its tuition in response to falling state appropriations. As a recent University of Tennessee trustees’ report declared:

State appropriations to higher education have been stagnant or declining for several years… Higher education has responded to the decline in state appropriations by increasing tuition, providing no salary increases to faculty and staff, not filling or eliminating vacant positions, and becoming more efficient in the delivery of instruction, research, and public services.

In 2014, for example, tuition for various classes of in-state and out-of-state students increased between 2 and 6 percent, even though salaries were frozen. The drivers of rising tuition costs have nothing to do with Department of Labor regulations. But with appropriations shrinking, one can imagine that the desire of university officials to get uncompensated overtime work from its employees is increasing, and the updated DOL rules will provide significant protection from excessive overwork.

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Universities oppose paying their postdocs overtime, but will pay football coaches millions of dollars

Colleges and universities have made the indefensible argument that they can’t afford to pay their low-level salaried employees for their overtime under the Department of Labor’s new overtime rule. Universities have singled out postdoctoral researchers, many of whom spend 60 hours a week or more running the labs that turn out the nation’s most important scientific advances, as a group of employees that would just cost too much if they had to be paid for the extra hours they work each week.

Analyzed on their own, these postdocs—who are among the best-educated and most valuable employees in the nation, on whom our future health and prosperity depend, in part—obviously deserve to be paid for their overtime hours. After all, at a salary of $42,000 a year, these postdocs are being paid about $13.50 an hour (less than fast food workers are demanding).

When juxtaposed against the inflated salaries of university administrators with less stellar academic credentials making $200,000 to $3 million a year, the case for overtime compensation is only stronger. The comparison that really drives home how unfairly universities are treating their postdocs, however, is with the universities’ football coaches.

Figure A

Universities oppose paying their postdocs overtime, but will pay football coaches millions of dollars: Top NCAA College Football Coaches’ Salaries by State, 2015

State University Head coach  Salary
Alabama University of Alabama Nick Saban  $6,932,395
Alaska University of Alaska N/A  N/A
Arizona Arizona State Todd Graham  $3,000,000
Arkansas University of Arkansas Bret Bielema  $3,954,166
California UCLA Jim Mora  $3,350,000
Colorado University of Colorado Mike MacIntyre  $2,009,778
Connecticut University of Connecticut Bob Diaco  $1,550,000
Delaware University of Delaware Dave Brock  Unknown
Florida Florida State Jimbo Fisher  $5,150,000
Georgia University of Georgia Mark Richt  $4,000,000
Hawaii University of Hawaii Norm Chow  $550,000
Idaho Boise State Bryan Harsin  $1,100,004
Illinois University of Illinois Bill Cubit  $915,000
Indiana Purdue Darrell Hazell  $2,140,000
Iowa University of Iowa Kirk Ferentz  $4,075,000
Kansas Kansas State Bill Snyder  $3,000,000
Kentucky University of Kentucky Mark Stoops  $3,250,000
Louisiana LSU Les Miles  $4,300,000
Maine University of Maine Jack Cosgrove  $186,995
Maryland University of Maryland Randy Edsall  $2,110,648
Massachusetts Boston College Steve Addazio  $2,585,655
Michigan University of Michigan Jim Harbaugh  $7,004,000
Minnesota University of Minnesota Jerry Kill  $2,500,000
Mississippi University of Mississippi Hugh Freeze  $4,300,000
Missouri University of Missouri Barry Odom  $2,350,000
Montana University of Montana Bob Stitt  $175,000
Nebraska University of Nebraska Mike Riley  $2,700,000
Nevada University of Nevada Brian Polian  $575,000
New Hampshire University of New Hampshire Sean McDonnell  $200,000
New Jersey Rutgers Kyle Flood  $1,250,000
New Mexico University of New Mexico Bob Davie  $772,690
New York University of Buffalo Lance Leipold  $400,000
North Carolina North Carolina State Dave Doeren  $2,200,000
North Dakota University of North Dakota Kyle Schweigert  $1,500,000
Ohio Ohio State Urban Meyer  $5,860,000
Oklahoma University of Oklahoma Bob Stoops  $5,400,000
Oregon University of Oregon Mark Helfrich  $3,150,000
Pennsylvania Penn State James Franklin  $4,400,000
Rhode Island University of Rhode Island Jim Fleming  $175,000
South Carolina University of South Carolina Steve Spurrier  $4,000,000
South Dakota University of South Dakota Joe Glenn  $145,010
Tennessee University of Tennessee Butch Jones  $4,100,000
Texas University of Texas Charlie Strong  $5,100,000
Utah University of Utah Kyle Whittingham  $2,600,000
Vermont University of Vermont N/A N/A
Virginia University of Virginia Mike London  $3,196,724
Washington University of Washington Chris Petersen  $3,400,000
West Virginia University of West Virginia Dana Holgorsen  $2,880,000
Wisconsin University of Wisconsin Paul Chryst  $2,300,000
Wyoming University of Wyoming Craig Bohl  $882,000

Note: The highest available head coach salary was selected for each state.

Source: Data from USA Today and HKM Employment Attorneys LLP

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

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Arguments that better overtime pay protection means less flexibility are untrue

The Department of Labor has issued a new rule, which expands the right to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime to salaried employees who earn less than $47,476 a year. Business groups that oppose the new rule claim that salaried employees will lose important work schedule flexibility when they become eligible for overtime pay. But the evidence shows this fear is unfounded, and, in fact, salaried workers who earn less than $50,000 a year currently have barely more flexibility at work than hourly paid employees.

