A plea to USDA, stop playing chicken with our poultry

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a scathing report on the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) pilot program for overhauling the nation’s chicken and turkey inspection regulations.  While the report focused on the food safety risks of program there are worker safety concerns as well. The poultry industry and USDA hope to roll out the regulation changes nationwide as a “modernization” to the current inspection model.

The pilot, part of the HAACP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and USDA have been sharply criticized by food and worker safety groups, including NCL, because the proposed changes increase public health risks and the safety of plant employees. The changes would replace government trained federal inspectors with untrained private plant employees and increase the speed of inspection to 175 birds per minute – 3 birds per second.

The report finds that USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time [15 years] even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects.” GAO also accuses the program of using “snapshots of data” instead of comprehensive figures reflecting all data from the entire duration of the pilot during their analysis. FSIS’s own testing has shown that some plants in the pilot program are failing to detect foodborne illness, including salmonella.

Food and worker safety groups have not been alone in calling attention to this egregious regulation change. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have been sounding the alarm on the Hill. “Our food safety system is being ‘modernized’ at the expense of worker safety and public health,” said Rep. DeLauro, who had also previously raised concerns about the rule with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The proposed rule has long been a problem, with 10 percent of chicken plants in a related program recently failing a round of salmonella testing.”

It’s time for the USDA to stop playing chicken with our health, halt this ill-conceived pilot program and scrap this so-called “modernization.”

The time to raise the minimum wage is now

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

Every day we see news reports of low-wage workers going on strike for better working conditions. What we really don’t understand or are not told in those 30 to 45 second news spots is the reality facing theses workers. When low-wage workers take the extraordinary step to go on strike they not only forfeit that day’s pay but they put themselves in their employer’s crosshairs. While the law states that retaliating against an employee who exercises their right to assemble, protest and go on strike is illegal, most employers who engage in retaliation; i.e. reducing the worker’s hours, changing the employee’s shifts, dropping their benefits or firing the employee; are never held accountable.

These workers have taken this enormous risk because life as they know it, simply can not continue. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a single mother that works full time and has one child, lives in poverty at $15,080 (before taxes) a year. This qualifies them for food stamps because without it, they would have little left after paying rent, utilities, transportation, and health care. Even McDonald’s convoluted monthly budget planning guide assumes that workers have two jobs simultaneously and are working both nearly full-time. What’s laughable is that McDonald’s assumes that rent is $600, health care is $20 a month and that is costs nothing to feed and clothe oneself. Through their budget planning guide, they basically admit that workers can not survive on one full-time job that pays the minimum wage.

So why not pay workers more? Low-wage employers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, made billions of dollars in profits in the past few years, yet instead of sharing the wealth with their employees, they pay their top executives on average $9.4 million per year – that’s over $4,517 an hour. Why not shift some of that to the low-wage employees?

American voters, consumers and small business owners want change. Seventy-three percent of likely 2012 general election voters support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour – including 50% of Republicans and 74% of independents. Close to nine in ten consumers (87%) strongly agree or agree that the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour should be increased. Even a majority of small business owners (67%) support raising the minimum wage. With an exceptionally small raise to $9 an hour, $3,500 would be added to the annual income of full-time low-wage workers and can be used for a year’s worth of groceries or utilities. If raised to $10.10 an hour, as those in both houses of Congress and worker advocates are calling for, then 30.3 million workers would get a raise. It’s time for a real change – we need to raise the minimum wage!

STRIKE: Workers protest wage theft at the Reagan Building

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

On Tuesday July 2, low-wage workers employed at the largest U.S. federal office building, Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building, went on strike. They were not striking for better health benefits (most don’t receive any health benefits), they were not striking for higher wages, and they were not striking for pensions (most will never see a pension). They went on strike to standup against their employers after being victims of wage theft – they have not been paid legally.

These low-wage workers are employees of federal contractors operating on federal land – the Reagan Building is owned by the federal government and paid for by our tax dollars. However the federal contractors are NOT following the law. Some of these workers have not been paid the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) much less than the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, while others have not been paid the overtime they’ve earned after 40 hours of work a week. Most fear retaliation if they dare to speak up. In many cases, these workers continue to work while being victimized by their bosses because they’re struggling to survive paycheck to paycheck.

Good Jobs Nation, the group responsible for organizing the protest, is made up of workers, community members, and clergy. They have partnered with worker groups and unions to stand with and support disenfranchised workers and raise awareness of the plight of low-wage workers. Today’s protests included speeches by D.C. City Council Members Tommy Wells and Kenyan McDuffie, clergy, and, most importantly, the workers who have been suffering from wage theft. The D.C. City Council recently passed a law allowing workers to not only receive their back wages, but also receive triple the amount of damages.

This is a problem with a simple solution. Since the employers are federal contractors leasing space from the federal government, the federal government needs to add a lease provision that makes all contractors adhere to all the labor laws in their jurisdiction, ensure routine labor enforcement, and have concrete consequences for breaking the law.

For more information on Good Jobs Nation please check out their website and sign the petition asking that President Obama to make sure that federal contractors pay living wages and respect worker rights to join together and have a voice on the job.

The 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act is a reminder that there is more work to be done

jfk infographic

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

“When women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes,” declared President John F. Kennedy as he signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10th, 1963. Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act, making equal pay for equal work the law of the land. In 1963, women were paid just 56 cents for every dollar men made. While times have changed, the wage gap between men and women remains. Today, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes – better but still far from equal.

Equal pay is not only a question of equality – it’s a question of morals, economics and family values. The wage gap means less money for the needs of families across the nation – less money for rent, groceries, child care and medical bills. The newly published PEW Research Center study shows that in 40 percent of households with children, mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinners. This type of wage discrimination hurts us all.

