For 12 months, McClatchy reporters have been carefully digging into a pit of corruption, gathering payroll records in 28 states and interviewing hundreds of workers and business owners about an epidemic of tax cheating, wage theft, and exploitation in the construction industry. The extraordinary report of their investigation was published Thursday, and it’s hair-raising. More than one-third of the employees working on federally-funded projects in Texas and Florida, overseen by public housing authorities and monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor, were improperly classified as independent contractors. The contractors misclassified them in order to escape paying worker’s compensation premiums, unemployment insurance taxes, and FICA taxes, to avoid complying with immigration document requirements, and to avoid liability for labor law violations. In just Florida, Texas, and North Carolina, McClatchy estimates that half a million workers were misclassified, and that the state and federal governments were cheated out of approximately $2 billion in taxes as result.
The stories make the damage this does to the labor market utterly clear. Construction wages were lower in 2012 than they were in 1980, despite rising productivity and huge profits in the industry. Even skilled tradesmen like plumbers and electricians earned 12 to 14 percent less than thirty years ago. Labor law offers no protection to independent contractors, who are not entitled to the minimum wage, overtime pay, or the right to join a union and bargain collectively. Exploited workers—many of them undocumented immigrants who live in fear of deportation—work without adequate safety protections, sometimes receive far less than the pay they were promised, and are deprived of the safety net’s protections if they lose their jobs, are injured or disabled, or reach retirement age. They often live in slum conditions, even while working on luxurious and glitzy new housing.
The last several decades have been hard on working men and women in the United States. The decline of unions (which now represent just a little more than one sixteenth of private sector workers), job loss to Mexico, China, and other low wage countries, and a series of bad court decisions weakening the rights to effectively bargain a contract have left working Americans nearly defenseless, as wages stagnate or fall and traditional pension coverage disappears. The results are ugly: since 2000, 70 percent of Americans have seen no gain in wages, and wages have fallen for the bottom 40 percent. Traditional pensions are disappearing, to the point that less than 18 percent of workers still have this crucial benefit.
Despite that grim background, there is cause for hope, and three events this past week brought a big smile to my face and lifted my spirits. The biggest lift came from two court decisions in California and Oregon (I’m a lawyer, I can’t help it!), where a U.S. Court of Appeals struck down one of corporate America’s longest-running and most outrageous schemes to cheat workers and scam the government. FedEx, a giant in package delivery industry, has avoided payroll taxes, prevented union organizing, and escaped the laws that give workers meal breaks, overtime pay, sick leave, and family leave by entering into sham contracts with its 27,000 drivers in which it declares them to be independent contractors. Employees have employment rights, but independent contractors don’t.
An employer has to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for employees, as well as unemployment insurance taxes and worker’s compensation premiums—but not for independent contractors. So FedEx, while maintaining control over the minutest aspects of their working lives, called its drivers contractors—shifting all of the costs and risks off of FedEx and onto its employees. As described by Judge William Fletcher, FedEx “contracts with drivers to deliver packages to its customers. The drivers must wear FedEx uniforms, drive FedEx-approved vehicles, and groom themselves according to FedEx’s appearance standards. FedEx tells its drivers what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times. Although drivers may operate multiple delivery routes and hire third parties to help perform work on those routes, they may do so only with FedEx’s consent.”
I was saddened to learn of the death of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont this week. He was the rare politician who combined intelligence, humility, and a sense of humor, with a deep love for his state and his country. Like Sen. Paul Wellstone, Jeffords never held himself above the congressional staff who worked for him and around him, and he certainly didn’t hold himself above the people he represented, despite his Harvard and Yale degrees and his elevated position, which ultimately included service as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
When I first met Jeffords in 1982, he was a senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, already exercising an independent streak by opposing Ronald Reagan’s efforts to eliminate any role for the federal government in employment and training programs. He supported the Job Training Partnership Act, and got involved in the bill’s minutiae, sitting late at night with mostly Democratic staffers as the formulas for distributing funds to the states and local entities were worked out. By pushing to give greater weight to factors like poverty, unemployment, long-term unemployment, or total population in the formulas, a state like Vermont could see its funding change dramatically, and Jeffords made sure the staff assigned to negotiate and draft the bill pushed the right buttons for his state. He was the only member of Congress in the room.
I read two pieces about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce this morning: an op-ed in USA Today and an editorial in the Washington Post. Both reference a recent Census Bureau study, which found that only a quarter of bachelor’s degree graduates in STEM fields end up working in those fields. But from there, the two pieces head in very different directions.
