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“Move From Unemployment Insurance To Income Insurance”: Why The Sharing Economy Is Harming Workers And What Must Be Done

In this holiday season it’s especially appropriate to acknowledge how many Americans don’t have steady work.

The so-called “share economy” includes independent contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.

It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will be in such uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

Already two-thirds of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck.

This trend shifts all economic risks onto workers. A downturn in demand, or sudden change in consumer needs, or a personal injury or sickness, can make it impossible to pay the bills.

It eliminates labor protections such as the minimum wage, worker safety, family and medical leave, and overtime.

And it ends employer-financed insurance – Social Security, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

No wonder, according to polls, almost a quarter of American workers worry they won’t be earning enough in the future. That’s up from 15 percent a decade ago.

Such uncertainty can be hard on families, too. Children of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are likely to have lower cognitive skills and more behavioral problems, according to new research.

What to do?

Courts are overflowing with lawsuits over whether companies have misclassified “employees” as “independent contractors,” resulting in a profusion of criteria and definitions.

We should aim instead for simplicity: Whoever pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.

In addition, to restore some certainty to people’s lives, we need to move away from unemployment insurance and toward income insurance.

Say, for example, your monthly income dips more than 50 percent below the average monthly income you’ve received from all the jobs you’ve taken over the preceding five years. With income insurance, you’d automatically receive half the difference for up to a year.

It’s possible to have a flexible economy and also provide workers some minimal level of security.

A decent society requires no less.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, November 27, 2015

November 30, 2015 Posted by | Jobs, Shared Economy, Unemployment Benefits, Unemployment Insurance, Workers | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Scott Walker’s Race To The Bottom”: His Plan Is As Pure An Expression Of Supply-Side, Trickle-Down Economics As You’ll Find

Scott Walker wants to take his fight against organized labor national. Today he released a plan for a new war not just on union representation, but on worker rights in general.

It’s quite a document, one we might call Scott Walker’s Race to the Bottom.

I have no doubt that Walker is sincere in his desire to see every labor union crushed and every vestige of workers’ power banished — or, in his lingo, “flexibility.” I’d also be surprised if any of the other candidates objected to any part of it. So the plan is worth understanding if you want to grasp what today’s GOP is offering today’s workers.

While he doesn’t say so explicitly, what Walker seems to hope for is really a world without any labor unions at all, or at the very least a world where unions are so weakened that they are unable to advocate for anyone. Here are the major parts of his plan:

Eliminate the National Labor Relations Board. Walker says the NLRB is “a one-sided advocate for big-labor special interests,” but the truth is that Democrats appoint pro-labor members to the board, while Republicans appoint anti-labor members to the board. Transferring the NLRB’s authority to adjudicate labor disputes to the courts would probably be a mixed bag in terms of worker rights.

“Eliminate big-government unions.” This is pretty straightforward. You don’t like unions? Get rid of ’em. Today there are around seven million Americans represented by a public sector union, and around one million of those are employed by the federal government (including the Postal Service). If Walker got his way, the latter group could kiss their representation goodbye — and given his record, it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t mind getting rid of the state and local public-sector unions as well.

Institute a national “right to work” law. The phrase “right to work” is a triumph of conservative PR, because how could anyone object to a right to work? What it means in practice, however, is that in places where unions negotiate salaries and benefits for workers, those workers can’t be required to contribute to the union that got them those salaries and benefits (no one can be required to join a union, but where there are no right to work laws, you can be required to contribute when the union negotiates on your behalf). Whenever a right to work law is being debated in a particular state, Republicans argue that because the law would weaken unions, it will draw employers who don’t want to have to bother with the high wages and good benefits those unions can negotiate.

Which, the evidence suggests, is probably true. But such laws have another effect: they pull down wages and benefits. So that’s the bargain a state makes when it passes a right to work law:  more jobs, but worse jobs.

Think about what would happen if you took this policy national. On a state level, it’s possible for a right to work law to draw a factory from one state to another. But if every state was a right to work state, then that incentive to move is eliminated. The decrease in union representation would spread, which drives down wages and benefits for everyone. Whether you think that’s a good thing depends on whether you are concerned with the interests of large business owners or the interests of workers.

There are a number of smaller ideas in Walker’s plan, like eliminating the requirement that federal contractors pay the “prevailing wage” (i.e. union wage) for construction projects, further reinforcing what seems to be Walker’s belief that the problem with unions is that they let workers earn too much money. And I have to highlight this bit:

“The Obama administration’s government-knows-best proposed rules will require employers to pay overtime rates to greater numbers of salaried works and require federal contractors to provide paid sick leave. Unfortunately, these rules will only reduce wages and deprive workers of the flexibility to balance work and life commitments.

