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.
Jim Tankersley has an amusing piece about Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, who is trying to distract attention from JPMorgan’s London Whale fiasco, its $13 billion settlement of charges relating to abusive trading in mortgage backed securities, and its role in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, by talking about the ”skills gap.“ Tankersley is appropriately skeptical about the so-called skills gap, which has become the chief excuse of the 1% for wage stagnation and rising inequality. His story’s first line is: “Jamie Dimon has no problem finding skilled workers to hire.”
Dimon himself admits, there’s not much evidence of a skills gap in the banking business: “If I travel all around America, a lot of people talk about the skills gap. We don’t see it ourselves that much.” So what about the rest of American industry? Apparently, Dimon doesn’t really know much, other than hearsay: “But if you go to Silicon Valley, they will talk about nothing but the lack of—they used to call them computer engineers, now they call them software writers. If you go to some of the manufacturing companies, they’ll talk about the lack of technical skills.” Silicon Valley companies do “talk” about a skills gap, but the claim that there are severe IT shortages is contradicted by a good deal of economic evidence that suggests the talk is self-serving.
Today’s New York Times published one of the most important stories yet about the Detroit bankruptcy, a story that shines a harsh light on the financial institutions whose tricky deal-making helped tank the city’s finances. At the heart of the story is Detroit’s decision to enter into swap contracts that were spectacularly ill-advised. Mary Williams Walsh gives us the history:
“Detroit entered into the swap contracts back in 2005, when it tapped the municipal bond market for $1.4 billion to put into its workers’ pension funds. Much of the deal was structured with variable-rate debt, and the swaps were intended to work as a hedge, to protect Detroit if interest rates rose. But as things turned out, rates went down, and under those circumstances, the terms of the swaps called for Detroit to make regular payments to UBS and Merrill Lynch Capital Services, now part of Bank of America. Detroit has been doing so, even in bankruptcy. The swaps now cost it about $36 million a year.
“In retrospect, it seems clear that Detroit was already struggling in 2005 and was a poor candidate to borrow the $1.4 billion. The borrowing required an unusual structure to avoid violating the city’s legal debt limit. In 2009, the debt was downgraded to junk, putting the city out of compliance with the terms of the swaps. So Detroit restructured the swap obligations, offering the two banks the tax revenue that it received from local casinos as a backstop.”
I don’t usually associate the American Enterprise Institute with compassion for the unemployed or anything, really, other than pro-business, anti-government policy prescriptions and rhetoric. So I was surprised and heartened by a thoughtful post by AEI Money & Politics blogger James Pethokoukis, who skewers the notion that cutting unemployment benefits will spur job creation.
Pethokoukis analyzes the effect of reductions in weekly benefit levels and total weeks of unemployment compensation enacted in North Carolina this summer—cuts so draconian they led to the state being kicked out of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program that provides weekly benefits to long-term jobless workers. North Carolina Republicans claimed the cuts would force lazy workers to find jobs, thereby solving the state’s unemployment crisis.
Instead, as Pethokoukis shows, tens of thousands of North Carolinians stopped looking for jobs that weren’t there once they were cut off from weekly benefits (which are only paid to people who are actively seeking paid employment). The labor force participation rate fell nearly a full percentage point, as 42,656 workers gave up looking and dropped out of the labor force. If they hadn’t, according to Pethokoukis, “the state’s jobless rate would have increased to 9.1% rather than sharply declining.” University of California at Berkley economist Jesse Rothstein predicted this dropout effect in a 2011 paper he presented at EPI, which disputed the notion that unemployment insurance causes significant unemployment.
Hopefully, the North Carolina experience will help persuade House Republicans like Dave Camp to stop arguing that killing the EUC program will boost employment. As EPI and the CBO have shown, paying out $25 billion in EUC in 2014 will help the economy, not hurt it. Killing the program won’t help a single unemployed person find work, but will instead depress aggregate consumer demand and cost the economy 310,000 jobs.
In a swift reaction to ugly publicity about suicides, injuries, and mistreatment of workers, Biel Crystal, one of Apple’s most important suppliers of touchscreen cover glass for its iPhones, reached an agreement with the Chinese labor rights group, SACOM, to take three steps toward better conditions by January 2014:
- Clear work contracts for workers that include details on terms of contract, terms of probation, position, affiliated department. The company also will not ask workers to turn in the contract when work relation ends.
- Compensation and assistance for injured workers in accordance with China’s Regulation on Work, related injury insurance and adequate measures to protect workers from work injury.
- One day off every seven working days.
These very basic protections might seem like minimal progress, but in light of the appalling conditions at Biel Crystal’s plant, even providing limited basic protections is welcome.
The fact that the company has acknowledged such significant shortcomings in these fundamental areas of labor rights shows just how far Apple is from living up to its commitments to decent labor conditions throughout its supplier chain. It should be a reminder to all who follow Apple that the recent report by its hand-picked monitor, the Fair Labor Association, was little more than a whitewash that covered up the truly horrendous labor conditions in the factories that make Apple products. The FLA’s investigation also assessed conditions for less than one-fifth of the workers in Apple’s supply chain and thus missed gross violations at other factories, such as at the Biel Crystal plant.
Farmworker Justice, the tiny but tireless organization that advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, held a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act (AWPA), a federal law designed to help farmworkers get paid and obtain safe transportation to the fields without fear of retaliation. I worked on the legislation and the implementing regulations 30 years ago as a staffer for Rep. Bill Ford, so I listened with mixed emotions as lawyers familiar with the Act outlined both how the law has helped and where it has fallen short.
AWPA did not change the basic powerlessness of migrant farmworkers, especially the undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America who do most of the farm work in the West and Southwest. As Hector Sanchez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Mary Bauer, a legal aid attorney from Virginia, put it, farmworkers still live and work in Third World conditions here in the U.S., the richest country on earth. They are often housed in shacks, trailers, cars, or even chicken coops with no plumbing.
On Monday, Paul Krugman dissected the Republican view that emergency unemployment insurance should be ended, throwing 1.3 million jobless workers into immediate financial crisis. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for example, claims that unemployment compensation keeps workers from taking jobs and that people should be cut off from unemployment benefits after six months to keep them from becoming dependent. The fact is, as Krugman points out, there are far more people looking for work than there are job openings, and for two out of three unemployed workers it is literally impossible to find a job, no matter how hard they work or how small a paycheck they are willing to work for.
The notion that people would rather get unemployment compensation than a job ignores how low weekly benefits actually are. In many states with unemployment rates above the national average, the average pay replacement rate is far lower than the national average. Mississippi, for example, has 8.5% unemployment and a UI pay replacement rate of 28.6%. Tennessee’s unemployment rate is 8.4% and its UI pay replacement rate is 28.2%. And Arizona’s unemployment is 8.2%, while its UI pay replacement rate is a near-rock bottom 24.9%. It’s hard to argue that such stingy benefits are keeping anyone from taking a job. The average weekly benefit in Mississippi in 2013 was $194, which works out to less than $5 an hour for a 40-hour work week.