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The Bright Spots for Workers Amid Tuesday’s Disastrous Election

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RobertSchwartz

The presidential election was bad news for progressives, but the dark cloud had a sort of silver lining—ballot measures. At the state level, workers won minimum wage increases in four states and paid sick leave in two.

Voters approved an increase to $12 an hour by 2020 in Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Washington voted to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020—and index it to inflation after that. In Flagstaff, Arizona, voters approved an increase above the new state minimum wage, raising it to $15 an hour by 2021.

These increases will affect about 2.3 million workers, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). And overall, the “minimum wage ballot wins bring to 19.3 million the number of workers who have received raises because of minimum wage increases in the four years since the Fight for $15 launched in New York City and began changing the politics of the country around wages,” noted NELP’s executive director, Christine Owens.

Voters approved an increase to $12 an hour by 2020 in Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Washington voted to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020—and index it to inflation after that. (AZ Healthy Working Families/ Facebook)
Voters approved an increase to $12 an hour by 2020 in Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Washington voted to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020—and index it to inflation after that. (AZ Healthy Working Families/ Facebook)

The measures in Arizona and Washington also included mandatory paid sick leave for workers. In Arizona, the initiative guaranteed at least 40 hours of paid leave for workers in businesses with 15 or more employees. Workers in businesses with fewer than 15 employees are guaranteed at least 24 hours. The law goes into effect July 2017. In Washington, workers will earn a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. That law takes effect in 2018.

In South Dakota, meanwhile, voters rejected a decrease in the minimum wage for non-tipped workers under the age of 18. And voters in Maine and Flagstaff abolished the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, guaranteeing them the regular minimum wage.

The state and local minimum wage increases promise substantial benefits for a wide range of workers. Maine’s measure, for example, will raise wages for about 180,000 people, according to NELP. About a third of them are working seniors, who are “among the fastest-growing age groups in Maine’s labor force”—a trend that applies nationwide.

report by the Women’s Foundation of Colorado found that the state’s $12 minimum wage will affect about 200,000 households with children and 290,000 women. The increase for most female minimum wage workers will be between $4,000 and $7,000 a year. The study also found that the median age of minimum wage workers is 30 and that more than 35 percent of them are over 40.

“For a family with two children,” the report read, “a minimum wage boost to $12 per hour could cover the cost of six to eight months of food; seven to nine months of transportation expenses; four to seven months of rent; or a semester to a full year at a community college.”

In other states, Alabama and Virginia voted on whether to enshrine so-called right-to-work laws into their state constitutions. In “right-to-work” states, employees can opt out of paying union dues. Both states already have such laws on the books, but putting them in the constitution would make them permanent. Alabama approved the measure. Virginia rejected it.

In the realm of health care, Colorado rejected an initiative that would have created a universal health care system in the state, with 80 percent voting against.

Also in Colorado, voters rejected (51-49 percent) a measure designed to alter the state’s constitution by deleting language from 1876 that allows slavery among people who are being punished for a crime. The proposed amendment highlighted growing concerns over working conditions in prisons and would have prohibited slavery in all cases. The state chapter of the AFL-CIO had supported the change.

Even though workers didn’t win on every initiative, the success of the minimum wage and paid sick leave measures suggests one promising path forward for progressives. Of the more than 160 total ballot measures this year, 71 were initiated through signature petitions rather than state legislatures.

As Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said Wednesday, “The success of the minimum wage and other progressive ballot measures in the face of last night’s election results clearly shows that ballot initiatives will become an increasingly important tool in coming cycles to pass the kind of policies that create an economy that works for everyone.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on November 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.


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We Cannot Build a Strong, Equitable Economy on Low-Paying Jobs

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Mary Kay HenryWhat started out last fall as a one-day walkout at fast-food restaurants to protest poverty-level wages and stand up for basic human dignity has transformed into a movement that has captured the public interest.

I’ve been privileged, especially in recent weeks, to talk to institutional partners, policymakers and media about why low-wage workers across the country are risking their jobs and forgoing a much-needed day’s pay to work toward a better future for themselves and their families. We will be better off when hardworking people have enough money in their pockets to put back into their communities and generate more jobs, and SEIU members are proud to back these workers in their pursuit of economic justice and better lives for their families.

