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

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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!

Celebrating Let’s Move’s third birthday

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow and Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama is touring the country to celebrate the third anniversary of her Let’s Move initiative. The goals of Let’s Move are:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

Through her various activities, Obama has increased national focus on alarming rates of childhood overweight and obesity; currently, one-third of children fall into this category. By putting the spotlight on increasing the health of school lunches and the importance of physical activity, Let’s Move has started important national conversations about the health of our children.

Additionally, the First Lady has worked with various restaurants and grocery store chains to develop healthier options, in the case of restaurants by decreasing the amount of salt and calories across their menus and by adding healthier default options to their children’s menu. By working with grocery stores committed to decreasing the number of food deserts by building new stores, Obama is also addressing the question of equitable access to healthy food.

While all of this work to ensure our children have a fair shot at a healthy future is beyond admirable, the companies the First Lady has chosen to work with to achieve these goals are not always so admirable. Specifically, both Walmart, the largest retailer in America, and Darden Restaurant Inc, the largest restaurant group in the U.S. and owner of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and other restaurants, face widespread criticism about their treatment of workers, including numerous cases of wage and hour violations ranging from unpaid overtime to unpaid minimum wage to forcing employees to work off the clock – all forms of wage theft.

Despite revenues easily topping $113 billion, the average Walmart associate makes just $8.81 per hour and working full-time (which Walmart defines as 34 hours per week) would make just $15,576 per year. That means hundreds of thousands of people who work full-time at Walmart still live below the poverty line, forcing many to utilize state subsidized benefits. Three major studies – one in Georgia, one in California and one in Massachusetts – found that Walmart was the company whose employees were most reliant on government assistance. Making Change at Walmart estimates that Walmart employees cost taxpayers more than $1 billion nationwide.

Between July 2005 and June 2011, Walmart settled an estimated 70 state and federal class action wage and hour lawsuits and lost one jury trail, involving well over a million current and former employees and costing the company over $1 billion. The lawsuits covered wage and hour violations that occurred between the late 1990s and 2010, including unpaid wages and lack of legally required breaks. Walmart also faces gender discrimination class action lawsuits stemming from their policies and practices on promotion and pay.

Darden has also had their share of employment problems, ranging from wage and hour violations to racial and gender discrimination lawsuits and policies that result in below poverty level wages for employees. As a part of the restaurant industry, Darden is allowed to pay tipped workers the tipped minimum wage – a mere $2.13 an hour. Tipped workers rely on restaurant customers for the majority of their wages. Even at $7.25 an hour, workers only earn $15,080 a year, well below the income level needed to lift a family of three out of poverty ($19,090 – based on data from the Department of Health and Human Services). With more than half a billion in profits in 2010 alone, Darden can surely provide better wages and benefits to its workers.

According to ROC United’s Saru Jayaraman, whose book “Behind the Kitchen Door” highlights Darden’s practices, employees report they are forced to work through their breaks, off the clock, and overtime without proper compensation.

Last fall Darden ‘tested’ a program to move full-time workers to part-time in order to avoid paying health benefits under the ACA. When consumer backlash ensued and profits tanked for the last quarter, (CNBC article “Darden Profit Sinks as Restaurant Promos Fall Flat” and Washington Post article “How Not to Succeed in Business: Promise to Dodge Obamacare Mandates”) Darden abandoned this ‘test program’. Like Walmart, Darden faces gender discrimination lawsuits as well as racial discrimination lawsuits.

We admire the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, but she can and should also play a much bigger role in promoting both fair and equitable workplaces while touting healthier food and lifestyles.

Good, bad, ugly of restaurant work featured at ‘Kitchen Ethical’ event

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

How would you like to work for a week and at the end of your pay period receive a voided check? Or have to choose between going to work with the flu or not being able to pay for groceries for your children? Or have to rely on the kindness of customers to cover 70 percent of your wages or know that management it taking a cut of your tips? For too many restaurant workers, that’s reality and is just the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this month, NCL co-hosted Kitchen Ethical with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United). Kitchen Ethical concentrated on the good, the bad and the ugly of the restaurant industry.  The event consisted of two panels: Success & the Ethical Employer – with two DC-based restaurant owners who believe and provide all their employees with paid sick days and employ ethical work practices; and Taking Off the Gloves – with restaurant workers sharing their stories of wage theft abuses, trying to survive on the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour and the real consequences of the lack of paid sick days.

As someone who has never worked in the restaurant industry, it’s hard to imagine working and not receiving a paycheck. As consumers, we have some power to affect change in a way that fines and regulations are not. Restaurants need customers in order to be successful, and — if customers demand change — then owners will have to listen.