The Post says Census got the number of STEM jobs wrong, because, in fact, one out of every five jobs requires STEM skills, even if the students end up working outside their field. That’s stretching definitions, though the idea that many STEM grads can use what they learn outside their field of study is certainly true. But, amazingly, the Post also says the numbers don’t really matter: “Whatever the number generated, it should not be seen as determining the need for STEM education.” Whether one STEM worker in four finds a job in his field of study, or only one in ten, the education is so valuable we can’t have too many STEM majors, according to the Post editorial. Why, even farmers should have STEM degrees because, “many farmers rely on genetic modification of crops.” That’s just silly. Many truck drivers rely on civil engineering, but they don’t need engineering degrees any more than a farmer planting hybrid corn needs a math or genetics degree.
The Post’s editors believe there’s no such thing as an oversupply of STEM graduates, but their editorial doesn’t review the boom and bust history of STEM graduate oversupply, or even mention what effect oversupply might have on the earnings or aspirations of the students who have paid for and worked to complete STEM bachelor degrees. By contrast, the USA Today authors (some of whom have done research with EPI before), all of whom are academics with close ties to actual students, do care about what happens to STEM grads after they leave school and look for work. They are rightly concerned that the wages of IT personnel have been flat for 16 years, and they worry that overproducing STEM grads, coupled with industry’s immigration proposal to triple the number of IT guestworkers, will suppress wage growth and deny IT workers the middle class security most would like, let alone a fair share of the tech industry’s fabulous profits.
Anyone who knows the shameful history of the U.S. response to Jewish refugees before World War II wants to avoid repeating it. As the Nazi genocide progressed, the United States turned its back on the Jews, infamously forcing the St. Louis, a ship with more than 900 German-Jewish refugee passengers, to sail back to Europe in June 1939 after it was refused entry to Cuba, rather than issuing visas to the refugees. President Franklin Roosevelt could have intervened through executive action, but chose not to in the face of the public’s anti-Semitism, worries about competition for scarce jobs, and isolationism. More than 250 of the St. Louis’s passengers eventually died in the Holocaust.
At the same time, Congress refused to take steps to save Jewish children who were fleeing Nazi violence and persecution. Bills introduced in the House and Senate to admit 20,000 German-Jewish children beyond the existing quotas were allowed to die in committee.
The United States had no role in the rise of the Nazis, but we are deeply involved in the political instability of Central America. We took sides in a civil war in El Salvador and supported a coup in Honduras. The United States bears a large part of the responsibility for the drug violence and armed conflict in Central America that are driving so many children from their home communities. We are the consumers of the drugs whose sale and transshipment enriches the drug gangs and fuels the drug wars. Without our insatiable consumption of illegal drugs, the drug violence would diminish. Moreover, as Jeff Faux has argued, without our militarization of the region and our billions of dollars of support for violent, right-wing governments and militias, large parts of the population would not live in terror. And finally, without our trade policies, which have disrupted the Central American economies and displaced tens of thousands of agricultural workers, there would be less of an economic incentive to immigrate to the United States.
Anti-government conservatives have been attacking public employees and their pensions for years, but the attacks picked up after the financial crisis in 2008, when the stock market crashed, leaving many public plans—and private plans, too—temporarily underfunded. Rather than going after Wall Street and searching for ways to prevent a repeat of the sub-prime mortgage crisis or too-big-to-fail banking, which threatened the entire economy (and not just public employee pensions), conservatives are trying to use the crisis to cut pension benefits. They want to claim that the current state of public pensions is somehow inevitable, even though it is unprecedented and clearly the result of the market crash. They want people to ignore the cause of the pension plans’ underfunding and simply do away with them, replacing them with individual accounts, just as they want to destroy Social Security and replace it into private accounts.
As part of this anti-pension campaign, National Review Online recently published a story with the provocative headline, “How the High Costs of Public-Sector Pensions Affect States’ Economic Growth.” The story, in fact, has nothing to do with economic growth. Instead, it describes a report that simply ranks the states on the size of their pension plans’ underfunding, while admitting that its data are out-of-date, which “argues for caution in interpreting this or any study on current public pension funding.”
The Court’s Harris v. Quinn Decision Undermines Home Health Care and Further Weakens Collective Bargaining Rights
Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Harris v Quinn was destructive in several ways. It undermines the unionization that has been transforming home health care from a rock-bottom, minimum wage job with no respect and no benefits into something much better. That, in turn, could worsen the care provided the disabled by lowering pay, making the profession less attractive, and worsening turnover. The nakedly political decision damages the constitution and the credibility of the Court. And the majority opinion foretells even greater damage for public employee unionization and collective bargaining when the Court revisits these issues again.
The Court held that the historically disadvantaged , mostly female home-care workers (“personal assistants”) and their union have lesser rights than “full-fledged public employees” because the state is not their employer for all purposes—though it is for the crucial purposes of bargaining their wages and benefits. Because of that, in the Court’s view the employees’ union and the state don’t have a great enough interest in labor stability to enforce a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that requires all covered employees to pay their fair share of the costs of bargaining and enforcing the contract (an agency fee). Dissenting employees get a free ride, because in the Court’s view, their right not to pay the agency fee is more important than the right of the majority of home-care workers to have an effective union that will raise their wages far beyond the cost of the agency fee. That balancing is plainly wrong and reflects Justice Alito’s 19th century dislike of unions, his hostility to the government’s duty to “promote the general welfare,” and his contempt for majority rule. (So what if a majority of the employees voted to require the fair share provision?)