“On Day One of my administration, I will repeal any regulation that reduces employee flexibility, as well as work for changes to federal law to allow time off for overtime hours worked. My changes will protect workplace flexibility by ensuring that misguided big-government mandates do not stand in the way of individuals and families.”

So Walker will roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to make more workers eligible for overtime pay and sick leave, because that would mean more “employee flexibility.” Indeed, just imagine the worker making $7.50 an hour saying to herself, “Boy, now that I have the flu I sure am glad I have to choose between dragging myself into work or staying home and losing my pay. Thanks for the flexibility, President Walker!”

Though Walker’s plan is couched in all kinds of pro-worker rhetoric like that (and endless repetition of the phrase “union bosses”), in truth it’s about as pure an expression of supply-side, trickle-down economics as you’ll find. Its basic principle is that once we eliminate workers’ ability to bargain collectively, everything will turn out great for everyone.

But here’s what we know: union membership has been declining for decades, while incomes have been stagnant and Americans have felt increasingly at the mercy of employers who treat them like interchangeable cogs who can be manipulated, surveilled, and tossed aside at the employer’s whim. There’s no question that Scott Walker succeeded in creating a politically beneficial showdown with public sector unions in Wisconsin. But how many Americans think that the problem with our economy is that too much power in the workplace lies in the hands of workers?

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, September 14, 2015

September 16, 2015 Posted by | Organized Labor, Scott Walker, Workers Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Right Question To Ask About Government”: What Steps Does Government Take To Empower Citizens And Expand Their Rights?

Many conservatives and most libertarians argue that every new law or regulation means that government is adding to the sum total of oppression and reducing the freedom of individuals.

This way of looking at things greatly simplifies the political debate. Domestic issues are boiled down to the question of whether someone is “pro-government” or “anti-government.”

Alas for the over-simplifiers, it’s an approach that misreads the nature of the choices that regulators, politicians and citizens regularly face. It ignores that the market system itself could not exist without the rules that government establishes, beginning with statutes protecting private property and also the various measures against the use of force and fraud in business and individual transactions.

More important, it overlooks the ways in which the steps government takes often empower citizens and expand their rights. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of work.

The run-up to Labor Day this year brought a spate of news articles and commentaries on the actions of the National Labor Relations Board and other government agencies to strengthen the rights of workers and enhance their bargaining power relative to employers.

Last week, Noam Scheiber offered an important account in the New York Times of how the Obama administration has been “pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.”

Among the milestones Scheiber cited was a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding an Obama-era rule providing minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health-care workers. They certainly felt empowered by government, not oppressed. So did the employees of contractors and franchises who were granted collective bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast-food chains provide the obvious example of how loopholes related to new work arrangements and franchise agreements can let employers out of their traditional obligations. In the case of purveyors of hamburgers and chicken tenders, the parent companies set all sorts of detailed requirements for how these businesses should operate — and then turn around and claim that when it comes to workers’ rights, their franchises are utterly independent.

One of the most fascinating struggles, still ongoing, is over new regulations that the Labor Department is trying to establish to ensure that those who give investment advice to people with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts base their judgments on the best interests of their clients. Along with defined-contribution retirement plans, they involve some $13 trillion in investments.

The Labor Department proposal would require investment advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard — meaning that the best-interest-of-the-client yardstick should be their sole criterion in offering counsel to clients. If this seems obvious, that’s not what the current law requires. As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview, the standard now is only that an investment be suitable. “What the hell is ‘suitable’?” Perez asked, noting that he would hope for more than just “suitable” advice from his doctor.

The issue is whether some investment advisers might offer conflicted guidance influenced by “backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in fine print,” as the Labor Department put it in a document explaining why change is needed.

“I don’t believe that folks who provide advice wake up with malice in their hearts,” Perez said. But he added that it is only natural that advisers might lean toward investments from which they can also benefit. “Surprise, surprise, if you have four or five products that are suitable and one gives you a commission, guess where you will go?” The new rules, which are being heavily contested by parts of the financial industry, are an attempt to realign the incentives, Perez argued.

The investment-rule battle is a near-perfect example of how the government is plainly promoting free markets — what’s more market-oriented than building an investment portfolio? — but is also trying to make sure that the rules regulating the investments tilt toward the interests of the individual putting money at risk.

As long as there are markets, government will have to establish rules determining how they operate. These necessarily affect the interests of market participants. Many of the choices are not between more or less government. They are about whether what government does provides greater benefit to workers or employers, management or unions, individual investors or investment firms.

