Restaurant workers stop Trump administration’s tip grab

A mobilization of restaurant workers and their supporters stopped a Trump administration attempt to rewrite regulations that protect tipped employees from wage theft.

President Trump’s Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta proposed a new regulation that would have overturned an Obama-era regulation guaranteeing that tipped workers maintained controlled their tips.

Acosta’s proposal, which was supported by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), would have turned control of tips over to employers.

The NRA said that the new regulation was needed, so that restaurant owners could create tip pools that could be used to distribute tips among all restaurant employees.

But the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, which led the successful mobilization, said that the new rule would allow restaurant owners and managers to keep a portion of the tips for themselves, which ROC called “a glaring example of a legal form of wage theft.”

The mobilization efforts by ROC caught the eye of sympathetic lawmakers Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who put Secretary Acosta on the spot during a committee hearing.

Their questioning of Acosta led to the drafting of legislation that protected tips from employer control, the TIP Act.

Subsequently, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Secretary Acosta negotiated an agreement that allowed the TIP Act to be incorporated into the omnibus budget bill that Congress passed last week.

Doing so codified the portion of the Obama-era rule ensuring that employers, managers, or supervisors don’t grab their workers’ tips.

“The fact that hundreds of thousands of workers stood up and said no to employers taking their tips and that Congressional leaders listened and acted is a testament to the power of workers standing together,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of ROC.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project said that the Labor Department received 350,000 comments about the new tip rule.

According to Owens, “the vast majority” of the comments were from restaurant workers, consumers, and others who opposed the new rule.

Additionally, demonstrations by restaurant workers and their supporters opposing the new rule took place at Labor Department and NRA offices in 20 US cities.

In Washington DC, members of ROC dropped a banner from the Labor Department’s headquarters reading, “Trump, Don’t Steal Our Tips.”

The mobilization effort resulted in what Jayaraman call a “historic victory” for restaurant workers.

The proposed rule that restaurant workers were protesting would have allowed restaurant owners to create tip pools as long as they paid all employees at least the minimum wage.

Many if not most restaurants pay their tipped employees a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, which they are allowed to do under federal law.

The proposed rule also would have allowed restaurant owners or managers to take control of the tips and distribute them any way they chose including keeping some of the tips for themselves.

Doing so, reported the Economic Policy Institute, would have given owners and managers control of $5.8 billion worth of tips with no guarantee that the tips would be distributed fairly.

The agreement negotiated by Sen. Murray and Secretary Acosta and codified in the TIP Act allows restaurant owners to create tip pools if the pay all their workers at least the minimum wage, but it forbids employers, supervisors, and managers from taking and keeping any of the tips for themselves.

“This compromise will protect workers’ income and will allow for more gender and racial equity in the restaurant industry,” said Tupti Patel, a server in a Washington DC restaurant and ROC member.

Jayaraman said that “protecting workers’ tips from managerial tip theft would also protect a mostly female workforce from exacerbated sexual harassment.”

But protecting tips from management control is just one step toward making restaurant work less subject to exploitation.

Jayaraman said that the next step will be for Congress to pass the One Fair Wage, which eliminates the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

“The next step is that we need One Fair Wage—the elimination of the lower wage for tipped workers so that this incredibly large workforce, the majority of whom are women, is not entirely dependent on customer tips to feed their families,” Jayaraman said.

 

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Federal contractor charged with labor law violations and wage theft

The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint alleging that one of the federal government’s largest contractors has violated federal labor laws.

The complaint issued by Region 5 of the NLRB states that General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) took illegal action to prevent workers at its Alexandria, Virginia call center from joining a union.

In a related matter, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) has charged GDIT with massive and systemic wage theft and has called on the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor to take action against the company.

GDIT, which reported $4.4 billion in revenue in 2016, has extensive contracts with the US military, intelligence services, and civilian agencies.

Among its many government contracts is one with the Pension Benefit Guarantee Board  (PBGB).