The Supreme Court is about to issue a decision on a case that could hit working people—especially working women—right in the paycheck. Harris v. Quinn is about isolating individual workers so they are weak and unable to protect themselves in a labor market that fails to reward their hard work. By weakening the unions that have organized home care workers, given them a voice, and helped them win wage and benefit increases that are lifting many of them out of poverty, Harris v. Quinn could block the road to economic opportunity for a largely female, economically disadvantaged workforce. Right-wing groups want the public to think Harris v. Quinn is as a case about freedom of speech and association; they pretend it is about protection of the individual—but how does it protect an individual if the end result is a smaller paycheck?
American workers, by and large, have suffered from stagnant wages for decades. At the same time, the percent of working Americans in unions or covered by union contracts has been falling. Studies suggest that a substantial part of this wage stagnation is the result of eroded unionization, as fewer workers, both union and nonunion, benefit from the unions’ ability to improve wage standards in particular industries and occupations. The consequence: profits have reached historic highs, CEO pay is in the stratosphere, but workers are not sharing in the nation’s ever-increasing wealth.
Almost anything that worsens these trends ought to be avoided, including anything that weakens unions or makes it harder for workers to bargain successfully. Americans need a raise: more pay for the work they do, better benefits, and more regular hours, and they need help in getting it. On their own, the ability of individual Walmart cashiers, for example, or Amazon’s warehouse workers to get a raise is negligible. But collectively, if they can join together and bargain as a group, they would have a chance to exert enough leverage to make the companies listen to their demands. The players in the NFL, MLB and NBA all know that what they have won had to be wrested from management.
Today, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and eight co-sponsors introduced legislation to restore overtime protections for low- and mid-wage salaried workers. The Restoring Overtime Pay for Working Americans Act would guarantee overtime pay for millions of salaried workers earning less than $52,000 a year.
Americans are working longer hours and are more productive than ever—yet wages are largely flat or falling. Indeed, the median worker saw a wage increase of just 5.0 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite overall productivity growth of 74.5 percent. One reason Americans’ paychecks are not keeping pace with their productivity is that millions of middle-class and even lower-middle-class workers are working overtime and not getting paid for it. This is because the federal wage and hour law is out of date—and especially the regulation that sets the salary level below which all employees must be paid time-and-a-half for their overtime hours.
Updating overtime rules is one important step in giving Americans the raises they deserve. If the threshold is raised from its current $455 per week ($23,660 annually) to $984 per week ($51,168 per year, the threshold’s 1975 level, adjusted for inflation) millions of salaried workers would be guaranteed the right to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours in a week.
This bill would go above and beyond the recent announcement by President Obama in strengthening overtime pay regulations. I salute Sen. Harkin for taking up this issue and calling for a reasonable salary level, indexed for inflation, along the lines Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and I have advocated. Sen. Harkin led the battle in Congress in 2004 to block a set of very detrimental changes the Bush administration made to the overtime rules. While Sen. Harkin was not entirely successful, he did force the Bush Labor Department to issue a final rule that was less damaging than its first proposal. It’s heartening to see that both Sen. Harkin and his colleagues, along with the Obama administration, continue to believe that low and mid-level workers should be paid when they work overtime. If more workers were paid time-and-a-half when they worked overtime, it would boost the economy and show that in America, hard work pays off.
If I told you that the legislature of State X is going to make it easier for workers in the state, including public employees, to earn overtime pay, you might wonder what effect that would have on employment in the state. What if the cost to employers from having to pay more workers time and a half for overtime is so high that it causes businesses to move to a neighboring state that has a weaker requirement? Or what if it raises costs and employers respond by laying off employees?
Those fears are being raised by groups like the National Retail Federation, the Heritage Foundation, and the CATO Institute, all of which oppose President Obama’s plan to revise the Fair Labor Standards Act regulations that govern the right to overtime pay. The president wants to make it easier for relatively low-paid employees to earn overtime pay when they work more than forty hours in a week, but the conservative business lobbyists are already yelling about job loss—with no real explanation or evidence that job loss is a realistic outcome.