An EPI analysis using General Social Survey data by Penn State labor economist Lonnie Golden shows that:

  • Almost half—47 percent—of salaried workers earning less than $50,000 a year report that on a daily basis they “never” or “rarely” are allowed to change their work starting time and quitting times, while only 20 percent of salaried workers who earn $60,000 or more per year report never or rarely being allowed to change their schedules.
  • Salaried workers earning less than $50,000 a year have no more ability to take time off during work for personal or family matters than hourly workers at the same level. Thus, “switching” employees from salaried to hourly status or requiring employers to track or monitor their hours for purposes of overtime pay would not reduce this valuable type of work schedule flexibility for employees. If we consider regularly being required to work overtime an indicator of inflexibility in one’s work schedule, salaried workers earning between $25,000 and $50,000 a year have about the same or an even greater likelihood of working mandatory overtime than their hourly counterparts. Thus, raising the overtime pay salary threshold for exemption to $47,476 should, if anything, provide the newly eligible workers somewhat greater flexibility to refuse unwelcome work beyond their usual number of hours per week.

In light of these conditions and findings, it is unsurprising that salaried workers generally report higher levels of work-family conflict and work stress than do hourly paid workers. It is also important to note that nothing in the new rule requires any employer to change any employee from salaried pay to hourly pay. That decision is entirely within an employer’s discretion. Many employers, including small business owners such as the National Retail Federation’s witness at a congressional hearing last October, already track the hours of salaried employees and provide comp time and bonuses based on overtime hours.

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Explaining the differences between EPI and DOL estimates of workers affected by the new overtime salary threshold

In our report on the new overtime rule, EPI estimates that it will directly benefit 12.5 million workers. At first blush, our evaluation of the impact of the rule differs significantly from the widely circulated Department of Labor (DOL) assessment that 4.2 million workers will directly benefit from raising the salary threshold—meaning they are currently legitimately exempt because of their duties, but will be covered by the new threshold. DOL also notes that 8.9 million workers, meanwhile, will have their rights strengthened by the higher salary threshold, for a total of 13.1 million directly affected by the rule (600,000 more than our estimate). Additionally, of the 8.9 million salaried workers whose overtime rights would be strengthened, DOL notes that about 732,000 regularly work more than 40 hours a week, but are currently incorrectly classified as ineligible for overtime—bringing the total number of workers DOL estimates will be newly eligible for overtime pay up to 5 million.

We believe that many more workers will be newly eligible for overtime pay. Our assessment differs from DOL’s because the department assumes, incorrectly in our view, that overtime eligibility was not eroded by changes to the OT rules implemented by the Bush administration in 2004. We provided detailed evidence last year showing that overtime eligibility has been severely eroded since the late 1990s, when DOL computed the exemption probability estimates by occupation that it still relies on today. We concluded that:

…reliance on judgments made in 1998 provides an unreasonably sunny view of today’s workplaces that ignores changes in the law implemented in 2004, various court decisions, and the corresponding behavior of employers to limit the ability of workers to obtain overtime pay.

The 4.2 million employees DOL estimates will be newly entitled to overtime pay are limited to those who both meet duties tests establishing that their primary duty is executive, administrative or professional, and earn a salary higher than the old exemption threshold ($23,660 a year) but less than $47,476. For example, an accountant earning $40,000 or a bank branch manager earning $45,000 are legitimately exempt under the current rules but will be entitled to overtime pay because their salary is below the new threshold.

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What will an updated overtime rule mean for millions of workers?

Tomorrow, the Vice President is expected to announce the U.S. Department of Labor’s issuance of the final rule on overtime for salaried employees. Rumor has it that the rule will guarantee overtime pay to anyone working more than 40 hours in a week if their salary is less than $47,500 a year or $913 a week. That is less than DOL proposed last year, but still a very significant increase that will mean millions of employees will get raises or have their weekly hours scaled back to a more humane level. About 12.5 million employees will either be newly entitled to overtime pay or will have their rights strengthened so that they don’t have to rely on a complicated analysis of their job duties to determine that they have a right to time and a half for their overtime hours.

Reporters and Hill staffers wonder who are the people who will get raises, a question that is both easy to answer and difficult. The easy part is that employees earning close to, but less than, the new threshold will get raises if they typically work overtime.  It will be cheaper and easier for the employer just to give them a raise of a couple of thousand dollars than to track their hours and pay them time and a half.

An obvious example is postdoctoral researchers, who typically earn $42,000 to $45,000, who work 50 to 60 hours a week, or more, conducting critical cancer and other biomedical research, physics, chemistry, biology, or math research. Paying them overtime for their normal, excessive workweek would be so expensive that their universities will give them a raise above the threshold in order to avoid it. The result will not just be better-rewarded researchers, but less turnover and stronger commitments to work that might benefit the entire nation and even the world.

In the comments it submitted for the rule-making record, the American Bankers Association provided good examples of employees in its industry who will benefit. The Bankers testified that banks commonly have various managers, including check processing managers, branch managers, IT managers, credit analysts, and compliance officers, who are currently treated as exempt and are denied overtime pay. But in many areas, their median salaries are fairly low: $45,400 for branch managers in Akron, Ohio and $46,300 in El Paso, Texas. Check Processing Managers in Little Rock, Arkansas earn a median salary of $45,800 while they earn a median $45,200 in Brownsville, Texas. It’s likely that their employers will give them all raises if they currently work even four or five hours of overtime a week.