Under this contract, 80 GDIT employees at its Alexandria call center answer inquiries from people who receive or are about to receive pension benefits from PBGB.

These workers in 2016 began working with CWA to form a union.

The NLRB’s complaint says that GDIT management responded to the workers’ desire to form a union with coercion and threats.

“I’m happy that GDIT is finally being taken to task for breaking the law,” said Sabrina Batta-Hopson, a union supporter at the Alexandria call center. “I hope this labor board complaint will prevent the company from spreading more misinformation to other workers.”

Among other things, the NLRB alleges that the call center’s program manager “by e-mail promulgated and maintained” a rule against employees talking to other employees about joining a union.

The same program manager during an employee meeting misinformed workers that a union wouldn’t help them get a pay raise because it would take an act of Congress to get one.

At another employee meeting, the program manager threatened employees with the loss of benefits if they joined a union and falsely claimed that if they joined a union, the company would lose its contract with PBGB.

The NLRB’s complaint is due to be heard on May 22 by an administrative judge.

“These federally contracted workers are entitled to the protections of our labor laws,” said Alex van Schaick, a CWA attorney. “GDIT not only abuses workers’ rights, but is also the focus of serious complaints about wage theft and other abuses, and may owe its employees over $100 million in back wages.”

The wage theft to which Van Schaick referred involves workers at 11 GDIT call centers all across the US.

These call centers operate under contract with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

These workers answer people’s questions about Medicare, help people enroll in Affordable Care Act health care plans, and help Medicare recipients get medical equipment to manage their health problems.

CWA wants the Wage and Hour Division to investigate its charge that GDIT is violating the law by misclassfying workers in order to pay a wage lower than the prevailing wage required by the Services Contract Act, by which contractors must abide in order get contracts with the federal government.

The union estimates that GDIT owes $107 million in back pay.

The crux of the union complaint is that GDIT’s call center workers are trained extensively and have broad knowledge about services that callers are seeking, but their job classification reflects a much lower level of skill and training.

“I’ve had two rounds of extensive training to get to my current job. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work,” said Adrian Powe, a worker at GDIT’s Hattiesburg, Mississippi call center. “But I’m being paid at a much lower rate. I’m being cheated, and the federal government must hold GDIT accountable. GDIT needs to follow the contract it agreed to.”

Powe makes $9.64 an hour, but said he should make $11 to $12 an hour.

CWA estimates that if workers at the Hattiesburg call center were classified correctly and paid the wage they deserve, their annual wages would increase by between $3682 and $6572.

In addition to the workers in Hattiesburg, CWA has also filed wage theft complaints on behalf of GDIT workers in Kansas, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Kathleen Flick, who works at a GDIT call center in Bogualusa, Louisiana said that it’s wrong for GDIT to be stealing money from the working poor.

“I can’t run my air conditioning in the summer because I can’t afford the electric bills,” Flick said. “When I needed a major car repair, I had to take the money out of my 401(k) retirement plan. I’d like to visit my kids, both of whom are active military, but I can’t afford to do it.”

CWA President Chris Shelton said that the union’s wage theft charges will be test for the Trump administration.

“This will be a real test of whether laws that safeguard working people are actually enforced under the Trump administration,” Shelton said. “We’ve heard a lot of promises from this president about defending American workers. It’s time for action, not rhetoric.”

AZ carpenters demand state official resignation for lax enforcement of safety and wage theft laws

Members of Carpenters Local 1912 in Phoenix, Arizona told the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA) that “enough is enough when it comes to short-cutting worker safety in the name of higher profits.”

More than 160 members of Local 1912 packed an ICA auditorium in Phoenix to demand that the commission end its practice of arbitrarily lowering workplace safety violation fines.

Union members also criticized the commission for its lax enforcement of wage theft violations.

“Workplace injuries and wage theft rob Arizona’s hard-working families struggling to get by, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, undermining legitimate businesses, which results in the loss of thousands of man-hours and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues to our State that could help to fund our schools, highways, and infrastructure and grow our economy,” said Fabian Sandez, president of Local 1912.

