Ross Eisenbrey

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

Mayor Gray’s statement in support of his veto of the LRAA should embarrass him

Vincent Gray’s statement in support of his veto of the Local Retailer Accountability Act was a collection of non-sequiturs, half-truths, vague promises, and nonsense. He divides his critique of the LRAA into six sections.

  1. “The bill is not a living wage bill because it would raise the minimum wage only for a small fraction of the District’s workforce.” The Mayor says he wants, instead, “to raise the minimum wage for all District residents.” Of course, the District could do both: require a higher minimum wage for billion-dollar corporations and a lower one for other businesses, including mom and pop stores. But the fact is that Mayor Gray hasn’t put forward any minimum wage increase, and the level that Councilmember Tommy Wells has suggested is $10.25—far below a “true living wage.” Each member of a 2-parent family with two kids would need to earn nearly $20 an hour to have a true living wage in the District.
  2. “The bill is a job killer, because nearly every large retailer now considering opening a store in the District has indicated they will not come here or expand here if this bill becomes law.” The Mayor should identify the expansions Target, Home Depot, Wegmans, Lowe’s, Walgreens, Harris Teeter, AutoZone and Macy’s will make if the bill doesn’t pass. If they have such plans, why haven’t they announced them? And how credible is this threat? What billion-dollar retailer would invest here with a minimum wage of $10.25 an hour but not with a minimum wage of $12.50 that gives a credit for other benefits? The Mayor is either being dishonest, or gullible, or is simply unwilling to stand up to corporate bullies.Read more

Mayor Gray Should Sign the Large Retailer Accountability Act

Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray has not announced a decision yet on whether he will veto the bill to require big, billion-dollar retailers to pay a fair wage to their employees in the District of Columbia. The writing seems to be on the wall, however, given that Gray’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Victor Hoskins, is holding the bill up as a “job killer.”

Why is a bill that requires total compensation far below the national median wage ($16.30) considered a job killer? The Large Retailer Accountability Act would require the biggest retailers to pay $12.50 an hour in total compensation (wages and benefits), barely more than the federal poverty income threshold of $23,550 for a family of four and nowhere near what it costs to live in the District. The LRAA is flexible and permits a lower wage: it would permit an $11.50 an hour wage, for example, if the business paid other benefits like health care or a pension contribution that equaled at least $1.00. How is that a job killer for a billion dollar corporation? Well, it just is, says Walmart, which has threatened to abandon plans for three new stores in DC if the bill is enacted.

For politicians, the prospects of visible new jobs (no matter how poorly they pay) are almost irresistible, so any threat to the three Walmart stores, however much it smacks of bullying and exploitation, makes some of them blind to the other implications of Walmart jobs paying about $8.90 an hour.

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Labor Department Should Crack Down on Illegal Unpaid Internships

Juliet Lapidos had a nice editorial in The New York Times on Saturday that took on the issue of unpaid internships—based on the recent news about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation using Facebook to find a “part-time, unpaid” intern “with editorial and social chops” as well as “Web skills.” Lapidos reports that the ensuing uproar made the foundation reconsider and promise to pay the rather skilled employee they were looking for. Given that an estimated two-thirds of unpaid interns are women, and given that unpaid internships on average lead to much poorer employment prospects than do paid internships (fewer job offers and much lower salary offers), Lean In’s attempt to exploit this sketchy alternative to paid employment was embarrassing. The way to help young women get ahead is to pay them for their work, for their “editorial chops” and for their web skills, not to exploit them.

Lapidos made an important point about what’s needed to change the culture that makes this exploitation seem OK. A recent spate of lawsuits has brought the law to the attention of many employers for the first time, and it is dawning on some of them that there is a risk to cheating young workers out of the minimum wage. But interns looking for references for their resumes are unlikely to sue, and most cases–even if meritorious–don’t involve enough back pay to be worth a private lawyer’s time. What’s needed is energetic enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor and the various state departments of labor. Very little effort would be required to make a difference. If investigators scanned Craigslist they could find plenty of cases to prosecute, and with appropriate publicity and media attention it wouldn’t take long for employers to catch on and clean up their act.

As Lapidos put it, “proper enforcement of labor law shouldn’t depend on exploited interns’ willingness to suffer through courtroom ordeals.” That’s what we pay government lawyers for.

Another Week, Another Ill-Considered Attempt To Undercut Regulations

No week seems to go by without an imbalanced attack on regulatory protections by a trade association, a “think-tank,” a member of Congress, or a journalist. These attacks frequently feature a reference to the growth in the Code of Federal Regulations, even though it is a meaningless measure of whether we’re overregulated. In offering another bill to diminish regulation, Sen. Angus King, for example, wrote yesterday that, “According to a recent study by the Progressive Policy Institute, the number of pages of federal regulations has increased by 138 percent since 1975, from 71,224 pages to 163,301 in 2011.”

