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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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Bloomberg aides cut loose despite yearlong employment promise

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Mike Bloomberg’s shuttered presidential campaign is dismissing staffers across the country and inviting them to reapply for jobs on his new independent committee — despite extending guarantees of being paid through the November election when they were hired.

The consolation prize: They get to keep their Bloomberg-issued iPhones and MacBooks.

Multiple Bloomberg aides told POLITICO they participated in termination calls with the campaign on Monday. Some of them complained after the calls that they were originally told they would be paid by Bloomberg though the November general election regardless of whether he remained in the race. Most staffers will receive their last paycheck on March 31, sources said.

After a poor showing on Super Tuesday, Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden. The former New York mayor is now underwriting an outside effort to help Democrats defeat President Donald Trump.

Hiring materials from Bloomberg headquarters shared with POLITICO stated that regardless of what happened, field organizers could expect to have a job with “Team Bloomberg” through November, though it didn’t promise interviewees where they would be based. It outlined that organizers would be paid $6,000 a month, plus a $5,000 relocation stipend and full health, dental and vision benefits.

“Employment through November 2020 with Team Bloomberg (location not guaranteed),” the document stated.

The Bloomberg campaign has said it plans to remain active in six battleground states and could give priority to the aides still on payroll. But it’s unclear how many positions the new independent expenditure will have.

A Bloomberg spokesperson said it was always the campaign’s intention to keep its staffers employed in the six battleground states where the pro-Biden effort will be carried out: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

“As we’ve said over the course of the campaign, this election will come down to six battleground states,” the spokesperson said. “It’s imperative that we invest there with staff and infrastructure. Staff who were working in non-battleground states and would like to learn about future opportunities in the battleground states are being asked to let us know so we can consider them for jobs there.”

One Bloomberg campaign source said aides in those states have been asked to submit their personal plans through the general electionto Bloomberg’s team.

The outside effort has not been given an official name, and the billionaire has not released how much he intends to spend on it, though he had previously said he would shell out up to $1 billion of his more than $60 billion personal wealth on his own election. (As of his Jan. 31 filing, the most recent available, he had spent nearly $500 million on his campaign.)

Bloomberg has said he would assist any Democrat in defeating Trump, though Bernie Sanders has said he would not accept Bloomberg’s money. (Because “independent expenditures” cannot be coordinated with any campaign, he wouldn’t have much say in the matter, anyway.) The new campaign apparatus will also fund down-ballot Democrats in key House and Senate races, an aide said.

It will work alongside Hawkfish, a digital company that Bloomberg set up last spring to work for Democrats in races across the country. Hawkfish operated in tandem with the Bloomberg campaign but maintained a separate corporate structure.

Federal rules require Bloomberg designate a new vehicle to fund Democratic efforts and pay staffers. Three aides who were on different calls with the campaign said those possible jobs with the outside group were not presented as being guaranteed.

Said a staffer, “I think they are using the FEC regulations as an excuse to lay off a bunch of people” because they have to set up a new entity.

After hearing from the campaign Monday, a Bloomberg field organizer sent a mass email to other staffers that was obtained by POLITICO, also saying they expected to be paid though the general election.

“If you were told the same thing, please contact me at my personal email,” the aide wrote.

“I didn’t think I was going to have to apply for a job,” a different Bloomberg aide told POLITICO. “It was presented as being automatic. Field organizers were told during interviews that they had a guaranteed job through November.”

But, the aide added, “I don’t know if I want a job with Bloomberg, anyway. There are going to be so many opportunities — everything under the sun will be guns blazing to take out Trump. And I’m not sure what Bloomberg’s contribution is going to be to that fight.”

This article was originally published at Politico on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sally Goldenberg is City Hall bureau chief for POLITICO New York. She joined the team in October 2013 to cover New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, with a focus on budget and labor contracts. She also spent three years covering the city’s housing and economic development agenda.

Previously, Sally covered the New York City Council and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration for the New York Post. She also reported for the Staten Island Advance (July 2005 to May 2008), and covered municipal government for the New Jersey Star-Ledger (December 2002 to June 2005) and the Hillsborough Beacon (June through December 2002).

A native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Sally now lives in Brooklyn. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Rutgers University.