Union carpenters also want ICA Chairman Dale Schultz to resign.

ICA’s practice of lowering workplace safety fines came to light in December after an investigative report in the Arizona Daily Star found that the commission routinely lowered workplace safety fines when employers requested that they do so.

The reporters reviewed 139 workplace safety fines proposed by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) between January 2016 and November 2016.

The reporters found that ICA, which has the authority to review and amend ADOSH fines, granted reductions or eliminated fines in half the cases. The fine reductions totaled more than $186,000.

The Star’s reporting led Peter Dooley of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, and others to ask the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to review ICA’s practices.

“When you reduce fines and downgrade violations again and again, you’re sending a message that workers’ lives are not valued,” said Dooley. “That’s not right for Arizona.”

After OSHA conducted its review of ICA’s practices, it concluded that ICA was reducing fines “in a seemingly arbitrary manner” and it “was operating outside its legal authority by reclassifying violations.”

OSHA notified ICA of its findings in May and required ICA to cease its arbitrary and illegal actions.

Under the leadership of Schultz, ICA has failed to provide OSHA with a plan for changing its employer-friendly practices.

Instead, Schultz has called the commission’s practice of working with employers to reduce fines an “innovative” approach to improving workplace safety.

As he was explaining his innovative approach to the 160 carpenters attending ICA’s September 21 meeting, Pete Rodriguez, a Local 1912 member stood up, interrupted Schultz.

He asked, “How many millions of dollars have been settled and pushed under the rug because it was politics over the lives of the blue-collar man?”

Moments later Rodriquez said to Schultz, “I stand here with the Arizona carpenters and ask for your resignation.”

At that point, union members stood up and walked out, emptying the auditorium where the meeting was being held.

Before they left, carpenters criticized the commission for not doing enough to stop wage theft and employer wage fraud.

Ensuring that employers comply with state laws concerning the payment of employees and reporting those payments is one of the responsibilities of ICA.

While addressing the commission during the meeting, Sandez said that all too often, construction contractors pay their workers in cash.

By paying in cash, contractors don’t need to keep payroll records that show whether they pay overtime earned by employees, make contributions to social security, or pay unemployment and workers compensation premiums.

In short paying in cash erases any paper trail that shows whether the employer commits wage theft.

“The black market for labor exploits desperate workers, creates the loss of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues, and perpetuates criminal activity,” said Steve Pasko, a union member addressing the commission. “How are legitimate companies supposed to compete and bid for projects when (others) are allowed to operate with impunity, due to the lack of enforcement by this commission?”

Sandez faulted the commission for its failure to protect worker safety and its indifference toward wage theft crimes.

“In our industry, dishonest businesses commit on a continuing basis acts of wage theft, fraud, and willful safety violations, putting the physical safety and financial well-being of our state’s workers at risk,” said Sandez to the commissioners. “Yet this commission has chosen to side with lawbreakers by reducing fines, watering down violations, rather than taking the appropriate actions demanded by law.”

America’s sweatshops: The new and the old

Sweatshops have always been an integral part of capitalist economies.

Most sweatshops that serve the US economy are located offshore in places like Bangladesh.

In order to avoid working in these sweatshops, some workers pay human traffickers to help them get to the US.

Unfortunately when they get to the US, many of these workers still end up working in sweatshops or in sweatshop-like conditions.

That’s what happened to three immigrant workers from the Philippines who recently told their stories in a short video produced by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. These workers are hoping that their stories will help bring justice for others who like them have been the victims of human trafficking and wage theft.

Another group of workers recently told their own stories about working under the omniscient gaze of an overseer intent on making them work longer and harder for less money.

These white-collar workers are current and former employees of Amazon, the US’ largest online retailer.

They told their story to the New York Times.

Together, these collections of stories offer two perspectives on the modern American sweatshop.

