From The Washington Post:
by Catherine Rampell
If these shenanigans can happen right under the noses of U.S. senators, where else are they happening?
We’ll never know until we get more cops on the beat.
I’m talking about wage theft. That’s the catch-all term for when employers pay their workers less than they legally owe them — by, for example, forcing them to work off the clock, paying below minimum wage or misclassifying them as independent contractors.
Wage theft is not a sexy crime. It rarely makes front-page news, even as it harms so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck. We don’t know how prevalent it is, only how often it is discovered — which is highly dependent on how much the government invests in enforcement.
Last year, Labor Department investigators found $247 million in back wages owed to more than 240,000 workers. That’s more than $1,000 stolen from each worker, on average, or the equivalent of about three weeks’ pay for a typical maid, janitor or cashier.
Every once in a while, there’s a chance to capture the public’s imagination on this issue — such as this week, when it turned out that even in the hallowed halls of the Senate, hundreds of low-wage workers had been shortchanged. For six years.
This case involves Senate cafeteria workers, some of whom were so poorly paid that they were homeless, on public assistance or, in one case,moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet. For about a year, they staged a series of demonstrations to demand a living wage.
In December, it looked as if they’d finally secured it. These employees work for a private company on a government contract, which was up for renewal. After great public pressure, senators made sure that the new contract included healthy raises.
Victory at last.
Immediately after the contract was signed, though, the company found a loophole.
See, the wages listed in the new contract were tied to specific occupation titles. The employer, Restaurant Associates, quietly began demotingworkers into lower-wage titles — from “cook” to “food service worker,” for example — which meant workers would be denied the raises they were promised.
Workers’ titles changed, but their duties didn’t. This turned out to be a potential violation of federal law, which narrowly defines job descriptions for service occupations in government contracts.
A complaint was filed by Good Jobs Nation, an organization that has been trying to unionize low-wage federal contract workers. This week, the Labor Department announced the findings of its resulting investigation.
It determined that Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus, must pay 674 workers $1,008,302 in back wages.
One funny thing about this finding: The Senate cafeteria workers knew they’d been underpaid. But they hadn’t realized just how underpaid they were, and for how very long.
Restaurant Associates had been shortchanging workers not only since the new contract was signed in December. According to investigators, it had been improperly classifying employees, not paying them for all the time they worked, and failing to pay required health and welfare benefits since at least 2010.
In a statement, Restaurant Associates attributed the violations to “administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities.” It said that the company had “corrected the classifications.” (Workers I’ve interviewed said that at least nine employees still dispute their classifications.)
That hundreds of current and former Senate workers will soon receive back pay is a good thing, indeed. But what about other workers who have been victimized — who don’t know their rights, who fear retaliation if they pipe up, and who don’t have third-party groups and the congressional press corps paying attention?
“Most workplaces are not the Senate cafeteria,” said David Weil, the administrator of the Labor Department division that ran the investigation. “I’m worried about workplaces where workers are really alone, where they’re subjected to jaw-dropping violations of basic labor standards.”
Today, fewer than 1,000 Labor Department investigators are looking into wage and hour law violations. That’s fewer than there were when Jimmy Carter was president, even though the U.S. workforce has grown more than 50 percent since then and workplace arrangements have gotten far more complicated.
In each of the past three years, the Obama administration has requested funding for more investigators; each year, Congress has denied the request.
Read more from The Washington Post.
From California Newswire:
by Christopher Simmons
A measure, SB 1342, authored by Calif. Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) that would protect workers by paving the way for a statewide mechanism at the local level to fight wage theft, was signed by Governor Brown today. The bill will go into effect on January 1, 2017.
“I thank Governor Brown for signing SB 1342,” said Senator Tony Mendoza. “This bill protects hard-working Californians by clarifying the ability of cities and counties to investigate non-compliance with local wage laws.”
“As cities and counties in California move to raise the minimum wage, we must ensure that our low-wage workers, who already face many challenges, receive the pay that they have earned,” added Senator Tony Mendoza.