About the Author: Christopher Cadelago is a National Political Reporter.


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With Shutdown Over, OPM provides Guidance on Back Pay for Federal Employees

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In late January, federal employees across the country returned to work for the first time in over a month.  In an effort to provide retroactive pay as quickly as possible, The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has issued guidance to federal agencies impacted by the shutdown to explain how their employees should receive back pay and other benefits.

Back Pay

Employees who were furloughed will receive back pay at their standard rate of pay for the time that they would have been in a regular pay status if the shutdown had never occurred. This includes overtime pay, night pay or other premium pay (e.g. LEAP, holiday pay, etc.) that the employee would have received.

However, if an employee was scheduled to be in a non-pay status during the shutdown, including Leave Without Pay (LWOP) or serving a suspension, then the employee is not eligible for backpay during that period, including holidays.

For excepted employees who were required to work without pay during the shutdown, they will receive their regular pay for the hours they actually worked, including any overtime or other premium pay. Conversely, if the employee did not show up for work and did not request leave, they will be marked absent without leave (AWOL) and will not receive back pay.

For any employees who received unemployment payments during the shutdown, the state involved will receive notice of the back-pay amount and then make a determination as to what repayment is required.

Leave

Furloughed employees cannot be charged paid leave or other paid time off during the shutdown, even if they had prescheduled paid leave. On the other hand, excepted employees may be charged leave – and compensated for it through back pay – for periods during the furlough where they used paid leave in lieu of reporting to work.

Many employees were planning to take “use or lose” annual leave but were furloughed before they could do so. According to OPM, agencies must restore any annual leave that was scheduled in writing prior to November 24, 2018. Note that restoration of leave will not apply to scheduled leave for December 24, which was declared a federal holiday in 2018, unless the employee can show they would have rescheduled the leave for another day. Restoration also does not apply to leave that had previously been restored. In those instances, the leave is lost for good.

Similarly, employees who were unable to use compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay due to the shutdown will be paid for such time. Compensatory time off for travel that was forfeited can be restored and extended for another 26 pay periods.

In regard to accruing leave during the shutdown, all employees receiving back pay are considered in a pay status for that period and will also accrue leave at normal rates.

FMLA

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks but employees are permitted to substitute paid leave during this time to continue receiving pay.  For employees that were on FMLA during the shutdown, back pay will be dependent on whether the employee was scheduled to substitute paid leave. If the employee had planned to use paid leave during their FMLA leave period, these employees will not only receive back pay but they will also not be charged any leave. However, employees scheduled to be in a non-pay status (i.e. FMLA LWOP), will not receive back pay. For all employees using FMLA leave, the shutdown period will still count toward their 12 weeks of protected leave.

Benefits & Retirement

Employees are also entitled to retroactive benefits. Deductions will be taken out of the back-pay checks to cover employee contributions to health and retirement plans. Loan payments to Thrift Savings Plans (TSP) will also be made.

For those employees who requested to retire during the shutdown, the retirement will be made effective retroactively to the date requested and no back pay will be received after that date.

It isn’t yet clear when agencies will begin making these retroactive payments. If you believe the agency has incorrectly calculated your back pay or you have been improperly denied any benefits as a result of the shutdown, you should contact an experienced federal employment attorney to determine what options you have to protect your rights.

About the Author: Alan Lescht has been successfully litigating employment discrimination, civil rights, and commercial litigation cases for more than 30 years and has won dozens of notable trials. He is the founding partner of Alan Lescht and Associates, PC, where he oversees the firm’s employment litigation and counseling practices.


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First Women Graduate from Fort Campbell Welding Program

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Kenneth QuinnellOne of the great benefits of joining the military is the opportunity to learn skills that benefit a soldier after their service is completed. Some soldiers, such as Specialist Tanya Preddy and Sergeant Alyssa Tamayo, prepare for careers that provide good jobs while breaking ground at the same time. Preddy and Tamayo just became the first women to graduate Fort Campbell’s Veterans in Piping program in Kentucky. Veterans in Piping is a program of the United Association (UA).

Preddy said: “I was pretty excited going into this, to be honest, because I mean, who wouldn’t be excited about making stuff with fire,” she joked. “That’s awesome to me. I’d never welded before this class, ever. I just thought it would be really cool and fun.”