It gets more difficult to predict when the salaries are lower. Will a university that pays its postdocs an exploitative $38,000 a year give them a raise above the new threshold? It probably depends on whether the postdocs are working more than 50 hours a week, at which point it’s cheaper to pay the threshold salary for exemption than to pay for each hour of overtime at 1.5 times the regular rate of pay.

Many reporters have told me that they are paid less than the salary threshold but are treated as exempt and denied any overtime pay. Reporters in high-cost areas such as New York, Washington, DC, or Boston are almost certainly going to receive salary increases, unless their pay is atypically low. I imagine that even in the South, many reporters are paid enough (and their hours are long enough) that a salary increase will be cheaper for their employer than paying overtime.

They probably won’t all get salary increases, but 2.6 million salaried employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act earn between $23,660 and $47,500. If they work substantial amounts of overtime now, they have a good chance that their salaries will be raised above the new exemption threshold.

The White House attacks the spread of abusive non-compete agreements

The White House released a report this morning that illuminates another part of the complex problem of stagnating wages—the rise of non-compete agreements and their spread to low-wage employment. Non-compete agreements, or “non-competes,” are contracts that ban workers at one company from going to work for a competing employer within a certain period of time after leaving a job. They can make sense when a worker has trade secrets or intellectual property in which the employer has invested. But they make no sense when applied to health care workers, retail and restaurant employees, and other low wage employees. All they do is limit opportunity and shackle people to an employer who will have less incentive to give a raise to retain them.

Employers are imposing non-competes in occupations with no possible trade secret justification—even doggy day care providers! The Treasury Department has found that one in seven Americans earning less than $40,000 a year is subject to a non-compete. This is astonishing, and shows how easily businesses abuse their power over employees and restrict their rights, as they increasingly do with forced arbitration clauses that take away the right of workers to seek justice in the courts. In both cases, workers often accept jobs without ever knowing that they have signed their rights away.

The Treasury Department has done groundbreaking work to show that non-competes have a measurable, negative effect on wages, as one would expect from a practice that limits employee mobility. The report also provides evidence that non-competes can reduce entrepreneurship and innovation.

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ANCOR vastly overstates the impact of the overtime rule on community service providers

The Department of Labor (DOL) is about to release a final rule that will require overtime pay for millions of salaried employees who currently can be required to work long hours for no more pay than they receive for a 40-hour week. This will give them either more money or more time with their families or for themselves.

But the overtime rule naturally makes some employers unhappy, since they can currently get 60 hours of work from many employees for only 40 hours of pay. Even some non-profit human service providers, many of which are not even covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), oppose DOL’s updated rule.

An association of community providers serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (the American Network of Community Options and Resources, or ANCOR) commissioned a “Cost Impact Scoring Memo” by a company called Avalere to estimate the impact of the proposed overtime rule on its member agencies. Neither the survey questions, the actual responses, nor the response rate were included in Avalere’s report. But it is clear that the cost estimates are deeply flawed.

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Restoring overtime will benefit millions of working people

For more than two years, the Obama administration has been working on restoring and strengthening working people’s right to receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours per week. It’s been reported that the salary threshold under which all workers, regardless of their title or responsibilities, will be eligible for overtime will be set at $47,000 a year. While this is slightly lower than DOL’s original proposal, it represents a significant step forward in the effort to boost wages for working people.

If the salary threshold is indeed set at $47,000, it will directly benefit 12.5 million workers. 4.8 million workers will be newly eligible for overtime protections and another 7.6 million will be more easily able to prove their eligibility. All told, about 33 percent of the salaried workforce will be eligible for overtime, regardless of their duties on the job.

By restoring their right to be paid for the hours they work, President Obama and Secretary of Labor Perez are giving a raise to millions of working- and middle-class Americans. They deserve praise for their efforts.

Workers’ Memorial Day

On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the airliner crash in Pennsylvania. That tragedy is being compounded by the growing toll of cancer, lung disease and other illnesses related to the attack, particularly in the New York metro area, where first responders were exposed to a sickening mix of chemical and biological toxins. USA Today reported that “more than 9,000 claimants have been determined eligible for compensation of medical bills and other expenses,” and that 2,620 of the approved cases were cancer-related. This second wave of illness and death is taking place out of the public spotlight, but it is real and is causing suffering in thousands of families.

During the years since 9/11, a much larger wave of workplace deaths has been crashing down on American families without drawing much attention from the public or the media. Every year, more people are killed from injuries in the workplace than were killed on September 11, 2001. The number of fatal injuries has been as high as 5,840 but never lower than 4,551—this translates into roughly 65,000 unnecessary deaths resulting from negligence or the reckless indifference of employers who continue to send workers into unshored trenches, onto roofs without fall protection, into confined spaces filled with toxic gas, and into factories and mills with dangerous levels of explosive dust.

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Universities, inequality, and the overtime rule

The U.S. Department of Labor is about to issue a final rule that will increase the number of people entitled to overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. The rule will simply say, in effect, that if an employee earns less than $50,440 a year (or close to that—we won’t know the final number until the rule is released), she must be paid time and a half when she works more than 40 hours a week, even if she is a salaried employee, and even if her employer calls her a manager, professional, or supervisor.

This is a consequential move, which will improve the lives of many working people in a number of ways. Millions of employees who work long hours will get paid overtime for the first time. Millions of other workers who have been working long hours, at a cost to their health and their families, will have their hours reduced to 40 hours a week. Millions more will get a raise above the threshold, because their employer can continue to avoid paying overtime. And hundreds of thousands of people will get jobs because employers will reduce the hours of some employees to avoid paying overtime and hire additional people to do the work at straight time wages.