Fifteen cities in California have passed minimum wage ordinances going beyond the State-mandated $10 an hour. In many cases however, employers do not obey these laws. For example, San Francisco City and County have passed ordinances to raise the local minimum wage to $12.25 an hour. Additionally, they have set a precedent by creating an Office of Labor Standards Enforcement to uphold these laws and address the shortfall in local wage enforcement.
In Los Angeles County, which possesses a population more than 11 times larger than San Francisco County, workers are denied over $26 million a week in earned wages, but have no local investigative mechanism to assist them.
SB 1342 strengthens the law by permitting a board of supervisors of a county or the legislative body of a city to investigate wage theft. Specifically, it allows cities and counties to delegate their administrative subpoena authority to a county or city official to investigate allegations of wage theft. Currently the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DSLE) is the primary entity charged with examining wage theft cases. SB 1342 also assists in enabling counties and cities to partner with State and Federal officials in wage theft investigations.
Wage theft occurs when an employer does not pay a worker all of his or her earned wages. This includes unpaid minimum wage, unpaid overtime, and off-the-clock work. Wage theft among immigrant and low-wage workers is pervasive statewide and hurtful to workers and their families. It reduces the take-home pay of workers, contributing to food insecurity, and unstable housing, amongst other issues. Local governments across the State have raised their local minimum wage. Wage enforcement resources have not kept pace with the scale of wage theft in California. SB 1342 helps address this lack of enforcement.
Read more from California Newswire.
From Crain's New York:
by Rosa Goldensohn
The dry cleaning industry will get the Cuomo administration's nail-salon treatment.
It's no pedicure.
Touting $4 million in back wages that his Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation has secured for workers over the past year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced increased scrutiny for 15 industries, including retail, car washes, cleaning, farming, trucking, airports, landscaping, construction and home health care.
Using an executive order, Cuomo established a permanent task force to look at wage theft, health and safety hazards and other workplace issues that he said disproportionately affect immigrants.
"We've always been aware that as the immigrants come, they tend to take the entry-level jobs and they tend to be subject to abuse," Cuomo said at a press conference at the Javits Center Wednesday.
He told a story of how his grandfather, a teenage immigrant from Italy who worked as a ditch-digger, was forced to ride in the back of a dump truck in frigid weather while his employer drove beside an empty seat.
"My grandfather would say, 'He treated me worse than a dog' and would cry," Cuomo said. "He cried for the indignity of how a human being can treat another human being."
The dry-cleaning industry, the perils of which Crain's chronicled in May, will be of particular focus, the governor said. The task force will put the state "on the path" to ban the carcinogenic chemical perc, commonly used in dry cleaning, his office said.
Business leader Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City, who sits on the task force's advisory committee, said the group worked with employers to resolve problems without undue adversity, and expressed support for its new incarnation.
"By bringing employers, advocates, and union leaders together to work through these issues, we avoid contentious situations and we ensure that all parties are treated fairly," said Wylde, whose organization represents the city's largest employers.
The task force will work with businesses to educate them on complying with state labor laws, a representative for the governor said.
The governor's efforts have been harshly criticized by some nail-salon owners and their supporters, notably Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat who represents a heavily Asian district in Flushing, Queens. Kim helped bring a legal challenge to curtail the crackdown, saying it singled out one type of business based on a few bad actors.
But Cuomo's crackdown continued, with inspectors conducting sweeps that included interviewing workers and demanding businesses' books. Numerous violations were issued for failure to maintain proper records and various other infractions, and nail salons were required to obtain surety bonds to ensure back wages could be recovered.
Read more from Crain's New York.
From Think Progress:
by Alan Pyke
Two companies that run food service at the U.S. Capitol will pay a million dollars in back wages to almost 700 workers who they cheated out of their pay, the Department of Labor announced Tuesday.
The men and women who serve Congress its food clawed their way into Washington’s conscience over the past couple of years with a series of strikes and walkouts as part of a campaign for higher wages and union rights. The strikes at the Capitol and in other federal buildings in the Washington, D.C. area helped persuade President Obama to issue three executive orders mandating higher wages and stronger workplace protections for workers hired by federal contractors.