This practice unfairly targets children in households with single mothers, same-sex couples, and families where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $11,084 less than men performing similar work. That figure is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the National Women’s Law Center estimates that women make on average $443,360 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84 & H.R. 377) would reduce those obstacles and lower those walls in an attempt to finally achieve equal pay for equal work. After 50 years, women are still struggling to find equality in their paychecks, it’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!

Lack of worker safety highlighted by April disasters

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

April was not a good month for worker safety. Over a two-week span, four separate events – an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, a fire at an Exxon refinery in Texas, a building collapse in Bangladesh, and the death of a poultry plant inspector in New York– highlight the human cost of big business. It is estimated that every day in America, 13 workers go to their job and never come home.

This last Sunday, April 28, was Workers Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered and died on the job from workplace injuries and diseases. Each death has left friends and family behind to pick up the pieces and move on with a new reality. These are lives that could have been saved. Lives that, if the necessary precautions had been made and basic safety standards implemented, could have been prevented.

Big business has consistently put its interests ahead of the interests of its employees. Either through lobbying to weaken regulations and government oversight, or simply gross negligence, industry has gambled with people’s lives. Unfortunately, it is the workers who pay when this gamble fails. Government is continuously lobbied by industry to either weaken existing regulations or prevent new proposed regulations from becoming law. Industry has lobbied to skewer government agency budgets to prevent proper funding to agencies tasked with inspecting duties.

American companies have a responsibility to protect their employees.  Too often, big companies are deemed innocent of any wrongdoing in cases of preventable work-related injury. We must put pressure on these companies to raise safety standards throughout their supply chain to protect workers both at home and abroad. Stay tuned to nclnet.org for an in-depth piece on workplace disasters later this week.

Frustrations at Congress over Working Families Flexibility Act

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

Yesterday was another frustrating day in Congress. Not only did the Senate cave with the gun vote, but a troubling bill advanced through the House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee and will soon land on the House floor for a full vote. This measure passed unanimously along party lines in Committee and will presumably do the same in the full House.

The so-called “Working Families Flexibility Act” (H.R. 1406) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is NOT family friendly nor does it offer workers REAL flexibility in the workplace. The bill looks to change the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) overtime section by allowing private sector employers to “offer” employer-controlled compensatory (“comp”) time in place of paid overtime.

Last week, during the bill’s introduction, a parade of majority witnesses were singing the virtues of H.R. 1406, but under questioning it was revealed that those witnesses did not understand what the bill really said – it does not give employees the right nor protection to use their earned comp time when they want; rather it leaves the decision up to employers. It does not allow employees to easily take off to watch their children’s games or recitals nor does it allow them to stay home with a sick child.

What the “Working Families Flexibility Act” offers are empty promises of flexibility at work while doing an end run on the Fair Labor Standards Act.  H.R. 1406 does not assure that the decision to substitute comp time for cash overtime payments will be voluntary. While the bill nominally makes it unlawful for an employer to coerce or intimidate an employee into accepting comp time, it does nothing to prevent an employer from discriminating – in hiring or in the award of overtime –against those employees who choose overtime compensation. Nor does it provide penalties that would deter employers from coercing employees into accepting comp time – a much cheaper alternative for employers than paying overtime wages, which can be one and half or twice the hourly wage.

This bill is an invitation to engage in wage theft. The reality is that employers have a lot more power in the workplace than employees and all too many workers are victimized by “wage theft” because of unscrupulous employers and because the Department of Labor does not have the resources to investigate many of the violations of the wage and hour laws. This bill gives employers another vehicle to exploit their employees.

The FLSA established the 40-hour workweek to limit exploitation of workers and overly long work days and work weeks. . These were hard won victories with NCL in the forefront of these battles. The landmark 1908 case of Muller vs. Oregon establishing the legality of limiting the work-week to 60 hours is a case in point.

The FLSA also encourages employers to hire more staff when workloads increase. Sadly, this odious bill would encourage employers to set the clock back by allowing them to receive the benefits of overtime work at no additional cost. Employers could pay workers nothing at all for overtime when the work is performed, and schedule comp time only at their convenience and not the employee’s convenience.

Employees deserve fair wages, safe working conditions, and more flexible schedules to meet both workplace and family needs. There are far better bills to support. They include the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286), Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 377), Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010), and paid family and medical leave insurance so that all employees will be afforded more equitable, flexible and predictable working conditions. For more information on H.R. 1406 please look at the National Consumers League’s letter to House members and visit the Democratic Ed & Workforce Web site.

Equal Pay Day serves as a harsh reminder of the pay gap between men and women

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when women were averaging 56 cents for every dollar men made. While progress has been made, women now average 77 cents for every dollar men make, the pay gap remains. Today, 99 days into 2013, is Equal Pay Day. This day symbolizes the extra time needed for women to earn the same salary as their male counterparts in 2012.

President Obama highlighted this pay disparity during his 2012 campaign and painted his opponent as out of touch with the issue. The 2012 election also welcomed a record number of female senators providing an ideal landscape for finally passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would prohibit companies from penalizing employees for sharing salary information, and force companies to demonstrate that pay discrepancies are not related to gender.

The fact that women get less money for equal work is not only a women’s issue but also a family issue. At a time when women increasingly are the breadwinners, 71 percent of mothers are part of the labor force, a pay gap unfairly targets children in households with single mothers or where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $10,784 less than males performing similar work. That figure is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the Department of Labor estimates that women make on average $380,000 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would reduce those obstacles and lower those walls in an attempt to finally achieve equal pay for equal work. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!