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Are Workers ‘Sacrificial Lambs’ For Indiana’s Unemployment Fund Deficit?

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If the summer of 2012 was supposed to be a vacation, Renissa Pinner was not enjoying it much.

Pinner, a teacher assistant with a pre-school program on the southwest side of Indianapolis, was laid off in June. The layoff was a common occurrence during Pinner’s 12 years working for the not-for-profit Head Start provider Family Development Services. The company’s federal funding does not allow it to pay all of its employees during the summer months, so it lays them off in the summer and rehires them in the fall.

But the blow of the layoffs was always softened unemployment insurance benefits. Pinner, like many others, is covered by a federal-state program that provides a safety net for workers who lose their job through no fault of their own. Pinner’s unemployment checks were a fraction of her usual salary, but they helped.  “A couple hundred dollars a week is a lot better than nothing,” she says.

Then, in the summer of 2012, Pinner received a notice from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The state had ruled that she was on “unpaid vacation” and terminated her unemployment benefits. Worse yet, the state agency demanded Pinner pay back the benefits she had received so far that year.

“That was my only source of income,” she says. “It really, really put me in a bad spot.” Pinner fell behind on her utility and car payments and fielded threatening calls from creditors. But Pinner’s church helped her out, and her landlord agreed to be patient on the rent until Pinner was able to be rehired.

Her co-workers, also cut off from unemployment benefits, were not all so lucky. The laid-off workers found that prospective employers were reluctant to hire someone who was hoping to resume another job in just a few weeks. Some of the Family Development Services worker had their cars repossessed and struggled to meet basic needs. One colleague, a pregnant mother of three, could not make a rent payment and was evicted from her apartment. Pinner let the family move in with her.

“You are talking about three months of groceries people are not able to buy,” says Pinner’s co-worker Lubie Gurnell. Gurnell, who has driven buses for Head Start students for 31 years, was able to avoid foreclosure on her home last summer only by dipping into savings she had set aside for retirement.

Gurnell says she is not sure how long she and her colleagues can endure summers with zero income. “A lot of people left the job this year because of the unemployment issue, and you need qualified people to run these programs,” Gurnell says. “We are all going to be in trouble if this keeps happening.”

Unemployment insurance claims are paid from a federal trust that is funded by employers paying premiums in the form of payroll taxes. When employer premiums are not enough, the state borrows from the federal government. In part due to the recession and resulting job losses, Indiana and many other states have been borrowing heavily from the federal trust fund for several years. As of late December, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Indiana owes $1.8 billion to the U.S. to reimburse for unemployment insurance claims above its employers’ contributions.

The summer 2012 surprises for Pinner, Gurnell, and hundreds of other Indiana school bus drivers, teacher assistants and school cafeteria workers were the culmination of events that began in the Indiana General Assembly in 2011. In March of that year, the General Assembly passed and Governor Mitch Daniels signed a new law that slightly raised some employers’ contributions to the fund and reduced benefits to some laid-off Indiana workers. The new law included a provision that barred Indiana workers from receiving unemployment insurance benefits if they were not being paid because of their employers’ “regular vacation policy and practice.”

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development cites this law as the basis for cutting off Pinner, Gurnell and the others. The workers don’t see the connection. “You can’t call this a vacation when we are not getting paid for it,” says Gurnell.  Most of the affected workers have appealed the rulings, which were upheld in late December by the state’s Review Board for unemployment insurance. Attorneys for the workers say they intend to appeal those decisions to the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The workers and their supporters say Indiana lawmakers have knowingly underfunded unemployment insurance for many years, and now are demanding laid-off workers pay the price. Historically, Indiana applied the lowest unemployment tax rate on employers allowed by law, along with setting the amount of employee wages subject to the tax at the lowest allowable level. Insufficient employer contributions were digging Indiana into a hole, and state and federal officials knew it.

For example, U.S. Department of Labor reports show that, at the end of 2007, Indiana was underfunding unemployment by 22 percent compared to recommended levels. When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, and Indiana was paying out $3 or more in unemployment benefits for every $1 collected from employers, the state’s deficit was exploding. Indiana has slightly raised the amount it collects from employers, but the U.S. Department of Labor still says the state is taxing employers at a rate well below recommended levels for adequate financing.