Many colleges and universities have complained that they cannot afford it. They don’t want to pay for overtime hours that have been free for years. At a congressional field hearing in March, the University of Michigan’s associate vice president for Human Resources said it would be “cost prohibitive” to raise salaries or pay overtime for post-doctoral researchers and others earning less than $50,000 a year. The coalition of universities and colleges lobbying to weaken the rule suggests a salary threshold “between $29,172 and $40,352” as the point where overtime pay could be denied. The U-M associate vice president went on to conclude that, “The climate for most colleges and universities in the U.S. is one of ongoing financial pressures that would curtail hiring new employees or increasing compensation as a result of these FLSA changes.”

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Wisconsin’s so-called right to work law has been ruled unconstitutional

A trial court in Wisconsin has ruled that the state’s new law banning union contracts that make every employee the union represents pay his fair share of the costs of representation is unconstitutional.

The union plaintiffs and the court took a fairly novel approach to this issue and ruled on grounds I had never considered: compelling a union to represent non-dues-paying free riders (as the law does) means the state is taking the union members’ dues and forcing them to spend it on free riders without any compensation by the state. It’s an unconstitutional taking without just compensation, in violation of Article 1, section 13 of the Wisconsin constitution. A similar argument under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was made by Judge Diane Wood, dissenting in Sweeney v. Pence, 767 F3d 654, 683-84 (7th Cir 2014), where the majority upheld Indiana’s identical law.

The state requires unions to represent every member of the bargaining unit fairly and equally, so the union can’t avoid spending from its treasury when a non-dues-payer demands that the union take his grievance, in a situation where it would take a union member’s grievance. That representation can involve arbitration fees and the costs of a lawyer, which can easily exceed $10,000. The state imposes this burden on the union for the “public purpose [of] making the business climate in the state more favorable,” but it offers the union no compensation at all. The court rejected the notion that giving the union exclusive bargaining rights was sufficient compensation: “The proposition that winning an election is sufficient compensation and that all subsequent work must be done for free does not make any more sense than the proposition that there is a free lunch.”

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The first of a wave of junk economic reports about the new overtime rule has washed ashore

The Department of Labor (DOL) is about to release a final rule that will require overtime pay for millions of salaried employees who currently can be required to work long hours for no more pay than they receive for a 40-hour week. This will give them either more money or more time with their families or for themselves.

But the overtime rule naturally makes some employers unhappy, since they can currently get 60 hours of work from many employees for only 40 hours of pay. Even some non-profit human service providers, which for the most part are not even covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), oppose DOL’s updated rule. This might be because they don’t understand the law, but that misunderstanding hasn’t stopped them from paying for and publishing the first of what will likely be a wave of spurious reports and cost estimates of the new rule.

An association of community providers serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (the American Network of Community Options and Resources, or ANCOR) commissioned a “study” by a company called Avalere to estimate the impact of the proposed overtime rule on its member agencies. Sadly, Avalere’s report is little more than a collection of baseless assumptions adding up to an absurd result. Neither the survey questions, nor the actual responses, nor the response rate were included in Avalere’s report.

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Are employee contributions essential to unemployment insurance?

A new report by Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, brings needed attention to the nation’s troubled unemployment insurance (UI) programs. The report concentrates on crucial financing questions, noting that the lack of UI state reserves prior to the Great Recession led to significant cuts in state programs in recent years, with benefit recipiency rates reaching historically low levels in 2014 and 2015. In particular, Stettner notes that six out of every seven unemployed individuals in the most restrictive Southern states go without benefits, a level that calls into question whether those states still provide meaningful social insurance. At the same time, low reserves continue to threaten a majority of states while we head inevitably toward the next recession. According to the report, only 18 states currently meet recommended trust fund levels.

Stettner recounts the main facts in his overview of recent UI developments, including recent state UI benefit cuts and financing changes. Despite these benefit cuts and financing changes, he reports that state reserves are less than 60 percent of the trust fund reserves found prior to the recent recession. Worryingly, many of the states adopting benefit cuts will remain at low solvency levels when the next recession arrives.

Wayne Vroman, a long-time expert on UI financing at the Urban Institute, has reinforced some of Stettner’s observations on UI financing in a recent report. Vroman has written about UI financing since the 1980s, and this report shows a troubling pattern he has called attention to in recent years. Our 13 biggest states—where about two-thirds of benefits are paid and UI taxes collected—do a remarkably poor job of UI financing. Vroman finds that “program revenue responded more slowly in the 13 big states and their benefits were reduced more when compared with the other states in the state UI system.” Vroman’s more technical approach presents a number of regressions trying to better understand why big states fail to adequately finance their state UI trust funds. While his paper can’t fully explain the big states’ failures, Vroman does identify factors that make UI financing stronger, most notably the indexation of the taxable wage base.

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The long-awaited silica rule is a step forward for workers

The Department of Labor has taken another significant action to protect American workers from harm by issuing a final rule to control employee exposure to silica dust, which destroys lung tissue and causes cancer, disabling thousands of workers every year and killing hundreds more. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and OSHA Administrator David Michaels have persevered against a political hailstorm to finish this rule, which was first conceived more than 35 years ago.

Some employers will complain that it’s too expensive to protect their employees from lung disease, but it’s not.  Thousands of businesses, in construction, mining, brick-making, and other industries already meet the standard. A dent in the profits of the businesses that haven’t cared enough in the past to do what was needed is no reason to back away now from safer workplaces and better lives for millions of Americans.