Fortunately, California provides a kind of natural experiment about what happens when more workers have a right to overtime pay, and the results are reassuring. Regardless of their job duties, California law guarantees overtime pay to employees earning less than $640 per week, while its neighboring states—Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon—only guarantee overtime pay to workers paid less than $455 per week, less than a poverty level wage for a family of four. Other rules in California make it harder for employers to deny overtime pay to even better paid workers whose jobs include duties that could be considered managerial or professional. In California, but not in its neighboring states, an employee has to spend a majority of his time doing managerial or professional work in order to be excluded from the right to receive overtime pay.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide Harris v. Quinn, a case of major importance for American workers, in the next few days. Many observers predict a disastrous decision that will cripple union organizing and collective bargaining for home health aides, child care workers, and other direct care aides. But the Court could go much further and threaten the ability of all public employees to form unions and bargain collectively with any state or local government.
The case involves the ability of public employees to bargain for a provision in their contracts (known as an agency fee) requiring every covered worker to pay his or her fair share of the cost of maintaining the union, negotiating a contract, and enforcing its provisions. A majority of states allow such provisions, but so-called right-to-work states do not.
Why is this so important? Wages in most occupations have stagnated or fallen since 2000, even as profits have climbed to historic heights and inequality has worsened. The erosion of the minimum wage, rising CEO pay, and many other factors have played a role, but the decline of unions is near the top in importance. Business and conservative groups have lobbied around the nation to impose right-to-work as a way to weaken unions and keep wages low. It’s a successful strategy: research shows that workers in right-to-work states are paid $1,500 a year less, on average, than employees where unions are free to bargain for agency fees. Negotiating and administering union contracts, organizing employees, and winning elections is expensive, especially when outside groups and politicians mount well-funded opposition campaigns, as recently occurred at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, TN. Right-to-work laws allow employees to get the benefits of union contracts without paying their fair share, drying up a key source of the funds unions need to survive.
A recent story from NPR’s Andrew Schneider, about a construction boom and skilled labor shortage in Texas, is missing some of the links needed to understand what is happening there and why. The elements are all there: the huge loss of construction jobs following the financial crisis in 2008, the energy boom creating jobs regionally even while construction employment nationally remains about a million and a half jobs lower than its peak, a decline in unauthorized immigration, and contractors grudgingly increasing pay to attract workers.
The two missing links are the role of the construction owner, like Chevron, in crushing the unions that provide skilled journeymen in the construction trades, and a clear discussion of the wage levels needed to attract skilled workers from parts of the country the recovery hasn’t reached. The story says wages are rising in Texas, but from what to what? Are wage levels high enough to persuade a journeyman electrician from Michigan or Los Angeles to relocate to Houston? Or are they unreasonably low, given the scarcity of skilled workers and the years of training required to produce a journeyman? How do union wages compare with non-union wages? The story never says.
Oil giants like Chevron can afford to have their construction contractors pay well for skilled work, but they resist. Organizations they fund, such as the Business Roundtable, have led a decades-long campaign to weaken or destroy the building trades unions that actually train the greatest number of skilled tradesmen. Chevron, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and many other energy industry corporations fund the American Legislative Exchange Council and its legislative efforts to kill unions and eliminate labor standards. It’s hard to hear Chevron complain about a labor shortage when Chevron and other Fortune 500 companies themselves are a major cause. They don’t merely fight unionization, they also oppose the state and federal prevailing wage laws that protect construction wages from being driven lower and allow union apprenticeship programs to continue providing the best-trained workers.
Schneider is wrong to suggest that community college vocational training programs are the long-term solution to the shortage of skilled labor in Texas. The real solution is to restore the power and reach of the unions, raise wages to attract more workers, and grow the only proven way to develop the necessary skilled labor—apprenticeship programs funded by employers and jointly administered by unions and employers.
No Sign of Labor Shortages in Construction: There are Seven Unemployed Construction Workers for Every Job Opening
The National Association of Home Builders wants you to believe their members face a serious shortage of construction workers, even though construction employment is more than 1.7 million jobs below its pre-recession peak, and unemployed construction workers outnumber job openings in construction by well over seven-to-one. More and more news stories, even in respected sources like NPR and the Wall Street Journal, repeat the builders’ talking points and toss around wage figures with very limited resemblance to reality. (A healthy dose of skepticism is in order when employers complain about high wages. How many tile setters make “$100,000 a year,” which the WSJ story suggests is now the pay for experienced workers in Denver? Not many. The median hourly wage for tile setters in Denver is less than $18 an hour, and nationally, even the 90th percentile wage for tile setters is only $73,510 a year.)
The best way to identify a tight labor market, let alone a market beset by actual labor shortages, is to examine wages. Basically, if wages aren’t rising, the labor market isn’t tightening; if they don’t rise strongly, there are no shortages. As Adam S. Posen and David Blanchflower argue in a recent paper, if wages aren’t rising, it’s a sign of labor slack, weak demand, and a weak economy.
