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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 16, 2013, 2:56 pm

New Secretary of Labor To Get Tough; Wage Theft? ‘Better Call Saul’; Public Workers Win in Michigan

BY Mike Elk

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Thomas Perez, the new head of the Labor Department, has business leaders worried about new regulations.   (Ryan J. Reilly / Flickr / Creative Commons).

In July, Thomas Perez was sworn in as a Secretary of Labor, and already he is expected to come out with a series of new rules and regulations protecting workers and their organizing rights. From the Associated Press:

Some long-awaited rules would help boost employment for veterans and the disabled, increase wages for home-health-care workers and set new limits for workplace exposure to dangerous silica dust.

Other, more controversial rules and actions could help labor unions organizing campaigns and allow union officials to take part in safety inspections at nonunion companies.

Another rule the Obama administration is supposed to pass shortly would extend overtime pay and other protections to domestic workers. From The Nation:

In 2011, flanked by domestic labor activists including a worker whom he’d shadowed for a day while running for president, President Obama announced a proposed federal regulatory change that would extend more federal protections like overtime pay to more domestic workers. The proposed change, which would broaden coverage by significantly narrowing a “companionship” exclusion in the amended Fair Labor Standards Act, has received tens of thousands of public comments.

Eighteen months after Obama’s initial announcement, the proposed change—which some involved had expected to be completed during his first term—may now be on the cusp of becoming law. In January, the DOL informed Congress that it had transmitted a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews proposed regulations. Asked about the rule’s status, a DOL spokesperson said Wednesday that it was “still under review by OMB”; an OMB spokesperson did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry. Activists from NDWA, the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups held a July 23 “Countdown to Dignity” rally outside the Department of Labor to urge swift action.

A new minimum wage law has kicked in for workers in Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, the city attorney has failed to go after employers engaging in wage theftleaving many workers to fend for themselves. From the Huffington Post:

The city raised its minimum wage on Jan. 1 to $8.50 per hour for workers who don't receive health care or child care benefits. But advocates for low-wage workers say the law isn't being adequately enforced by the city. Those groups say the city attorney's office has been instructing workers who claim they've been paid less than mandated to find private attorneys and legal aid groups to take their cases.

The pay hike, which came courtesy of a successful ballot proposal last November, guaranteed workers at least a dollar more than the state minimum wage of $7.50. But the ordinance allows the city attorney to decide whether or not to pursue a case in which a worker is paid less than the legal minimum, and city leaders have made it clear that they view such disputes as a private matter between employers and employees.

Patrick Davis, director of the progressive nonprofit ProgressNow New Mexico, said wage theft victims were essentially being told that they "better call Saul“—a reference to the bottom-feeding attorney Saul Goodman, played by actor Bob Odenkirk, in the AMC show "Breaking Bad," which is set in Albuquerque.

"They can't afford to hire an attorney," Davis, whose nonprofit backs policies meant to benefit low-wage workers, said of those denied their legal pay.

A Labor Day Blood Drive in Oregon has been cancelled due to a contract dispute with the Red Cross. From nwLaborPress.org:

According to ONA, American Red Cross has brought in a union-busting attorney from Alabama to negotiate the new agreement. The contract expired June 30.

American Red Cross initially sought to replace registered nurses with unlicensed personnel at various stages of the blood donation process, including patient assessments. It also proposed limiting nurses’ access to their sick leave bank until the third consecutive day they were out of work. Both of those proposals were withdrawn, said Tresa Cavanaugh, lead negotiator for ONA.

The remaining hurdle is wages. American Red Cross is pushing to lower the wage rate for new-hires, eliminate step/ longevity increases, and cut differential pay.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of public employees on Wednesday, saying the Republican legislature didn't have the authority to pass a law deducting from workers' pay in order to cover pensions. From the AP:  

Nearly 18,000 state employees don't have to contribute 4 percent of their pay to get full pension benefits in retirement because a Republican-backed law requiring the paycheck deductions is unconstitutional, the Michigan appeals court ruled.

In a 3-0 decision released Wednesday, the court said only the state Civil Service Commission can change state workers' compensation, not lawmakers. The judges rejected arguments that at the time of the panel's creation in 1940, "compensation" wasn't understood to include fringe benefits such as pensions.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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