From The Atlantic:
By Bourree Lam
Since November’s election, labor advocates have been bracing themselves for an administration they fear will be kinder to owners than to workers. One of the clearest signs that the Department of Labor is set to switch gears: Andy Puzder, the CEO of fast-food company CKE Restaurants, was nominated as secretary of the Labor Department. Puzder has been an outspoken critic of some of the changes labor advocates are currently trying to implement such as minimum-wage increases and expanded overtime pay, arguing that such regulations hinder businesses and lead them to hire less. But some are hopeful that there’s another way to protect employees, even without the federal government’s help: Instead, they’re looking to the states.
One of the leaders on this at the state level will Eric Schneiderman, the Democratic attorney general of New York, who has been active in pushing for increased worker protections in his state. He has helped end on-call scheduling—the practice in which shift workers are called in on short notice, or prevented from working scheduled shifts on slow days—at major retailers, including J.Crew, Disney, and Aeropostale. Schneiderman has been credited for rallying attorneys general in other states in joint actions on labor and employment issues. In the case of on-call scheduling, the investigation involved attorney general offices in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island, and D.C.
“The Constitution preserves lots of power at the state level … so we do have this federalist system that enables us to provide protections at the state level when the federal government falls down on the job,” said Schneiderman in an interview.
Now, in light of the changes coming to the federal government, Schneiderman believes that the role of states will be all the more critical for workplace issues and regulations. “It's clear that we're going to have a vigorous national debate about some stuff that I would have thought would have been settled a while ago but apparently open for discussion again regarding wages and overtime,” said Schneiderman. “Our labor bureau has been very successful in all of these areas, and we're set up to enforce the law and protect New Yorkers and take on the debate if the incoming Labor Secretary really does want to follow through on what I think are some harmful public policies to try to reduce wages, overtime, and worker protections.”
States that have the manpower can be very effective in helping workers recover lost wages. One area where state action may prove effective is wage theft, which affects both white-collar and low-wage workers. Workers lose out on wages for work they’ve done in a variety of ways, such as when employers don’t pay overtime to those legally entitled to it, or force workers to work off the clock, or collude to keep pay down. On the part of attorneys general, the shift of enforcement power from the federal government to the states could require their offices to more regularly initiate investigations, file lawsuits, and bring employers to the table for dispute settlement. “If they're actually going to be attacking vulnerable populations such as low wage workers, we stand ready to defend them. And if they are going to violate any of their statutory or constitutional duties, we're prepared to challenge them in court,” said Schneiderman.
States have found themselves in this position before. “Under the Bush administration the Department of Labor also did not focus on fierce and aggressive protection of workers,” said Terri Gerstein, an incoming fellow of the Open Society Foundation and the former labor bureau chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office. “There was much more of a focus on education of employers and compliance assistance. In enforcement, there's always a series of decisions to be made ... if decisions are made in favor of weak enforcement, that's a situation that we've seen before.”
But it’s not as though states took a backseat during the Obama administration. Some states took on an increased role in handling wage and labor practices, with a growing number of have passed their own minimum wage and paid-leave laws. Seven states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, and most recently Arizona and Washington—now have laws requiring paid sick leave. Minimum wage went up in 21 states and 22 cities at the start of this year.
For labor advocates, the concern about this approach is what happens to people in states that are less adamant about enforcement. While workers in states that have been active on these issues in the past—such as California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts to name a few—will likely continue to be protected by their state agencies, states without established resources in place will have a harder time stepping up in the same way. In Georgia, for example, there is no state-level enforcement process, and wage claims are filed directly to the Department of Labor.
“It’s far from ideal, if this ends up happening,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “The way that this should be done is that the federal Department of Labor remains an effective recourse for workers whose rights have been violated, not just on minimum wage but all the federal laws that the Department of Labor enforces. But then you also have states there too as another avenue through which workers can recover their unpaid wages.”
Additionally, though states can play a key role on some employment issues, there are workplace issues that require federal enforcement. "States can play a tremendously important role in combating wage theft, but in other critical areas, like workplace safety and health or workers' right to organize, states may have a harder time filling in the gap because they are often preempted by federal law from directly enforcing these laws," says Gerstein.
