California Sues Uber and Lyft, Claiming Workers Are Misclassified

From today’s New York Times:

California’s attorney general and a coalition of city attorneys in the state sued Uber and Lyft on Tuesday, claiming the companies wrongfully classified their drivers as independent contractors in violation of a state law that makes them employees.

The law, known as Assembly Bill 5, requires companies to treat their workers as employees instead of contractors if they control how workers perform tasks or if the work is a routine part of a company’s business.

At least one million gig workers in the state are affected by the law, which is supposed to give them a path to benefits like a minimum wage and unemployment insurance that have been traditionally withheld from independent contractors.

Although A.B. 5 took effect on Jan. 1, Uber, Lyft and other gig economy companies that operate in California have resisted and are not taking steps to reclassify their drivers. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have poured $90 million into a campaign for a ballot initiative that would exempt them from complying with the law. Uber has also argued that its core business is technology, not rides, and therefore drivers are not a key part of its business.

The lawsuit also claims the ride-hailing companies are engaging in an unfair business practice that harms other California companies that follow the law. By avoiding payroll taxes and not paying minimum wage, Uber and Lyft are able to provide rides at “an artificially low cost,” the suit claims, giving them a competitive advantage over other businesses. The suit seeks civil penalties and back wages for workers that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“California has ground rules with rights and protections for workers and their employers. We intend to make sure that Uber or Lyft play by the rules,” Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said in a statement. The city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego joined in the lawsuit.

California’s move is a significant threat to the gig companies and could influence other states with similar laws to take action against them, labor experts said.

Read the complete article here.

How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class

From today’s Atlantic Online:

Late last month, a photo circulated of delivery drivers crowding around Carbone, a Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant, waiting to pick up $32 rigatoni and bring it to people who were safely ensconced in their apartment. A police officer, attempting to spread out the crowd, reportedly said, “I know you guys are just out here trying to make money. I personally don’t give a shit!” The poor got socially close, it seems, so that the rich could socially distance.

The past few weeks have exposed just how much a person’s risk of infection hinges on class. Though people of all incomes are at risk of being laid off, those who can work from home are at least less likely to get sick. The low-income workers who do still have jobs, meanwhile, are likely to be stuck in close quarters with other humans. For example, grocery-store clerks face some of the greatest exposure to the coronavirus, aside from health-care workers. “Essential” businesses—grocery stores, pharmacies—are about the only places Americans are still permitted to go, and their cashiers stand less than an arm’s length from hundreds of people a day.

My inboxes have filled up with outcries from workers at big-box retailers, grocery stores, and shipping giants who say their companies are not protecting them. They say people are being sent into work despite having been in contact with people infected with the virus. They say the company promised to pay for their quarantine leave, but the payment has been delayed for weeks and they are running out of money. Or the company denied their medical leave because they don’t have proof of a nearly impossible-to-get COVID-19 test. Or the company doesn’t offer paid medical leave at all, and they’re wondering how they’ll pay for gas once they recover from the disease.

Masks are in short supply nationwide, and some managers have resisted allowing workers to wear them, fearing it will disrupt the appearance of normalcy. Some companies have rolled out “hazard pay” for employees, but in many cases it amounts to about $2 more an hour. The Amazon employees I’ve spoken with largely work fewer than 30 hours a week, and the company does not provide them with health insurance. One Walmart employee used up all his attendance “points” while sick with the virus, and was fired upon his return to work. (Walmart did not comment on his situation for my story.) At least 41 grocery-store workers have already died from the virus. “I make $14.60 an hour and don’t qualify for health care yet,” one grocery-store employee in New Mexico wrote to me. “I am freaked out.”

Meanwhile, many white-collar workers have no “points” system. Many such jobs offer as much paid time off as an employee and her manager agree to—a concept far beyond even the most generous policies at grocery stores. Many PR specialists, programmers, and other white-collar workers are doing their exact same job, except from the comfort of their home. Some are at risk of being laid off. But for the most part, they are not putting their lives in danger, except by choice.

Read the complete article here.

Philadelphia in works to set up agency to protect worker rights in the city

From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would all but ensure the creation of a permanent city agency dedicated to enforcing the numerous progressive labor laws it has passed in recent years.