I traveled to New York City on Wednesday, to talk to Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about the fast-food strikes. How in the world did this happen? I told Kendall Fells, an organizer from Fast Food Forward, it is because of the courage of the strikers, such as Shay Kerr and Shakira Campbell.

Shay has worked at McDonald’s in East Flatbush, N.Y., for six months. She earns minimum wage and, because sometimes her hours are cut for no reason, she can’t rely on a set pay every week. Since she cannot make ends meet on her wages, she has been bouncing around shelters. She’s fighting for a union so she can make a better life for herself and her 6-year-old son. Shakira is leading an action tomorrow at her store to be put back on the schedule. Their stories echo stories I’ve heard from workers all around the country.

Shakira, Shay, and many others who I have had the privilege of meeting in recent months are helping the public understand that, contrary to what some believe, these positions aren’t being filled by teenagers. Anyone who thinks they are is nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

More than 4 million people work in the food service industry. Their average age is 28. Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family. The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.

This means middle-class jobs are disappearing while low-wage jobs are growing. If we simply accept this as fact, then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will only grow worse. And that is just wrong.

We cannot build a strong, equitable economy on low-paying jobs. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. McDonalds earned $5.5 billion just last year; other fast-food restaurants and retail chains are similarly profitable. They can afford to raise wages.

Americans have a long history of sticking together to fight for something better. SEIU can be proud of how we are fighting on so many fronts, from winning commonsense immigration reform, to delivering on the promise of the Affordable Care Act, to telling our elected officials to invest in vital public services, and to organizing in various sectors to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. All of our members are involved in these campaigns to help workers strengthen and grow our union. As we do it, we know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.

We are united to make a path to power for all workers; winning a just society; and leaving the world a better and more equal place for next generations to come.

This article originally appeared on SEIU blog on August 8, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


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Tax breaks for businesses led to state unemployment funds going broke

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Laura ClawsonOver the past four years, a whopping 36 states have had to borrow from the federal government to pay unemployment insurance benefits. Obviously a recession with high unemployment has a lot to do with that, but not as much as you might think. Tax breaks for businesses (PDF) are once again a hidden culprit for state budget problems.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that, recession or not, many states could have avoided borrowing for unemployment payments if they hadn’t spent a decade weakening their unemployment insurance trust funds by slashing employer contributions:

Between 1995 and 2005, 31 states reduced employer contribution rates by at least one?fifth (Henchman 2011, 16), causing the nation’s average employer contribution rate over the decade leading up to the Great Recession to fall to its lowest point in the program’s 75?year history.

As a result, going into the recession, state unemployment insurance funds were short of recommended minimum solvency standards by a combined $38 billion, and 30 of the 34 states not meeting that minimum standard ended up borrowing, combined with just six of 19 states that started the recession with adequate funds. Adequate unemployment insurance reserves could have reduced borrowing to 13 states borrowing $9 billion rather than what ended up happening, with 31 states borrowing $42 billion.

But while the funding shortfalls came from employers contributing less than at any point in the previous 75 years, it’s been jobless people who’ve gotten the blame and felt the pinch, with “At least ten states [passing] legislation to reduce the number of weeks of benefits available, severely restrict eligibility, or impose measures designed to discourage people from filing UI claims.” Taxpayers, too, are paying, since states have already paid $3 billion in interest and penalties on what they’ve borrowed for unemployment, with more to come.

Businesses paid less when the economy was decent (not even good for many of the years of contribution cuts). Then the bad economy hit unemployed people first when they lost their jobs, second when their benefits were cut despite ongoing high unemployment. Again and again we’re told that a bad economy is not the time to raise taxes on businesses or the wealthy—apparently it’s never the moment for that, always the moment to cut another hole in the safety net.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.


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Will Albany Stop the Wage Thieves?

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amytraub4It’s difficult to imagine anything more basic to a free economy than the right of an employee to be paid for his or her work. Yet this fundamental right is violated in New York’s low-wage industries as a matter of routine. Research from the National Employment Law Project concludes that a fifth of the city’s low-wage workers – an estimated 317,200 working New Yorkers – are paid less than the minimum wage in a given week. Even more are cheated out of the tips they’ve earned, their overtime pay, or the meal breaks they’re legally entitled to. It’s not a case of a few “bad apples” but a well-documented, pervasive pattern of wage theft throughout the city.

