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

Mike Elk

Thomas Perez, the new head of the Labor Department, has business leaders worried about new regulations.

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 nwLabor​Press​.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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