The bill — introduced by Councilmembers Helen Gym and Bobby Henon in partnership with the Kenney administration — would pose this question to voters in the April primary: Should the city create a permanent Department of Labor that would enforce city labor laws and function as a front door for all worker-related issues?

The question has to be put to voters because it requires a city charter change. Right now, the Mayor’s Office of Labor, created under the Kenney administration, provides these services, but advocates fear a future mayor with different priorities could scrap the office all together.

This effort is part of a broader push by advocates and organizers for stronger labor law enforcement in a city that’s passed some of the most progressive pro-worker legislation in the country but has historically failed to both educate workers about these laws and enforce them.

That started to change in the last year, as advocates who pushed for these laws set their sights on enforcement. Advocates won a modest increase in funding for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, which grew its budget to nearly $1.1 million this year and doubled its staff to six. The number of complaints filed by workers to the office quadrupled from 2018 to 2019 to nearly 100.

Read the complete article here.

New York Governor Lays Down Ultimatum on Gig Worker Rights

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) kicked gig worker rights out of the state’s budget discussion, instead creating a task force to study the issue. But he also provided lawmakers with an ultimatum.

If the issue isn’t resolved by May 1, the state’s labor department will be authorized to enact regulations protecting workers, Cuomo announced Jan. 21 as part of his executive budget proposal.

Policy is often negotiated alongside fiscal plans in the state’s budget process, which is kicked off by the governor. The state budget is due by March 31, before the next fiscal year begins.

One political expert says creating a task force is a way to delay a difficult decision that puts the governor between the state’s powerful unions and popular companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

Some Albany insiders, companies, and lobbyists say the governor’s legislative proposal is vague. Several lawmakers and union leaders, however, are applauding Cuomo’s plan to further study whether many workers currently operating as independent contractors should instead be classified as employees, entitling them to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, and the right to collectively bargain.

“We certainly are in a better place now, than we were at the end of last session,” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in an emailed statement. “In addition to creating a task force, the legislation would establish a framework to provide rights and protections to workers in the growing gig economy.”

Companies and business coalitions said they’re glad to have a seat at the table. “No matter the forum, we are ready to discuss solutions that provide workers with the protections they deserve while maintaining the flexibility they want and the economic growth vital to the state,” said Christina Fisher, a spokeswoman for Flexible Work for New York, a coalition of app-based technology companies, business groups, and civic organizations.

Read the complete article here.

Fashion Nova’s Secret: Underpaid Workers in Los Angeles Factories

From today’s New York Times:

Fashion Nova has perfected fast fashion for the Instagram era. The mostly online retailer leans on a vast network of celebrities, influencers, and random selfie takers who post about the brand relentlessly on social media. It is built to satisfy a very online clientele, mass-producing cheap clothes that look expensive.

“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year.

To enable that habit, he gives them a constant stream of new options that are priced to sell. The days of $200 jeans are over, if you ask Mr. Saghian. Fashion Nova’s skintight denim goes for $24.99. And, he said, the company can get its clothes made “in less than two weeks,” often by manufacturers in Los Angeles, a short drive from the company’s headquarters.

That model hints at an ugly secret behind the brand’s runaway success: The federal Labor Department has found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages. Los Angeles is filled with factories that pay workers off the books and as little as possible, battling overseas competitors that can pay even less. Many of the people behind the sewing machines are undocumented, and unlikely to challenge their bosses.

“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017.

Every year, the department investigates allegations of wage violations at sewing contractors in Los Angeles, showing up unannounced to review payroll data, interview employees and question the owners.

In investigations conducted from 2016 through this year, the department discovered Fashion Nova clothing being made in dozens of factories that owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers, according to internal federal documents that summarized the findings and were reviewed by The New York Times.

Read the complete article here.

For 53 million Americans stuck in low-wage jobs, the road out is hard

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Unemployment is hovering near a five-decade low, workforce participation is at the highest level in six years and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell recently called the labor market “strong.”

Yet, 44% of Americans age 18 to 64 are low-wage workers with few prospects for improving their lot, according to a Brookings Institution report.

An estimated 53 million Americans are earning low wages, according to the study. That number is more than twice the number of people in the 10 most populous U.S. cities combined, the report notes. The median wage for those workers is $10.22 an hour and their annual pay is $17,950.