“I think the guys were surprised to see us [in the classroom],” Tamayo added. “A lot of people think welding is just for men and with us being the first two females at Fort Campbell ever, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘I have to beat everybody in here.’ I just felt like I had to be perfect.”

Read the full story.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.


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This Veterans Day

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grace baehrenThis Veterans Day we’d like to take a moment to thank all veterans for their service and sacrifice for our country. In turn, we’d like to make sure that veterans are aware of their rights in the civilian workplace. At the federal level, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) is the main source of protections for veterans in the civilian workplace.

USERRA has two main goals:

  • To ensure that veterans seeking civilian employment can do so free from discrimination because of their service; and
  • That should a veteran need to take military leave — or is activated from reserve to active duty status – they can retain their civilian employment and benefits.

Generally, a veteran is eligible for USERRA benefits if they left a civilian job to perform military service and:

– Have given prior written or verbal notice of the military leave to their civilian employer;

– Have 5 years or less of cumulative service during the employment relationship with the civilian employer;

– Have been released from service under conditions other than dishonorable;

– And return to work, or apply for reemployment, at their civilian job in a timely manner after the completion of service.

For more information on veterans’ rights under USERRA and how to enforce these rights, see our page on military leave.

Additionally, it is important to know your state’s laws on military leave. While some state laws merely reinforce the USERRA benefits, others include additional benefits for veterans. To view the applicable laws for your state, see our State Laws on Military Leave page.

Finally, veterans should be aware of the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Act (VEVRAA), which provides additional protections to “protected veterans” who are employed by federal contractors. Protected veterans are defined to include disabled veterans and veterans who are recently separated (are within the initial 3 year period after discharge or release from active duty). VEVRAA makes it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against protected veterans in employment decisions and further requires that federal contractors take affirmative action to recruit, hire, and promote protected veterans. For more information on VEVRAA see this fact sheet from the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs.

About the Author: The author’s name is Grace Baehren. Grace Baehren is a student at The University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and an intern at Workplace Fairness.


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Read our lips: Americans want to expand Social Security – not to raise the retirement age

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seiu

The recent presidential debates reminds us that Democrats and Republicans are polar opposites when it comes to Social Security.

While many of the Democratic candidates want to bolster the program and increase benefits, GOP candidates Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have all called for cutting Social Security’s modest benefits by raising the retirement age.

Raising the retirement age may not be a big deal for the wealthy Americans who finance political campaigns or even politicians proposing these cuts. However, it would have a devastating impact on Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, including Patricia Walker of Tampa, Fla.

“For me as a home care worker, I couldn’t work until 70. I already have problems with my knees. I’m already trying to make it,” says Walker, who’s in her early 50s.

Although she works long hours, Walker’s low wages prevent her from being able to purchase a car let alone save money for her golden years. Social Security will be her only plan for retirement.

If Walker and other working Americans apply for Social Security’s retirement benefits before they reach the full retirement age, their benefits will be permanently reduced. For example, when someone retires at age 62, their benefit would be about 25 percent lower than it would be if they waited until they reach full retirement age.

This is a Social Security cut Republican presidential contenders seemingly want to avoid discussing while on the campaign trail.

These same candidates also seem to be ignoring the voices of voters who want lawmakers to expand Social Security; not cut its already modest benefits.

A 2014 poll from the National Academy of Social Insurance found 69 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independent voters support Social Security and they don’t mind paying higher taxes to preserve benefits for future generations. The poll also found 71 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of independent voters oppose raising the full retirement age to 70.

Republicans calling for raising the retirement age may be willing to ignore the fact that income levels and life-expectancy rates remain stagnant for the poor as well as the needs of nurses, home care providers, construction workers and others with strenuous jobs that would suffer under their proposal.

One thing any presidential candidate can’t ignore is the retirement crisis looming over the United States. Our country’s next president must be willing to put ideology aside and focus on policies to deliver retirement security to more workers. That includes increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low- and middle-income workers.

Wonder what your full retirement age will be or how your monthly benefits may be reduced if you retire before your full retirement age? Click here.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.