Read more from The Atlantic.
From FOX Business:
By Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Many sectors in the U.S. are wondering what changes will be made since the country elected a Republican president and majority in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Of the 99 state Houses and Senates in the country, 68 are also now a Republican-majority, and in 32 states, Republicans control both chambers. In the governor's office, 33 states are headed by a Republican, with 25 of these states totally controlled by Republicans.
The net effect has labor unions on alert.
"It's going to be the most challenging period for organized labor since the 1930s," says Susan J. Schurman, a labor studies and employment relations professor at Rutgers University and former labor union leader. "It's clear to everyone at this point that if conservatives had their way, we'd not have unions."
Labor union members made up 11.1 percent of American workers in 2015, the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership for public sector workers was 35.2 percent, compared to 6.7 percent of private sector workers in unions.
Union leaders have expressed concern about some of President-Elect Trump's statements.
Is the Minimum Wage at Risk?
Trump said he'd support a $10 federal minimum wage, but also that U.S. wages were too high to compete with other countries. He has attacked United Steelworkers 1999 and its president Chuck Jones on Twitter, blaming them for driving jobs from the U.S.
"We saw that our president-elect is more than willing to attack a local union leader who merely pointed out a fact," Schurman says.
Trump's cabinet selections also are causing unions concern. His choice for secretary of labor choice, Andrew Puzder, is a prime example. As CEO of CKE Restaurants, "Puzder outsourced key jobs overseas, planned to replace workers with machines to avoid paying benefits, repeatedly and loudly opposed raising the minimum wage, paid union-busting firms to stop his own workers from forming a union and opposes the Affordable Care Act because it requires that he provide high-quality health care for his employees ," says Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers in a statement.
The incoming administration also will appoint new members to the National Labor Relations Board, which may quickly reverse decisions like whether graduate students are eligible to unionize, Rutgers' Schurman says.
What's at Stake?
With the Republican majorities, unions face threats to their existence and their purpose. Here are some issues that may be contested in the upcoming administration:
Collective bargaining:"That's the target. Everything else is secondary," Schurman says. Collective bargaining is the basis of the labor relations framework. She worries about states changing legislation to contravene the Federal Labor Relations Act, preventing or changing public employees' rights to collective bargaining.
"Republican governors, where they can, remove bargaining rights and seek to pass right-to-work legislation," she says.
Right to work: Right-to-work laws exist in 26 states, allowing employees to decide whether to join a union or pay dues. This results in workers not having to pay an agency fee in union-represented workplaces, but the union still represents them.
"The net effect is it's making it much more difficult to collect union dues, which is what they use to perform their collective bargaining," Schurman says.
Should the right-to-work issue stay at a state level or move to federal law, asks John Raudabaugh, a labor law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Florida, and a former management-side labor attorney. Raudabaugh also served as one of five NLRB members appointed by President George H. W. Bush.
"If it's still at the state level, what do we do about the current and emerging debate about allowing local governments to create their own law on right to work apart from state law?" Raudabaugh says.
Friedrich versus California Teachers Association: "At the federal level, unions need to worry about the Friedrichs' case," Schurman says.
"Had (Supreme Court Justice) Scalia not died, the bets were that the plaintiffs would prevail," she says, which means that workers who don't want to join the union or pay agency fees would still be entitled to representation in collective bargaining.
Joint employers: Under rulings made during the Obama administration, companies are held jointly liable for unfair labor practices committed by their contractors or franchisees.
"Unions should expect a new (NLRB) board to re-evaluate many of the current issues, with joint employers near the top of the list," says labor law professor Raudabaugh.
Occupation and health administration: Schurman anticipates a very different approach to enforcement, as conservatives tend to favor little to no regulation.
"The underlying theory is that the market will take care of wages. You'll get the wages you deserve because the market will determine that," she says.
It's the same theory with regulation. "Those of us in the field of labor studies don't believe there's any factual basis to that view. Certainly, unions will be struggling to prevent that," Schurman says.
State-specific union issues: "I suspect that unions are going to find themselves facing huge uphill battles everywhere in the country where Republicans control the governor's office and legislature," she says.