“Clearly, Indiana legislators hate tax increases, which is why they underfunded the unemployment insurance tax fund to begin with,” says Rick McHugh, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. McHugh represents several dozen Anderson, Indiana school bus company employees who had their unemployment benefits cut off this summer. “So now Indiana is making unemployed workers the sacrificial lambs,” he says

Indiana Department of Workforce Development spokesperson Joe Frank says the agency is simply applying the new law as written by the legislature. Judging from the agency’s arguments in front of the Review Board, it also appears that the Department of Workforce Development feels that employers like Family Development Services have been receiving a free ride at the expense of the trust fund. During the appeals of the summer 2012 cut-offs, Department of Workforce Development Deputy Commissioner Joshua Richardson introduced records showing the companies’ employees had drawn far more benefits than the companies had contributed to the trust fund.

Yet the companies had paid all the state of Indiana had asked of them, worker advocates respond. And it was the workers, not the companies, who had their checks stopped. “This is happening because the legislators and the Daniels administration decided to reduce the trust fund deficit without raising taxes on employers, and I don’t know if it is any more complicated than that,” says Groth.

Renissa Pinner and Lubie Gurnell are back at work now, but they are worried about what this summer will bring. “I wish they could realize how devastating this was for people, and how it caused a lot of hardship,” Pinner says. “This is people’s livelihood you are messing with.”

This blog originally appeared in the Indianapolis Reporter Newspaper on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
The a re-post can be found at: Working in these Times.

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Unemployment: Why Won’t Congress Talk About It!?

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Change to WinAn interesting look at the unemployment rate. “What is currently a temporary long-term unemployment problem runs the risk of morphing into a permanent and costly increase in the unemployment rate” unless Congress takes action to create jobs. 

Why the Unemployment Rate Is So High – New York Times

Unemployment claims have increased slightly. “The Labor Department says applications rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000, the most in five weeks.”

Unemployment claims rise slightly in latest week – USA Today

“We need to avoid a lost generation of young people who will be playing economic catch-up their whole lives. We cannot stop pressing our leaders to help struggling poor and middle-class Americans.”

Crowdsourcing our economic recovery – CNN 

Even though the economy is improving, we need to do more to ensure the long term unemployed get back on their feet. Long term unemployment makes it harder and harder to provide for one’s family, and causes dramatic increases in mental illness. It’s time Washington gets busy putting people back to work. 

Long-Term Unemployed Winning Jobs Or Giving Up? – Huffington Post

This article was originally posted by ChangeToWin on January 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Change to Win is an organization created by over 5.5 million workers – if corporations can join together to hire an army of lobbyists, working and middle class Americans must also band together and restore balance by making sure we have a strong voice and a seat at the table again.

(Colleen Gartner is an intern at Workplace Fairness.)

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Flight Attendants Push for Equal Benefits for Domestic Partners

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Kenneth Quinnell
Kenneth Quinnell

Flight attendants who work for Spirit Airlines filed a lawsuit against the airline for reneging on a contractual commitment to provide equal benefits for all employees by forcing employees who want health care coverage for their domestic partners into a lower-quality health care plan than the plan covering other employees. The flight attendants, members of the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), said that management is using procedural loopholes to avoid providing equal benefits. Todd St. Pierre, the AFA-CWA president at Spirit, said:

We are outraged that management refuses to treat the families of their employees equally. At a time when equality issues have sparked a social awakening across our nation, management’s trampling on employees’ rights is deplorable. Their discriminatory behavior must be rectified immediately. Flight Attendants worked hard to ensure that these rights were included in our legally binding contract so that we could provide health care security for our loved ones. Shame on Spirit management for their blatant disregard for equality and for turning their backs on their obligations.

In a related story, aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. said that despite the passage of a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Washington State—where Boeing has significant operations—they were not required to provide same-sex couples with benefits, including pensions. While Boeing publicly says they are evaluating what the referendum means to them, SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001 executive director Ray Goforth said that Boeing officials explicitly told him that the benefits would not be extended to same-sex couples.

Alaska Airlines flight attendants, also members of AFA-CWA, issued a statement supporting members of SPEEA at Boeing in their fight for equal rights. Alaska AFA-CWA President Jeffrey Peterson said:

“AFA has a longstanding commitment to equality regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression which is why Alaska Flight Attendants stand in solidarity with our aviation colleagues at Boeing in their struggle for equal rights. With an all-Boeing fleet of aircraft, Alaska Flight Attendants depend on the professionalism and dedication of SPEEA members each and every day.