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Thousands rally for growing movement

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seiuThousands of SEIU janitors are traveling to the City of Brotherly Love today to hold a massive rally in support of nearly 75,000 east coast janitors who are negotiating fair wages and benefits this fall. Across the country, thousands more are stickering up in their worksites and marching in the streets to fight for $15 and to #RaiseAmerica with good jobs.

This rally is the latest escalation in a nationwide movement to raise our communities by standing together for good jobs.

Already this year, janitors have won historic wage and job improvement increases. In March 2015, thousands stood in solidarity with Chicago and Cleveland, as they negotiated their contract, and in June we rallied again in solidarity with Detroit and Washington D.C.

More than 50% of janitors with new contracts will make more than $15 an hour by the end of this next contract. And each city has won important additional standards, like increased sick days, full-timing of work, strong non-discrimination language, and protecting employer-paid healthcare.

And we’re not done yet. 130,000 members are standing strong for our east coast brothers and sisters today. In 2016, we’re taking the fight back out West – to Minnesota and LA, Houston, Seattle and Denver. And we’re supporting our brothers and sisters in airports, security, industrial laundry, home care, child care, and in fast food.

We fight because we know our country can do better. We fight because the communities we live in are still fighting for $15 and the right to form a union. We’ve won for working people before, and we will win again. We will keep fighting until every working person in America has $15 and union rights.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.


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Workers at Trump Taj Mahal Begin Preparations for Strike

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Mario VasquezUNITE HERE Local 54 members speak to the press outside of their “strike pod.”

While Donald Trump’s push for the Republican nomination for president is showing no signs of slowing, worker unrest at a hotel and casino that bear his name appears near the boiling point. Strike preparations have begun for over 1,100 non-gaming casino employees at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 54, gathered near their local headquarters last Tuesday to load strike materials like bullhorns, signs and drums into a storage container in a public attempt to prove to management that they are ready and willing to strike over large compensation package cuts that occurred last year.

The Trump Taj Mahal has been at the mercy of billionaire investor Carl Icahn since 2009, when bankruptcy led Donald Trump to cut ties with the casino and resort’s operator, Trump Entertainment Resorts. After months of courtroom drama, Trump exchanged the rights to his name and likeness over to Icahn (who Trump has mentioned in recent months as a possible cabinet member if he were elected president) in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the restructured company.

While Trump has run into his own problems in Las Vegas, where workers at his current gaming jewel, the Trump Casino, have started a union drive (though Trump is adamant that his workers love him), conditions at his namesake in Atlantic City have deteriorated into escalated conflict between new management and the organized hotel housekeepers, bartenders, servers, cooks, and sanitation workers at the Trump Taj Mahal.

Since Icahn began his attempt to gain control of Trump’s Atlantic City gaming empire, the unionized workers at the Trump Taj Mahal have consistently derided Icahn’s alleged role in driving the casino-hotel toward bankruptcy, with workers and UNITE HERE arguing that Icahn, as Trump’s main debt holder, pushed higher interest rates onto the company as a way to reach personal profit of hundreds of millions of dollars and ultimately maneuver into ownership position.

In October 2014, Icahn successfully gained permission from a bankruptcy judge to end company contributions to health care and pension benefits as a way of cost-cutting, saying it would help keep the casino-resort open. “Workers were stripped of their health and retirement benefits; they even cut paid lunch breaks. Our calculation was that the average full-time worker would lose approximately $12,000 over the course of the year as a result of these cuts,” says UNITE HERE spokesperson Ben Begleiter.

UNITE HERE Local 54 contends that the bankruptcy court was out of its jurisdiction with the decision, and because Icahn has declined to renew the union’s contract since its expiration in September, the matter is a labor dispute fit for the NLRB, who has since agreed in a January statement. The union’s case against the cuts is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A survey of workers conducted by UNITE HERE in March found that 44 percent of responding workers, who had previously been covered under a health care plan since their first day of employment, no longer had health insurance. This was a much-valued health care package that had led workers over the past decade to accept near-stagnant wages in order to maintain their health benefits.