So what’s happening in residential construction? The Wall Street Journal describes a frenzied search for skilled labor, causing pay to soar “to boom-time levels and beyond.” While it’s true that construction wages have risen over the past two years, they’ve risen from such a deep depression that they are still well below the levels of 2009. In fact, the real hourly wages of residential building workers are still 4.2% below 2009, a loss significantly deeper than that of the overall private sector workforce, whose wages are 0.9 percent below 2009.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) is a nice, older man who remembers the years of his youth with a golden glow. His father owned a shoe store, so Enzi had a comfortable life. He went to college and eventually took over his dad’s business. He says he was paid the minimum wage when he started out as a “stock boy,” so he ought to have some empathy for minimum wage workers today, many of whom don’t have business owners for fathers and have to support themselves and other family members, as well.
But instead, Enzi voted against raising the minimum wage in the U.S. Senate yesterday. In fact, he voted against even bringing the issue up for debate. He doesn’t think today’s minimum wage workers are worth as much as he was. Back in 1963, when Enzi was 19, the minimum wage was $1.25, which would be $9.65 today. Enzi doesn’t want to debate a bill to raise the minimum from $7.25 an hour, apparently believing that he was worth $2.40 an hour more than today’s minimum wage workers, many of whom are in their thirties, veterans, or parents. More than 40% of those who would benefit from an increase to $10.10 an hour have been to college and have more education than Enzi did when he earned the minimum wage.
Why doesn’t Enzi think these workers are worth as much as he was? As Paul Whitfield reports in the Los Angeles Times, Sen. Enzi says today’s workers “don’t know how to interrupt their texting to wait on a customer.” Really? More than half of the workers who would benefit from a raise to $10.10 an hour are over 30, and more than 1 in 10 are at least 55 years old.
Whether from scorn or simple lack of empathy for their fellow citizens, Enzi and his fellow Republican senators who have voted against helping the long-term unemployed, voted to cut families off food stamps, or voted to deny workers an increase in the minimum wage to the level of purchasing power Enzi received 50 years ago are consistent in pulling up the ladder of opportunity after climbing it themselves—or after having been set at the top by family circumstances. From way up there in the one percent, the people at the bottom apparently look undeserving.
EPI Stands By the Rigorous Methods and Findings of Its Report on Privately Run Charter Schools and the Rocketship Company
Last week EPI published the report Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, authored by University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate. The paper includes a detailed examination of a “blended learning” model of education that replaces teachers with online learning for part of the school day, long a source of controversy in education policy debates. This approach is exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools, which is being promoted for expansion in Milwaukee.
EPI maintains the highest standards of rigorous research, and this report is no exception. Dr. Lafer’s description of Rocketship’s model was largely based on Rocketship’s own corporate documents, which were cited repeatedly in the report. In addition, the author interviewed Rocketship representatives both in Milwaukee and at the company’s national headquarters, including several top executives.
After the report was published, the author emailed a copy to Rocketship executives, inviting their comment and specifically asking them to identify any particular facts in the report they might believe to be incorrect.
While Rocketship responded by issuing a statement denouncing EPI’s report, the statement is a recitation of talking points rather than a rebuttal of the report’s rigorously researched and meticulously documented findings. Indeed, the company has not identified a single inaccurate fact in the report. Further, neither this report nor EPI as an organization is opposed to charter schools per se; indeed, the report concludes with proposals for accountability standards that would allow charter schools to function on an equal footing with public schools.
Andy Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants (Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.). Bloomberg reported his 2012 salary and other compensation as $4.485 million, so he is doing well in what he likes to deride as the Obama economy. His restaurant chain is doing well, too, apparently, since its profits reportedly rose more than 30 percent last year. (So much for overregulation!)
But Puzder is opposed to President Obama’s proposal to update the Department of Labor’s overtime rules, an update Puzder claims would turn CKE’s poorly paid assistant managers into “glorified crew members.” Those rules have been updated only once in the last 39 years and are so obsolete that workers earning less than the poverty level can be considered “executives” and denied overtime pay even if they work so many extra hours that their pay falls below the minimum wage. But that helps Puzder make a bigger profit, so he says leave the rules alone.
One thing is certain: Puzder won’t let any rule change reduce the millions he takes home from CKE. He wants us to know he will take it out of his employees, one way or another. As Puzder says, “overtime pay has to come from somewhere, most likely reduced hours, reduced salaries or reduced bonuses.”
The Supreme Court is deliberating in a case that will decide whether in-home personal care and home health aides are allowed to unionize and bargain agreements with government agencies. The case will also decide whether their contracts can require every aide who benefits from the collective bargaining agreement to pay her fair share in agency fees (or dues, if she is a union member). These collective bargaining agreements have made a huge difference in the lives of the overwhelmingly female and disproportionately minority workforce that cares for the sick and disabled, the frail elderly and small children in their homes or in the homes of the customers.