A handful of workers became the face of the union-backed Good Jobs Nation campaign with wrenching stories about earning too little to survive in D.C. or to keep their families together. But the penalties handed down Tuesday suggest the federal contractor taxpayers pay to staff cafeterias on Capitol Hill were not just paying too little to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living. They were outright breaking the law.
The companies routinely failed to pay overtime and misclassified many workers so that they could pay them lower hourly wages than their actual work duties should have earned according to the federal contract for cafeteria service, the DOL said in a statement. Exact details of the back-pay deal were unavailable because the agency’s investigation is ongoing, a department spokesperson told ThinkProgress, but the violations uncovered date as far back as 2010.
A total of 674 workers will get checks totaling $1,008,302 from longtime Capitol Hill food service provider Restaurant Associates, which is part of a multi-billion-dollar British conglomerate, and its subcontractor Personnel Plus. Since it only takes around 200 workers to staff the Senate and Capitol Visitors Center cafeterias at any given time, Good Jobs Nation director Joseph Geevarghese said in an interview, the compensation likely includes temps who long since moved on to new work.
“If federal laws are being broken by federal contractors right under the noses of federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., imagine what’s happening all around the U.S. to workers who are far from the corridors of power,” Geevarghese said.
Restaurant Associates is a particularly flagrant example of the lengths to which contractor firms will go to maximize profit and squeeze their workers. The company's contract to staff these cafeterias was up near the end of 2015, just as public pressure from the strikes was nearing its peak.
As part of the renegotiated contract, the company promised large raises to frontline workers — raises it skipped out on by reclassifying workers into lower-paying categories, as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell reported in the spring. The company gave those workers their proper titles and wages back after the Post exposed the dodge. It blames Tuesday's revelations on "administrative technicalities," according to the Huffington Post.
Yet as recently as this spring, some conservative lawmakers have been trying to make it easier for contractors to cheat their employees. Republicans snuck a rider into the Pentagon funding bill in May that would exempt all Department of Defense contractors from Obama executive orders that make it harder for companies to get taxpayer money if they break labor law.
“They seem to believe that federal contractors will self-police and will automatically follow the letter of the law,” said Geevarghese. “This should be a wakeup call to the GOP that if federal contractors that serve you feel free to steal wages and break labor laws, it’s probably happening on every military base around the United States of America.”
Read more from Think Progress.
From Boise Weekly:
by George Prentice
There is much to read in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration Inspection No. 1125964 (none of it good), but the underlying theme throughout the July 12 report is that what happened to Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera on Feb. 16 could have, and should have, been prevented. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Vazquez-Carrera drowned after being trapped in a manure pit by farm machinery at the Sunrise Organic Dairy in Jerome County. The 37-year-old from Hazelton, Idaho, lay in the manure pit for 10 hours before his body was pulled from the muck.
"The one thing in common with nearly every tragedy we investigate is they are all preventable," said OSHA Area Director David Kearns.
The investigation report details Sunrise Organic Dairy owners "did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or like to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were exposed to immersion drowning hazards in an earthen holding pond [manure pit]."
The manure pit drowning at Sunrise triggered a federal investigation—it also drew attention from the United Farm Workers of America.
"That quickly came on our radar because a year ago, another dairy worker drowned in a manure pit at the Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton, Wash.," said Indira Trejo, UFW global impact coordinator, adding that she has traveled to Idaho on numerous occasions to meet with Magic Valley-area workers to talk about conditions at Gem State dairies.
"I heard about a lot of on-the-job accidents, reported and unreported," she said, but was quick to many of those same workers have been reluctant to step forward because if they or any of their family members are undocumented, they live in a shadow of fear despite being the backbone of one of Idaho's largest and most profitable industries.
That's something Kearns and his investigators know all too well.
"We have vulnerable workers out there—specifically Latino workers—and it's challenging for us to contact them," Kearns said. "In this particular investigation, I attempted to contact some of them, but they didn't return the phone calls. We sent them letters by mail. Hopefully, they have someone to help them translate it."