Voters in nine states across the nation have instructed their elected representatives to address marriage equality issues. Recently in Washington, all couples regardless of gender finally have the opportunity to legally marry. Yet, Boeing is refusing to recognize married couples equally.

We are all partners in the success of the aviation industry and we call on Boeing executives to provide equal benefits to all couples legally married under state law.”

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 14, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  He is the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

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It’s Time To Mobilize Workers’ Capital

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jonathan-tasiniHere’s a riddle: what large entity has the theoretical access to deploy a few trillion dollars, quickly, if given the chance? If you answered the Chinese or US governments, thank you for playing and please try again another time. The answer: labor unions.

Piling up around the world is the largest and most accessible source of cheap capital you can imagine. No wasteful Wall Street brokerage fees. No fancy credit-default swaps. Just good, hard cash.

It is money accumulated in pension funds—workers deferred wages. Pension funds now own 73 per cent of stock issued by companies in the Fortune 1000.

Think about it: overnight, all those bridges, roads, schools, ports, climate-change energy projects—all of which are gasping for finance because governments are foolishly slashing budgets—could be underwritten by cheap capital.

Just increasing pension fund investments in green technologies and low-carbon projects from the current two to three per cent of portfolios to five per cent would pour US$300 billion over the next three years into such critical projects.

And that capital would come with a price tag, though not one motivated by personal greed: projects funded by pensions would need to be unionized and pay a living wage.

The idea to mobilize workers’ capital is hardly new. It has been actively talked about for at least two decades. But, with the exception of a few projects and a slew of corporate governance campaigns (primarily shareholder resolutions that rarely win but can bring pressure on issues such as out-of-control executive compensation), the power of the pension fund money has barely been used.

So, what’s holding us up?

To begin, the money isn’t simply at the sole beckon call of unions. Pension fund decisions are typically jointly reached by a board split equally between management and workers.

But, the legal “partnership” is a myth: the truth is that management usually holds the upper hand in dictating investment direction. While management board members are very comfortable with balance sheets, the typical union pension fund representative is woefully untrained, chosen often because of his or her long service and loyalty to the union.

And the pension fund investment options are almost always laid out, and controlled, by professional financial consultants who could not give a damn about anything but the rate of return—and their compensation.

Moreover, most of the legal regimes require that the assets be invested for the sole purpose of enhancing and protecting the benefits of retirees. That language has always been construed as a license to focus on a very conservative and unimaginative investment strategy—a strategy that union trustees have not challenged.

Looking inward, an honest analysis would admit that most unions have not been very interested in the idea of capital power. As long as the pension fund reported fair returns and retirees were happy, the average union leader considered that performance adequate.

But, two developments converged. The global financial crisis, triggered by the immoral (and, in my view, criminal) behaviour of virtually every international Wall Street-financial firm, wiped out trillions of dollars in wealth, and pension funds took massive hits. That made labor people pay attention.

And, coupled with the Global Financial Crisis, a number of forward-looking labor leaders, faced with declining numbers and an organizing environment that has grown increasingly hostile, began spending more time thinking about new strategies to put into play.

That all led to a renewed focus on workers capital.

There is some positive progress to report.

Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, has made it her mission to jump-start this area.

She recently asked the right questions:

At what point did we allow our funds to become captive of the dominant market frame without question? Have we lost a perspective of the original labour rationale for bargaining for deferred wages into retirement income and/or advocating for the legislative/regulatory guarantees for dignified retirement incomes?

More recently, the Teachers Retirement System of the City of New York pledged $1 billion to infrastructure, in advancing a $10 billion goal for a new asset class of infrastructure that will help spur Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and upgrade the city’s infrastructure. The initiative came directly out of the AFL-CIO’s commitment at the inaugural Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in 2011.

And on the West Coast of the US, a multi-state exchange between California, Oregon and Washington will jointly look for projects worth plowing money into.

All of this is a proverbial drop in the ocean, a speck of sand on the beach of capital pools waiting to be used. Global union federations and national unions need to create a planet-wide network of pension fund trustees who can be trained and act in unison when investment opportunities arise. Those trustees need to map joint campaigns.

Would it not be a delicious turn of events to basically fire the Wall Street financiers—the circle of people who destroyed the economic wellbeing of tens of millions of people—and, instead, watch bridges go up that not only buck up a city’s economic heartbeat but also provide the bulwark for a decent standard of living.