Until the 1990’s, when states and counties across the nation began creating public entities to act as employers and bargain collectively with the workers’ unions, the in-home care workers rarely were paid more than the minimum wage, they had no coverage for health or dental insurance and no pension or retirement plan. Even today, after almost two decades of progress, half of these workers have incomes less than twice the poverty level and they earn far less than workers in other occupations – even after taking into account gender, age, race, education, and geography.
But where in-home aides have been permitted to unionize and bargain collectively they have improved pay and benefits, training, retention, and the safety of clients and workers alike. In Illinois, where the Supreme Court case challenging unionization arose, the latest contract includes $13.00 an hour pay, health and dental insurance, a grievance procedure, and paid training hours – a huge improvement over what was formerly minimum wage work with no benefits and no respect.
For decades, Americans’ wages have been stagnant—hardly growing at all, even as the economy becomes increasingly productive. Do you ever wonder why your paycheck is so thin? One reason might be that employers routinely ask workers to work long hours without extra compensation. President Obama has decided to fix this problem and will direct the U.S. Department of Labor to update its overtime regulations, which allow employers to deny overtime pay to millions of white collar workers who ought to receive it.
The salary threshold is supposed to be set at a level high enough to guarantee that regular employees can’t be misclassified by their employers as exempt executives, administrators or professionals, as a way to get around having to pay time-and-a-half for overtime work. Back in the days when the level was regularly adjusted, it was set at about $50,000-$60,000 a year in today’s dollars, which is reasonable and was high enough to protect most secretaries from being classified as exempt administrators, for example, and research assistants from being classified as exempt professionals. Today, the threshold is set at $455 a week, or $23,660 a year—$190 less than the poverty threshold for a family of four. Quite frankly, it’s a joke.
It is remarkable that until this week, no American politician has had the guts or vision to speak out against one of the most destructive trends in our troubled labor market—the scourge of illegal unpaid internships. But thank goodness for Hillary Clinton, who, as reported by Politico, “spoke passionately about millennials, blasting businesses that take advantage of unpaid interns.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act makes most unpaid internships in for-profit businesses illegal because the so-called internships are usually nothing more than employment, with no special educational purpose or structure and no pay. The U.S. Department of Labor has made clear that interns must be paid at least the minimum wage unless the business that hires them meets six criteria:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
According to the National Journal, Clinton, who was addressing an audience at UCLA, “warned there is a “youth unemployment crisis” created by the weak economy they inherited, and stressed the need for more opportunities such as paid job training. She decried—to applause from the audience—businesses that have “taken advantage” of young people with unpaid internships.”
I love the New York Times. But its reporters’ slant on public employee pensions has been driving me crazy, and the latest story by Mary Williams Walsh and Rick Lyman didn’t help. Walsh has been carrying a vendetta against public pensions for many years, so it is no surprise that the article makes the unsupportable claim that none of the 40 state pension overhauls has “come close to closing their pension gaps quickly enough to keep pace with a rapidly agingand retiring—public work force.” I leave it to the reader to fully decipher that statement, but it seems to reflect the story’s headline, that “Public Pension Tabs Multiply as States Defer Costs and Hard Choices.” It implies that despite the states’ pension overhauls, things are getting worse everywhere because public employees are aging and retiring faster than the financing is improving. It’s surely meant to be alarming, as is the chart of Moody’s Investor Service data showing 13 states with “unfunded pension liability greater than annual revenue.”
Moody’s, itself, tells a different story. Moody’s points out that its data are 20 months old and don’t reflect current balance sheets or the enormous market gains of the last 18-20 months. Moody’s points out that “A run-up in financial markets has helped shrink public pension shortfalls” since June 30, 2012, because “Investment returns provide the lion’s share of the retirement systems’ revenue”:
But fiscal 2012 ended for most states on June 30, 2012, and since then, a run-up in financial markets has helped shrink public pension shortfalls. Investment returns provide the lion’s share of the retirement systems’ revenue, and in 2013, pensions’ holdings reached record amounts.
That could make fiscal 2012 the high-water mark for pension problems that have rocked state governments over the last decade and led to a wave of pension reforms recently, according to Moody’s.
Pension liabilities “for 2012 may reflect a cyclical peak as a result of subsequent strong market returns and a rising interest rate trend,” the rating agency said.”
This is black history month. It is also the month that the Emergency Manager who took political power and control from the mostly African American residents of Detroit has presented his plan to bring the city out of the bankruptcy he steered it into. This is black history in the making, and I hope the nation will pay attention to who wins and who loses from the Emergency Manager’s plan.
Black people are by far the largest racial or ethnic population in Detroit, which has the highest percentage of black residents of any American city with a population over 100,000. Eighty-three percent of the city’s 701,000 residents are black. It continues to be an underreported story that a white state legislature and white governor took over the city and forced it to file for bankruptcy against the will of its elected representatives. It is also underreported that white governors and the white state legislature failed to provide Detroit with its fair share of state tax revenues – a significant contributor to the city’s current financial distress.