“I’ve been part of the negotiating committee for the past 11 years, and I voted to have my pay frozen numerous times in order to preserve our health insurance. I got one 25-cents-an-hour raise in the past decade,” says Paul Smith, a surveyed cook, who has been at the site for 21 years. “In 2005, I had a massive heart attack. The bill was over $1 million. If I hadn’t had the union health insurance, I would have been destroyed financially. Right now, my health is out of whack. I need three surgeries, which is difficult because I have no insurance since Icahn took it away.”

The survey also claimed to shed light on the mental toll of out-of-reach health care, finding that at least 70 percent of participating workers suffered from symptoms of depression at least every other day.

Dr. Alan Glaseroff, Co-Director of Stanford Coordinated Care and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, reviewed the results and commented: “Strictly from a financial perspective, depression as an ‘add-on’ condition combined with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions more than doubles the cost of treating those illnesses, making the lack of coverage an even greater problem for patients and those paying for and providing their care.”

When the October cuts were announced, 24 people were arrested staging a sit-in and shutting down traffic in front of the Trump Taj Mahal. In June, 68 more were arrested for participating in a similar action. Workers authorized the union’s contract negotiating committee to a call a strike if necessary on July 16, a decision that was followed up by reports that the Trump Taj Mahal was preparing to take on several hundred replacement workers.

Casino-hotel employees in Atlantic City last went on strike in 2004 when 10,000 UNITE HERE Local 54 members walked out for over a month at seven different locations; Trump’s casino-hotels workers did not participate in this strike. The Trump Taj Mahal and the Tropicana Entertainment, Icahn’s other bankruptcy capture in Atlantic City, are currently the only casino-hotels in the city working with an expired contract. The possibility remains open for Local 54 members at Tropicana to go on strike as well.

Workers like Hannah Taleb, a casino-hotel employee in Pittsburgh, allege that Icahn’s hardball tactics are an effort to lower workers’ standards throughout the industry. “If the standards are lowered in Atlantic City, how can I expect to fight for high standards in my city? All casino workers are linked in that way,” Taleb told the Press of Atlantic City before being arrested in June’s intersection-shut-down.

Icahn has a history of eliminating worker benefits at various companies he’s acquired over his years, building a reputation of as a corporate raider. “Mr. Icahn is worth more than $20 billion, but two months before the contract for PSC’s union workers was scheduled to expire in late 2013, management told them that it was dropping their health insurance benefits and that they would have to buy their own insurance through the new exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act,” the New York Times reported last December. Unsurprisingly, Icahn was the one of the inspirations for the Gordon Gecko character made famous by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

“Jobs that provided benefits, that were middle-class jobs where a worker could support a family on [are] part of the promise of casino gaming,” Begleiter says. “Casino gaming in Atlantic City is unlike any other industry in the state, because it’s an industry that came into existence by a vote of the people of New Jersey to change the constitution—specifically to rebuild Atlantic City. That means in part, making sure that it provided for workers,” Begleiter says.

As the protests expand and the so-called “strike pod” storage container is filled up with the essentials, the workers at Trump Taj Mahal say they are ready to defend their share of that promise.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on August 31, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Country’s Most Robust Paid Sick Leave Law

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Bryce CovertThe Montgomery County, Maryland council voted unanimously to pass a paid sick leave bill on Tuesday, making the town the 23rd place in the country to enact such a requirement.

The law is one of the most robust to be passed at the city or state level so far. “The Montgomery County paid sick days laws is one of the strongest yet, and it should serve as a model for the state of Maryland and the nation,” said Charly Carter, director of Maryland Working Families.

Once it goes into effect in October 2016, around 90,000 people will get the right to a day off when they get sick that they currently don’t have. Employees at businesses with five or more workers will be able to earn up to seven days off a year, while those at companies with fewer workers can earn four paid days and three unpaid. Many current laws in other places exempt smaller businesses completely. Amendments to exempt people under the age of 18, people who work fewer than 16 hours a week, and smaller employers all failed.