Kearns said approximately half of the fatalities the OSHA Idaho office investigated in 2015 were workers for whom English was not their first language.
"They may fear deportation; they're open to exploitation," he told BW in early June. "They're afraid of the federal government and they don't know the difference between OSHA and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
For violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Sunrise Organic Dairy was ordered to install appropriate barriers and warning signs identifying the location of the manure pit. Additionally, the violation—technically deemed "serious"—carries a fine of $4,900.
"The fines were mandated by the U.S. Congress," said Kearns. When asked about the low fine for such a grisly fatality, Kearns said fine amounts were last updated by Congress in 1990, with a maximum of $7,000 for a serious violation. He also said, in 2015, Congress passed a new law mandating OSHA update those fines to bring them in line with inflation. Effective Monday, Aug. 1, fine amounts will increase about 78 percent.
OSHA also cited Sunrise Organic Dairy for an "other-than-serious" violation for not keeping logs of work-related injuries or illnesses at the dairy. The violation triggered a $700 fine; owners have 15 working days to respond and may ask for a negotiating session with OSHA or an appeal hearing before a federal judge.
Kearns said Sunrise owners have been "very professional" and cooperative with the probe.
"After a tragedy, these people almost always say, 'I never wanted to get anybody hurt.' They wish they had done more. It's one of those terrible hindsight things," said Kearns. "Good people want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, most employers haven't done enough to look at how workers should be protected."
Read more from Boise Weekly.
From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
by Fatima Hussein
More than 20 pipefitters and bricklayers constructing the Viking Village Shared Facility Pool in Sharonville will recover a total of $147,000 in back wages and benefits following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
Federal investigators found Kitchener, Ontario-based Gall Construction of America LTD, operating as Acapulco Pools, underpaid 21 workers up to $17 per hour in salary and benefits.
The company violated provisions of the Davis-Bacon and Related Acts, which cover areas of prevailing wage laws and the Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act, which govern wage rates for projects receiving federal funds, the labor department said.
In a news release, the department said it determined the company had classified the bricklayers and other workers as general laborers and failed to pay them prevailing wages, fringe benefits and overtime at the rate due for their job titles.
Gall failed to keep accurate time and payroll records for employees, according to the findings. The company agreed to pay the workers money owed in back wages and benefits.
“When companies fail to follow the guidelines to which they agree when bidding a federal contract, they gain an unfair advantage,” said George Victory, director of the Wage and Hour Division’s Columbus District Office. “The payment of these hard-earned back wages will make a big difference in the lives of these workers and their families.”
The pool construction was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Gall Construction was the project’s prime contractor. Company officials were not available for comment.
"Cases like this happen fairly often," said Brennan Grayson, director of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center. Grayson's group led the charge to convince City Hall to adopt a citywide wage theft ordinance, which it adopted in February.
"It takes community effort to make sure laws like these are enforced," Grayson said. According to Grayson, the Interfaith Workers Center performed initial interviews with the Gail workers; many were primarily Spanish-speaking, he said.
Read more from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
From The Shriver Brief:
by Dan Lessor
Programs that effectively address the significant and often multiple barriers people face in finding and sustaining employment could go a long way toward helping many people escape poverty.
But do programs that require recipients to work as a condition of receiving safety net benefits get people back to work and lift them out of poverty? That’s what House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues assert in their frustratingly vague and often misleading “blueprint” to address poverty. In one of the few concrete proposals outlined in his anti-poverty plan, Ryan calls for the imposition of stringent work requirements for not only recipients of cash assistance, but also for recipients of rental housing and even SNAP (food stamps) assistance.
Let’s be clear: work requirements are ineffective — even damaging — and resting our poverty-fighting efforts on a policy that imposes strict work requirements would fail to move the needle on poverty.
Research shows that work requirements have overwhelmingly failed to lead people to work and out of poverty. Work requirements imposed on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in the late 1990s have failed to produce any significant improvement in employment rates. In fact, over time, employment rates among individuals involved in work requirement programs were equal to — and in some cases lower than — employment rates among individuals not subjected to work requirements.