“Which side are you on?” This question from the old union song is the right question to ask about government.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 6, 2015

September 7, 2015 Posted by | Government, Labor Day, Workers Rights | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The ‘Depends’ Defense”: Republicans Will Hate Obama’s New Overtime Rule, But They Can’t Do Anything About It

Last night President Obama announced — in an article on the Huffington Post — that he will raise the threshold for overtime pay in American workplaces. The new regulations are substantively important for the millions of workers who will be affected, and they’re politically important as well. Republicans are going to squawk, saying that this change will cost jobs and is another example of Obama’s tyrannical rule. But they can’t stop it, and they’re going to lose the argument as well.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers have to provide overtime pay (usually time and a half) to employees who work more than 40 hours a week, but executives and managers are exempt from the requirement, as are those who make higher salaries. The trouble is that the rules don’t account for inflation, and so over time, what constituted a higher salary became absurdly low. The threshold has been raised only once since 1975, when it covered nearly half of U.S. workers; today it stands at less than $24,000, or lower than the poverty level for a family of four. (This document from the Economic Policy Institute offers some background on the regulation if you’re interested.) Here’s how Obama described the change he will be making:

We’ve got to keep making sure hard work is rewarded. Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve. That’s partly because we’ve failed to update overtime regulations for years — and an exemption meant for highly paid, white collar employees now leaves out workers making as little as $23,660 a year — no matter how many hours they work.

This week, I’ll head to Wisconsin to discuss my plan to extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers in 2016, covering all salaried workers making up to about $50,400 next year. That’s good for workers who want fair pay, and it’s good for business owners who are already paying their employees what they deserve — since those who are doing right by their employees are undercut by competitors who aren’t.

That’s how America should do business. In this country, a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. That’s at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America.

We should note that Obama could have gone higher than $50,400. Earlier this year, some Democrats on Capitol Hill worried that the administration was going to propose a lower overtime threshold, something like $42,000 a year. A group of liberal senators urged Obama to set the threshold at $54,000. They also argued that it should be pegged to increase with inflation going forward, an absolutely critical provision that would give the measure lasting effect. So Obama didn’t raise the threshold as far as they wanted, but he is accounting for future inflation, by pegging the overtime threshold to the 40th percentile of incomes.

As much as Republicans will object, they can’t expect that their next president will undo this action. There are some regulations that we can expect to change whenever the White House changes hands. For instance, the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” prohibits the funding of any organization anywhere in the world that even discusses abortion with a woman; when a Republican president takes office, he institutes it, and when a Democratic president takes office, he revokes it. But rules such as this one almost certainly won’t fall into that category. Try to imagine a President Rubio or Walker announcing that he was taking overtime pay away from millions of lower-middle-class U.S. workers. It won’t happen. They may argue against the rule when it is proposed, but once it’s in place, undoing it becomes politically impossible.

The more immediate political impact of this rule change lies in its place among a constellation of proposals Democrats will be offering on things such as the minimum wage and paid sick leave, proposals that are aimed at arresting the growing cruelty of the American workplace. As I’ve argued before, one way to think about the contrast between what Republicans and Democrats offer on the economy is that Republicans say they’ll get you as far as your employer’s door, while Democrats want to walk inside with you. Republicans argue that their preferred policies, mostly tax cuts and light regulation on businesses, will accelerate growth so that new jobs will be created. But once you’ve got the job, you’re on your own. The Democratic argument is that government has to come inside the workplace, to make sure people are being treated fairly. So they want to increase pay, provide family and sick leave, allow workers to bargain collectively, make sure no one is discriminated against and generally establish a structure that guarantees that people are treated well and can maintain some measure of dignity.

The Republican counter, of course, is that all those things increase costs to employers and therefore cost jobs. But their argument presumes that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the American workplace, which most of us know just isn’t true. Yes, many employers already treat their employers well. But millions of others don’t and would treat their workers even worse if they could get away with it.

As for this measure, we know exactly what employers will say: This will cost us money, which means fewer jobs. We know that’s what they will say, because that’s what they say about every marginal improvement in working conditions, benefits or pay. And in the short term, they’re right: It will cost them some money.

But let’s turn it around. What if employers said, “We could save money by removing the employee bathrooms and just telling our workers to wear Depends to the job. And that would mean we’d be able to hire more people.” Would we respond, “Well, if it would save you money and produce a few more jobs, then that sounds great”? Of course not. The short-term cost to employers of a regulation is certainly something to consider, but it’s not the only thing to consider.

The change to overtime regulations isn’t some kind of dramatic transformation. Like increasing the minimum wage, it’s nothing more than taking an existing rule and updating it for inflation. But it’s built on the assumption that the government should come into the workplace and make sure that what happens there is fair. Republicans don’t believe that’s government’s job. But it isn’t going to be easy for them to make that case to a population that feels increasingly insecure at work. And even if they could win the argument, they won’t be able to change the policy.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 30, 2015

July 2, 2015 Posted by | Fair Labor Standards Act, Middle Class, Salaried Workers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nickel And Dimed”: The Very Real Scourge Of Wage Theft

Last week, the owner of a chain of Papa John’s was ordered to pay $800,000 in back pay to workers he’d shortchanged by rounding down to the nearest hour on their time cards and failing to pay overtime properly. “I didn’t realize if you work 10 hours per day, you are supposed to pay overtime for two hours,” the owner, Emmanuel Onuaguluchi, told the New York Post.