Ultimately, the decision to issue this rule rests with President Obama, who deserves credit for putting people first.

New legislation could help end wage theft epidemic

Senators Patty Murray and Sherrod Brown, together with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, are tackling one of the most important employment issues of the 21st century—wage theft, the failure of employers to pay employees what they are legally owed. This is a serious social and economic problem, which I have estimated could amount to more than $20 billion a year in stolen or underpaid wages, including non-payment of overtime pay, failure to pay the federal, state or local minimum wage, failure to pay statutorily required prevailing wages, forcing employees to work “off-the-clock,” taking illegal deductions from the paychecks of drivers misclassified as independent contractors, and even failure to pay anything at all. A study by the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that minimum wage violations alone range from $8 billion to $14 billion a year.

The consequences of these losses are serious: increased poverty, hardship for the near-poor, lost tax revenues for governments, including lost Social Security and Medicare contributions, and increasing inequality. When the employers who commit wage theft go unpunished it undermines their law-abiding competitors and generally diminishes respect for and faith in the rule of law.

Just as raising the minimum wage could save hundreds of million dollars in safety net program expenditures, failing to pay the current minimum wage causes safety net spending to increase considerably. As DOL found in its recent study of minimum wage violations, “Minimum wage violations led to $5.5 million in additional breakfast benefits in California and $3 million in New York, in FY2011. The school lunch program spent an additional $10.1 million in California and $4.8 million in New York in FY2011 due to minimum wage violations.”

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Republicans (and two Democrats) in Congress want to derail commonsense protections for workers

Dozens of Republican members of Congress and two Democrats—Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Brad Ashford (D-Neb.)—have signed a letter to Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez about the Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed rule on overtime pay for salaried employees, calling on him “to reconsider moving forward with this rule as drafted.” Oddly, a good part of the letter complains about provisions that are not in the proposed rule “as drafted.” The signers should be thanking the secretary, rather than complaining.

In particular, the letter complains that even though the proposed rule makes no change in the current regulation’s “duties test,” which identifies whether an employee’s job duties are those of an executive, professional, or administrative employee who might be exempt from overtime pay, the secretary does not spell out his future intentions. The signers worry, for example, that DOL is considering a common-sense tightening of the test to limit exemptions to employees who spend most of their time engaged in exempt duties. (The current duties test allows exemption of employees who spend nearly 100 percent of their time doing routine chores such as serving customers, running a cash register, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and cleaning bathrooms.)

But, for better or worse, that change is not in the rule “as drafted.”

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Workers, and honest employers, need a strong OSHA

Every day, events remind us why Congress created and continues to fund the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Cranes collapsing in New York and Cincinnati, mill explosions in Georgia, a foundry worker crushed in Ohio, construction workers falling to their deaths throughout the United States. When OSHA was created in 1970, 14,000 workers were killed on the job. Today in a much larger workforce, the number of on-the-job fatalities is less than 5,000 a year. Workplaces are undeniably safer today, in large part because of the training and education OSHA has provided and required employers to provide, its grants to union and non-profit worker safety training programs, the mandatory health and safety standards and guidance it issues, and its enforcement efforts. But they aren’t safe enough. In addition to the toll of deaths, nearly 4 million work-related injuries and illnesses are reported each year, and many more go unreported.

Enforcement is essential because standards and rules mean nothing if they aren’t followed, and a stubborn minority of businesses just don’t care enough about their employees to work safely and protect them from known hazards. Even hazards we’ve known about for a thousand years are routinely ignored by greedy contractors trying to cut corners and squeeze more profit out of their employees’ work.

Nothing better illustrates why workers need a strong enforcement effort from OSHA than trenching violations, such as putting workers into ten-foot deep trenches in loose soil without shoring the sides or protecting them with a metal trench box. Year after year, two to three dozen workers are killed when trench walls cave in, burying them in tons of dirt and rock, crushing their lungs. A single cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds, and a worker caught by a cave-in can die even when his heads is not buried.

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The Obama administration pushes for a better response to unemployment

President Obama has announced a package of reforms to repair some of the damage done in recent years to the unemployment insurance system and to provide more help to workers at risk of losing jobs—incentives for employers to retain workers, more income support for job losers, and more help getting retrained and back to work. Reforms are needed, and most of the president’s proposals are obviously helpful.

Background

When the economy crashed in 2007 the federal-state system of unemployment insurance (UI) was far from ready. States had had five years since the previous recession to replenish their UI trust funds, improve coverage (with the help of generous federal grants provided during the Bush administration) and plan for the next downturn. Yet when the crash came and the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent, UI trust funds had not been refilled. Many states had unwisely cut taxes rather than accumulate surpluses that could be drawn down in a recession. By 2007, only 17 states were minimally solvent. Some states—but not many—had extended coverage to workers with unstable employment histories, seasonal workers, and poorly paid individuals who previously would not have qualified for benefits. If you had to give the states a grade on preparedness, a D+ would be generous.

The result was a disaster. Thirty-six states ran out of money and had to borrow in order to pay benefits, with the loans peaking at $47 billion in 2010. Most of the state UI trust funds are still in bad shape, and—according to the White House—only 20 states have sufficient reserves to weather a single year of recession. As of January 13, 2016, California still owes $6.5 billion to the Federal Unemployment Account, Ohio owes $773 million, and Connecticut owes $100 million.