Did you know that if you leave your tip on your credit card, your server might not receive their tip? Last year, celebrity chef and restaurant owner Mario Batali and his business partners were successfully sued for $5.25 million for a tip skimming scheme, a wage theft abuse. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time occurrence but is something that probably happens in a large portion of restaurants in the nation. But if we tip in cash, we can help eliminate this form of wage theft.

The lack of paid sick days not only puts workers in jeopardy but it also puts all consumers at risk. With the current flu epidemic at near record highs, the lack of paid sick days becomes a public health issue as well as a food safety issue. Who knows how safe or germ-free your food is if either your server or chef is sick?

For about 22 years, since 1991, the federal tipped minimum wage has been stuck at an appalling $2.13 an hour. According to NCL’s survey, released on the same day as Kitchen Ethical, 87 percent of consumers agree that it is time to raise the tipped minimum wage. Tipped workers are supposed to make up the remainder of their wage with tips from their customers. According to ROC-United’s 2011 Behind the Kitchen Door study, the median wage for restaurant workers is $8.90 an hour and based on a 40 hour week comes to just under the poverty line for a family of three. Any way you slice it, it’s not enough to survive on.

So what can we do? If there is only one thing you remember when eating out, let it be that as customers, we can affect change in this vital industry that desperately needs it.  Workers’ health and well-being not to mention livelihood are put in danger when unethical business practices are allowed to flourish. Public health and food safety suffer when business owners cut corners and deny their workers paid sick days and worker survival is at a great risk when the government prohibits poverty level wages and wage theft abuses are permitted. We, as voters, need to encourage our representatives to pass worker friendly legislation. As consumers, we need to demand that places we patronize treat their workers with the respect and dignity. No worker should have to work while sick, be paid a poverty wage, or worry that their employer is cheating them out of their hard-earned money.

Check out video clips from Kitchen Ethical.

Poultry ‘modernization’ bad news for consumers and workers

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft and Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

What do you call a proposed federal regulatory rule that looks to help make hundreds of millions of dollars for industry at the expense of worker and the public’s safety? Irresponsible? Reckless?

In a nutshell, that’s what’s happening with the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed changes to the poultry inspection process. It sounds like a lot of legal mumbo jumbo, but what is boils down to is that it allows the fox to guard the hen house – almost literally. The changes allow the government to layoff federally trained and experienced poultry inspectors, who are tasked with keeping American poultry safe, and allows the poultry plants to hire private employees to carry out those duties. These private employees do not have mandatory training nor would have the same level of experience. The workers would also be at the mercy of their employers of when they could blow the whistle and stop an unfit carcass from getting mixed in with poultry sent to consumers’ tables. Poultry plants would also be permitted to speed up the inspection lines in order to make more profits. But at the cost of what?  Increased risk of worker injuries? Increase in foodborne diseases like salmonella and campylobacter?
A retired federal poultry inspector has been blowing the lid about what she’s seen at a pilot plant and calling into question the wisdom of the proposed change.  Phyllis McKelvey, grandmother of 8 and the whistle blowing retired poultry inspector with over 40 years of experience, took her concerns public through a Change.org petition that more than 177,000 people signed.  Last week, she delivered the petitions to USDA and called on them to stop this new inspection process from spreading to a majority of poultry plants.
The proposed rule would allow the poultry plants to speed up the lines of inspection to 175 birds per minute – that’s 3 birds per second and 1 bird per 1/3 of a second.  You can’t even wink that fast!
What makes USDA think untrained private inspectors can inspect a bird in that time? Can they find the puss, scabs, tumors and fecal contamination in that time?  Can even trained and experienced federal inspectors catch defects in that short period of time? And should we put public’s safety on the line in order for the poultry industry to make more profits?
That’s a gamble we’re not willing to take.
For more information on the USDA’s proposed changes to the poultry inspection process and what you can do, please visit UFCW and National Council of La Raza.