According to the Times article, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “(Amazon) is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

At Amazon, work hours are extreme, workers are constantly monitored by a sophisticated electronic data collection system, some managers act like bullies,  and little consideration is given to an employee’s life outside of work. Sounds like a sweatshop.

Eighty-hour work weeks at Amazon are common, and in most cases expected.

One former Amazon employee told Kantor and Streitfeld that she received high performance ratings until she had to cut back working at night and on the weekends to help take care of an ill parent.

When her work hours dropped, so did her job performance ratings.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” said the Amazon employee to the authors.

Former workers also complained that their job performance ratings declined after they had to take a leave of absence for serious illnesses such as cancer.

Amazon regularly carries out arbitrary job cuts in which people with low performance ratings are fired.

Performance ratings are based on data collected on employees by the company’s electronic monitoring system and feedback from managers and other employees.

The Times reporters found that managers and employees sometimes game the performance rating system to advance their own careers, often at the expense of others.

For example, those interviewed for the article said that to protect their own jobs some employees form secret alliances and use the feedback system to snitch on other employees. Victims of these secret alliance may find themselves kicked off the Amazon team–sort of like an unsuccessful contestant on the reality show Survivor.

According to the authors, one Amazon human resources executive described the way that Amazon treats employees as “Purposeful Darwinism.”

The term sweatshop when applied to Amazon may be more figurative than literal.

That’s not the case for other employers like the ones who hired the three human trafficking victims interview by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

“(The trafficker) stayed in the factory to make sure I was working,” said Flor Molina, who like the other two interviewees on the video was able to escape her human trafficker. “She said she had brought me to the United States for work, so now my time was hers.”

“I was given only ten minutes to eat in the full 18-20 hours (of work).  I wasn’t allowed to take a break. If I took 10 or 20 minutes, I was punished,” continued Molina.

After Molina and the other two victims were able to escape they found other jobs, but they ran into another problem–wage theft.

One payday, Molina’s employer didn’t pay her. He went out of business and in order to avoid paying her, he moved, and changed his telephone number. He still owes Molina the money that she earned.

Molina and the other two told their stories in hopes that the California legislature will pass SB 588, which will strengthen California’s wage theft laws.

Currently, many California workers who win wage theft suits are unable to collect their wages because the state’s wage theft laws lack strong enforcement remedies. .

Molina said that she is speaking out about her experience because being silent only helps human traffickers and wage thieves.

“Silence is bliss for traffickers and abusers,” said Molina.

Organized farmworkers win at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Farmworkers in the State of Washington will receive compensation after their employer, Sakuma Brothers Farms, agreed to settle a wage theft suit brought against the company by the farmworkers’ organization, Las Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice).

Prior to the wage theft settlement, the farmworkers also stopped Sakuma Brothers from retaliating against members of Las Familias who went out on strike last year to protest the company’s wage theft and other grievances. Las Familias also stopped the company from using replacement workers to take the jobs of those who went on strike.

The workers now are in court to prevent the company from barring families from living in the company’s housing.  According to Las Familias, the company’s decision to bar families from housing is another attempt at retaliation against workers who went on strike.

Sakuma Brothers on June 11 agreed to pay $850,000 to settle the wage theft suit brought by Las Families. Columbia Legal Services, the legal aid agency representing Las Familias, said in a media release that the settlement “is largest farmworker wage and hour settlement on record in Washington State.”

The Sakuma Brothers workers, immigrants from Mexico who now live in the US, organized Las Familias last summer after the company refused to take seriously worker complaints that their pay was less than it was supposed to be.

The company said that the unpaid work was not systematic but rather the result of random errors.

The workers maintained that the unpaid work was deliberate. They also complained about the squalid condition of their housing and the lack of work breaks.

These grievances resulted in a series of strikes during the harvest season that lasted from the summer of 2013 through the fall.

After the harvest season ended, the workers filed wage theft charges against the company. The settlement addresses the workers’ grievances.

The settlement covers a three-year period. About 1,200 workers will receive compensation for unpaid work.