In March, I wrote about powerful state legislation drafted and promoted by community organization Make the Road New York to cut the state’s epidemic of wage theft. The Wage Theft Prevention Act stiffens penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encourages workers to come forward, and provides new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases – and ensuring violators will pay up.

The bill passed both the state Assembly and Senate in the last legislative session. Yet because each chamber passed a slightly different version of the legislation the bills must be reconciled before the law can be enacted. Legislators will have a small window to act on the bill in the upcoming legislative special session: The Wage Theft Prevention Act sponsored by Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Carl Heastie should be a priority.

Clearly low-wage workers and their families are hurt deeply when income they’ve earned is stolen from them. But an environment of pervasive lawlessness at the bottom of our labor market also harms New York’s small businesses, drains revenue from the already depleted city and state budgets, and retards the city’s overall economic recovery.

When enforcement of workplace laws is as lax as it is now and penalties are so low, corrupt employers can simply factor the risk of getting caught into their cost of doing business. As a result, businesses that cheat their employees can come out ahead, leaving responsible, law-abiding business owners at a competitive disadvantage. Small businesses with low margins face the greatest difficulty competing against rivals that are willing to break the law to lower their costs. Enforcing the law would level the playing field for everyone.

Both New York City and New York State face daunting revenue shortfalls that have led to very tight budgets. New York’s epidemic of wage theft makes the situation worse. The state loses an estimated $427.9 million a year in reduced unemployment insurance payments, workers’ compensation premiums, and personal income tax revenue as a byproduct of wage theft. New York City also loses income and sales tax revenue when employees get cheated out of their wages. By improving enforcement of wage and hour laws New York can begin to reclaim a portion of this lost revenue.

There are also broader economic consequences when money is taken from the pockets of New York’s lowest income workers. Workplace violations rob low wage workers of an estimated $3,016 annually out of average wages of just $20,644 a year. New Yorkers living on such low incomes tend to spend their paychecks quickly, buying food, clothing, and other essentials in their communities. By deterring violations, the Wage Theft Prevention Act will keep these wages from being sucked out of our neighborhoods, enabling workers to support their families and put dollars to work rebuilding New York’s economy.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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Millions Face Bleak Winter When Jobless Aid Ends Nov. 30

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Image: Mike HallMore than 1 million long-term unemployed workers a  month will lose their unemployment benefits—the weekly check that helps keep a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table—if Congress doesn’t act by Nov. 30.

That’s the date the extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits program expires. But Congress does not return to work until Nov. 15 and then will adjourn again for the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving just a few days when lawmakers are in town to extend the lifeline that has been so vital as unemployment continues to hover near 10 percent.

Click here to sign a petition to Congress to act quickly and extend the UI program before it expires Nov. 30.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), says that in 2009 alone, UI benefits have kept 3.3 million American families— including 1.5 million children— from falling into poverty.

With the holiday season approaching, it would be especially cruel to families and bad for businesses to cut off these benefits. Any cuts would also be a drastic departure from how unemployment insurance has functioned ever since the Great Depression; Congress has never cut back on federally-funded jobless benefits when unemployment is so high.

NELP in recent days launched an online campaign—UnemployedWorkers.org—as resource to mobilize support and push Congress to act before the Nov. 30 deadline. That will be a big lift because for the past two years, Republicans have tried to block every extension of the extended UI program.  Says Owens:

Congress took seven weeks to reauthorize the extensions when benefits expired last June, and in that time, more than 2 million unemployed Americans and their families lost their jobless benefits.

Some Republicans and radio blowhards (see video) have even claimed unemployment insurance benefits—an average of just a little more than $300 a week—make jobless workers so comfortable, they won’t go out and look for work. Not that there’s much out there. Owens calls the claims “insulting and infuriating.”

In the video, Christopher J., a marketing professional out of work for more than a year, says:

There’s no such thing as pickiness when you don’t have a job. I have tried every job. I will go and apply for a maintenance position.  I have done that maintenance position when I was in college.