For example in Wisconsin, union membership has declined since 2011, when the state curtailed public employee bargaining.
What Should Unions Do?
Unions continue to speak out on issues of interest, commenting on incoming presidential policies and appointments. Schurman recommends two strategic directions that unions should pursue.
The first is for unions to reconnect with their members in a more robust way. Unions successfully doing this are growing, including service employee and teacher unions.
Unions need to persuade workers of the value of membership. "That's hard to do when they can get the collective bargaining benefits without paying for it," as well as those who don't have union dues automatically collected through the employer's paycheck, Schurman says.
The second suggestion is for unions is to organize more workers outside of the traditional employer/employee work model. The current labor relations framework says that relationships should be between workers, their representatives and an employer.
Represent Workers Politically
"The growing share of our economy are workers who don't have an employer as we know it in the 20th century. Corporations have devolved," Schurman says.
That includes outsourcing and hiring casual laborers not eligible for collect bargaining representation. "However, they are eligible to become union members," she says.
Unions have to convince existing members that there's a huge block of workers with a different employment relationship, and these workers need representation in the political sphere to advocate for their rights, not for collective bargaining. The role is similar to what unions did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as mutual aid societies, before collective bargaining became the basis of the industrial relations framework, Schurman says.
Overhaul Labor Laws
Raudabaugh suggests that the federal government take a look at existing labor laws. "In the long term, Congress has to step in and evaluate our 1935 National Labor Relations Act," he says. "We're dealing with quite an ancient statutory structure which needs to be reevaluated because the nature of work has changed."
He questions whether unions are necessary to maximize employee rights and interests in the workplace, and whether there might be a better model.
Work councils in Europe are one option, where employees talk directly with employers on topics of concern.
"Why is there a need for an outside entity to come in and do the talking for them? They have brains. Why do they have to pay money to do that? What if the union is doing similar work for a competing company? These are all issues," Raudabaugh says.
Read more from FOX Business.
From The Washington Post:
By Patricia Sullivan
Legislation to raise Montgomery County’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 passed the County Council on a 5-to-4 vote Tuesday, but it is unclear whether County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) will allow the measure to become law.
The affluent county of about 1 million would be the first jurisdiction in Maryland — and the second in the Washington area after the District — to adopt a $15 hourly minimum wage.
Leggett said last week that he was worried that the increase would put Montgomery at a competitive disadvantage in terms of attracting businesses, and that it could put too great a burden on employers.
The Montgomery legislation would go into effect by 2020 for most businesses and in 2022 for businesses with fewer than 25 employees, a change made in an effort to address Leggett’s concerns, said chief sponsor Marc Elrich (D-At Large).
But county government spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Leggett wanted to delay implementation for all businesses, not just small ones, until 2022.
Leggett will study the issue further before deciding whether to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature, Lacefield said. The council would need six votes to override a veto by Leggett, which is one vote more than the legislation received on Tuesday.
As the vote was tallied, the packed council chamber erupted in cheers from supporters of the “Fight for 15” campaign, which is spearheaded by organized labor and has secured laws requiring a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, California and New York, in addition to the District.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed for a national $15 minimum wage during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The quest became part of the party platform and was embraced by nominee Hillary Clinton.
But efforts to approve a $15 minimum wage failed this past summer in Baltimore, and some Montgomery council members were wary of becoming the first jurisdiction in Maryland to pass such a wage hike.
Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who voted no — along with Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — argued that a minimum-wage hike should not take effect until Montgomery begins and completes an economic impact study that would spell out the effects that such a change would have on the county, its employers and low-wage workers.
“This is not a delay tactic,” Katz said. “We are about to put massive operational constraints on small-business owners.”
One of the business owners who attended the hearing, Boris Lander, said he would probably have to cut jobs at the 14 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises he owns in the county and shut down a production facility in Gaithersburg if the wage increase takes effect.
Lander, in a letter to the council, noted increases in the minimum wage that the council launched beginning in 2014, from $7.25 to $10.75 an hour. Another increase, to $11.50 an hour, is scheduled for July. Those hikes cost 70 to 100 full-time jobs, Landers wrote. A $15 minimum wage would mean that an additional 38 jobs would be cut and that 84 new jobs would not be filled.