That might sound like a lot of pages, but if you’re not using methylene chloride, polyvinyl chloride or hexavalent chromium, the hundreds of pages devoted to regulating those chemicals have no effect on you or your business. The same goes for IRS transfer pricing regulations, the Department of Agriculture’s beef slaughtering regulations, or OSHA’s crane safety regulations. No one in a small retail business, the tourism industry, or Maine’s lobster industry cares about or need worry about any of them.

Like most of his colleagues, Sen. King denounces “excessive and unnecessary regulations” without identifying examples. If he has a legitimate example, he should let the secretary of the appropriate agency know about it, or work to repeal it legislatively.

Instead, he and his colleague, Sen. Roy Blunt, propose the creation of a 9 member commission that would identify regulations “in need of streamlining or repeal.” The commission would report their recommendations to Congress in the form of a bill that would be “fast-tracked” (protected from many of the normal motions and procedures) and that could not be amended. This proposal is flawed in a number of ways.

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Bankruptcy Judge Should Respect Michigan’s Constitution Even If Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Doesn’t

Gov. Rick Snyder is corrupting Detroit’s recovery even before it begins. By ignoring the state’s constitution and its protection for accrued public employee pensions, Snyder is undermining the rule of law and adopting the kind of “ends justify the means” reasoning that usually precedes violations of public trust. Snyder has violated his oath to uphold and defend the state’s constitution by asking a federal court to reduce the pensions of Detroit’s public employees, including many who risked their lives for years in service of the city.

The Michigan constitution is unambiguous. Section 24 states:

“The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.”

Yet, Gov. Snyder has set in motion a bankruptcy process whose aim is to do exactly what the constitution forbids – to diminish that contractual obligation and pay Detroit’s pensioners and retirees less than the full financial benefits they earned.

One can only hope that U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes will rule, instead, that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Gov. Snyder did not have the authority to file a bankruptcy petition that would unconstitutionally impair the city’s pension obligations.

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New York Times Op-ed Blames the Victims of Detroit’s Decline

So much is wrong in Stephen Richter’s NYT op-ed today, called “What Really Ails Detroit,” starting with his grossly inaccurate timeline. Richter says Detroit’s (and the United States’) “day of reckoning” came in the 1970s when American car manufacturers began facing competition on their home soil for the first time. That’s 20 years after the Big 3 started to abandon Detroit for the suburbs and Detroit began to hemorrhage its white population. As I said in an earlier blog post, “Between 1947 and 1958, the Big Three built twenty-five new plants in the Detroit metropolitan area, all of them in suburban communities, most more than fifteen miles from the center city. As the jobs moved away, so did the city’s residents. From 1.85 million in 1950, the city’s population declined to 1.62 million in 1960 and 1.51 million in 1970.” That’s a loss of more than 300,000 residents in two decades. The exodus of white residents (the entire decline was accounted for by whites, since the number of black residents increased), of jobs, and of wealth has never stopped. Detroit now has a population under 700,000, but the white population has declined by more than 1.4 million since 1950.

What ails Detroit is not the skills gap that Richter posits, but abandonment by its white population and by the owners of capital, starting with the auto industry, but including retail corporations, insurance companies and almost everyone else who had previously invested in the city. Detroit’s unemployment rate is the highest of any of the 50 largest cities because almost no one is investing there. When corporations do invest, as Chrysler did with its new Jefferson North assembly plant, they will find plenty of employees with the skills to make manufacturing a success again.

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Detroit: Pensions, Racism and Bankruptcy

Detroit’s current citizens and the public employees who serve them are not the cause of Detroit’s fiscal problems. They are the victims of forces beyond their control, including globalization, capital flight and racism. No one can, with any seriousness, blame Detroit’s librarians, social workers, garbage collection workers or street cleaners for the city’s catastrophic loss of population and tax base, the long decline and near-collapse of the Big 3 auto companies, or the 1967 riots, which launched a frantic exodus of businesses, white residents, and money from the City of Detroit to the suburbs.

As the suburbs grew and new highways encouraged sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit’s manufacturing employment base and population—and especially its white population—began to decline. As Thomas Sugrue has pointed out, between 1947 and 1958, the Big Three built twenty-five new plants in the Detroit metropolitan area, all of them in suburban communities, most more than fifteen miles from the center city. As the jobs moved away, so did the city’s residents.

From 1.85 million in 1950, the city’s population declined to 1.62 million in 1960 and 1.51 million in 1970. By 1980, white flight was nearly complete: whites, who made up 83% of the population in 1950, were only 34% of the population, one million fewer than in 1950. The terrible riots in 1967 accelerated the movement of white families to the suburbs, but a combination of opportunity and racism had spurred hundreds of thousands to leave Detroit well before the U.S. Army occupied it. The hostility of whites toward blacks, their fear, and economic self-interest as they understood it led them to refuse to live in integrated neighborhoods, spurring them to sell their homes and abandon the city.