Although many are benefiting from high demand for labor, the data indicated that not all new jobs are good, high-paying positions. The definition of “low-wage” differs from place to place. The authors define low-wage workers as those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, adjusted for the regional cost of living. For instance, a worker would be considered low wage in Beckley, W.Va., with earnings of $12.54 an hour or less, but in San Jose, Calif., the low wage bar rises to $20.02 an hour.

“We have the largest and longest expansion and job growth in modern history,” Marcela Escobari, coauthor of the report, said in a phone interview. That expansion “is showing up in very different ways to half of the worker population that finds itself unable to move.”

Read the complete article here.

5 questions about labor strikes that you were too embarrassed to ask

From today’s Vox News Online:

Nearly 1,000 Amazon employees are walking out of work. More than 45,000 GM auto workers are on strike for the fifth day in a row. In October, about 80,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are set to go on strike.

The wave of labor unrest has become a defining feature of the economy since the 2008 Great Recession. In 2018, a record number of employees went on strike: School teachers, hotel workers, health care workers — even Google employees. Most of them were angry about stagnant wages and proposed benefits cuts, but some were just frustrated with company policies.

But all the walkouts have raised the question of what, exactly, counts as a strike and what are the consequences? Is it the same as a walkout? Is it even legal?

I spoke to four labor lawyers across the country to get a better understanding of what legal rights workers have to throw up their hands and walk off the job — and what right a company has to respond.

One law professor pointed out that a walkout to protest government inaction climate change, for example, is not protected under federal labor law because it’s not related to an employee’s working conditions. But if workers walk out because they believe their employer (like, say, Amazon) isn’t doing enough to make the company sustainable, then that would likely be a protected work stoppage.

“If everyone walks out or calls in sick, it’s still a strike,” Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, an employment law professor at Indiana University Bloomington, said to me. Whether or not the law protects workers from getting fired depends on the context.

Read the complete article here.

Uber drivers are contractors, not employees, U.S. labor agency says

From today’s Reuters News Service:

Drivers for ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc are independent contractors and not employees, the general counsel of a U.S. labor agency has concluded, in an advisory memo that is likely to carry significant weight in a pending case against the company and could prevent drivers from joining a union.

The recommendation by the office of general counsel Peter Robb, who was appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by President Donald Trump, was made in a memo dated April 16 and released on Tuesday.

The general counsel said in the memo that Uber drivers set their hours, own their cars and are free to work for the company’s competitors, so they cannot be considered employees under federal labor law.

A ruling on the case is to be made by an NLRB regional director. Advisory memos from the general counsel’s office are generally upheld in rulings. Any decision could be appealed to the NLRB’s five-member board, which is also led by Trump appointees but is independent of the general counsel.

Read the complete article here.

On Labor Day and Your Day Off, Learn About the Work of Others

From today’s New York Times:

For roughly five years, The New York Times has profiled people with a variety of jobs in its Vocations column. Some of those jobs are unusual, some are mundane, but all are performed by people with stories to tell. For Labor Day, we’re revisiting selected Vocations entries from 2018 to highlight some of the different forms work can take.

Joe Finora is a marine engineer based in New York City who investigates the condition of floating docks and underwater structures. He spoke about some of the hazards he encounters in the depths, such as low visibility and frightening fish.

Jeremy Morris is an actor who plays various 18th Century characters at Colonial Williamsburg. He said his goal is to help visitors understand the social conditions under which black people had to live at that time.

Christina Tan is the state epidemiologist at the New Jersey Department of Health in Trenton. She said that understanding how diseases spread can be data-heavy work, but it is an important component in preventing dangerous epidemics.

Read the complete article here.

A Better Deal for American Workers

From today’s New York Times by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy. They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them, and they made that clear in last year’s election. American families deserve a better deal so that this country works for everyone again, not just the elites and special interests. Today, Democrats will start presenting that better deal to the American people.

There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.

But things have changed.

Today’s working Americans and the young are justified in having greater doubts about the future than any generation since the Depression. Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country. And they are right. The wealthiest special interests can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.

And for far too long, government has gone along, tilting the economic playing field in favor of the wealthy and powerful while putting new burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans.

Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things.

First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.

Over the next several months, Democrats will lay out a series of policies that, if enacted, will make these three things a reality. We’ve already proposed creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; increasing workers’ incomes by lifting the minimum wage to $15; and lowering household costs by providing paid family and sick leave.

Read the entire op-ed here.