In addition, the company agreed to pay a minimum wage of at least $11.87 an hour. The agreement allows the company to set a piece rate, and if workers earn more through the piece rate than the minimum wage, they keep the higher amount.

The company will also be required to give ten minute rest breaks every four hours.

“This agreement provides fair compensation and improved working conditions. It makes up for their practice of underpaying us and not giving us breaks,” said Francisco Eugenio Paz, a member of Las Familias.

The wage theft settlement  came on the heels of another victory for the farmworkers. In May, a judge ruled that Sakuma Brothers acted illegally when it sent letters this spring  to more than 350 strikers telling them that they would not be rehired during this year’s growing season.

After receiving the letters, members of Las Familias went to court to challenge the firings. Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook agreed with the workers that Sakuma Brothers was retaliating against workers who had engaged in lawful strike–a violation of Washington’s labor law– and ordered the company to send the fired workers a letter offering them work this year.

Sakuma Brothers had hoped to replace the strikers with workers hired through the US Labor Department’s H-2A Visa program, which allows employers to hire workers from other countries when no domestic labor is available.

In an administrative hearing, representatives of Las Familias argued that long-time Sakuma employees were more than willing to work but had been denied the opportunity because the company retaliated against them for going on strike.

After Judge Cook issued her ruling, Sakuma Brothers withdrew its request to hire H-2A Visa workers.

One issue remains outstanding. Sakuma Brothers has changed its housing policy. It will no longer allow families to live in company housing during the harvest.

Members of Las Familias have charged that the company’s new housing policy is aimed at punishing the strikers many of whom had lived in the company’s housing.

The matter is now being argued before a court in Skagit County, and a decision is expected soon.

CA bill would hold companies accountable for abuse of temp workers

California lawmakers may soon be voting on a bill that would hold companies accountable for worker abuses committed by their labor contractors.

AB 1897 authored by Roger Hernandez has been amended and re-sent to the California General Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee that is chaired by Hernandez.

California like most other states has seen a resurgence in the use of temporary workers hired through labor contractors, a common practice during the late 19th Century.

A report from the University of California Berkeley Labor Center entitled “Problems with Temporary and Subcontracted Work in California” finds that nearly 300,000 Californians work for labor contractors that provide and supervise workers for other companies.

This precarious workforce provides essential labor in manufacturing, landscaping, agriculture, housekeeping, material handling, and other industries.

These so-called temporary workers lack the stability of a full-time job even though they may work full time for long stretches at a particular job.

These jobs are generally low-wage jobs that lack benefits as well as job security.

Temporary workers also can be the victim of employer abuses such as wage theft.

According to “Problems,” the US Labor Department recovered nearly $2 million in wages owed to temporary workers in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. The report goes on to say that the recovered amount understates the problem because of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hours Division’s poor track record during this time and the fact that wage theft often goes unreported.

In addition to these abuses, temp workers are more likely to be working in unsafe working conditions.

A report by Pro Publica finds that temporary workers in California are 50 percent more likely to be injured on the job than permanent workers.

When temp workers are cheated out of their pay or suffer injuries on the job, the company that hires them through a labor contractor may shirk their responsibility by claiming that the injured or abused worker doesn’t work directly for the company,

That’s what Soex West Textile Recycling claimed in 2009 when two of its temporary workers lost fingers in two separate machine accidents.

Had AB 1897 been effective at that time Soex would have been held responsible, and the workers would have been able to collect workers compensation through Soex.

The use of temp workers also makes it harder for workers to organize and take collective action to address grievances, which is why the California Labor Federation and other labor organizations such as the UFCW, SEIU, the Teamsters, and California Rural Legal Assistance, which helps farmworkers, are supporting AB 1897.

“Contract laborers work for the labor contractor, so at one site, there can be multiple employers. That results in split bargaining units, multiple elections, and a constantly divided workforce,” writes Caitlin Vega explaining why the California Labor Federation is supporting AB 1897.