Proponents of the minimum-wage increase argue that businesses adjust to rising costs all the time and publicly object only when labor costs go up.
“It’s hard to adjust to being poor, too,” Elrich said. “When you don’t have money, there’s only one adjustment — you don’t spend, you don’t buy.”
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, which assists low-income immigrants, issued a statement after the vote urging Leggett to approve the bill. “It could become one of the most enduring achievements of his leadership,” the statement said. “Signing into law a $15 minimum wage will cap Ike’s legacy of putting working families in Montgomery County first.”
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who voted in favor of the bill along with Elrich, Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) and Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), said that 143,000 Montgomery workers make less than $13.59 an hour.
A family of four needs its breadwinner to make $22 an hour to be self-sufficient in the county, Hucker said.
Other council members said they supported the idea of a $15 minimum wage but felt that it was folly to require it in Montgomery when employers in the rest of Maryland and in Northern Virginia can pay less.
“The last time we took this up, we at least had Prince George’s County with us,” Floreen said, referring to the earlier wage hikes. “This crowd should be in Annapolis to push the state forward on these issues.”
Read more from The Washington Post.
By SOMOS UN PUEBLO UNIDO
Tomorrow, a coalition of organizations dedicated to furthering workers' rights in New Mexico will announce the filing of a new lawsuit against the N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) seeking relief on a number of claims relating to failures by the department to properly investigate wage theft issues.
These include the DWS's illegally imposed $10,000 cap on investigating wage theft claims; their illegal practice of not investigating or taking any enforcement action on claims for wages that go back more than one year; and that the DWS does not hold employers liable for any statutory damages during the administrative enforcement phase of a case. Additional claims are also included in the lawsuit.
The coalition bringing the lawsuit against the DWS includes: the N.M. Center on Law and Poverty, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, NM Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos un Pueblo Unido, along with five individual plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs, and representatives from each organization, will be available to speak to press.
Read more from KRWG.
From The Atlantic:
By Andrew McGill
The manufacturing sector is vital to America’s self-image as a hardy, industrious nation, even though it employs less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. Perhaps that’s why it was so painful to watch the bottom fall out. When factory employment plummeted in the last decade, dropping by a third between 2000 and 2010, a cornerstone of the American economy was demoted to a mere cinderblock.
Then came Donald Trump and his 35-percent tariff. The logic of president-elect’s plan, intoxicating in its simplicity, can be summed up on a good-sized cocktail napkin: I will punish anyone who moves American jobs overseas; therefore, America will lose no jobs.
Most economists agree China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the subsequent rush to offshore manufacturing hurt American factories; they quibble only over the extent of the damage. And doesn’t Trump’s strategy just make sense? His threat of retributive tariffs (and a pile of state tax rebates) appeared to convince furnace manufacturer Carrier to preserve more than 1,000 jobs in Indiana; the president-elect has since taken credit for keeping a Ford factory in Louisville (though that’s debatable) and for bringing 5,000 Sprint jobs back to America (also probably not true).
But here’s the rub: Outsourcing just isn’t the problem it used to be. Manufacturing layoffs are now the lowest they’ve been in more than a decade. Most factory workers are not in immediate danger of losing their jobs in the next year, and the industry labor force has settled at a steady (if disappointing) level of about 12 million positions.
Instead, workers have a new worry: When they do get laid off, it’s harder for them to find another job in manufacturing, even compared to a decade ago. In 1980, around 15 percent of factory workers transitioned into a different industry after being unemployed, according to Census data. By 2016, that figure hit around 30 percent.
“They’re not recycling workers,” said William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO and a former assistant secretary in the Department of Labor. “In a healthier market, where things were highly competitive, you would expect to have seen a lot more new hiring. That’s not what’s going on. I just think there’s a great dysfunction in manufacturing.”