UnemployedWorkers.org features:

  • Fact sheets on the jobs crisis and the role of unemployment insurance in rebuilding the economy.
  • Weekly tracking of jobless claims data, national and regional unemployment news and other items related to the recovery.
  • Online actions, including a petition to Congress, call-ins and letter-writing to elected officials.
  • Workers’ stories, in blog posts and videos, and a forum for workers to contribute their own.
  • Real-time feeds on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
  • Expert advice for unemployed workers about jobless benefits.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

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 have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Deficit Craze Stiffs Jobless Again — 3 Million Could Lose Benefits in July

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Image: Art LevineDeficit-mania has struck Washington again, with most Democrats and the Obama administration essentially accepting the propaganda of deficit hawks while also calling for extending unemployment insurance benefits. The result? The Senate failed again to pass a relatively bare-bones “stand-alone” benefits extension bill that doesn’t even include a COBRA extension, or aid to the states to pay for their swelling Medicaid rolls. Another modest $10 billion bill to help localities keep teachers on the job is also floundering, even though it’s paid for with spending cuts and legislative savings elsewhere in funding bills .

Any meaningful direct job-creation programs for the nearly 15 million Americans who are officially unemployed are also dead for now — despite a damning new report co-authored by the National Employment Law Project showing that it will take years to make up the jobs already lost. As even moderate pundit Eleanor Clift observed, after viewing a liberal panel calling for massive infrastructure programs to boost the economy, “The actual [unemployment] number, far higher than what the weekly stats tell us, is on the way to becoming a permanent feature of the new economy. And while governments scrambled to save banks, there’s no comparable urgency about creating jobs.”

After the vote, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to try again when a new Senator from West Virginia is seated in the wake of the death of Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. Even the more Democratic-leaning House of Representatives (!) rejected earlier this week a stand-alone extension on Tuesday, too, although it passed a scaled-down one Thursday. But a new vote vote probably won’t take place until after the July 4th recess when Congress comes back into session on July 12th. If the procedure drags on through July, as a new report co-authored by the National Employment Law Project and Center for American Progress shows, the government estimates that over three million people could lose their benefits.

UPDATE: The House passed a short-term extension Thursday, but it’s too late to make a difference for those who will lose benefits before the full Congress resumes in July.

The key vote on the measure fell one short needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. Senator Reid declared (hat tip to The Washington Independent): “It is beyond disappointing that Republicans continue to stand almost lockstep against assistance for out-of-work Americans — especially since many of these same Republicans spent months protecting Wall Street and preserving tax cuts for CEOs who ship American jobs overseas.”

Politico highlights the political dynamics at work — and they don’t favor progressives or unions:

The death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) this week and defection of Sen. Ben Nelson (D–Neb.), a fiscal conservative from a low-unemployment state, helped to seal the fate. But more than any other one issue, the impasse over jobless benefits has come to dramatize the Republicans’ almost single-minded focus on deficit reduction as an economic–and campaign–theme this election year.Just two Republicans, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, joined in support of an estimated $34 billion bill to extend benefits through November. Early hopes of getting help from Sen. Scott Brown were dashed Wednesday when the Massachusetts Republican went to the Senate floor with his own alternative — heavily reliant on cutting unspent funds from last year’s giant recovery act.

Yet as the Campaign for America’s Future Dave Johnson points out:

The real deficit is jobs. That is one more of those things that everyone can see in front of their faces, but we’re told it isn’t what it is. There aren’t enough jobs, and we’re being told this is our fault because we wanted pensions and good wages and vacations and respect and dignity and please, sir, just a little slice of the pie.In case you haven’t noticed, the world’s economy is suddenly undergoing a classic “Shock Doctrine”-style, coordinated propaganda attack. The wealthy and powerful, having insisted that countries cut their taxes and run up debt, now insist that the middle class and poor must work harder, have their pensions reduced, sell off (to them) their publicly-held resources, and take other “austerity” steps to pay off the debt that these lazy, parasitic peasants dared to run up.