Another reason that labor is supporting AB 1897 is that current law inadequately protects an ever-increasing and substantial community of workers.

“Current law is simply insufficient to protect workers’ rights in the shadows of the subcontracted economy,” writes Vega.  “Under existing law, a company can only be held responsible if a worker can prove joint employer status. This process is costly, slow, and difficult to navigate for most workers. It requires litigation, rather than providing a simple and straightforward rule. It is also easily manipulated by companies that have the labor contractor provide supervision on site to shield them from liability.”

California workers seek stronger wage theft laws

Calling wage theft in California, “rampant,” hundreds of workers from across the state rallied in Sacramento on January 15 to demand that lawmakers pass AB 1164, a bill before the state Assembly that will add some muscle to existing wage theft laws.

“We are here today because there is a robbery in progress and the victims – hard working men and women who do our state’s hardest jobs – deserve justice,” said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West. “Passing Assembly Bill 1164 will give us the tools we need to hold wage thieves accountable and put billions of earned dollars back into workers’ paychecks and our state’s economy.”

The rally, a media conference, and a lobbying training session were organized by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition.

If enacted, AB 1164 would extend the state’s Mechanic’s Lien laws to a wide range of workers. Doing so would allow workers who file a claim of wage theft to put a lien on property owned by their employer until the case is decided.

Currently, California construction workers can obtain Mechanic’s Liens when wage theft violations are charged, but as a 2010 survey conducted by researchers at UCLA shows wage theft is not uncommon in a number of other industries including janitorial services, garment manufacturing, carwashes, restaurants, and retail sales.

Since much of the wage theft that occurs in the state is done by subcontractors that can easily avoid responsibility for labor law violation by going out of business and reorganizing themselves, the bill provides sanctions against the subcontractors’ employers, who in some cases, hire subcontractors to avoid labor law accountability.

According to a media statement released by the Fair Paycheck Coalition, in Los Angeles alone, workers lose $1 billion a year to wage theft that can take different forms including below minimum wage pay, lack of overtime time pay, forcing workers to work during breaks or off the clock, and tip stealing.

UCLA researchers, who published their findings in a report entitled “Wage Theft and Workplace Violation in Los Angeles,” surveyed more than 1,800 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County. Of those surveyed, 30 percent reported being paid less than the minimum wage.

Respondents to the survey on average lost nearly $40 a week to wage theft, or 12.5 percent of their weekly wages.

The report estimates that 17 percent of Los Angeles workforce is made up of low-wage workers, the group most likely to be victimized by wage theft.

The most common victims of wage theft are women and immigrant workers.

Like most states, California has laws against wage theft, but the state’s enforcement remedies are weak. Fewer than 20 percent of California’s wage theft victims recover wages owed to them.

In Wisconsin, which has expanded its wage lien laws, the recovery rate is 80 percent.

“Our findings reveal that a shocking percentage of workers are unable to recover their unpaid wages in California,” said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “Sadly, without the tools in place to enforce their rights, workers can lose thousands each year in unpaid wages. California can put in place stronger tools – as other states have done successfully – to hold employers accountable for paying wages.”

The workers’ rally for action against wage theft coincides with an extensive media campaign paid for by SEIU. The campaign urges workers who may be victims of wage theft to come forward and tell their stories.

The six figure campaign includes Spanish-language radio ads in Los Angeles and other large and medium media markets and a presence on Facebook and mobile devices.

SEIU expects to reach 1.5 million workers who may have wage theft stories to tell.

“For too long employers have exploited our work, counting on the fact that we didn’t have a good chance of recovering our money,” said Anita Herrera, a janitor from San Diego who has been trying to recover stolen wages. “Women and immigrants are especially vulnerable. That stops today; we are bringing forward the voices of people who’ve been exploited, so legislators cannot ignore the impact stolen wages have on our families.”

Herrera has been trying to recover money that she was awarded because she was forced to work through meals and breaks without pay. Her employer has evaded paying the wages and is now operating under a different name.