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Friedrichs case threatens to push down wages for workers beyond the public sector

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could profoundly affect the economy and the ability of millions of workers to improve their wages and working conditions. Friedrichs challenges the right of a majority of workers, through their democratically elected union, to bargain a contract with their public employer that makes every employee covered by the contract pay her fair share of the costs of negotiating it, administering it, and enforcing it in the courts or in arbitration. By preventing “free riders,” fair share clauses help ensure the viability of the union and the collective bargaining relationship.

What the fair share requirements (also known as “agency shop” provisions) don’t do is equally important to understand. They don’t require anyone to join the union—the law has been clear for decades that no one can be forced to join a union. And fair share provisions don’t require anyone to contribute to union political activity or advocacy on issues unrelated to collective bargaining.

Nevertheless, anti-union groups and the complaining teachers claim that it is unconstitutional for a public employer such as a state or county to make unwilling employees pay their fair share of bargaining costs. They claim a First Amendment right to accept the higher wages and benefits that come with the union contract without having to pay anything to support the union that won that contract. Alarmingly, a majority of the Supreme Court justices appear to agree, even though it means overturning Supreme Court precedent that is less than 40 years old. That case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, held that the interests of the government in having a single, stable collective bargaining partner outweighed the right of dissenting employees not to associate with the union and help pay for bargaining and administering the employment contract:

“The governmental interests advanced by the agency-shop provision in the Michigan statute are much the same as those promoted by similar provisions in federal labor law. The confusion and conflict that could arise if rival teachers’ unions, holding quite different views as to the proper class hours, class sizes, holidays, tenure provisions, and grievance procedures, each sought to obtain the employer’s agreement, are no different in kind from the evils that the exclusivity rule in the Railway Labor Act was designed to avoid. See Madison School Dist. v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Comm’n, 429 U.S. 167, 178, 97 S.Ct. 421, 425, 50 L.Ed.2d 376 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment). The desirability of labor peace is no less important in the public sector, nor is the risk of “free riders” any smaller.”

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National Association of Manufacturers’ criticisms of the Obama overtime proposal all miss their mark

Last September, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) filed comments in opposition to the Labor Department’s proposed rule on overtime pay for salaried workers, which would raise the salary threshold under which all workers are eligible for overtime pay from $23,660 to $50,440. NAM’s chief criticism boils down to this: “The Labor Department set the salary level threshold for exemption too high.” The evidence NAM presents to support that criticism, however, is inaccurate, irrelevant, or contradicts its claims.

First, NAM claims, “The proposed salary threshold is grossly out of step with nearly 80 years of historical practice and precedent.” The evidence is a chart that purportedly shows the historic levels after each past increase, adjusted for inflation. But the chart is misleading. It cherry picks the lowest of the several potential levels set in the past, instead of the level that corresponds to the current duties test. When the correct levels are compared, DOL’s proposed $50,440 salary threshold is lower than the levels set in the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations. As Tammy McCutchen testified in Congress on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the short test salary threshold varied between a low of $51,957.36 and a high of $63,741.60.

Even if you take NAM’s misleading chart at face value, it shows an increase in the threshold of 22% in the ten years from 1949 to 1959, or 2.2% per year. If the same rate of increase were applied to the 1975 threshold of $35,625, the 2015 threshold would be almost 90% higher, or about $67,000. NAM should be grateful that the Labor Department chose such a modest level.

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Sen. Mikulski wrecks labor standards in H-2B guestworker program

Senator Barbara Mikulski wants the public to believe that replacing U.S. workers with lower-paid foreign guestworkers is somehow good for us and good for the economy. That’s nonsense. The economy needs good-paying jobs for U.S. workers, not jobs that pay $5 an hour less and get filled by indentured workers recruited from foreign countries.

Sen. Mikulski claims that her efforts to gut the Department of Labor’s H-2B visa program regulations are all about trying to protect the Maryland seafood industry, which she claims is at risk because few Americans are willing to take oyster and crab-shucking jobs for minimum wage. What she doesn’t tell the public is that the H-2B visa program she’s expanding—while simultaneously gutting all of its rules—is used mostly to bring in landscape laborers and gardeners, not crab pickers. Her claim that bringing in one poorly paid gardener creates four jobs in the U.S. economy—a claim concocted by a conservative think tank—is utter baloney. You can find some economist somewhere who will defend almost any claim, but that particular claim is indefensible. Bringing in landscape laborers on H-2B visas who are indentured to their employers and can’t bargain for better wages and working conditions lowers wages for Americans who would otherwise get those jobs, and it leaves more money in the employer’s pocket, but it doesn’t create additional jobs. As EPI has shown, there are no labor shortages in landscaping or other H-2B occupations, but employers want H-2B workers instead of Americans because they can control them and keep them in shocking conditions.

H-2B visas are also used to bring in indentured construction laborers at wages far below prevailing wages. Ask a construction worker in Baltimore what he thinks about seeing what used to be decent-paying construction jobs go to people from thousands of miles away when thousands of Maryland construction workers are still unemployed.

If Sen. Mikulski weren’t so concerned about the corporations itching to bring in another 200,000 guestworkers, she could guarantee an adequate supply of seafood workers by restricting the 66,000 H-2B visas already available to jobs where a real labor shortage has been found—where employers offer higher wages and still can’t find qualified workers—rather than supporting an amendment that drastically cuts wages and labor protections and opening the gates for a race to the bottom.

