Europe Pushes New Rules Turning Gig Workers Into Employees

From today’s New York Times:

In one of the biggest challenges yet to the labor practices at popular ride-hailing and food-delivery services, the European Commission took a major step on Thursday toward requiring companies like Uber to consider their drivers and couriers as employees entitled to a minimum wage and legal protections.

The commission proposed rules that, if enacted, would affect up to an estimated 4.1 million people and give the European Union some of the world’s strictest rules for the so-called gig economy. The policy would remake the relationship that ride services, food delivery companies and other platforms have with workers in the 27-nation bloc.

Labor unions and other supporters hailed the proposal, which has strong political support, as a breakthrough in the global effort to change the business practices of companies that they say depend on exploiting workers with low pay and weak labor protections.

Uber and other companies are expected to lobby against the rules, which must go through several legislative steps before becoming law. The companies have long classified workers as independent contractors to hold down costs and limit legal liabilities. The model provided new conveniences for traveling across town and ordering takeout, and gave millions of people a flexible new way to work when they want.

But in Europe, where worker protection laws are traditionally more robust than in the United States, there has been growing momentum for change, particularly as the pandemic highlighted the fragile nature of gig work when food couriers and others continued to work even amid lockdowns and rising Covid-19 cases.

While there have been some important legal victories and laws passed in some countries targeting Uber and others, the policy released by the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is the most far-reaching legislative attempt to regulate companies to date.

The rules would affect drivers, couriers, home cleaners, home health care aides, fitness coaches and others who use apps and online platforms to find work. As employees, they would be entitled to a minimum wage, holiday pay, unemployment and health benefits, and other legal protections depending on the country where they worked.

Read the complete story here.

Uber Must Overhaul Business Model in U.K. after High Court’s Ruling

From today’s The Guardian:

Uber will be forced to change its business model in London to contract directly with passengers who book, after a high court ruling that will affect all private hire operators in the capital.

The judgment was hailed by unions for giving both drivers and passengers more protection, by underscoring previous legal rulings that drivers are workers with rights, and making firms responsible once bookings are accepted.

The ruling could indirectly lead to a price rise, with Uber and others now liable for VAT, which could add up to 20% more to the cost of a trip.

The high court case was brought by Uber after supreme court judges suggested, in the case this year where it ruled that drivers were workers and not contractors, that Uber could not be viewed simply as an agent.

Uber sought clarification on the point, hoping to retain its existing model, but in a ruling on Monday, the judges said the law required a contractual obligation between operators and passengers once a booking is made, adding: “To interpret the act in this way gives effect to the statutory purpose of ensuring public safety.

“If the passenger’s only contractual relationship is with a driver he or she has never heard of and who is in any event unlikely to be worth claiming against, any claim is likely to be practically worthless.”

Transport for London has written to the larger operators to review their contracts to ensure compliance. A TfL spokesperson said: “All operators will need to carefully consider the court’s judgment and take steps to ensure that they comply with it, including considering whether any changes to their way of working are required.”

Others said it was a “damning” verdict for TfL, as well as Uber. Sian Berry, a Green party London assembly member, said TfL had, since Uber emerged, been “failing properly to use the powers it has to regulate and protect London’s private hire operators and drivers”.

She added: “In the interests of passenger safety, they must now follow the court ruling and make sure all operators are compliant with the correct legislation without delay.”

The GMB union said the ruling confirms London private hire drivers are legally classed as workers and should be treated as such under law, adding: “It means TfL’s guidance is now incorrect and it means most operators are acting illegally and must get their house in order.”

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Portugal Bans Employers from Texting Employees after Work. Could it Happen Here in the US?

From today’s The Guardian:

Employers in Portugal will now face fines if they attempt to contact remote workers after hours, thanks to a new law.

The legislation was conceived by Portugal’s ruling Socialist party to improve work-life balance for the country’s remote workforce, which expanded due to Covid-19, and to make Portugal a more attractive base for international “digital nomads” – people who travel while telecommuting.

Portugal isn’t the only country modernizing its labor laws; citizens of France, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Italy, the Philippines, Argentina, India and more, all currently enjoy “the right to disconnect” – or abstain without punishment from working and communicating with their employers during designated rest periods.

In 2013, Germany’s employment ministry implemented a ban on employers contacting workers outside of contracted hours, and several of the country’s large employers, including Volkswagen and Daimler, have instituted policies intended to limit the number of emails employees receive outside of work hours, too.

The provincial government of Ontario is also introducing legislation that would require employers to establish a written policy setting generous “expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working”, according to a government release.

Could this ever happen in the United States?

“I don’t think that we’ll see a firm requirement of employers to not at all contact employees during non-work hours,” says Orly Lobel, professor of law at the University of San Diego.