Employee churn—when workers leave one job for another, either by choice or because of a layoff—is usually a sign of an industry’s health, a signal that people can move to better companies with better wages. It’s supposedly how the market’s invisible hand re-allocates employees to more efficient firms. But the labor cycle of the American manufacturing sector has somehow sprung a leak, losing talent with every turn of the wheel.
That almost included Cindy Disbrow. In her 30 years working in Michigan, she’s welded automobile panels, prepared baby formula, and now leads a team that manufactures parts for Camaros. Whenever she left an old job, a new one was waiting.
Things changed a few years ago, she said. Factories stopped hiring, or they only took temporary workers. “A lot of companies will only use you and get rid of you,” she said. “Everybody suffered.”
Eventually, she found her current job, and got a welding certification with the help of a regional career placement center. But others haven’t been as fortunate. After the Great Recession, more than 1 million manufacturing workers never found employment in a factory again.
What turned the virtuous cycle of churn into a downward spiral? It depends on which economist you ask. Spriggs blames the decline of unions and a new pickiness on the part of factory managers, who he says are less likely to look at their workers as trainable investments without the prodding of organized labor. Laid-off workers are viewed with suspicion; no one can vouch for them, he said.
“We don’t have very good labor market information systems, and that works at the disadvantage of displaced manufacturing workers,” Spriggs said. “When you have a union and the company is hiring, you’re going to get a more diverse pool of people in manufacturing who can call upon their contacts and say, ‘I know somebody who can do this job.’ ”
Spriggs, of course, works for the biggest labor federation in the country. An alternate explanation, put forth by Ball State economics professor Michael Hicks, might be even more troubling to Trump. In his view, increases in automation and productivity have kept manufacturing employment low. And if Trump slaps companies who outsource production with a sizeable tariff, Hicks believes owners will simply double down on robots, flatlining labor growth.
Take Carrier, Trump’s biggest jobs triumph to date. The furnace manufacturer says it will spend $16 million to further automate its Indiana facility; those improvements could eventually render obsolete the jobs saved in the deal Trump negotiated.
“Businesses are saying, gosh, if I’m going from paying someone $24 an hour down to $3 an hour in China or Mexico, maybe I go to $6 an hour with automation and still save money,” Hicks said. “They’re not going to just keep production here and bite the bullet and lose money to make their workers better off. No business does that.”
In the near term, if Trump’s proposed manufacturing tariff works as planned, most of those workers keep their jobs, he'll earn immediate goodwill among his supporters, and the incoming capital investments in whirring robots will give a boost to GDP, particularly if Trump also strikes down regulations and lowers taxes.
The long-term effects, however, won’t be as pleasant. More automation means fewer future slots for human employees. And while workers might have kept their jobs this time around through the intervention of the president-elect, when the inevitable layoffs come, there won’t be new manufacturing work for everyone.
Read more from The Atlantic.
By Kathleen Ronayne
Hundreds of people flocked to Concord on Tuesday to testify, cheer and boo as they debated the merits of right-to-work legislation during the session's first public hearing on the topic.
"There is no evidence this legislation would improve work opportunities, job security or employment for hard-working Granite Staters," said Bob Jones, a public safety union president.
About 120 people signed up to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee. The legislation would bar both public and private unions from requiring employees to contribute dues, fees or any other type of payment, although union members could voluntarily pay dues. If the law passes, any collective bargaining agreement that requires payments would become null and void.
Legislators and business leaders who testified in support of the bill said it would give workers more freedom and entice businesses to New Hampshire. But union representatives and members said a right-to-work law would weaken collective bargaining power and threaten worker protections and wages.
Passing right-to-work legislation is part of a national movement by Republicans. Kentucky and Missouri are considering similar laws this year.
In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and GOP House and Senate leaders support right-to-work legislation, but it's not a done deal. Both chambers have rejected the measure at times in the past, even under Republican control.
Opponents seemed to outnumber supporters, and they applauded or booed loudly depending on the testimony. Sen. Dan Innis, the committee chair, warned people several times to quiet down and threatened to time-limit speeches if the catcalls did not cease.
Some audience members grew particularly heated during remarks by Matthew Lee, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee. In his testimony supporting the bill, Lee compared compelling workers to pay union dues to a cab driver kidnapping someone and forcing them to pay for the ride.