Detroit’s bankruptcy plan calls for the near-elimination of the retiree health benefits that city workers earned over the years, as well as drastic cuts in the pensions that retired and current workers have earned and counted on. It is telling, I think, that for the first time since the Michigan constitution was adopted 50 years ago, the governor chose in this case to ignore the Michigan constitution’s guarantee that public employee pension benefits will be paid in full, given that Detroit’s public workforce is majority black and represented by unions that opposed the governor’s election.
I was glad to see the United Auto Workers (UAW) file objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the nasty campaign by anti-union Tennessee politicians to affect the results of the union election at Volkswagen last week. It would be so enlightening for the NLRB to question Sen. Corker (R-Tenn.) under oath about his alleged conversations with the “real decision makers” at VW, the supposed source of his threat/promise that voting in the UAW would doom the VW plant’s hopes for expansion. Was Corker lying, or were VW executives breaking their neutrality agreement with the UAW and using Corker to help defeat the union? If he was VW’s secret agent, the election should be set aside.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled yesterday that the Department of Labor’s H-2B visa wage methodology regulation is valid, handing a defeat to a coalition of employers who want to keep wages low for employees in forestry, seafood, hospitality, landscaping and other physically demanding jobs. In Louisiana Forestry Association v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, the court held that the Immigration and Nationality Act gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to rely on the Labor Department’s decisions about whether U.S. workers are available for jobs that employers want to offer to foreign workers, and whether U.S. workers will be adversely affected if foreign workers are admitted to the U.S. to do particular jobs.
The Labor Department issued a regulation in 2011 that sets out the most important element for making that determination: setting a prevailing wage rate for each occupation and requiring businesses to advertise jobs to workers in the United States at that rate before hiring foreign workers. The court held that the regulation is valid and rejected the businesses’ argument that the Department of Labor cannot set wages at a level high enough to attract U.S. workers.
Senators from States with High Long-Term Unemployment Will Decide the Fate of Emergency Unemployment Compensation
The U. S. Senate is about to vote again on providing unemployment compensation for millions of jobless people who are still looking for work after exhausting their regular state unemployment benefits, which usually happens after 26 weeks. The emergency program, which had been in place since the recession hit in 2008, expired at the end of last year. More than 1.6 million people who would have gotten some help have been cut off, left without the income they desperately need to pay their bills and put food on the table. The Senate is expected to vote tomorrow on a brief, three-month extension.
Senators in several states with very high shares of people who have been jobless for more than six months have not signaled which way they will vote: Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire (31.6% of the unemployed are long-term), Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio (34.6% of the jobless are long-term), Sen. Ron Kirk of Illinois (41.3% of the unemployed are long-term), and Sen. Dan Coates of Indiana (29.1% of the unemployed are long-term). The unemployment rate in Illinois (8.6%), in Indiana (6.9%), and Ohio (7.2%), is above the national average.
Even though weekly unemployment insurance benefits average less than $300 a week, they make a huge difference to families that might otherwise have no income at all. They can also have a powerful, positive impact on the economy. EPI’s Heidi Shierholz and Lawrence Mishel estimate that continuing the full program of emergency long-term unemployment compensation would have supported more than 300,000 jobs in 2014. The much-reduced program the Senate will debate tomorrow will affect far fewer workers and have a smaller, but still positive impact on jobs and the economy.
University of Oregon labor scholar and EPI research associate Gordon Lafer often points out how relatively poor the quality of life is in right-to-work states, on average, compared to states that don’t restrict union contract rights.
Politico just came out with a new ranking of the 50 states, on a combination of 14 different measures of quality of life, including “high school graduation rates, per capita income, life expectancy and crime rate.” Then they average those 14 to create one overall ranking of the states.
The outcome suggests the opposite of corporate assertions that “right-to-work” states are doing better than others. According to Politico, 4 of the 5 best states to live in are non-right-to-work. In order, they are New Hampshire, Minnesota, Vermont, Utah, and Massachusetts.
Right-to-work states account for 8 of the 10 worst states, and all 5 of the 5 worst states (in order, from 46th-50th: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississsippi). The majority of RTW states are not only in the bottom half of the country, but in the bottom 20 of the 50 states.
Lafer’s home state, Oregon, where corporate backers are trying to pass a public sector right-to-work law, is ranked 23rd, outperforming nearly 2/3 of the states that currently have RTW laws.
As President Obama searches for ways to improve the wages of American workers by giving them a boost in bargaining for better job quality with their employers, he is limited by the dysfunctionality of Congress, which because of Republican opposition is unlikely to help even with a minimum wage increase. But the president, who manages the vast amount of work the government does through private contractors, should consider what he can do to set reasonable standards for the pay and compensation of the millions of employees of those federal contractors.