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The National Labor Relations Board Now Has All Five Members

Now that the Senate has confirmed the appointments of a full slate of members of the National Labor Relations Board (the quasi-judicial body that decides labor relations cases and protects the right of workers to organize unions), the 18-month long fight over the president’s nominations looks ridiculous. Despite precipitating a mini constitutional crisis over the president’s right to make recess appointments, and coming close to the parliamentary equivalent of nuclear war in the Senate, the end result is little different than if the Senate had simply confirmed President Obama’s original nominees. On the other hand, a lot of damage has been done along the way.

For those who haven’t followed closely, Senate Republicans filibustered the nominations of two Democrats, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, who strongly support the National Labor Relations Act’s mission of encouraging collective bargaining. They were targeted because Republicans sought to demonize the Board and President Obama over a case involving Boeing’s decision to open new facilities in South Carolina. In that case, the NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing because company officials had described the decision to locate the plant in South Carolina as punishment for the Machinists union’s exercise of its legally protected right to strike. Even though no Board member ever ruled on the case, which Boeing and its union eventually settled, Sen. Lindsay Graham and others made it a cause celebre and fabricated an election campaign story that President Obama was trying to prevent investment in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Sen. Graham even suggested that the NLRB should be put out of business.

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Government Can Make Internships More Accessible by Paying for Them

Rep. Susan Bonamici of Oregon has a great idea that will simultaneously help young people with limited means pay for college, get them job experience, and stimulate our stumbling economy. She proposes to have the federal government pay for tens of thousands of internships, making them available to low-income, Pell Grant-eligible students who could otherwise not afford to take them. Under Bonamici’s Opportunities for Success Act, H.R. 2659, the federal government would send funds to colleges and universities, which would use them to provide stipends equaling at least the minimum wage, but potentially more in situations where a student was not currently attending school (such as a summer internship) and would have to pay for food, lodging and transportation. The maximum grant would be $5,000.

The need for such a program is clear. Paid internships are increasingly important to the ability of college students to gain skills, make professional connections, and find jobs after graduation. As Rep. Bonamici says in the bill’s “Findings” section:

  • Many students struggle to make ends meet; 66 percent of young community college students dedicate more than 20 hours a week to an outside job, and the need of many students to maintain a part-time or full-time job reduces or eliminates the time available for an internship.
  • Internships often require significant time commitments or temporary relocation, which many students are unable to afford; these additional living expenses include housing, meals, and travel, and these costs make unpaid internships with employers like non-profit organizations and government even more inaccessible for those with low and middle incomes.

Unless we want to exclude students from low-income and middle-income families from important opportunities to participate in government, to make important connections, and to get their foot in the door for future paid employment opportunities, it is particularly important that we provide a means of supporting them financially while they work in government internships. This is not just a matter of economic justice but a way to ensure full democratic participation and to combat economic elitism.

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Scapegoating the NLRB

Yesterday, it appeared that the Senate was on the verge of “going nuclear”—amending its rules mid-session to prevent the use of filibusters to block the president’s appointment of executive branch officials. The use of parliamentary tactics by a minority of senators to prevent the popularly elected President of the United States from appointing the heads of agencies that enforce key laws has reached unprecedented levels and threatens the ability of the president to govern. The Senate has been in gridlock ever since President Obama was re-elected. A concerted effort by Republican senators has prevented the passage of key legislation, blocked confirmation of federal appeals court judges, and blocked confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for Secretary of Labor, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, or any of the five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Today, it appears that a compromise has been reached that will allow the president most of his appointees, but not all. The Senate’s compromise forces the president to choose new nominees for the NLRB.

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Government–Not Business–Has Been the Source of Breakthrough Innovation

The New York Times obituary for Douglas C. Englebart, identified as the “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” is fascinating reading, in part because Englebart, an Oregon farm boy, was in many ways the father of modern networked computing. Beginning in the early 1960s, he put together a team of engineers and computer scientists, funded by the federal government, that developed a prototype for most of the computer tools we all take for granted today. He unveiled them at a conference in San Francisco in December 1968, which “set the computing world on fire.” In the words of the Times obituary:

“Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.

For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.”

Englebart was a visionary, but his ground-breaking work was not supported by venture capital and his innovations were not the result of the private market or corporate enterprise. His innovations were not spurred by the prospects of incredible income and wealth, all lightly taxed. Rather, the work was funded and organized by a visionary bureaucracy in the U.S. government. As the Times describes it, “during the Vietnam War, he established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI and then SRI International). The unit, the Augmentation Research Center, known as ARC, had the financial backing of the Air Force, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Defense Department.”