While California does have laws against employers forcing employees to work overtime, and mandates that all overtime be paid, Lobel thinks that adopting and enforcing rules about work hours on a federal level would be overly complex and contradictory to the nature of globalized professional work, in which urgent tasks inevitably crop up and must be dealt with by someone.

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As Starbucks Workers Seek a Union, Company Officials Converge on Stores

From today’s New York Times:

During her decade-plus at Starbucks, Michelle Eisen says she has endured her share of workplace stress. She points to the company’s increased use of productivity goals, inadequate attention to training and periods of understaffing or high turnover.

But she had never encountered a change that the company made after workers at her store and two other Buffalo-area locations filed for a union election in late August: two additional “support managers” from out of state, who often work on the floor with the baristas and who, according to Ms. Eisen, have created unease.

“For a lot of newer baristas, it’s an imposing force,” Ms. Eisen said. “It is not an easy job. It should not be complicated further by feeling like you’re having everything you’re doing or saying watched and listened to.”

Workers and organizers involved in the unionization effort say the imported managers are part of a counteroffensive by the company intended to intimidate workers, disrupt normal operations and undermine support for the union.

Starbucks says the additional managers, along with an increase in the number of workers in stores and the arrival of a top corporate executive from out of town, are standard company practices. It says the changes, which also include temporarily shutting down stores in the area, are intended to help improve training and staffing — longstanding issues — and that they are a response not to the union campaign but to input the company solicited from employees.

“The listening sessions led to requests from partners that resulted in those actions,” said Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman. “It’s not a decision where our leadership came in and said, ‘We’re going to do this and this.’ We listened, heard their concerns.”

None of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks locations in the country are unionized. The prospect that workers there could form a union appears to reflect a recent increase in labor activism nationwide, including strikes across a variety of industries.

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New rules on extreme heat means more air conditioning and breaks for workers

From today’s Business Insider:

The Biden administration announced Monday that it is beginning work on a new workplace regulation to address safety during extreme heat events, a process that will likely take years to move through the slow-churning federal bureaucracy, but could eventually impact millions of people who must work in increasingly high temperatures.

In practical terms, a federal heat workplace standard — as sought for years now by organized labor and Democratic legislators — could change day-to-day life for people who work not just outside, on farms and on construction sites, but in warehouses shipping goods for online shoppers. Employers could be required to offer more shade and more air conditioning, as well as additional breaks and opportunities to hydrate.

Since 2010, at least 384 people have died from extreme heat exposure on the job, according to a recent report by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Over the past 30 years, the rate of heat-related worker deaths has doubled.

It’s only getting worse. This summer was the hottest on record, and it was lethal. At a farm in Oregon, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old migrant worker who had just come from Guatemala, was found lying in a field, motionless, at the end of his shift. It was 107 degrees that day.

Despite the rising death toll, there is currently no federal regulation that deals specifically with threats to worker safety posed by heat. In October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will initiate a process that aims to change that. 

“Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements,” President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing an “all-of-government effort to protect workers” and others from extreme heat.

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California should pass AB1119 to protect the work rights of family caregivers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

As travel ground to a halt in April 2020, the janitorial staff at a hotel chain were furloughed. When business resumed, everyone was called back — everyone, that is, except the mothers.

In a pandemic layoff at another company, only two people lost their jobs — one was a new mother, the other was on maternity leave.

When a woman complained about insufficient COVID-19 protection at a warehouse distribution center, her bosses retaliated by rescheduling her, making it nearly impossible for her to supervise her children’s remote schooling and do her job at the same time.

We see discrimination against parents at the UC Hastings Law School Center for WorkLife Law during normal times, but calls to our hotline increased sevenfold as COVID-19 took hold.

It’s no news that workers are vulnerable because of the weakness of American employment laws, but it may be news that their family responsibilities may put them at greater risk.

Employers prefer “ideal” workers, the kind whose home lives don’t impose on workdays or require even occasional flexibility. The pandemic upended the notion that cookie-cutter rigidity is a work prerequisite, but it also gave some bosses cover to stick with the old mindset, as the workers who’ve been calling us discovered.

California is considering legislation that would push such employers into new thinking.

Assembly Bill 1119, now under committee consideration, would amend the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act in two ways: It would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against people seeking, obtaining and holding work based on family caregiving responsibilities. And it would require employers to give regular caregivers — those with “direct and ongoing” responsibilities for children and other family members — simple accommodations, such as the right to arrive a few minutes late when school or childcare becomes unexpectedly unavailable, unless the accommodation imposes an undue hardship on the employer.

Read the complete article here.

Google Illegally Fired And Spied On Workers Trying To Organize, NLRB finds

From today’s NPR News Online:

Google illegally fired two employees involved in labor organizing last year, the National Labor Relations Board alleged in a complaint on Wednesday.

The tech giant also violated federal labor law, the agency said, by surveilling employees who viewed a union organizing presentation, interrogating others, unfairly enforcing some rules and maintaining policies that “discourage” workers from protected organizing activities.