Black Friday lurking for shoppers, workers

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

Thanksgiving – a day set aside to spend with family and friends and give thanks for one’s blessings. However, more and more often, shopping and the rush for the almighty deal has changed the meaning of the holiday. Stores in search of a new gimmick have decided that opening at midnight on Black Friday is no longer early enough and have moved up the opening time to Thanksgiving evening. This year, four major retailers: Walmart, Toy-R-Us, Kmart, and Sears will open at 8pm, with Target following at 9pm. While the new opening times give the public additional time to shop for deals, what does it mean for the workers forced to give up their precious time with their friends and family?
Are corporations and executives thinking about their employees when deciding to open so early on a national holiday? Do the workers’ lives and well-being factor into the decision? Or is the pursuit of profits all that’s considered? Time after time, companies put their well-being ahead of their employees’. These policies do not take into consideration the lives of the workers and are particularly disrespectful when one understands that most workers will have to be at work well before 8pm to open the stores. What happened to the workers’ Thanksgiving dinner and their time to spend with friends and family?
Workers across the country have been trying to stand up and fight for their well-being and challenge the corporate dogma of profits before anything else.  Last week, Hostess Brand workers went on strike to protest the company’s lowering of wages, slashing benefits, and halted contributions to pension plans. Instead of working with their employees, Hostess decided to blame their workers for Hostess’s financial problems and shut down the company. Walmart workers from Chicago to Dallas and Miami to Los Angeles have threaten to walk out on Black Friday if the company does not address the longstanding workplace issues including low wages, spiking health care premiums, and management retaliation for attempting to organize or even talk about joining a union. OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, a coalition of labor organizations, civil rights groups, and religious institutions, have come together to support the workers of Walmart including the warehouse workers who have been going on rolling strikes from port to port. Besides walking out, Walmart workers may stage protests and rallies outside the stores and consumers should be aware of what happens behind the scenes at their retailers. What goes into those low prices and Black Friday deals? Management threats, closed-door mandatory lectures on the evils of collective bargaining, retaliation in the forms of decreased work hours, and unjustified terminations coupled with low wages and increasing health care premiums have left Walmart workers at the end of their ropes.
Do consumers take into account the working conditions at their favorite retailers? According to NCL’s spring 2012 survey, 94 percent of Americans say the way workers are treated is “very important,” “important,” or “somewhat important” to them personally in that the products they buy are not made under unfair, overly harsh, and dangerous working conditions. Instead of shopping at retailers that cut corners when it comes to their employees, we should reward companies who treat their workers with respect, livable wages, and benefits with our consumer dollars.

Good night for low-wage workers

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

Last week’s election was the culmination of a long and often grueling campaign season that saw voters in three cities give low-wage workers a much-needed raise. San Jose, California and Albuquerque, New Mexico passed increases to the city’s minimum wage while Long Beach, California passed a living wage law for hotel workers.

San Jose’s increase to the city’s minimum wage was born out of a sociology class at San Jose State University. Low-wage workers in San Jose will enjoy a two-dollar increase that takes the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 an hour. Albuquerque not only increased their minimum wage by a dollar making it $8.50 but tied it to inflation and increased the tipped minimum wage to 60 percent of the regular minimum wage – making it $5.10 an hour.

In Long Beach, hotels with more than 100 rooms now have to choose between paying workers a livable wage – pay workers $13 an hour, give full-time employees five paid sick days a year and give employees an annual automatic 2 percent raise – or agree to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with employees. Either way you slice it, low-wage workers came out ahead in three cities.

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy rescue workers

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

Politicians, and in some cases the public, too often take potshots at public employees especially union members, we are once again reminded of the incredibly important work they do for our health and safety. Hurricane Sandy has highlighted the significant role that union members play in our lives.

Many union members are also first responders – police officers, firefighters, and EMTs. Along with their everyday heroics of keeping our cities, families, and friends safe, disasters such as Hurricane Sandy show them once again marching into danger and risking their lives to rescue those stranded and in need of help. Firefighters battle fire after fire from broken gas lines that have destroyed entire blocks and conduct search and rescue operations to find victims of the hurricane.

Besides the police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who make up the first responders, other union members such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are working to restore power and fix infrastructure up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Teamster members are clearing trees, repairing rail tracks and cleaning flood damage from the streets. Sanitation workers are working long hours removing debris from roadways, breaking up tree limbs, and removing hazardous obstructions for the public’s safety. Nurses in many of the affected areas stayed and watched over the sick as the storm raged and in some cases helped evacuate patients when hospitals lost power and their generators failed. Transportation workers including New York City bus drivers transported patients to hospitals.

Pulling together in tough times and helping fellow Americans is what many of these union members do in times of crisis. In addition, nearly 2,000 utility workers from around the country are making their way to the affected states.

The difference in federal disaster relief in presidential administrations is also striking. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during Hurricane Katrina, was hopelessly ineffectual and weak in responding. During Hurricane Sandy, we see a very different agency. More than 500 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services workers have provided emergency medical care and public health assistance. The Pentagon is said to have mobilized and deployed 10,000 National Guard troops in 13 states including 10 Blackhawk helicopters, sent 100 pumps to New York to siphon water from tunnels, and they have also sent 120 medical personnel and 573 vehicles to storm revenged areas.

We owe a large and heartfelt thank you to our public employees and union members for running into the face of danger, rescuing our fellow citizens in times of crisis, and helping to put communities back together in the wake of natural disasters, fires, terrorist attacks and accidents. That is why the NCL finds the tendency – among some elected officials and in the media – to malign public workers because they negotiate well-deserved wages and benefits for their members – so offensive.