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Celebrating 75 Years of the Fair Labor Standards Act

Seventy-five years ago today, President Roosevelt signed into law the historic Fair Labor Standards Act.  The Fair Labor Standards Act established the minimum wage, legislated a standard workweek, and outlawed oppressive child labor.  President Roosevelt called it, after the Social Security Act, “the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers here or in any other country.”

Prior to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, both adults and young children often worked brutally long hours only to earn starvation wages.  This was especially true during the Great Depression.  As the Depression endured, firms not only laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, but also implemented significant wage rate cuts.  Despite low wages, or perhaps because of them, many workers (including children) continued to work long hours in unjust conditions.  Workers often labored in what were essentially sweatshops, only to earn low wages.  While campaigning for a second term, President Roosevelt received a note from a young girl that read: “I wish you could do something to help us girls….We have been working in a sewing factory,… and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week… Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week.”  Thousands of children, as young as seven years old, were denied a basic education and instead worked in mines, mills and factories for a pittance.  During his first re-election campaign, President Roosevelt publically committed to eliminating child labor and improving labor standards for all working Americans.

Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, devised the Fair Labor Standards Act with two goals in mind.  First, the administration aimed to improve job quality through the abolition of child labor, the establishment of a floor on wages, and a ceiling over hours worked.  Second, the administration hoped the Fair Labor Standards Act would create new jobs for millions of the nation’s unemployed by reducing overtime and forcing employers to hire more employees to compensate.  The ultimate version of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938, established a 25-cent minimum wage (that would rise to 30 cents beginning in October 1939), introduced a 44-hour maximum work week (that would first fall to 42 hours in October 1939 and would then fall to 40 hours in October 1940), and set the general age of workforce entry at 16.

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Americans want fewer high-tech guestworkers, not more

The public isn’t stupid.  They realize that if hundreds of thousands of foreign guestworkers are brought in by businesses to take jobs in IT, engineering, and the sciences, there will be fewer opportunities for them and their children. A new poll published June 20 by the National Journal asks, “Should Congress allow for MORE guest workers or FEWER guest workers in this industry?” The three industries are agriculture, high-tech and construction. The respondents split with respect to agriculture, but by a big majority—55 to 34—they want fewer high-tech guestworkers, and by even bigger numbers—61 to 30—fewer guestworkers in construction.

Sadly, on this and almost any issue that corporate America lobbies intensely, members of Congress mostly fail to represent the views and interests of their constituents; they take the side of the corporations that make big donations to their campaigns, to independent expenditures on elections, and to the political parties. Only a principled few are willing to stand up to Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Intel.

The result is that the new immigration bill will triple the flawed and misused H-1B guestworker program and shut off opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young people here who thought an engineering, math or computer science education would be the ticket to economic security and a rewarding career. It does less damage to U.S. construction workers, though it doubles the number of H-2B visas, which have been used to bring in construction guestworkers, and creates a new W-visa guestworker category, for which 15,000 visas a year are designated.

 

7-Eleven‘s Modern Day Plantation System

Who in America is willing to work 100 hours a week without getting paid for those brutally long hours (not to mention without the time-and-a-half pay required for overtime)? The answer should be, “no one.” But for undocumented immigrants, who don’t have the right to take above-board, normal jobs, almost any job, no matter how abusive or how low the pay, is better than nothing—especially if they owe debts to criminal smugglers who know where their families live.

According to the New York Times, fourteen 7-Eleven franchises have been charged with raking in $180 million since 2000 in illegal profits from underpaying employees, and another 40 franchises are under investigation. Employees who should have been paid as much as $1000 a week were paid only $300-$500 while being forced to live in unregulated, substandard boardinghouses operated by the stores’ owners.

It took 13 years for an employee to finally complain about wage theft and call in the authorities to break up the illegal operation. That’s a good measure of the fear and intimidation that keeps the undocumented in the shadows and lets greedy employers get away with paying sweatshop wages.

Clearly, legalization of the undocumented will improve the labor market in the United States by bringing abused workers out of the shadows and starting the process of lifting wages. However, this will work better and faster if Congress also provides the right enforcement resources, including the Labor Department wage and hour inspectors and attorneys needed to investigate and prosecute cheating businesses and the criminals who run them. The U.S. spends $18 billion a year on border security and immigration enforcement, and will spend even more if the Senate’s proposed comprehensive immigration law, S.744, is enacted. It seems clear to me that some of those funds should be redirected to the Labor Department and its never-ending battle against wage theft and exploitation.