As EPI has estimated again and again, far too many people working for private firms— but for the benefit of the federal government, with their wages ultimately paid by the taxpayers—are likely working for poverty wages. This is unacceptable; it is damaging to those workers and their families, and it hurts the economy by reducing demand for goods and services—currently a problem of crisis proportions.
In November 2000, an EPI briefing paper by Chauna Brocht, The Forgotten Workforce, estimated that 162,000 federal contract workers earned less than the then-poverty level wage of $8.20 an hour (by poverty-level wage, we mean a wage for a full-time, full-year worker that would not lift a family of four out of official poverty). Most of the low-wage employers were large businesses and most were defense contractors.
Seth Harris’s Legacy: Lives Saved, Wages Restored, Pensions Secured, and a More Effective U.S. Department of Labor
The Deputy Secretary of Labor for the last five years is not well known outside his agency (deputy secretaries are never well known, they’re supposed to avoid the limelight), but his record—the Department’s record of achievement during his tenure—deserves to be known and praised by every American who cares about justice and an economy that delivers shared prosperity. Seth D. Harris was appointed by President Obama in 2009, but he had already spent eight years at the Department as an aide and counselor to Secretary Robert Reich and as an Assistant Secretary under Secretary Alexis Herman. As Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said yesterday, no official since Frances Perkins in the 1930s has understood every aspect of the agency’s mission as thoroughly as Seth Harris, and the agency was much smaller then! It’s unlikely that anyone so knowledgeable will ever serve at the Department of Labor (DOL) again.
When Harris and Secretary Hilda Solis took office in 2009, the Department of Labor was a demoralized agency with poor operating systems and a disappointing record of declining enforcement and regulations that undermined the agency’s mission in important ways. With Secretary Solis’s support, Deputy Secretary Harris, as chief operating officer of the department, completely turned things around.
Whenever a new law is passed (usually before it passes), well-placed lobbyists attempt to make exceptions to the general rules, to insert exemptions for their clients. Thus, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act has exceptions for companies that harvest shellfish, for summer camps, for ski resorts in national forests, and many others. Some of these exceptions make sense, but many defy logic. Why, for example, should “motion picture theatres” be exempt from overtime pay requirements?
Prince George’s County recently raised its minimum wage to $11.50 in several increments over three years, and special interest pleading has begun. The first in line is apparently Six Flags, an amusement park that claims paying a higher minimum wage would create a special burden. Why? Because it claims it won’t hire as many teenagers and seniors if their wages are increased.
The company’s argument assumes that there is a necessary trade-off between paying seniors and teens a living wage and employing as many of them as it has. But is that true? Will higher wages compel the company to reduce its staff?
The biggest lie in Washington might be the claim that government regulation is strangling business and making it impossible to earn a profit. The clearest evidence that this is a lie is the fact that business profits are at an all-time high. The chiefs and bosses of those businesses are doing very well, too, with CEO pay soaring far beyond any rational relationship to the pay of average workers.
Yet “too much regulation” remains the cry of the Chamber of Commerce and scores of other business lobbying groups, and it gets taken seriously by the media and by Congress, which is always looking for some reward to give corporate lobbyists for their electoral support. The latest goody is a provision in the House farm bill poorly named the ‘Sound Science’ provision, which is intended to damage the ability of federal agencies to regulate anything that relies on a scientific justification.
Section 12307 requires agencies to develop guidelines not just for making scientific judgments, but for governing how “scientific information is considered.” These guidelines would be wasteful make-work in any case because the agencies are already subject to direction by OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But they are much worse than that, because they open up every regulatory action, including “the listing, labeling, or other identification of a substance, product, or activity as hazardous or creating risk to human health, safety, or the environment,” to judicial intervention.
In a teaser for a talk he gave yesterday about poverty and the congressional fight over Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Sen. Marco Rubio’s office circulated a ‘fact sheet’ that was as ill-informed and self-contradictory as the speech that followed it. For example, the fact sheet said we need unemployment assistance, but hinted that it shouldn’t be in the form of weekly benefit checks:
“Unemployment assistance must remain an important part of our social safety net, but these programs have to do more than simply provide a paycheck; they must be reformed to help people secure middle class jobs. … [W]e should redirect funds away from the federal government and steer them directly to states, while at the same time incentivizing work through a new, direct wage enhancement credit for lower income workers and the working poor.”
Unemployment insurance does not, in fact, have to do more than provide a check. It is intended to do one very important thing: provide income to people who have lost jobs through no fault of their own while they continue to search for new employment. It is not job training. It won’t provide a college degree or a license to practice a profession. It’s meant to keep people in their homes with food on the table until they can find a new job. And finding a job isn’t easy when there are three workers searching for each vacant position. UI has an ancillary benefit, in that it increases aggregate demand and supports jobs that would be lost without it, but its fundamental purpose is to help deserving people survive hard times with dignity. And that benefit depends precisely on checks being sent to the jobless, cashed, and spent.