Lots of Work for New Labor Secretary

Perez Faces Daunting Obstacles

Labor Secretary Tom Perez pledged this week to aggressively defend workers rights in a speech to the AFL-CIO but it may be a bit early to break out the balloons and confetti.

For one thing, Perez, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in July, has little power to overcome some of the daunting obstacles facing both the labor movement and American workers generally.

Research earlier this year documented what many casual observers already knew – the U.S. Supreme Court is, in fact,  the most anti-employee rights court in modern U.S. history.

In the past two years, the Court has issued decisions that make it far more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in employment discrimination lawsuits, retaliation lawsuits and class action lawsuits. See One-Two Punch by Anti-Worker Court and Wal-Mart Doges Bullet.

Congress has done little or nothing to repair these devastating blows to worker rights.

Congress has not even addressed the Court’s absurd 2009 decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services  to treat plaintiffs in age discrimination lawsuits less favorably than plaintiffs in race or sex discrimination lawsuits.

Finally, Congress’ so-called budget compromise – the sequester  – threatens to devastate the U.S. Department of Labor, which faces a potential budget cut of up to 26 percent in 2014.

Still …  Let the wind be at his back as Perez defends collective-bargaining rights, aggressively enforces wage laws and takes steps to improve workplace safety.

He also plans to crack down on employers who unlawfully misclassify workers as contractors instead of as employees and extend wage protections—such as overtime pay—to groups like home health-care workers who now have limited protections. Mr. Perez also said the DOL also will focus on job-training skills, calling he agency the “Department of Opportunity.”

And there’s no time like the present!

Union membership is down from a high of 20 percent in 1983 to 11.3 percent in 2012 (of which only 6.6 percent are private sector workers).

 

NFL Settlement Raises Legal Question

What Did the NFL Know?

The National Football League Thursday agreed to pay $765 million over 20 years to settle claims that it hid evidence about the dangers of head trauma suffered by NFL players.

Should that end the matter? Of course not. 

NFL players are employees. 

Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

 Courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard.

 The NFL owners had a legal duty to protect the players when they became aware (or should have become aware) of the devastating brain damage being suffered by their players on the field. At that point, the NFL and NFL team owners should have acted to “abate the hazard.”  Professional football is entertainment and there are many feasible ways the NFL could have made the game safer.   

As a result of the settlement, the NFL may be able to avoid the legal discovery process which would have included the deposition of  league officials and doctors about what they knew and when they knew it.  The settlement, however, does not prevent federal authorities from looking into whether  the NFL recognized the risks and still subjected players to serious physical harm. 

To allow the NFL to bury this matter under a rug through a private legal settlement would be akin to the federal government ignoring coal mine owners in West Virginia who failed to properly tunnel or vent a coal mine that caved in and resulted in  catastrophic loss of life. 

 Workplace Fatalities

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reported last week that  4,383 workers died from work-related injuries in 2012 – that’s  3.2 workers  per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. In a recent press release. DOL Secretary Thomas Perez said: “No worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

The DOL’s list of  workplace fatality statistics probably didn’t include Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher who fatally shot his girlfriend last December and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager. Or Junior Seau, a retired linebacker for the New England Patriots who fatally shot himself in the chest in at his California home last May.

 The deaths of Belcher and Seau were the latest to raise an alarm about head trauma suffered by  players on the football field. A  2012 study by Boston University School of Medicine of 35 former football players (33 had played for the NFL) found that 34 showed signs of brain disease before their deaths.  Dozens of athletes donated their brains to be studied by the medical school, which found a link between head injuries suffered in the heavy-impact sport and degenerative brain disease.

The Minimum Wage & Women

Women 60 % of minimum wage earners

I was waiting at the supermarket for a short, overweight woman wearing tight blue pedal-pushers to self-bag a mountain of groceries.  

The cashier, a woman in her mid-30s with pulled back hair and dark eye makeup, could not ring up my groceries until there was room on the counter.

 “Why is it so busy?” I asked.

“It’s the first of the month. Food stamps,” said the cashier..

I noticed her eye makeup had migrated  below her eyes forming a shadow. She was tired.

 “Have you been going at this fevered pace all day?” I asked.

“Yeah and this is my second job,” she said. “I’ll put in sixteen hours today.”

Suddenly she brightened. “But I am looking forward to taking a week’s vacation in ten days –  from one job, anyway.  It’s the first vacation I’ve had in years. I’ll find out what it feels like to do nothing again.”

Nothing?

Since when is having only one job a vacation? 

 Minimum Wage

The U.S. Department of Labor is engaged in a “myth busting” informational campaign regarding increasing the federal minimum wage – which is now  $7.25 an hour.

Most people think that it is mostly teenagers who earn the mininim wage. That’s wrong.

 A cashier who works 16 hours a day and considers having just one job a “vacation” is more representative of the minimum wage worker than a high school student earning pocket change.

According to DOL, 60 percent of those earning the minimum wage are women – fewer than 20 percent  are teenagers. And minimum wage workers brought home 46 percent of their household’s wage and salary income in 2011.

The minimum wage has not increased since 2009 and it has declined by 7.3 percent in buying power.

Hardworking Americans earning the minimum wage cannot afford to buy basic necessities and support a family –  never mind  health benefits and a pension.  Many Americans are working multiple jobs just to keep out of poverty.

There is a lot of ignorance about the impact of raising the minimum wage. The DOL and the Economic Policy Institute say that raising the minimum wage does not hurt small business or economic growth. Check out the following DOL graphic:

 

MWRaise-graphic1 

Good Jobs Replaced with Temp Work

One sector of the labor market is booming but there isn’t much cause for celebration.

 The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that the number of  “temps”  in the United States has jumped more than 50% since the recession “officially” ended four years ago to nearly 2.7 million — the largest number since 1990.

Temps are temporary workers who typically receive low pay, few  (if any) benefits and scant job security.  Needless to say, temps are seldom in a position to demand decent working conditions and, of course,  don’t qualify for unemployment compensation when they are dumped by the employer.

The number of Americans in the tenuous temp workforce rises to almost 17 million when you factor in freelancers, contract workers and consultants. That’s about 12 percent of the labor force.

Careerbuilder, the internet jobs web site, reports there are 17 job areas where temp work is growing fastest, including team assemblers, office clerks, home health aides, and maintenance and repair workers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the CareerBuilder list includes some sectors that rarely used temps in the past, including computer programs, accountants and auditors, registered nurses, electricians and business operations specialists.

 An Associated Press survey of 37 economists in May found that three-quarters thought the increased use of temps and contract workers represented a longstanding trend.

Last year, this blog reported on a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) that found fewer than a quarter of American workers have a “good job” today compared to the past, largely because of policy decisions that have undercut labor.

 According to the CEPR study,  Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone, a good job is defined as one that pays at least $37,000 per year, has employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

 The CETR blamed the decline in good jobs on policy decisions, rooted in politics, that have resulted in a drastic loss of workers’ bargaining power and the restructuring of the labor market since the end of the 1970s.

Readers are encouraged to visit ProPublica, a web site featuring journalism in the public interest, to read more about the treatment of temps in American workforce.