Montgomery County’s leave can also be used for a wide variety of purposes beyond taking a day off for a worker’s own illness: to care for a sick family member, to deal with a public health emergency, or to deal with domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

A statewide bill in Maryland has been introduced but not yet passed, although it will be re-introduced next session, according to Working Matters, the group organizing support for paid sick leave in the state. While the country still doesn’t have a national requirement that employers offer their workers paid sick leave, unlike all other developed nations, many local governments have taken action on their own. With Montgomery County, four states and 19 cities have passed laws.

paid-sickleave-infographic-june

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner, ThinkProgress

Without a federal law, however, about 40 percent of America workers don’t have the ability to take paid time off when they or their family members get sick, the majority of them low-income workers who may not be able to afford an unpaid day. President Obama has called to change that, and Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills that would require all of the country’s to offer sick leave, but they haven’t moved forward.

While businesses often claim that they can’t afford to offer paid sick leave, the evidence from many of the places that have passed requirements is that the laws don’t represent an economic burden. In Connecticut, Jersey City, and Washington, D.C., employers don’t report that the laws have been costly or difficult to comply with, while some have seen benefits like decreased turnover and increased productivity. Meanwhile, job growth in Connecticut, San Francisco, and Seattle has been stronger after their laws took effect, and a majority of employers in many of these places now support the laws.

But the opposition has gained ground in other places. Ten states have passed laws that ban cities and counties from passing their own paid sick leave laws, and others are considering the same move.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 24, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bryce Covert. Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.


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California Labor Ruling Deals A Blow To Uber’s Strategy For Denying Drivers Benefits

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AlanPyke_108x108Uber must pay its drivers benefits, overtime, working expenses, and other standard compensation that the company has thus far avoided providing, the California Labor Commission has ruled.

The decision is not self-executing across the state and can only be directly applied in one specific driver’s case. But it signals to the company’s other employees that the body charged with adjudicating California labor law views Uber to be an employer with all the obligations that come with the label. Uber notes in a statement that the same commission had ruled the opposite way in a 2012 case, and that neither of those rulings would be binding in any other individual lawsuit over similar complaints by other drivers.

The ridesharing start-up, whose market value recently hit $50 billion, has relied upon paying drivers as though they were independent contractors rather than employees. Classifying a worker as a contractor negates most provisions of federal labor law, saving an employer thousands of dollars per year for each person they treat as a contractor.

If a company treats a contractor like an employee by exerting substantial control over day-to-day job activities, though, it risks being found guilty of misclassifying workers. Misclassification is a widespread problem, with complaints popping up everywhere from trucking to strip clubs to beauty parlors.

In California, Uber argued that its relationship with drivers is not controlling enough to constitute an employer-employee relationship, pointing out that they don’t set drivers’ hours or require a minimum number of trips in a shift. But California’s definition of the line between employment and contract work is primarily based on whether the worker is providing a service that’s integral to the main line of business of the company paying her. Labor commission lawyers examined Uber’s policies for drivers and overall business model and found the company’s argument weak.

“Defendants hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation. The reality, however, is that defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation,” the commission ruled. By vetting would-be drivers, requiring them to register their vehicles with Uber, and terminating them if their approval ratings dip too low, the state found, Uber positioned itself as an employer rather than a non-controlling party to a contract.

The case that generated the ruling will only cost Uber about $4,000 in reimbursement payments to a driver named Barbara Ann Berwick. But its consequences could be much grander. If it cannot successfully appeal the finding, it will have to choose between fielding further individual lawsuits or reclassifying all its California drivers as regular employees to pre-empt the suits. That means paying unemployment insurance and other payroll taxes that aren’t triggered for contractors, as well as potentially being subject to overtime rules and made to reimburse drivers for work expenses like gas, tolls, and some traffic tickets.

Any multi-billion-dollar corporation should theoretically be able to absorb such costs. But they threaten to turn Uber into a much smaller-margin enterprise, one more akin to the traditional taxi company business model that the firm has made so much money disrupting. And because Uber’s market value is a fluid, on-paper number that depends on investor confidence and market analyst’s reading of the economic tea leaves, the California ruling could lead to some shrinkage in the car service’s worth and ability to raise private funds.

The ruling isn’t the end of the story, either. There are other civil cases outstanding in California and elsewhere that touch on similar issues and could be decided differently. And the sheer variety of different driver experiences, from people who drive a few hours a week for supplementary income to those who log long hours in vehicles leased from the company itself, suggests that it’s hard to pin down the entire category of workers with either the “employee” or “contractor” label that the law provides.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Alan Pyke. Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.


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