It was especially ironic that on the same day that the Senate bowed to the deficit-uber-alles crowd in Washington, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was trying to make the case to the President’s deficit commission — whose appointment reflects Wall Street’s conventional wisdom on deficit-cutting — on why expanding jobs and helping the jobless is good for the economy. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

“We must have a job-centered approach to stabilizing the national debt, which would bring us closer to our goal of sustainable, broadly shared prosperity.”To a great extent, the size of the deficit depends on employment and growth. When employment and growth are weak, tax revenues are low and social assistance expenditures are high. When employment and growth are strong, the reverse is true.

He also warned the panel that ending stimulus spending that creates jobs and growth–as many Republican lawmakers are promoting–could send the U.S. and global economy into a double-dip recession, or worse. The Economic Recovery Act, said Trumka:

“did exactly what it was supposed to do. It increased the number of people employed by up to 2.8 million, increased the number of full-time jobs by up to 4.1 million and increased real GDP by up to 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010. But it wasn’t big enough.”

The harshest words for the deficit commission — whose ideology is helping fuel the Congressional rejection of jobs creation and unemployment benefits — was left for economist James Galbraith. As Firedoglake reports on his attack on the “cat food commission” (via the Roosevelt Institute):

For a quick snapshot, Galbraith’s testimony is divided into ten sections, which address the following points:-That the Commission’s work is illegitimate

-That current deficits and rising debt were caused by the financial crisis.

-That future deficit projections are generally based on forecasts which begin by unrealistically assuming full recovery

-That, having cured the deficits with an unrealistic forecast, CBO recreates them with another, very different, but equally unrealistic forecast.

-That the only way to reduce public deficits is to restore private credit.

-That Social Security and Medicare “solvency” is not part of the Commission’s Mandate.

-That as a transfer program, Social Security is also irrelevant to deficit economics.

-That markets are not calling for deficit reduction, either now or later.

-That in reality, the US government spends first & borrows later; public spending creates a demand for Treasuries in the private sector.

-That the best place in history (for this Commission) would be no place at all.

Galbraith’s conclusion: “”You are plainly not equipped, either by disposition or resources, to take on the true cause of deficits now or in the future: the financial crisis.”

Neither is Congress, which seeks instead to protect the tax breaks of hedge fund managers while denying unemployment benefits to the jobless and allowing nearly 30 million people to remain unemployed or under-employed.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times Blog.

About The Author: Art Levine , a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]


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Unemployment Q & A’s

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Image: Brett BrownellI’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of a great organization like Workplace Fairness. We’re using online tools to educate workers about their rights and job-seekers about their search. But I’m no stranger to unemployment.

In the not-too-distant past my resources became limited and I hit a wall in my job search. So I made the tough decision millions of Americans have had to make: I decided to file for unemployment… But making the decision was just the beginning.

What I remember most vividly about the time that followed were two things:

1) The confusion, hassle, and frustration of the application process

2) My relief when I received the first ameliorating check

So, when I came across the The New York Times’ money blog “Bucks” and their series “Answers About Unemployment Benefits” I wanted to share it and hopefully save some frustrated job-seekers a few minutes, or hours, or dead-end research.

The answers are provided by Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. All four parts in the series can be found here:

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 1

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 2

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 3

Answers About Unemployment Benefits: Part 4

Among the topics the series covers are:

• COBRA health care
• Tip earners
• Temp workers
• How to determine eligibility?
• How to determine amount?
• New 2009 Recovery Act extensions
• Students
• Self-employment
• Independent contractors

I hope you find it helpful.

*For more information on unemployment insurance visit the Workplace Fairness Unemployment Insurance Information page and 2009 Economic Stimulus Package and its Effect on Unemployment Insurance page.

About the Author: Brett Brownell is a new media fellow at the New Organizing Institute where he manages the Today’s Workplace blog and new media for Workplace Fairness. Brett served as deputy director of new media & videographer for the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. He is also the founder of Worldwide Moment (an international photography project for peace) and the son of a 40-year veteran of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union.


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National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft

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Image: James Parks

Workers, community leaders and religious activists are holding rallies, prayer vigils and other actions in more than 40 cities around the country today as part of a National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft.

Wage theft is a national epidemic, which robs millions of workers of billions of dollars they’ve worked for but never seen, says Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and author of the book Wage Theft in America.