Senator Merkley Takes on H-2B Guestworker Abuses

The abuse of temporary foreign workers in the United States has been well documented, from the Bracero program of the 1960s to the recent cases of seafood workers in Maryland (PDF) and Louisiana, fast-food workers in Pennsylvania, and forestry workers in Georgia. The wrongs to workers are sometimes nothing short of criminal: wage theft, violence and threats of violence, even peonage.

But harm is done to U.S. workers, too, before temporary “guest” workers are ever brought to the U.S.  The businesses that could and should be recruiting and hiring workers here in the U.S. at decent wages are shunning them to hire more exploitable, more desperate foreigners. The law and regulations that govern guestworker programs, most notably the H-2B non-immigrant visa program, are ignored or circumvented, leaving U.S. workers jobless while people from thousands of miles away do jobs the local workers are able and willing to do.

The law and regulations forbid the admission of any H-2B guestworker to the U.S. unless the employer attests that U.S workers capable of performing the job are not available and that the employment of foreign workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. The Department of Labor and the various State Workforce Agencies are charged with verifying that the jobs of U.S. workers are protected, but they have failed to do so.

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A step forward for the rights of interns

A federal district court judge ruled yesterday that Fox Searchlight violated the minimum wage law when it failed to pay its interns for their work on the movie Black Swan. This is excellent news—unpaid internships hurt mobility, exploit young workers, and are frequently illegal.

The judge, following a ruling made 15 years ago by then district court judge Sonia Sotomayor1, upheld and applied the Department of Labor’s six-part test for determining whether an internship is employment covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act or is, instead, training or education that can illegally go unpaid.

Congratulations are due to Eric Glatt, the lead plaintiff, who has become a leading activist in the fight against the deregulation of wages and the spread of unpaid labor. And congratulations, too, to the law firm of Outten and Golden, which represents Eric Glatt and plaintiffs in several cases that challenge the new sense of entitlement employers have to ignore the law and treat employees like serfs. Increasingly, trial lawyers are on the front lines of the fight to protect the dignity of work and the rights of labor. As state and federal agency budgets are cut the role of trial lawyers is growing in importance.

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Employers: Pay your interns. Labor Department: Bust them if they don’t!

The summer has begun and greedy employers across the country are searching for people who will work for them for free. Meanwhile, in a few weeks the nation will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which makes it illegal for most employers to take advantage of their fellow Americans’ work without paying at least the minimum wage for it.

At a time when the real value of the minimum wage is well below the levels of the 1960’s (making entry-level workers quite affordable), when the weak labor market is forcing college graduates in record numbers to take jobs that don’t require a college degree and entry level wages for college grads are already substantially below the levels of 10 years ago, the exploitation involved in not paying employees anything at all is shameful and economically dangerous.

It’s dangerous because the main obstacle to a healthy recovery from the Great Recession is weak consumer demand, and unpaid internships hurt consumer demand in two ways. First, they leave interns without any wage income, reducing their ability to purchase the products and services supplied by businesses. Second, they lower expectations and reduce wage demands by employees who do have paying jobs.

Nevertheless, employers from coast to coast think that simply by calling a job an internship, they can take advantage of young people desperate to start their careers and get the benefit of their talents and work, but not pay them even a measly $7.25 an hour.

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Workers Memorial Day thoughts

How many times have you heard business lobbyists and spokesmen say: “Regulations are killing jobs”? Or how about, “Excessive regulations are driving manufacturers overseas”?

Well think about what’s been happening in Bangladesh, where so many US clothing retailers and garment makers, from Wal-Mart to L.L.Bean, have gone to escape livable wages and regulation. That lack of regulations is killing workers, not in ones and twos, as happens here in the United States several times every day, but hundreds at a time. Factory fires as devastating as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of a century ago have now been followed by a building collapse that has so far claimed 300 lives, the workers crushed, bleeding to death or suffocating.

Several stories I’ve read report that only one business (a bank) heeded the warnings of police that the eight-story factory building was so unsafe that it had to be evacuated. The other businesses shrugged off the warnings and ordered more than 2,000 people to work in mortal danger.

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Fox News wannabe: Washington Post disses France

In a story headlined, “France Drowning in Rules and Regulations, critics say,” WaPo writer Edward Cody presents a caricature of a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Based on little more than interviews with disgruntled officials in one small town, Cody variously describes France’s regulatory regime as “strangling,” “smothering,” or “burying” the economy. For example:

“France and its southern European neighbors, such as Italy and Greece, are increasingly being buried in such norms, rules and directives. In the past two decades, the number of legal do’s and don’ts has become so great that businessmen and economists1 warn that it is smothering growth just as the continent tries to dig out of its worst slump in a generation.”

But France is not Italy or Greece, and the truth is almost the opposite of Cody’s claim that, compared with the Scandinavian countries, France discourages business. In fact, the World Bank measures the nations of the world on the ease of starting a new business, and France ranks well above all four of the Scandinavian countries. France also ranks about 80 places ahead of Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany.