A couple hours of overtime there may not seem like a lot of money, but those amounts could mean everything to workers struggling to get by on minimum wage and, as the judgment shows, it all adds up over the years. This latest judgment is part of a big push by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who has also sued local McDonald’s and Domino’s franchises.

Cases of wage theft—or, at least, the cases officials are pursuing—have been up in California and across the country, too, according to The New York Times. Business interests told the Times that politicians like Schneider are just pursuing these cases to curry favor with unions, but the unions aren’t really behind the legal actions.

If restaurants and other companies in the service industry—where workers are paid by the hour, have hours that change from week-to-week, and are especially vulnerable to wage theft—are complaining that the wage theft cases are coming from people who, in general, want to be paid more, they’re right. The fight for higher minimum wages across the country has highlighted the problems low-wage workers face in their workplaces, and wage theft is one of the most common ways they’re denied even the measly current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Wage theft is old, but before now workers might have been too scared to complain or go to an attorney on their own. “I think one reason why it’s coming up more now is that it’s tied to a real organizing campaign where fast food workers are demanding and protesting,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which is not directly involved in any of these cases.

By law, companies have to pay their employees minimum wage, and overtime pay should kick in once an employee works past an eight-hour shift in a day. Five years ago, in a survey funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and conducted by researchers from the National Employment Law Project, UCLA, Cornell University, and the University of Illinois, Chicago, a quarter of low-wage employees reported they hadn’t been paid the minimum wage in the prior week, and three-quarters said they were denied overtime.

As someone who has spent the past three years reporting from low-income communities across the country and grew up in working-class family in a poor part of Arkansas, I hear stories of wage theft all the time. Onuaguluchi’s view about overtime is common—I’ve known people who have worked in fast-food restaurants and routinely pulled several double shifts in a week, but as long as their hours did not total more than 80 in a two-week pay period their bosses did not pay overtime.

I’ve also heard of bosses who don’t pay correctly, and paychecks come with hours missing. Those mistakes are harder for workers to figure out than you would think because they need to keep records on exactly when they worked and how many hours it was, and compare it to what their paychecks say when they arrive a week or two later. But at the end of the day, these cases are relatively easy to prove because records of time sheets will show how many hours each employee worked and whether they were paid properly. Rounding down, as Onuaguluchi did, would be evident.

Many stories about wage theft, though, offer more insidious examples that are harder to fight. I know of people who’ve had to run errands on behalf of their workplaces before they even show up for work, and are expected to arrive every morning with said errand completed. I know people who’ve had to clock out for breaks they can’t take. Sometimes, workers are expected to have a certain amount of work done before they clock in at the official start of their shifts, or are asked to or expected to finish a task once they’re already gone, according to their time sheets. It would be harder to tackle cases like that in court because these practices might not be codified or routine, but the basic idea is that bosses at companies like this don’t rank their employees’ time as valuable.

In fairness, the direct bosses like Onuaguluchi are often squeezed themselves. While three-quarters of these kinds of stores are owned by franchisees who own multiple units and are often making quite a profit, their profits rely on running their operations as cheaply as possible. The small-business man or woman who owns one or two might struggle to pay their employees properly, although I have little sympathy for those who break the law. That’s because franchise fees are expensive: even a franchise fee considered relatively affordable, like 7/11, takes $31,000 to start up. McDonald’s requires $45,000 and that the owners have $300,000 in cash or other funds available to them.

Companies like these also require other licensing fees to be paid, and sometimes franchisees even pay rent because the parent company owns the physical location of the store.

So, people like Schneiderman have promised to go after Papa John’s, and other big companies that franchise stores as well. What Papa John’s and their ilk say is that they’re not responsible for the ways their franchisees pay people. Yet they intensely manage their brands, which often includes monitoring time sheets that franchisees send in, quality control tests that could influence hiring and firing decisions, and other fine-grained aspects of their operations. Even more directly, attorneys could argue that these companies charge their franchisees so much in fees that they know, or should know, that the only way for them to make a profit is to shortchange their employees.

In July, the National Labor Relations Board ruled McDonald’s was a joint employer in a similar case, and that pay complaints could be made against them. If suits against the parent companies succeed, it might actually start to end the practice of robbing low-income workers of the little money they have. “At the end of the day, you want to recover the unpaid wages, but you also want to correct the behavior,” Gebreselassie says. “One of the best ways to do that is to reach to the corporate parent.”

 

By: Monica Potts, The Daily Beast, February 15, 2015

February 16, 2015 Posted by | Corporations, Economic Inequality, Wage Theft | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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