The complaint said Google’s actions amounted to “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” by the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that guarantees workers the right to unionize and to band together to improve their working conditions.

Google is “confident in our decision and legal position,” the company said in a statement. While the company supports workers’ protected labor rights, the employees in question had taken actions that were “a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility,” it said.

Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., has been rocked by employee activism in recent years over issues including sexual harassment, its work with the U.S. government and the company’s treatment of its large contract workforce.

The federal labor agency has been investigating Google for a year, after several employees fired in late 2019 filed charges of unfair labor practices. Wednesday’s complaint accused Google of violating the rights of two of those employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers.

Berland was one of four employees fired days before Thanksgiving 2019 for what Google described at the time as data security violations, including accessing and sharing information from other employees’ work materials and calendars.

Spiers was fired soon after. After the company hired a consulting firm known for anti-union work, Spiers created a pop-up notification reminding Google employees of their right to organize. Google said Spiers was fired for abusing her access to internal tools.

“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” Berland said in a statement on Wednesday.

Read the complete article here.

Uber likely to shut down in California for over a year if new ruling not overturned

From today’s NBC News Online:

In new court filings Wednesday, a top Uber official said the company would “almost certainly need to shut down” ride services in California for “likely more than a year” if a judge’s groundbreaking ruling issued this week is upheld on appeal.

In a new four-page declaration, Brad Rosenthal, Uber’s director of strategic operational initiatives, said that if the company has to reclassify the bulk of its workforce as employees rather than contractors, it will “force Uber to dramatically restructure its entire business model and its relationships with drivers and riders.”

In a call with investors Wednesday, Lyft CEO John Zimmer said the company would likely also suspend operations in the state for similar reasons.

Earlier Wednesday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company would halt service in its home state of California for a few months if a judge’s groundbreaking ruling this week is upheld on appeal.

“We will have to shut down until November,” Khosrowshahi told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in an interview.

On Monday, Judge Ethan Schulman of the San Francisco County Superior Court found that there was an “overwhelming likelihood” that both Uber and Lyft had misclassified drivers as contractors rather than employees. Drivers make up the bulk of those companies’ labor forces.

The ruling was the latest twist in a lawsuit brought against the companies in May by the state’s attorney general. Schulman put a hold on enforcement of his ruling for 10 days pending appeal.

In the new filings, both companies asked the judge to at least extend this hold period beyond 10 days while they begin the appeals process. Schulman is set to hold a hearing on this issue Thursday.

Read the complete article here.

Mnuchin says plan for unemployment extension will be based on 70% wage replacement

From today’s CNBC News Online:

The Republican coronavirus relief plan will extend enhanced unemployment insurance “based on approximately 70% wage replacement,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday. 

The Treasury secretary also said a payroll tax holiday, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for, “won’t be in the base bill.” The president appeared to concede defeat on the issue in a tweet Thursday and blamed Democrats for sinking the proposal (though many Republicans on Capitol Hill also oppose a payroll tax cut). 

Mnuchin spoke to CNBC about the state of negotiations hours after Senate Republicans and the Trump administration said they reached a tentative deal on legislation they say will serve as a starting point in talks with Democrats. Congress faces pressure to pass an aid package, as Covid-19 case and death counts rise around the country and the critical extra $600 per week unemployment benefit expires at the end of the month. 

But Republican plans to release their plan as soon as Thursday appeared to hit a snag as they tried to craft legislative text, further adding to doubts about Congress’ ability to provide immediate relief. Democrats hammered the GOP for a lack of urgency for a second straight day, and rejected the possibility of breaking a coronavirus package into more than one bill if lawmakers cannot reach a broad agreement in July. 

“This is a package. We cannot piecemeal this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He added that “we’re not going to take care of one portion of suffering people and leave everyone else hanging.”

It is unclear how Republicans would structure the plan to provide 70% wage replacement. Lawmakers chose the $600 per week sum in the March rescue package because they decided outdated state unemployment systems could not handle processing payouts for 100% of a worker’s previous wages. 

Read the complete article here.

Congress passes bill to ease bids by workers to form unions

From today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In a move that supporters said would help working families, the Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.

The “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act would allow more workers to conduct organizing campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would also weaken “right-to-work” laws that allow employees in more than half the states to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment.

In one of its most controversial provisions, the bill would close loopholes that allow what supporters call intentional misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors in order to prevent them from joining a union.

The House approved the bill, 224-194, on Thursday. The measure is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House.

Even so, Democrats touted it as a major victory for worker rights and said it would help reverse a decades-long trend of declining union membership in the U.S. workforce. Less than 11% of American workers belong to a union, a statistic Democrats called disgraceful.

“Without these protections, the playing field will remain heavily stacked against workers,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., called labor unions one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve their standard of living. But under current law, there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union,” said Scott, who chairs the House Education & Labor Committee.

Read the complete article here.