Labor Department’s common sense fiduciary rule survives the House of Representatives

The Obama administration deserves the nation’s thanks for standing up to the financial industry and its army of lobbyists on a matter of principle as well as practical importance: holding financial advisers accountable to their clients. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez refused to back down from a rule he proposed that would require financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients. The rule simply requires advisors to provide what most clients probably already think they are receiving: advice about their retirement plans untainted by conflicts of interest. It would prohibit common practices such as steering investments to companies that pay the adviser a commission.

This rule would seem to be a no-brainer, but the industry makes billions of dollars from conflicted advice, and it’s used to getting its way. So the outcome of its efforts to kill the fiduciary rule was uncertain until yesterday, when it was revealed that an amendment to block the fiduciary rule was left out of the House omnibus appropriations bill.

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Republicans and some Democrats defend financial advice that’s not worth getting

What if the next time you went for a medical checkup, you were accosted by a pharmaceutical rep waiting for her expense-account lunch with the doctor. But instead of saving her pitch for the doctor—a sleazy enough practice—the drug rep began telling everyone in the room that they should take an expensive drug that has no advantage over a generic version and is approved only for medical conditions no one there has.

Illegal? Yes. But imagine that this was actually legal and that President Obama, with the support of progressives in his party, had issued a proposed rule intended to curb such practices by requiring that anyone offering advice to patients in a doctor’s office have the patient’s best interest at heart.

Here’s what would happen: Republicans in Congress would start parroting industry talking points about this having a chilling effect on urgently-needed advice people are receiving for free and can’t afford to pay for. A substantial minority of congressional Democrats would claim to agree with the president in principle, but find one reason or another to delay the rule indefinitely with quibbles and questions. The industry lobby would continue to shower Republicans with campaign donations, while the hand-wringing Democrats would avoid being singled out by the industry in their quest for reelection. Pundits would treat it as a complicated issue where there is serious risk of unintended consequences, and Americans would continue to be suckered into paying exorbitant prices for risky products they shouldn’t be buying in the first place.

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The National Association of Home Builders’ evidence supports DOL’s proposed rule on overtime

The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), both in congressional testimony and in the official comments it submitted to the Department of Labor, makes a strong case for the Obama administration’s proposed rule on the overtime rights of salaried workers. Yes, you read that right: NAHB makes an ironclad case that businesses will have little difficulty adjusting to the proposed rule change.

Naturally, NAHB, which claims to represent 140,000 members involved in “home building, remodeling, multifamily construction, property management, subcontracting, design, housing finance, building product manufacturing and other aspects of residential and light commercial construction,” testified before Congress that the DOL proposal would be the end of Western Civilization. But the data they presented tell a different story.

NAHB’s own survey of its members found that two-thirds would make no changes in their policies or operations. Many, of course, already pay their supervisors more than $50,440 a year and would be unaffected. Of the one-third that would make adjustments, most would do exactly what the rule contemplates: they would reduce the amount of overtime their supervisors work. Twice as many firms would raise the salary of their supervisors above the $50,440 threshold as would reduce their salary. And only 13 percent of the firms that said they would make a change would switch their supervisors from salary to hourly wage. In other words, just 4 percent of home builders would convert their salaried supervisors to hourly pay.

It is noteworthy that of the four top responses among the home builders who say they will make changes, two are undeniably positive—raising salaries and reducing overtime hours worked. Apparently, Ed Brady, the NAHB official who testified in the Small Business committee, is one of the few home builders in America who would contemplate outsourcing the role of construction supervisor in order to avoid paying overtime. Any contractor who employed that supervisor would have to deal with the same issues as Mr. Brady, and would charge for the costs they entail, plus a profit— so perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Brady is alone in planning to outsource his supervisors.

Clearly, the NAHB’s own evidence shows that DOL’s proposed changes in the overtime rules will have small, mostly positive effects on the homebuilding industry and its employees.

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Forced binding arbitration robs workers and consumers of basic rights

The New York Times has published two parts of a three-part series about the epidemic of arbitration clauses that have cropped up in millions of transactions between corporations and their customers and employees. The clauses are routinely included in employment contracts, cell-phone contracts, consumer product purchase agreements, cable subscriptions, rental agreements, and a multitude of financial transactions, as a way to prevent injured parties from having their day in court. Giving up the constitutionally protected right to sue in state or federal court is a big deal and is often the result of ignorance and deceit: millions of people have no idea the clauses are there in the fine print of contract provisions written in legalese that few individuals ever read or comprehend. They don’t find out they’ve lost their rights until they need them.

Individuals give up not just their right to go to court but all protections regarding the venue of any hearing their claim will receive (for example, the agreement might require arbitration in a city a thousand miles away). They might give up certain remedies and the right to appeal even if the arbitrator gets the law completely wrong, and give up the essential right to join with other victims to file a class action, especially important when each claim is small and no single individual could rationally pay to hire a lawyer and bring a lawsuit for such a small sum.

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Human resources group shoots at Obama overtime rule but misses

This will be the first in a series of blog posts examining some of the comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in response to its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on overtime pay for salaried employees. Approximately 300,000 comments have been acknowledged by DOL; I want to call attention to a few of the most salient comments, both pro and con.

I’ll start with the Human Resources Policy Association (HRPA), which claims to represent “the most senior human resource executives in more than 360 of the largest companies in the United States.” HRPA’s comment addresses both what DOL actually proposed as well as ideas it was merely considering. Three of HRPA’s criticisms are worth considering, though each is deeply flawed:

  1. The proposed salary level is too high because it “would effectively nullify the statutory exemption for a significant number of employees Congress meant to exempt.”
  2. The proposed rule would limit “workplace flexibility.”
  3. The rule should not index the salary level test.