"Forced unionism makes no more sense," he said.
State and federal law says employees cannot be forced to join a union, even if they benefit from the union's representation. But collective bargaining agreements can require non-members to pay fees or other dues for the benefits they receive. If passed, the right-to-work legislation would ban that.
Mark Hounsell, a former Republican state senator and member of the state's Public Employee Labor Relations Board, said allowing people to get out of paying union dues amounts to stealing.
"This bill legalizes theft of services among the men and women working side by side every day," he said.
Other opponents warned it would weaken unions' collective bargaining power, potentially depressing wages, eliminating benefits and removing other health and safety protections.
Read more from Seacoast.
From IBEW Media Center:
Lamar Austin became an unwitting public figure when he was fired because he missed work to attend the birth of his son on New Year’s Day. News of the incident spread on social media after it was reported by newspaper and television stations in New England.
It’s a story that may have a happy ending, however, due in part to the IBEW.
Austin, 30, has received several job offers, but is applying for a spot in Dover, N.H., Local 490’s apprenticeship program after being invited to do so by Business Manager Denis R. Beaudoin Sr. Austin lives in nearby Pittsfield, N.H., with his wife and four children, the youngest, Caiman, who will receive the credit for the positive career track of his father after his birth.
“I’ve been waiting for so long for this,” Austin said. “God delivered it to me. Why look for something else?”
Beaudoin said Austin’s plight originally caught his attention because they both live in Pittsfield. He reached out and encouraged him to apply after reading in a follow-up report that Austin wanted to become an electrician.
“This isn’t a freebie,” Beaudoin said. “It’s an actual offer to better himself. A lot of people in life don’t have these opportunities. If they did, they would take advantage of it.
“We offer that,” Beaudoin continued. “That’s the beauty of the IBEW. We offer a way to improve your life.”
Among those improvements for Austin if he’s accepted into the program: a well-paying career, a chance to earn a pension, increased job security and knowing he’ll be able to take time for the birth of a child.
“The IBEW understands family values,” Beaudoin said. “We live it and support them.”
Austin grew up in Newark, N.J., and served in the U.S. Army before settling in New Hampshire because his wife Lindsay is from there. Their son Caiman was born at about 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 1.
Earlier that morning, Salerno Protective Services informed him he was out of a job as a security guard for failure to show up for work. Austin, who said he informed the company that his wife was in labor, was within his 90-day probationary period. New Hampshire is an “at-will” employment state, meaning employees can be terminated for little reason and without warning.
But it struck many as unfair and anti-family. One New Hampshire woman set up a a GoFundMe account for the family and several businesses made job offers.
Austin said his mother was a union carpenter and reminded him of the importance of unions for working families. He remembered that and he’s always wanted to be an electrician, so Beaudoin’s offer nailed it
“She always told me that you need some job security,” he said. “As a kid, you don’t quite understand what she’s talking about.”
Austin said he’s good with his hands and a quick learner. He’s talked with Local 490 Training Director Jonathan Mitchell and will officially apply for a spot when he receives his transcript from his New Jersey high school.
“This is part of my job when you see someone saying they want to be an electrician,” Mitchell said. “We reach out to those people and encourage them to come in.”
Both Beaudoin and Mitchell noted Austin has plenty of work ahead. He still must meet the requirements for entry and he’ll have to commit to a five-year apprenticeship program. But they said his military background should work to his advantage.
“We’ve had great experience with military guys before,” Beaudoin said. “They already know you need to be organized. They understand you have to attend classes.”
Read more from IBEW Media Center.
By Beth Daley
Federal prosecutors are investigating an asbestos-removal company active in the Boston area to see whether the firm withheld wages and benefits from workers, according to people familiar with the matter.
The case is part of widening U.S. Justice Department activity and private civil action targeting asbestos-removal and demolition contractors for alleged worker mistreatment amid a construction and renovation boom in Massachusetts.
Registered asbestos-abatement jobs in the state totaled 25,660 in 2016, up 64 percent in five years, as construction materials in many older buildings being torn apart for renovation often contain the carcinogenic mineral.