During a Capitol Hill press conference this morning, Bobo said:

Too many workers can’t buy a Thanksgiving turkey because employers have stolen their wages. Wage theft is not a small, isolated situation. It’s a national epidemic.

Wage theft affects workers like Cleve Williams, who worked for a city contractor in Cincinnati. Williams told the press conference he was fired after he organized his fellow workers to fight for a living wage. The city’s law required the comapny, which holds a city contract, to pay a minimum wage. But Williams says it took three years to get the wages raised to the legal level.

Bobo cited a study by the National Employment Law Project, which shows how widespread wage theft has become. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 4,387 workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, a group of respected academics estimates that 68 percent of the workers surveyed are routinely denied proper overtime pay and often are paid less than minimum wage. The average low-wage worker lost more than $2,600 in annual income due to the violations, 15 percent of their annual earnings. Click here to read the report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, speaking to the press conference by phone, said the nation’s economy suffers when millions of workers are denied their just pay. Unions are the first line of defense against wage theft, she added. With a union contract, workers don’t have to worry about not getting paid for overtime or not getting a decent, living wage and other benefits.

Wage theft is not only an economic issue, but a moral one, says Thomas Shellabarger, of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As we pause this Thanksgiving to remember all that we are thankful for, we also remember the workers across the nation whose wages are stolen and struggle to put a meal on their holiday table. We must put an end to this national scandal of wage theft.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on November 19, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on unpaid wages visit our Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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On the Path to Economic Recovery: Extended Unemployment Benefits

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Image: Courney ChappellAlthough it is encouraging to see that the Dow Jones Industrial Index hit 10,000 this week, unemployment in this country continues to look bleak.  The September national unemployment rate shot up to 9.8%, and a record 5 million people have been unemployed for six months or longer.  These workers are now competing for a very limited number of available jobs, a ratio of 1 to 6.  If the Dow is in fact a reliable indicator of an economic rebound, why hasn’t the unemployment rate followed suit and leveled out or decreased?  Economists predict that unemployment will continue to remain high throughout 2010 – and even 2011 – at which time we will see more promising signs of recovery.  Until then, however, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), an estimated 1.4 million jobless workers will lose their unemployment benefits by the end of 2009.

The purpose of the unemployment insurance (UI) system is to prevent workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own from slipping into poverty.  By temporarily filling the income gap for families while they search for work, UI serves as a critically important safety net.  Although the weekly benefit amount generally replaces only about one-third of a worker’s weekly earning, those checks can stabilize a household and help families cover their basic needs.

Congress is currently debating legislation that will extend benefits to workers who are struggling during this economic downturn.  Last month, the House passed a bill that would extend UI by 13 weeks, but it would apply only to those jobless workers who live in states with unemployment rates higher than 8.5%.  The Senate has likewise introduced legislation, but it is broader in scope.  The Senate bill would provide 14-20 weeks of additional benefits to jobless workers in all states.  Although advocates originally expected the bill to pass the Senate rather quickly, opposition has been raised regarding how these additional weeks will be paid, ultimately stalling any movement.

Any extension of benefits will no doubt help jobless workers in D.C.  The city’s unemployment rate is over 11%, and even higher in Wards 7 (19%) and 8 (27%), two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  According to NELP, by the end of 2009, approximately 4,700 District workers will have exhausted their federal extensions.

The D.C. Employment Justice Center, in collaboration with its community partners, has been working to ensure that all available stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will make its way into the pockets of District workers.  Specifically, D.C. is entitled to receive $27 million of federal funding as incentive payment for modernizing its UI system.  Because the District adopted the alternative base period (ABP) in 2002, it has already received $9 million of this funding from the Department of Labor.  In order for the District to qualify for the remaining incentive payments, it must implement, at a minimum, two additional reforms and submit a second application to the Department by August 22, 2011.  Emergency legislation was introduced and passed in July 2009 that included two such reforms: a dependent allowance and an extension of UI to those enrolled in approved training.

