Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rep. Cohen co-sponsors wage theft legislation because of your calls

   Your participation in WIN's press conference and your calls to Congressman Cohen on the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft made a difference! Rep. Cohen has now co-sponsored three bills that could make a big difference in the fight against wage theft.

   Please take a moment to thank Congressman Cohen for standing up for fair pay. You can send him an email or make a thank you call to David Greengrass, Rep. Cohen's senior legislative assistant at 202-225-3265.  

   So, what are the bills that Congressman Cohen co-sponsored, and what difference will they make to workers if passed?

1) The Wage Theft and Community Partnerships Act (HR 6268)
What would it do?
HR 6268 would allow the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to establish a community grants program. These grants would be given to knowledgeable, experienced community and labor groups who have dealt with wage theft. These groups would partner with the Department of Labor to prevent wage theft by educating workers about their wage rights and what to do if their wages are stolen, and to educate employers about their responsibilities to follow wage laws.

Why does it matter to workers?
As I posted a couple of months ago, this bill represents the kind of "community policing" approach that's needed if the Department of Labor is going to reach workers who are most vulnerable to wage theft. Workers' Centers, labor unions, and legal clinics that have experience with wage theft often know best which industries or employers in their community commit the most wage theft. They also have built relationships of trust with low-wage workers. As New York state's Wage Watch program is showing, these types of partnerships are powerful.

2) The Wage Theft Prevention Act (HR 3303/S 3877)
What would it do?
HR 3303 makes sure that workers don't miss out on the chance to get back their stolen wages just because their employers manage to drag out investigations by the Department of Labor. This legislation would freeze the statute of limitations for recovering wages from the date that the Department of Labor informs an employer that he or she is being investigated for wage theft. The legislation would also allow workers to file private lawsuits to try to recover their wages while the Department of Labor investigation is going on.

Why does it matter to workers?
An investigation of the Department of Labor by the Government Accountability Office in 2009 found that often the DOL took so long to complete wage investigations that the statute of limitations ran out and workers lost their opportunity to get their back pay. Some employers are aware of this and are uncooperative during investigations so that they take longer. Having the right to file a private lawsuit would mean that workers have other options if the Department of Labor is taking a long time to investigate their case.

3) The Fair Playing Field Act of 2010 (HR 6128/S 3786)
What would it do?
This bill closes a tax loophole that allows businesses to misclassify employees as independent contractors. It would allow the International Revenue Service to issue guidance to employers about who can be considered an independent contractor versus who must be considered an employee. It would also amend the tax code, to end reduced penalties that currently exist when employers faile to withhold income taxes and pay FICA taxes.

Why does it matter to workers?
Misclassification can occur in any industry, but the problem is rampant in construction. Employees are guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, workers compensation coverage, unemployment insurance coverage, and their employer pays half of their Social Security and Medicare taxes. Independent contractors, on the other hand, do not have any of these gurantees and they must pay the entire portion of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. By misclassifying workers, unethical business avoid normal payroll procedures and paying taxes and benefits required by law.

   As you can see, all three of these bills are needed to prevent and punish wage theft, and Congressman Cohen deserves to be thanked for his support.

Vigil for a living wage: Asking our legislators to do their part

At a forum on a living wage for University of Memphis workers held in October, Thelma Rimmer and Emma Davis, who are members of the United Campus Workers, shared how difficult it is to provide for their families on $8 an hour.
Vigil for a living wage:
Asking our legislators to do their part
Saturday, January 22nd at 1:00 p.m.
Wesley Foundation at the University of Memphis
3625 Midland Ave.
(see parking info at the end of this post)
This is an indoor vigil, so don't worry about bad weather!

    At the living wage forum held at the University in October, members of the United Campus Workers union shared how they have to juggle bills every month. University employees have faced wage freezes for the past three years, and this year the cost of family health insurance premiums that employees pay jumped 32 percent.

   While this is a difficult situation for any University staff or faculty member, for workers who make around $8 an hour, it's a crisis situation. President Raines and the rest of the administration at University of Memphis must make a living wage a priority as they make budgets.

   But it's not just the University administration that has an obligation to act for a living wage. The Tennessee Legislature also has a big impact on the wages that higher education workers earn. At our January 22nd vigil, we will be praying for the upcoming legislative session. State legislators will also be asked to share their plans to take action for a living wage.

We will urge our legislators from Shelby County to act for a living wage, especially by:

1) Enacting equitable pay raises for higher education employees. Workers' pay has been frozen for three years now. Any pay raises that the legislature passes should be done in a way that lessens poverty pay, and not in ways that grow pay inequality between the highest and lowest paid workers. Legislators should pass equal dollar pay raises instead of percentage raises.

.   What's the difference between these two types of raises, and why does it matter? Let's say the legislature voted to give all higher education employees a 3 percent raise. If you make $15,600 a year, as a number of janitorial workers do, your raise will only be $468. But if you are administrator who makes $100,000 a year, your raise will be $3,000. The gap between the lowest and highest paid employees will only continue to grow.

   An equal dollar raise (for example a $1,000 raise for all employees) makes the biggest difference to workers who are struggling to get by, and it keeps the pay gap from growing even bigger than it already is.

2) Rejecting any legislation that would overturn living wage and prevailing wage laws that Memphis and Shelby County have already passed. Last year, Tennessee House members narrowly rejected anti-living wage legislation. We expect that certain anti-worker legislators will introduce the legislation again this year. If passed, it would undo years of hard work that you did to get fair wages for workers on city and county contracts. Workers on these contracts could see steep pay cuts if the legislature bans local living wage laws.