Moreover, in a two-year evaluation of work requirement programs across the country, most individuals subject to work requirements remained poor. Only two of eleven sites saw improvements in the poverty rate of individuals subject to work requirements. Worse, deep poverty (income below 50% of the federal poverty line) increased in six of the eleven sites.
This clear failure of work requirements to increase employment rates and lift people out of poverty isn’t surprising, since these programs are not designed to break down the barriers to employment people in poverty face. By and large, they don’t address obstacles such as low levels of education, lack of skills or experience, physical or mental health issues, lack of childcare and transportation, barriers imposed by criminal records, and a lack of social connections needed to find good jobs. Even those who are employed have difficulty sustaining work at low-wage jobs with unpredictable schedules for paychecks that are insufficient to put enough food on the table or provide basic shelter.
Instead, work requirements are premised on the false assumption that unemployed people living in poverty won’t work unless they’re forced to do so. Accordingly, these policies attempt to “discipline” recipients by mandating their compliance with job search or other requirements that fail to address the very real barriers people in poverty face to finding employment.
Recipients who fail to comply with work requirements lose benefits. In many cases, recipients’ failure to comply with work requirements is caused by the same barriers they faced in finding work in the first place!
Despite all of this evidence, Speaker Ryan proposes to expand the rigid work requirement system currently operating for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to all adults receiving rental housing assistance and SNAP.
Instead of punishing people living in poverty, we should be helping them. We should invest in programs that create jobs and offer support to individuals in obtaining and sustaining employment.
Read more from The Shriver Brief.
From DNA Chicago:
by Alex Nitkin
Before her shift Thursday morning, Burger King cashier Victoria Fowler called her manager to ask if restaurant's air conditioning was working. The answer, as it had been every day for more than six months, was still "no."
On the verge of a searing heat wave poised to bake the city in 100-plus-degree temperatures, Fowler decided she'd reached her breaking point.
"We don't get paid a lot, and we don't get benefits or anything," said Fowler, a cashier and front-of-house worker. "We shouldn't also have to stand in there hot and sweating all day. Nobody wants to work like that."
After hooking up with organizers from the Fight For 15 labor movement, which has rallied fast food workers all over the country in pursuit of better conditions and higher wages, Fowler and about a dozen of her coworkers walked off the job Thursday.
The group hoisted mostly printed Fight for 15 signs for passing cars, forming a small but noisy picket line outside the burger spot on the corner of 47th Street and Evans Avenue.
"No justice, no peace! Too hot, can't stand the heat!" they chanted, mixing in generic labor chants with direct appeals for a functioning air conditioner.
For months, they said, they'd been asking managers to come replace the defunct AC unit in the back of the restaurant, where employees dunk fry baskets and assemble burgers out of customers' sight. Repairmen had come periodically, they said, but never left a permanent fix.
Temperatures in the cooking area have started to push 90 degrees, food prepper Rachel Cockrell said, and she fears it will only get worse as the weather outside gets more extreme.
"When it gets like that, you get frustrated, you start moving slower, you get worried you're going to sweat all over the food," Cockrell said.
The heat has already taken a lasting physical toll, she said.
Earlier this month, Cockrell had to go to the emergency room after contracting a nasty skin infection down her back, she said. The doctor handed her a regimen of antibiotics and told her to avoid situations that would cause her to sweat.
The next day, she was back at work.
"There's no reason we should have to come into work and be so uncomfortable," Cockrell said. "Every time a fryer stops working, they come in and replace it. But when it comes to their own employees, it's like they don't care."
Not everyone walked off the job; "two or three" shift workers stayed on, the strikers said, and managers had brought in a rash of workers from other Burger King locations around the city. As the strike went on, customers continued to trickle in for Whoppers and shakes.
At one point Fowler held her picket sign to the window, motioning for an employee inside to come out and join the rally. The woman dropped her broom and shook her head, rubbing her thumb against her fingers.
"I need the money," she mouthed, returning to her task.