Permanent legislation must still be passed in order for D.C. to receive the remaining stimulus funding.  But even this will not be enough.  In order to address the record rate of joblessness, the significant percentage of workers exhausting benefits, and the inadequate weekly benefit amount, evidenced by the fact that over 50% of UI recipients receive the maximum amount, the District must maximize the scope and impact of the $27 million federal funding to which it is entitled.  It can do so by also increasing the maximum weekly benefit amount by $20; expanding eligibility to those who leave their jobs to care for a sick family member or to relocate with their spouse/domestic partner; and extending the time in which an individual may file an appeal if he/she is denied UI.  These changes will help thousands of District workers and families as they continue to look for long-term employment.  Specifically, $10 million will make its way into the pockets of approximately 22,000 struggling workers.

If the federal government steps in to extend benefits for an additional 14-20 weeks under the Senate bill, all of the District’s reforms could be funded with stimulus money for 2 ½ years, and employer taxes would not increase.  Other states are no doubt in a similar situation – with the federal government footing the bill for up to 20 extra weeks, states can maximize the impact of their stimulus funding by changing their UI programs beyond the minimum requirements prescribed by the Department of Labor, and thereby provide much needed relief to their residents.  Two and a half years is a significant amount of time to feel the impact of the ARRA and create real economic opportunities for struggling communities.

With more money in the hands of consumers, more dollars will circulate throughout the economy, the stock market will continue to steadily rise, employers will regain their confidence, and the unemployment rate should eventually fall.  Congress’ decision to provide extended unemployment benefits is a critical step in helping the economy rebound, and will help ensure that the Dow’s resurgence this week is a truly promising long-term sign of the nation’s recovery, rather than a single snapshot of Wall Street.

About the Author: Courtney Chappell is the Advocacy Manager at EJC.  Prior to joining EJC, she was an associate at James & Hoffman, P.C., where she represented unions and individual employees in all matters relating to labor and employment law. As the first Policy & Programs Director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Courtney spearheaded the organization’s reproductive justice program and developed a multi-pronged action agenda that included lobbying, grassroots organizing, and public education campaigns.  Her achievements included coordinating a national lobby day relating to immigration reform, and convening a national coalition of women’s rights, immigrant rights, and reproductive rights organizations to focus on the intersection of health care and immigration.  She similarly engaged in policy advocacy as a fellow at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund after graduating from law school. Courtney graduated magna cum laude from the American University Washington College of Law, where she was a student attorney in the domestic violence clinic and interned for the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, the EEOC, and the ACLU. She was also a staff member of the American University Law Review and volunteer intake counselor at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center and the Domestic Violence Intake Center.  Courtney has served on the boards of the Third Wave Foundation and the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project.  She is a recipient of a New Voices Fellowship and a Georgetown Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship.


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Congress Moves to Extend Unemployment Insurance to Hard-Hit States

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There are six jobless workers for every job that is open. The official unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent and is expected to top 10 percent in the coming months. By the end of this month, some 400,000 workers will run out of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits—another 1 million by the end of the year.

Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to throw a lifeline to many workers due to exhaust their UI benefits before finding new work. Legislation to provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to workers in high unemployment states is likely to win approval, and the Senate could take it up later this week.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who introduced the bill (H.R. 3548), says the added weeks of benefits will help hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own in this so-called Great Recession.

The bill will cover workers in the 27 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico where the jobless rates are 8.5 percent or higher. Beth Shulman, chairwoman of the National Employment Law Project’s (NELP’s) board of directors, says the bill is “a good first step” but problem of long-term joblessness impacts workers in every state who need and should receive additional assistance.

Every state has experienced record increases in unemployment rates and unemployment claims over the course of the recession, and in every state, long-term jobless workers will be exhausting all benefits by the end of the year without being able to find work.

This past summer, McDermott introduced a bill to provide extended benefits to jobless workers in all states. But because expected opposition from Republican leaders would have delayed or even derailed the bill, he decided to move a scaled down version “in order to respond to the urgent needs of Americans who were about to run out of benefits.”

Some three-quarters of the long-term jobless live in the states covered by the bill. If the jobless rates in the remaining states hit the 8.5 percent threshold, workers there also will qualify for the extension.

The bill provides extended benefits to workers in Alabama, Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

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. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I 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. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on September 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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