Within the last two years, two criminal cases and three civil lawsuits have been brought in U.S. District Court in Boston alleging companies are cheating asbestos-removal or demolition workers on wage and benefits payments. In one of the cases, the owner of an asbestos-abatement firm pleaded guilty to federal charges after prosecutors alleged he paid workers in cash to avoid employment taxes and payments he owed to union benefit funds.
The asbestos and demolition workforce has a large number of immigrants, some of whom have told The Eye and WBUR that they believe they are being exposed to asbestos without adequate protective breathing masks or other required safeguards. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to lung cancer and other potentially deadly diseases.
On the wage front, a federal investigation is looking at Absolute Environmental, a Salem, New Hampshire-based company, according to industry insiders, including one former worker who testified before a federal grand jury in Boston hearing evidence in the case.
Union benefit-fund officials sued Absolute Environmental Inc. and a second company, Absolute Environmental Contractors Inc., in 2015. The officials alleged a scheme in which Absolute Environmental’s owners used the second company as a front to pay workers less and avoid making benefits payments mandated by a collective bargaining agreement.
Proceedings in the lawsuit have been put on hold until May as the parties try to reach an agreement.
"Absolute was cheating me," said Jean Jimenez, 27, of Methuen, who said he went before the grand jury about nine months ago, and was asked about the company and how his wages were paid there.
Two other people with direct knowledge of the investigation say it is ongoing. The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston did not respond to several requests for comment.
Absolute Environmental said in a statement that it “is a highly regarded business which operates in a lawful and responsible manner.’’ It called the union lawsuit “without merit” and said “it looks forward to vindicating its position in court.” The statement said the company wouldn’t comment on “speculation about government investigations.”
Jimenez, a union member, said he worked for the company for about two years and quit in 2015 because he wasn’t always paid the wages he was due.
Red Check, Green Check
According to Jimenez and the union lawsuit, he was paid $34.75 an hour from Absolute Environmental for removing asbestos-filled floor adhesive from the Prudential Center in Boston and for abatement work at a power plant in Salem, Massachusetts.
But the lawsuit said that in his next paycheck he was paid $17 an hour for similar work in a South Boston warehouse. In both cases, Jimenez said he picked up a company truck at the same Absolute location in Salem, New Hampshire, before heading to work.
“They think people are not going to talk” and “that they are just grateful to work,” said Jimenez, who estimated he is owed at least $5,000 in back pay. He said union wages were paid with a red check, and nonunion wages were paid with a green check.
In a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, 11 workers have accused another contractor, Skinner Demolition, of underpaying them and providing them with inadequate asbestos protection.
Scott Connolly, an attorney for Skinner Services Inc., which runs the demolition company, said the allegations in the MCAD complaint were unfounded.
One of the complainants in the case, Marco Lopez, is also a plaintiff in a separate federal lawsuit filed in November against Skinner and its owners for alleged non-payment of wages. According to the lawsuit, Lopez drove workers between job sites and Skinner’s headquarters without pay, sometimes up to three hours each way, and also had weekly deductions taken from his checks for “uniform washing” that was done only two or three times in 18 months.
"We don’t get paid for all the work we do," Lopez said.
Skinner and its attorney didn’t return requests for comment on the federal lawsuit and Lopez’s allegations.
Disputes about wages and working conditions are hardly unique to the asbestos abatement industry. But many asbestos workers are vulnerable because they have entered the country illegally, and are typically in no position to complain or switch jobs, according to workers and labor advocates.
There are more than 3,400 asbestos-removal workers licensed in the state, and demolition companies employ thousands of others who can also confront the carcinogen on the job.
“Because of the nature of asbestos work, the industry uses the most vulnerable workers,” who fear deportation, according to Tom Juravich, professor of labor studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston indicted the New Hampshire owners of Air Quality Experts Inc. and AQE Inc. in January 2016, alleging a scheme that cheated workers out of about $2 million in payments to health, pension and other employee benefit funds. Union officials who run the funds filed a federal civil lawsuit with similar allegations against the companies in 2015.