This post was originally posted on December 28, 2012 at WorkingLife. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor and the economy. On June 11, 2009, he announced that he would challenge New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary for the 2010 U.S. Senate special election in New York.[1] However, Tasini later decided to run instead for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2010.

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Labor Secretary Solis Resigns

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BREAKING-Labor-Secretary-Solis-Resigns_blogpostimageU.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis resigned today.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Solis “brought urgently needed change to the Department of Labor, putting the U.S. government firmly on the side of working families.”

Under Secretary Solis, the Labor Department became a place of safety and support for workers. Secretary Solis’s Department of Labor talks tough and acts tough on enforcement, workplace safety, wage and hour violations and so many other vital services. Secretary Solis never lost sight of her own working-class roots, and she always put the values of working families at the center of everything she did. We hope that her successor will continue to be a powerful voice both within the Obama administration and across the country for all of America’s workers.

In a statement, Solis said:

This afternoon, I submitted my resignation to President Obama. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader.

Because President Obama took very bold action, millions of Americans are back to work.  There is still much to do, but we are well on the road to recovery, and middle class Americans know the president is on their side.

Together we have achieved extraordinary things and I am so proud of our work on behalf of the nation’s working families.

This post was originally posted by AFL-CIO NOW on January 9, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Donna Jablonski is the AFL-CIO’s deputy director of public affairs for publications, Web and broadcast. Prior to joining the AFL-CIO in 1997, she served as publications director at the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund for 12 years. She began my career as a newspaper reporter in Southwest Florida, and since have written, edited and managed production of advocacy materials— including newsletters, books, brochures, booklets, fliers, calendars, websites, posters and direct response mail and e-mail—to support economic and social justice campaigns. In June 2001, she received a B.A. in Labor Studies from the National Labor College.

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Three Take-Aways from the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan by Commissioner Chai Feldblum

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Three Take-Aways from the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan
By Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enters the New Year with the wind at its back.  Following the enactment in February 2012 of a four-year Strategic Plan that addressed all aspects of the agency’s work, the Commission met the plan’s first performance measure with the enactment in December 2012 of a Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016 (SEP).

There are three take-aways from the SEP:

1)    The agency’s targeted focus on select areas of law will hopefully result in a demonstrable impact on unlawful discrimination in those areas.

2)    An active and engaged Commission will stay abreast of activities undertaken pursuant to its delegated authority.

3)    The Commission will take steps necessary to bring coherence and vigor to its federal sector work.

A)     A Targeted Enforcement Focus

The SEP establishes a list of priority enforcement areas for the agency.  These include:

·         Discriminatory class-based recruitment and hiring practices
·         Issues affecting immigrant and migrant workers
·         Emerging areas of law (such as certain ADA issues; accommodating pregnancy-related limitations; and coverage of LGBT people under sex discrimination law, as it may apply)
·         Compensation systems and practices that discriminate based on gender
·         Policies and practices that discourage or prohibit individuals from exercising their rights
·         Systemic harassment

Meritorious charges raising one of these issues will receive focused attention by EEOC investigators and lawyers.  By providing direction to agency staff regarding the issues that require careful review, the priority list will help the EEOC focus its investigatory resources and lead to more timely conciliations if reasonable cause is found in such charges and to more timely litigation if conciliation fails.

Employers and unions would thus do well to review the list of priority areas and be sure their compliance programs are up-to-date regarding these issues. Lawyers representing clients should also be aware that if a client has a meritorious claim in one of these areas, that claim will be getting focused attention.

But the list does NOT mean the agency will be focused only on these issues.

The SEP also reaffirms the agency’s existing Priority Charge Handling Procedures (PCHP). PCHP provides that a meritorious charge of egregious discrimination will get priority attention – regardless of whether the charge concerns an issue that is on the agency’s substantive priority list.

The dual message for employers and unions should thus be clear:

1)    Review your compliance programs in the six priority areas noted above to make sure they are up to date regarding these issues.

2)    Make sure you have a workplace that is free of any type of discrimination because if a potential charging party comes to the EEOC with an egregious case of discrimination, the agency will give it focused attention.

The single message for applicants and employees should also be clear: the EEOC will be focused, strategic, and effective.