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Gang of Eight bill delivers on bold, broad legalization of undocumented workers

Over the next several days and weeks, I’ll be reviewing the provisions of the 844-page comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, with an eye on those elements that will particularly affect the operation and outcomes of the labor market.

Let’s start with the most important provision first. Secure Borders delivers on its most important goal: granting legal status to almost all of the eleven million immigrants currently here without authorization to work. Every undocumented immigrant who came before January 2012, who passes a criminal background check and pays $500 will be given a provisional status that will allow them to work.

That single, dramatic step will change their lives for the better, improve the labor market prospects of every other legal resident with whom they compete for jobs, and free their employers from the taint and guilt of an illegal employment relationship. It won’t make these immigrants full citizens or give them the full rights of other residents of the United States, but it will remove them from the precarious status of working illegally, with the terrifying threat of discovery and deportation always hanging over their heads. They will be free to join unions, to ask for, demand, or strike for higher pay, and will be free to quit and look for a better job with another employer. The job lock and fear that keep so many of the undocumented underpaid or underemployed will end immediately.

For that, I take my hat off to the Gang of Eight.

The Working Families Flexibility Act is a fraud

The Republican majority on the House Education and Workforce Committee could raise the minimum wage, cover more employees with overtime protection, pass paid sick days legislation, pass a paid family leave bill, or do a host of other things to make life easier for America’s working families. Instead, as Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families testified last week, they have chosen to weaken overtime protections and shift more power from employees to their bosses.

The Republicans have trotted out a bill introduced back in 1995 and unsuccessfully pushed again by business lobbyists in 2003. They call H.R. 1406 the Working Families Flexibility Act, apparently because it will bend and twist working families even more than they already are as they try to balance the needs of home and work. Rather than give employees the flexibility to take a paid day off when they or their kids are sick, the bill gives their employers the flexibility not to pay them overtime when it is earned.

Lichtman does a great job of pointing out what a sham the bill is, and the National Partnership has also published a good fact sheet that points out that the bill greatly increases the risk that employees will work overtime but never get paid for it. The chance that thousands of businesses will fail each year while holding millions of dollars of unpaid overtime credits in leave banks is very real. Half a million businesses fail in an average year.

Judy Lichtman politely calls H.R. 1406 “smoke and mirrors.” I think it’s fair to call it a fraud, for the truth is that the law already permits the only benefit the bill claims to provide, time off for employees who work overtime. Nothing in current law prevents an employer that makes an employee work overtime from paying for that overtime and then providing unpaid compensatory time off to the employee at a later date.

Striking J-1 students want justice from McDonald’s and U.S. State Department

The student workers who recently went on strike at McDonald’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania took a big chance. They could have been fired and then deported from the country. Instead, they got their boss fired and got a meeting with the head of the State Department program that brought them to the U.S. But they aren’t finished: they want to make sure that what happened to them never happens to foreign students again.

My colleagues and I met with four of the young workers last week, who came from Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. All had been recruited into the State Department’s J-1 summer work travel visa program by GeoVisions, a State Department-approved sponsor, which promised them three months of steady wages for slinging Big Macs, decent housing and a cultural experience, followed by a month of travel wherever they wanted to go.

What they and 14 other students got was an unpredictable mix of work hours—as little as four hours in a week for some and 25 hours in a row for others. They were required to live in the basements of homes owned by their boss, Andy Cheung, who packed six into one house and eight into another, jammed together with little privacy—only a curtain to separate the beds of four young men from four women. They were cheated on wages they earned, overcharged for their housing and forced to walk to work on highways instead of riding in free transportation they’d been promised. At least one was actually in debt to Cheung after almost 3 months of work.Read more

In support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act

On Tuesday, March 5, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) announced the introduction of The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over the next three years. Once it reaches $10.10, the minimum wage would be raised automatically each year to account for inflation and ensure that it never loses its purchasing power. The bill also raises the wages of those who rely on tips, phasing in an increase until the “tipped minimum” – currently stuck at $2.13 an hour — reaches 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

Harkin and Miller spoke eloquently about the need to make work pay, to reward people for the time and effort they put into serving or delivering food, caring for children and the elderly, and cleaning hotel rooms or office buildings.

Citing Economic Policy Institute calculations, Harkin estimated that 30 million workers would get a raise, including 17 million women. He pointed out that nearly 90 percent of minimum wage workers are adults, not teenagers, and that two-thirds are in low or moderate income households.