"I think they're scared," Fowler said, turning away. "None of us have talked to the managers. None one knows what they're going to do."
By the time three police cars pulled up, about two hours into the protest, the strikers realized they had reason to worry.
After a long conversation with a handful of officers, Fowler huddled back with her co-workers.
"They said we shouldn't come into work tomorrow," she said. "[The managers] didn't even want to talk to us. They just called the police."
The group was done for the day, but not for good, they decided.
"I have a 7 a.m. shift tomorrow. I'll be back," she said. "They can't do nothing to me." Others vowed to join her.
Read more from DNA Chicago.
From The Boston Globe:
by Amanda Hoover
The parent company behind several popular restaurant chains has agreed to pay more than $200,000 in penalties and restitution after allegedly failing to compensate Massachusetts workers for obligatory training time, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Bloomin’ Brands, Inc., the company that operates Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonesfish Grill, and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, agreed to pay $210,000, which will include restitution to 2,565 employees across the state, authorities announced Thursday.
“Companies cannot cut corners in order to save costs and must pay their employees for the hours they work,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “As a result of a single complaint to our office, thousands of Massachusetts workers will now receive restitution for the wages they earned.”
The AG’s office launched an investigation into Bloomin’ Brands practices after a server and staff manager at one of the company’s 22 Massachusetts restaurants reported she had not been compensated for obligatory online training sessions outside of the workplace, authorities said.
Authorities found that the company had used two systems to track employees’ hours: one for when they worked in the restaurant, and another when they were trained online. Bloomin’ Brands later failed to merge the two systems when processing employees’ hours, and failed to fix the error in “a timely manner,” according to the AG’s office.
The system has since been updated to fix the error, and Bloomin’ Brands has agreed to allow the AG’s office to review its payroll and timekeeping records at the end of the year, authorities said.
Read more from The Boston Globe.
From The Star-Tribune:
by Eric Golden
The push to raise Minneapolis’ minimum wage to $15 per hour has cleared an important first step to getting the issue on the November ballot — setting off a process that could yield a legal battle between workers and business groups.
City officials announced Wednesday that organizers looking to raise the wage through a charter amendment had gathered enough valid signatures to send the issue to voters if the proposal clears additional procedural hurdles.
The groups 15 Now, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and other advocates had turned in a petition with 17,902 signatures. A detailed review by the City Clerk’s Office found that just 8,418 of those signatures could be matched with voter registration records, but the number was well over the required 6,869 signatures.
The city’s approval of the signatures at a council committee meeting was heralded as a victory by petition organizers, but it does not mean the issue will end up on the ballot. Supporters will have to pass two more hurdles: legal consideration by the city attorney, who will determine if the proposal amounts to a proper charter amendment, and a final vote by the City Council to refer the matter to voters.
City Attorney Susan Segal is scheduled to provide her opinion to the council July 28, and the council will vote Aug. 5. The officials will consider if the petition falls into the narrow spectrum of city issues that can be decided by voters in Minneapolis: basic functions of government outlined in the city charter. Changes to the city’s code of ordinances, on the other hand, can be made only by the council.
A separate charter amendment proposal, which would require Minneapolis police to carry professional liability insurance, will also be considered at the same meetings.
Advocates for the wage increase, which would make Minneapolis’ minimum wage one of the highest in the country, say they’re confident the petition will pass legal muster.
“We’re very confident in our legal analysis: we have the right, there’s no pre-emption from the city,” said Ginger Jentzen, executive director of 15 Now Minnesota.
Jentzen said her group is pushing the issue to voters because the council has declined to act on it. A few council members have expressed support for a higher minimum wage, but the topic has been tabled until the fall as the city waits for the results of a study on the economic impacts of a wage increase. Mayor Betsy Hodges has said she does not favor a city wage increase.
Segal has not publicly weighed in on the matter, but the chairman of the charter commission has said he does not believe it could be handled with a charter amendment. Should the council decline to send the issue to the ballot, Jentzen said the city could face a lawsuit.
“I think all the groups that are organizing around this would be prepared to take legal action,” she said.
Read more from The Star-Tribune.