B)     An Active and Engaged Commission

In 1996, the Commission delegated its significant authority to commence litigation to its General Counsel and Regional Attorneys under a set of criteria outlined in its National Enforcement Plan (NEP). Delegation of authority was then, and remains now, an essential mechanism for carrying out the agency’s enforcement responsibilities.  But it is only when delegation is paired with direction and accountability that good governance results.

In 2012, upon reviewing the sixteen years of delegation, a majority of the Commission through the SEP recognized the crucial role that delegation played in shaping the EEOC’s vigorous litigation program. But the direction and accountability that makes delegation good governance needed some updating.

First, while the original criteria for cases requiring prior Commission approval still stands, the SEP now requires that the Commission see a minimum of one case from each district.

Second, the SEP retains the accountability mechanism that the Commission put in place in 1996 – a quarterly report from the General Counsel on how delegated authority is exercised – but revitalizes it by requiring formal quarterly meetings on delegation.

In addition, through regulations, the Commission has delegated its authority in investigations and conciliations to its District Directors and its authority in providing remedial relief in the federal sector to its Office of Federal Operations. The SEP now establishes a new quarterly meeting for the Office of Field Programs to report on important investigations and conciliations and the Office of Federal Operations to report on significant rulings by Administrative Judges.

Finally, the SEP requires a new set of multi-year planning documents.  I know these might raise a yawn from some readers, but speaking from inside the agency—these planning documents can be very helpful.  For the first time, the agency will have a national, multi-year communications, outreach and education plan, and a multi-year plan for updating its subregulatory guidance.  And the Commission will vote on a new multi-year research plan, placing the agency at the forefront of proactive research and analysis.

C)     A Coherent and Vigorous Federal Sector Program

Congress has created an internal grievance procedure for federal applicants and employees that is in addition to, and separate from, such individuals’ private right of action in court.  Under this internal system, the Commission has the right to order remedial relief for applicants and employees if it finds that a federal agency has engaged in discrimination.

In developing the SEP, the Commission heard from various stakeholders concerned with the disparate parts of the federal sector program. The SEP now provides that the Commission will vote in 2013 on a plan to establish a coherent structure for its federal sector work.  That is a good thing.

*        *        *

Finally, for those who believe the SEP inappropriately elevates enforcement over education or improperly reinforces an “integrated” system of enforcement, I have only this to say: read the statute.  Congress empowered the Commission to prevent any person from engaging in any unlawful employment practice “as hereinafter provided.”  As the statute then provides, the means by which the Commission is to prevent unlawful employment practices is by investigating charges, attempting voluntary conciliation in charges where there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination has occurred, and litigating if conciliation fails. There is only one Commission on whom these obligations are placed, which is why the Supreme Court underscored the importance of the “integrated, multi-step enforcement procedure” established by the statute. Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355, 359-60 (1977). In addition, while Congress expects the EEOC to engage in education and technical assistance (as those activities are provided for elsewhere in the statute), those are not the primary responsibilities placed on us by Congress.

The EEOC’s SEP for 2013-1016 is a dynamic document that has the potential to do great good.  I recommend reading it!

Chai R. Feldblum is one of the Commissioners of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a five-person Commission charged with enforcing employment anti-discrimination laws in the United States.  Prior to her appointment to the EEOC, Chai Feldblum was a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center from 1991-2009.  She has played a leading role in developing legislation to advance disability rights, LGBT rights, and workplace flexibility.  The opinions expressed in this post are those of Commissioner Feldblum alone and do not reflect the opinions of the EEOC, the Federal Government, or any individual attorney.  The opinions provided are for informational purposes only and are not for the purpose of providing legal advice.

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Florida Governor Inflates Cost Of Medicaid Expansion By 2,500% To Avoid Implementing Obamacare

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Internal email messages uncovered by Health News Florida reveal that Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) is knowingly citing inaccurate cost estimates to justify his refusalto expand Florida’s Medicaid program. Though the governor’s office is fully aware that the numbers are wrong, Scott continues to use them anyway, the documents show.

Florida, which has one of the highest rates of uninsurance in the nation, could extend health coverage to about one million low-income residents by accepting Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion. But the governor — an ardent Obamacare opponent — has repeatedly said that expanding Medicaid would just be too expensive, claiming it would cost the state $26 billion over the next 10 years.