The salary level proposed by DOL is modest and meets the congressional intent

HRPA’s argument that the salary level is too high begins with a misstatement of the role of the salary level test. It very clearly is not intended to set a “level at which the employees below it clearly would not meet any [executive, administrative, or professional (EAP)] duties test.” The salary level test would be redundant if the employees covered by it clearly would not meet any EAP duties test. In fact, DOL has long expressed the exact opposite intent. In the words of DOL’s 1949 report and recommendations, “the salary level must be high enough to include only those persons about whose exemption there is normally no question” (Weiss, 23).

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Workers 65 and Older Are 3 Times as Likely to Die From an On-the-Job Injury as the Average Worker

As the Boomers age and retirement insecurity forces workers to delay retirement, workers 55 and older are a growing part of the workforce. In 2014, older workers were 21 percent of the adult workforce based on hours worked—8 percentage points higher than their 13 percent share in 2000.

One unfortunate effect of this increased labor force participation is an increased exposure to workplace hazards, and with hazards come injuries and even death. Older workers are much more likely to be the victims of fatal occupational injuries than are younger workers. In 2014, nearly 35 percent of all fatal on-the-job injuries (1,621 of 4,679) occurred among the 21 percent of the workforce age 55 or older. The fatality rate for workers 65 and older is especially high—three times that of the overall workforce.

In the last year there was an alarming 9 percent increase in fatal workplace injuries among workers 55 and older, and a 17.7 percent increase among workers 65 and older. Nationwide, among all age groups, fatal workplace injuries rose from 4,585 in 2013 to 4,679 in 2014, an increase of 94 deaths. The increase in deaths among workers age 65 and older more than accounted for the entire increase in fatal on-the-job injuries.

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Will Republicans Cut Budgets for Worker Safety, Pension Protection, and Wage and Hour Enforcement?

The White House sent a Labor Day message from Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan about the many important issues affecting working Americans that will be decided in the next month of congressional budget negotiations. The message is well worth reading.

Donovan describes what he calls a “double-pronged attack on the workers we are celebrating today.” This attack includes deep cuts at the Wage and Hour Division, which protects workers against wage theft by crooked employers, and which collected $250 million in back pay for workers last year. Republicans also want limits on the use of third-party experts to accompany OSHA compliance officers on workplace safety inspections, where they can point out hazards OSHA might miss. They want to cut the budget and limit enforcement of the National Labor Relations Board’s rules to protect workers who join together for better working conditions. They want to block a new OSHA rule that will save thousands of workers from death, disabling lung disease, or cancer from inhaling silica dust. And they are trying to kill a new effort by the Department of Labor to protect retirees from financial advisors who put their own interests ahead of their clients’ interests.

None of the laws protecting working Americans from wage theft, on-the-job injury, unlawful retaliation, or self-dealing by financial advisors is meaningful if the government doesn’t enforce them. That takes resources and staff—investigators and lawyers who can take on big corporations or reckless businesses. Yet congressional Republicans want to cut funding for enforcement of all these laws. At OSHA, for example, Republicans want a 10 percent cut—$57 million, even though OSHA’s inspectors already can’t get to even one percent of workplaces in a year, and negligent employers put workers in harm’s way every day and kill nearly 100 employees a week.

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NLRB Decision in Browning-Ferris Restores Employer Accountability for Wages and Working Conditions

Last week’s decision by the National Labor Relations Board regarding Browning-Ferris Industries of California (BFI) is a big victory for working people and labor advocates. By holding that BFI is a joint employer with the staffing agency that provides all but a few of the workers at one of BFI’s recycling centers, the decision closes one of the many loopholes corporations use to avoid paying decent wages, Social Security and Medicare taxes, worker’s compensation premiums and unemployment insurance taxes, and to avoid even providing a safe workplace.

Millions of people work for employers that want their time, their sweat, and their creativity —but don’t want to treat them as employees. The companies have put middle-men between themselves and their workers and—– thanks to Reagan-era legal changes—have avoided their responsibilities, including the duty to recognize and bargain with employee unions. Now, after 30 years of watching corporations evade these obligations with the government’s blessing, the key labor agencies of the federal government are saying, “enough is enough.” The NLRB is following the lead of David Weil, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division administrator, who has begun cracking down on phony independent contractor arrangements.

This victory, like most labor victories these days, is bittersweet. On the one hand, whenever a government agency protects or expands the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, or holds a corporation accountable for its treatment of workers, it is a cause for celebration. On the other hand, all the BFI decision does is restore the law regarding joint employers to where it was until 1984. Things weren’t going all that well for the labor movement even before the Reagan era, and the BFI joint employer doctrine won’t level the playing field between workers and corporations. It just turns back the clock to a fairer set of rules.

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EPI research by Ross Eisenbrey

  • Unpaid interns fare worse in the job market

    July 6, 2016 | By Ross Eisenbrey | Economic Snapshot
  • Testimony on the Department of Labor’s regulation expanding overtime rights for salaried employees

    June 23, 2016 | By Ross Eisenbrey | Testimony
  • 4.5 million millennials will directly benefit from the new overtime rule

    May 19, 2016 | By Ross Eisenbrey | Economic Snapshot
  • The new overtime rule will benefit working people in every state

  • The new overtime rule will directly benefit 12.5 million working people: Who they are and where they live

    May 17, 2016 | By Ross Eisenbrey and Will Kimball | Report
  • Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship

    May 11, 2016 | By Ross Eisenbrey | Testimony