Both the indictment and civil case allege that AQE signed an agreement with a local union in 2005 promising to pay union wages to all its employees. According to the lawsuit and indictment, AQE owners Christopher and Kimberly Thompson also own Air Quality Experts, which allegedly paid workers below their entitled rates and didn’t contribute toward their pension and other funds. The indictment also said some employees weren’t paid for all hours worked.
Owners are allowed to have two companies that do similar work, one union and one nonunion. But case law and construction industry attorneys say they must be run as separate organizations with separate employees, operations and management. The criminal indictment alleges that AQE and Air Quality Experts were essentially operating as a single organization.
Howard Cooper, the Thompsons’ attorney, said that prosecuting the couple “is unjust and absurd.” He added that they “would like to know where that $2 million is because they don’t have it.’’
Cooper said Air Quality Experts existed for more than two decades as a nonunion shop and always paid nonunion wages. AQE was formed later to give union workers, and the business, more opportunity, but that did not require the Thompsons to start paying non-unionized workers union wages, according to Cooper.
In pretrial proceedings, U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris said she had “deep concerns” about the case because it wasn’t clear workers were being defrauded, according to hearing transcripts.
Read more from Bostonomix.
By Kyrie Greenberg
Community Legal services now offers free weekly legal support for workers who are victims of wage theft, and it's holding the clinics in places to reach Asian-Americans.
Chi- Ser Tran, who studied at Temple University and got a fellowship from Yale, runs the clinics in South Philly and in Chinatown. She says that a combination of poverty and language barriers has made it hard for Asian-American immigrants to know their rights.
"Sometimes they don't know that they're entitled to overtime or that they're entitled to minimum wage. Or even that they're entitled to be paid for their last week of work if they were fired for some reason," she said.
Asian-Americans are one of the city's fastest growing immigrant populations. Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia's community grew by 43 percent, while the city just grew 1percent overall.
"Another purpose of this project is to combat the model minority myth," said Tran. "That's this notion that Asian Americans are generally well off and that they don't face any issues in society," she said.
In Philadelphia, a quarter of the Asian-American community lives in poverty. Tran says her clients work in nail salons, paper factories, and janitorial jobs; but often are unaware of their rights to fair pay, or are wary of upsetting an employer that supports the community.
"The challenge is getting the client to feel comfortable enough to come to us," said Tran. "And part of that is education and letting them know that they have the right to be paid at least minimum wage and they shouldn't be afraid to stand up for their rights. Even if they're undocumented they have the right to paid be paid for their work."
Philadelphia City Council estimates that over 90,000 workers in Philadelphia are victims of wage theft, losing 15 percent of their paycheck per week on average. Council passed the city's wage theft ordinance last fall, and created an office dedicated to handling worker complaints.
Read more from Newsworks.
From The Baltimore Sun:
By Carrie Wells
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employees voted Thursday night to unionize under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, something organizers said would give 1,419 workers "a voice at the table."
The gas and electrical workers will be organized under a new chapter, Local 410. Baltimore-based BGE is owned by Chicago-based Exelon, and was the only one of six Exelon utilities not represented by a union.
Eric Gomez, an underground lines crew leader at BGE who helped organize the union, called the vote "wonderful."
"We've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this over the last few years and it finally came to fruition," Gomez said.
Gomez said he thought the move would improve the company.
"I think it's going to make the company a better place to work, and I think it'll enhance the company and provide a better product for the customer," he said. "I think this will definitely benefit our customers in the long run."
It would, Gomez said, give employees "a voice at the table with the company."
BGE CEO Calvin G. Butler Jr. said in a statement that the move wouldn't change outcomes for BGE customers.
"In the same way that we have worked collaboratively through the years, we will continue to work together with all of our employees to achieve great results for our customers," Butler said. "Our focus on delivering safe, reliable and innovative energy services to our customers remains unchanged."
Bert McDermitt, a regional organizing coordinator for the IBEW, said the vote was 741 for and 610 against.
It was the fifth attempt to organize BGE workers in the last 21 years. The most recent failed vote was in 2010. The IBEW held a rally in front of Exelon's Harbor Point building on Tuesday to build support for the unionization drive.
Read more from The Baltimore Sun.