As Health News Florida reports, however, that figure from Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) is inflated because it doesn’t take into account the full amount that the federal government will reimburse states for choosing to expand Medicaid. A more accurate analysis found that expansion would cost the state around $1 billion:

But those numbers are based on a flawed report, state budget analysts say. A series of e-mails obtained by Health News Florida shows the analysts warned Scott’s office the numbers were wrong weeks ago, but he is still using them. […]

The Act says the federal government will pay the lion’s share of the cost for new Medicaid eligibles if a state agrees to expand its program — a decision the Supreme Court left up to the states. The federal contribution for the new eligibles would be 100 percent between 2014 and 2016, then would taper after that to 90 percent by 2020 and stay there.

But the AHCA report assumes the federal match for the new patients would be much lower, about 58 percent. It came up with that by averaging the match amount over the past 20 years. The report doesn’t say why the authors made that assumption. […]

As Health News Florida reported on Dec. 21, the AHCA estimates were huge in comparison to a study released by the Urban Institute and Kaiser Family Foundation, two neutral research groups that specialize in Medicaid studies. Their study estimated that if Florida agreed to expand Medicaid, about 1 million uninsured people would gain coverage at a 10-year cost to the state of around $1 billion.

According to the email chain that Health News Florida obtained, state officials began calling the AHCA’s $26 billion cost estimate into question as early as December 20. One member of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee even pointed out that, since the health reform law specifies that the federal government will help fund Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, it would actually break Florida state law to expand Medicaid without using the federal dollars mandated for that purpose.

Nevertheless, Scott has continued to repeat his false claim that Florida can’t afford to provide its low-income residents with the health coverage they need. Scott met with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Monday to express his concerns about what expanding Medicaid would mean for his state’s bottom line. “Growing government, it’s never free,” Scott explained to reporters. “It always costs money.” Just not as much money as Scott says it does.

This article was originally posted on Think Progress on January 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Tara Culp-Ressler is an editorial assistant at ThinkProgress.org. Before joining Think Progress, Tara deepened her interest in progressive politics from a faith-based perspective at several religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices. Tara first came to D.C. to study Communications and Spanish at American University, where she also wrote for the student newspaper and advocated for women’s issues on campus. She is originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

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Wendy’s Franchise Cutting Worker Hours to Avoid Obamacare, Despite Backlash to Other Chains

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An Omaha, Nebraska, Wendy’s franchise owner is joining the list of restaurants vowing to cut worker hours rather than have them qualify for employer-provided health coverage under Obamacare. That’s endangering the livelihoods of around 100 workers who are having their hours cut (managers, of course, are remaining full-time):

The company has announced that all non-management positions will have their hours reduced to 28 a week. Gary Burdette, Vice President of Operations for the local franchise, says the cuts are coming because the new Affordable Health Care Act requires employers to offer health insurance to employees working 32-38 hours a week. Under the current law they are not considered full time and that as a small business owner, he can’t afford to stay in operation and pay for everyone’s health insurance. There are 11 Wendy’s restaurants in the metro. “It has a huge effect on me and pretty much everybody that I work with,” says [hourly worker T.J.] Growbeck, who understands the reasoning and says other part-timers at other fast-food restaurants are facing the same problem. “I’m hoping that I can get some sort of promotion because then I would get my hours, but everybody is shooting for that because of the hours being cut.”

This Wendy’s owner has apparently not learned the lesson of Olive Garden and Red Lobster parent company Darden Restaurants, Papa John’s, or the Denny’s franchise owner who made similar plans, only to have Darden’s profits drop 37 percent in the wake of those threats, Papa John’s suffer in a brand reputation survey, and the CEO of Denny’stell the franchise owner to quit making the chain look bad.

And all of these threats to workers’ livelihoods are coming over what would be tiny increases if the costs were passed directly to customers. When Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter was trying to really scare people, he said his chain would pass along a 10 to 14 cent increase in the cost of a pizza—less than $22 a year if you ate Papa John’s three times every single week. But when Forbes‘ Caleb Melby did the math on Schnatter’s claims, it worked out to less than 5 cents per pizza. Mind you, all of the wailing these chain executives and franchise owners do about how they can’t afford health care is suspect to begin with. But when they’re not willing to contemplate even the smallest price increases rather than cutting already poorly paid workers down below 30 hours a week and risking what’s now been shown to be significant public relations costs, that’s a clear statement that this isn’t some kind of pure, rational business decision. It’s an ideological stance against anything that might benefit the low-wage workers on whom the fast food industry relies.