The two business people and two workers Harkin and Miller invited to the event made an enormous impression. Margot Dorfman, the President of the U.S.  Women’s Chamber of Commerce, reiterated her support for the minimum wage, denouncing the idea that raising the minimum wage would be bad for business. “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” she said. “Our sales depend on consumer demand. If people aren’t paid a fair wage they can’t afford to shop in our stores or buy our services.” Dorfman made it clear that the NFIB and US Chamber of Commerce don’t represent small business. “They’re looking out for the big corporations that want to pay workers as little as possible. They want the taxpayers to pay for their workers’ food stamps. That’s not the position of women-owned small businesses.”Read more

For 20-somethings, the no-limits, no-pay job

Teddy Wayne’s Sunday New York Times article about the exploitation of 20-somethings in the workplace (“The No-Limits Job”) should wake up a lot of young workers and their parents. There is something seriously wrong with a corporate culture that uses extremely low-paid or even unpaid labor and then treats the workers like they own them.

The low point in the article is probably the story of Dalkey Archive Press, of Champaign, Illinois, which not only employs unpaid interns but threatens them with “immediate dismissal” if they come in late or leave early without permission, are “unavailable at night or on the weekends,” or “fail to respond to e-mails in a timely way.” But as Wayne makes clear, round-the-clock, 24-7 internships can be exploitative even when paid.

One of my personal heroes, Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, is interviewed by Wayne and warns about a sinister change in our culture that has made it acceptable to young people to give up their personal time and devote themselves to an employer, totally blurring the line between personal life and work while receiving almost no financial reward. This problem is worst in what Perlin calls the “rock-star professions”—film, TV, publishing, and media—and in creative industries like fashion, but the trend is spreading to other fields as well. Even un-hip businesses like manufacturers and law firms have begun to advertise for and employ unpaid labor, and failure to pay for overtime is endemic in white-collar work.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires payment to employees of at least the minimum wage, is conveniently ignored by employers who rationalize their exploitation and illegality by arguing that the jobs are for the benefit of the interns, who usually do learn something and can put the experience on their resume. However, as Perlin explained in his book and Wayne’s article corroborates, a new phenomenon, the serial intern, is developing.Read more

Problems in the high tech labor market

If you want to understand the high tech labor market in the United States, a good place to start might be one of these stories about a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in California.

These stories trace the progress of legal actions against some of America’s best-known tech companies over their attempts to suppress their employees’ wages through anti-competitive “no-poaching” agreements.  The Department of Justice found evidence that Intel, Adobe Systems, Google, Apple, Pixar, and Intuit made  secret agreements not to call each others’ employees with job offers, thereby reducing job opportunities and salaries in the industry. DOJ induced the six companies to settle an anti-trust suit in 2010 with a promise not to engage in similar restraints on trade in the future. The companies paid no damages and admitted no violations of anti-trust law, but the employees who had been hurt by the practices were not satisfied.

Employees filed suit against the six companies and Lucasfilm in federal court alleging an illegal conspiracy to restrain wages and salaries and seeking damages.  When the companies tried to have the suit dismissed, the district court judge sided with the plaintiffs, and in January, according to Phys.org, Judge Lucy Koh ruled that the case should proceed to trial and that Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Intel chief Paul Ottelini may be questioned by plaintiffs’ attorneys about their roles in the alleged conspiracy. The trial, reportedly, will take place in November.

I recommend keeping this case in mind when it comes time to evaluate the companies’ claims that their interest in bringing skilled guestworkers to the U.S. has nothing to do with getting cheaper labor. Never mind that the H-1B visa, which ties employees to a single employer for 6 years or more, is a bigger restraint on employee mobility than a no-poaching agreement.

The PhD bust

Jordan Weissman put together a nice series of charts in The Atlantic that help us better understand what’s at stake in the debate over tripling the number of “guest” workers admitted to the U.S. each year with college degrees and skills in science or engineering. It’s gotten harder and harder for U.S. PhDs to find work, and especially work that pays a salary that corresponds to the intellect of and investment made by these students, who are truly our best and brightest. A question members of Congress have to answer is: do we want to encourage or discourage U.S. students from pursuing these top degrees? Is NIH paying science post-docs enough? Is industry doing enough to recruit young U.S.-trained scientists? Will the Hatch-Klobuchar plan to admit 300,000 temporary, foreign high tech workers each year make matters better or worse for our young PhDs? Will the addition of as many as 1.8 million new foreign tech workers over six years crowd the U.S. labor market and depress wages?

Close to slavery

Most members of Congress know very little about the H-2 guest worker visa programs, and, unfortunately, what they do know is mostly from speaking to a handful of business people who use the program or from listening to lobbyists who market ridiculous “studies” about how H-2 workers help the economy. They might have an image in their minds of “guest” workers lining up to take good jobs in the United States that no one else wants, and happily returning year after year. But Congressmen have little contact with H-2 workers and most are unaware of the widespread and ugly abuses that have marred the programs for decades. If they knew how often the programs have been used to exploit, cheat, and degrade foreign workers, they would realize it is no better than the infamous Bracero program of 50 years ago and should be either drastically reformed or abolished.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been representing H-2 workers throughout the southern U.S. for years, hearing their stories of abuse and exploitation and suing on their behalf to recover at least some of the wages promised but unpaid, the fees extorted from helpless victims, the travel costs and debts incurred in return for unkept promises of well-paid, steady work. SPLC’s experience is captured in its new report, Close to Slavery 2013, which every journalist and immigration policy expert ought to read.