This post was originally posted on The Daily Kos – Labor Blog on January 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

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Why Picket Lines Matter

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Photo courtesy of Caitlin Vega.   I spent so much time on picket lines as a kid that when I thought my dad’s rules were too strict, I would run to build a sign on a stick and try to talk the neighbor kids into marching around the house with me. I learned early on the power of a picket to protest unfair treatment.

That right is more important today than ever. As our economy has shifted toward a more contingent workforce, companies are increasingly hiring workers as part-time or temporary, or labeling them as independent contractors. This leaves workers more vulnerable to abuse while also shielding companies from accountability. When warehouse workers unpacking Walmart goods in a Walmart-owned warehouse were cheated out of their wages, the retail giant responded that those workers were hired through a temporary agency and are not the company’s responsibility.

These kinds of working conditions make it all the more important that workers be able to share their stories with the public. Consumers have the right to know about the kinds of labor practices they are supporting when they shop at a particular store. In this economy, where workers have so little bargaining power, the ability to picket an employer to expose unfair conditions is more important than ever.

That’s what makes the recent California Supreme Court decision in Ralphs Grocery Co. v. UFCW Local 8 so important. The court upheld two provisions of California law that protect the right of workers to picket. The Moscone Act protects peaceful picketing and communicating about the facts of a labor dispute on “any public street or any place where any person or persons may lawfully be.” Labor Code Section 1138.1 restricts injunctive relief to stop picketing unless a company can show substantial and irreparable injury, the commission of unlawful acts and several other factors. Ralphs sought to invalidate those state statutes, which would have silenced California workers from such peaceful protest.

In upholding California law, the court maintained a critical protection for working people. What is at stake here is far more than where in a shopping center picketers are allowed to stand. The picket line was—and still is—an essential tool in building the American middle class. Workers standing together, making their case in the court of public opinion, helped bring about the eight-hour day, the weekend, prevailing wage, anti-discrimination laws and so many other protections. It also helped working people win wages and benefits that allowed them to buy homes, send their children to college and give back to their community through taxes, service and time.

In essence, the picket sign has enabled generations of working people to achieve the American Dream. Given the economy we face today, it’s time for the next generation to start making signs and marching to demand those same opportunities.

Why Picket Lines Matter,” by Caitlin Vega, originally appeared on the California Labor Federation’s blog Labor’s Edge. You can also view it on AFL-CIO NOW, posted on January 7, 2013.

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New Agreement Means $2.2M in Back Pay, New Work for Florida IATSE Members

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Stagehands in West Palm Beach, Fla., will secure regular work and share some $2.2 million in back pay after Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 500 and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Artsreached agreement on a five-year contract that settles charges in a dispute that began in 2001.

The agreement was reached in late December and approved today by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  

The new agreement followed a strike last month that forced the cancellation of four performances of the touring musical “Jersey Boys.” Actors’ Equity (AEA) and other unions representing workers in the touring companyrespected IATSE picket lines. When the Palm Beach Post asked Local 500 business manager Terry McKenzie how the agreement was reached, the paper wrote:

McKenzie deadpanned, ‘Well, a strike had something to do with it.’

In 2000, the theater fired several IATSE members and withdrew recognition of the union after declaring an impasse had been reached in negotiations. In 2001, attorneys for the regional director of the NLRB concluded that Kravis had committed “massive and continuous violations” of federal labor law when it unilaterally withdrew recognition of the union, refused to negotiate, discharged union-represented department heads and other major violations.

Kravis appealed the decision to the Bush–era full NLRB, which took five years before the board ruled that the center violated the law when it ejected the union and fired union workers. But the center appealed to a federal appeals court, which upheld the NLRB ruling.

In 2009, the Kravis Center, under court order, returned to the bargaining table, but in 2011 and 2012 committed further labor law violations, according to charges filed by IATSE.  

The new agreement withdraws all pending charges and the NLRB says Kravis also recognizes the union as the bargaining agent for stagehands working on Kravis productions and agrees to obtain workers through the Local 500 hiring hall. The contract also reinstates three department heads whose positions had been eliminated. Said McKenzie in a statement:

The union looks forward to building a positive relationship that contributes to the success of the Kravis Center and gainful employment for the people we represent.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 4, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse.

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