Every H-2 worker is not mistreated, but as Close to Slavery makes clear, so many workers are so badly abused that the program can’t be allowed to go on as it has. Year after year, international recruiters trick unsophisticated foreigners into borrowing large sums of money for the right to have a good job and substantial earnings in the U.S., only to find themselves locked into rural labor camps, poorly housed and fed, treated like prison labor, paid far less than promised, and then forced to repay recruiters and employers for expenses never mentioned during recruitment. SPLC has represented thousands of abused workers and won tens of millions of dollars in damages, but most H-2 workers have no access to our legal system, and even the judgments won often go unpaid.

Attempts by the U.S. Department of Labor to fix the H-2B non-agricultural program through regulatory improvements have been blocked by senators and congressmen from both parties who either don’t understand or don’t care that allowing these abuses to continue hurts U.S. workers, not just the foreign victims. The government’s failure to fix the well-documented problems in the program’s design makes it clear that any expansion of the program must be defeated. Real immigration reform would include reform of the H-2 visa and much tighter controls on the businesses that compete by exploiting the program and the guest workers themselves.

Immigration reform and the minimum wage

The most surprising part of the president’s State of the Union address last night was his forthright endorsement of the principle that no one in the United States of America should work full-time and yet still find himself in poverty. That is a statement I often heard from Sen. Edward Kennedy, but I can’t remember any other president—not JFK, not LBJ, not Jimmy Carter, and not Bill Clinton—announcing it so clearly and forcefully.

The president called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, which translates into a full-year income of $18,720, almost enough to meet the federal poverty guideline for a family or household of three people ($19,090), and more than enough to satisfy the guideline for a family of two ($15,130).

Raising the minimum wage is a perfect complement to immigration reform and its promise of legalizing millions of undocumented workers. Many of them are working at wages below even the current $7.25 per hour minimum wage and cannot have amassed much in the way of savings. If they are to pay the penalties and back taxes the immigration bill will require, and pay for English lessons to meet the bill’s other requirement, they will need to be paid fairly for their work.

I hope that Congress sees fit to include a higher minimum wage in any immigration reform bill it enacts.

Guestworker expansions don’t belong in comprehensive immigration reform

In a CNN opinion piece published Jan. 28, Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, shows amazing disdain for the one-third of Americans working low-wage jobs. She claims that they shouldn’t want the jobs they have because they can find more productive and better paying work. Jacoby thinks a job as a home health aide is beneath the aspirations of native-born Americans. So much for the dignity of work!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized Jacoby’s way of thinking about “low productivity” work in a famous speech to striking sanitation workers just before he was assassinated:

If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.

The fact is that 40 million Americans work in extremely low wage jobs and are either grateful to have them or unable to find anything better. It’s shocking Read more

AARP comes out against COLA cut

AARP unveiled new research from its Middle Class Security Project yesterday, with related papers focusing on topics ranging from rising health care costs to credit card debt. At the release, AARP CEO Barry Rand gave a rousing speech, coming out strongly against a proposed cut in the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), echoing a similar stance by the New York Times this Sunday. Rand focused on the need for both solvency and adequacy, emphasizing that Americans don’t want Social Security reform to be part of deficit reduction talks and were willing to contribute more to strengthen the program.

Policy director Debra Whitman, an economist and Social Security advocate Rand hired to replace the too-quick-to-compromise John Rother, said most Americans were surprised at how low Social Security benefits were—less than $14,000 per year on average. In the report, Whitman and her co-authors highlight the fact that benefits would be cut further for future retirees with a scheduled increase in the normal retirement age to 67, equivalent to an across-the-board benefit cut. As a result of this and other negative trends, the report estimates that three out of 10 middle-income workers will become low-income retirees.

This might seem like an obvious place to call for shoring up Social Security benefits for the middle class—or at least halting their decline. But though Whitman and many of her colleagues may prefer to close Social Security’s projected shortfall with revenue increases, AARP continues to avoid ruling out additional benefit cuts or endorsing specific revenue proposals, such as lifting the cap on taxable earnings. This might seem like a wise PR move, given the flak AARP gets for drawing a line in the sand (even when it actually hasn’t). But, like President Obama’s administration, AARP will be attacked as intransigent by some critics no matter how conciliatory they are, so they might as well stake out a clear position, backed up by the facts in this report.Read more