For the January 22nd vigil to be a success, we need you! Please join us at 1:00 p.m. at the Wesley Foundation for this indoor prayer vigil.

There is limited parking behind the Wesley Foundation. St. Luke's United Methodist Church, which is located at 480 S. Highland, just two blocks west of the Wesley Foundation, has plentiful parking that you can use that day.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Photo Slideshow: Why I am Thankful for You

Perhaps without even realizing it, you have changed Memphis this year. You have stood with workers seeking justice in our community. I could write a long post about the many ways you have made a difference, through your generosity and your action. But these photos do a much better job! I hope you enjoy seeing what you've accomplished, as much as I enjoyed putting together this slideshow for you. (And be sure to turn on your speakers to hear the background music.)

Thank you for your steadfast support of Workers Interfaith Network. Have a blessed Thanksgiving, and please know that you are one of the many people I will give thanks to God for on Thursday.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Cold Winds of Wage Theft Rip $2,600 a Year Out of Workers' Pockets

    Sometimes drama helps us understand real life better. 

   Yesterday, about 35 WIN members gathered together on the very chilly plaza in front of the federal building as part of a national day of action against wage theft. In a short skit, 3 workers and 3 employers played out what is a typical pay day for low-wage workers, according to a study from the National Employment Law Project

   One worker got her pay and it was correct. The other two told their employers their pay was wrong - one was paid below minimum wage, and the other didn't get his overtime pay. When the employers told them it wasn't that much money, the employers began to unwind a string of 130 $20 bills from the workers' waists. (See this picture from The Commercial Appeal to get an idea). That's the amount - $2,600 - the average low-wage worker who experiences wage theft loses each year.

   You wouldn't believe how quickly that money unwound in the cold wind - or how long it stretched across the plaza. It was a good metaphor for how wage theft feels to workers, I think. All too quickly, money they were counting on for basic necessities is snatched out of their hands.  

 In this coverage of the press conference by WKNO FM, you can hear worker Zorina Bowen describe how she felt after experiencing wage theft at Safari World Tapas Restaurant.

   We had several messages at our press conference yesterday:

1) We urged workers to come out of the shadows and report the wage theft that is happening to them. The Shelby County District Attorney has pledged that they will begin investigating some cases of wage theft. They'll look into situations where workers haven't been paid at all, or where they haven't got a final paycheck, as criminal offenses. WIN can help you approach the DA's office about investigating your case, if you'll let us know you have a problem.

2) Wage theft isn't being caused by just a few bad employers. The National Employment Law Project report finds that 2 out of 3 low-wage workers experienced a wage violation in the past work week. Breaking wage laws has become so easy that many employers use it as part of their business model. And they won't stop doing it until there are more meaningful consequences for stealing from your workers.

3) Congress must do more to stop wage theft by passing new laws. We talked about 3 pieces of key legislation that we need Rep. Steve Cohen - and other Mid-South members of Congress to co-sponsor. The first - the Wage Theft Prevention and Community Partnerships Act - creates a grants program so that community groups can formally partner with the Department of Labor to educate workers and employers about wage laws. It's the kind of "community policing" approach that's needed if we're going to reach vulnerable workers who don't know what to do when their wages are stolen. 

   The second bill, also called the Wage Theft Prevention Act, gives the Department of Labor more time to investigate workers' complaints when they file a wage theft claim. Right now, if you're a worker and you file a wage theft claim a year after it happens, the Department of Labor only has a year to investigate and resolve your case. You would think that would be long enough, but the DOL is so overwhelmed with cases, sometimes it's not.

   The last bill, The Fair Playing Field Act, addresses the all too common problem of misclassification of construction workers. This happens when a contractor tells a worker they're an independent contractor, not an employee. 

   Why does it matter? 

   Because an independent contractor has to pay all his own Social Security and Medicare taxes. He won't be covered by the main contractor's workers compensation if he gets hurt, and no one is paying unemployment taxes for him. It's a bad deal for workers - and for governments who don't get the tax revenues they're supposed to. It's also bad news for construction companies that do follow the rules. The Fair Playing Field Act closes tax loopholes that make it easier to misclassify workers. It already has 122 co-sponsors - we need Rep. Cohen and other Mid-Southerners to join that list.

   Seeing so many people take action against wage theft across the country yesterday was exciting. Take a look at how a rally in Chicago yesterday helped a car wash worker get part of his stolen wages back, for example. 

   Thanks to everyone who took action! Even though the day of action is over, it's not too late to make the call to your member of Congress about wage theft legislation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Video blog: How you can join wage theft national day of action

This is my first video blog for Workers Interfaith Network. Next Thursday, November 18th is a national day of action against wage theft. Find out the two ways that you can take action here in the Mid-South:

Now that you're ready to take part, go to WIN's website for the specific information you'll need to take part in the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft.

And, if you have ideas of what items we should be putting in our shopping cart at the press conference, leave them in the comments section!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

University Employees Hard Work Should Be Rewarded With Fair Pay

    Last night members of Workers Interfaith Network joined together with the United Campus Workers and the Progressive Student Alliance to kick off a campaign for a living wage wage at the University of Memphis. The heart of the community forum we held were talks given by two courageous custodial workers who spoke out about the poverty wages and unfair conditions that come with their jobs.

   As I took part in the forum, I felt a lot of different emotions at the same time. I was angry at the conditions that Emma Davis and Thelma Rimmer described. All workers at the University have faced a pay freeze for over three years now. While a lack of a raise is a challenge for anyone, when your pay is around $8 an hour, it becomes a crisis. Ms. Davis shared how painful it is for her when one of her two children ask her for something that she can't provide. "When you're making $80,000 a year, you don't have to turn your kids away," she said. "I have to because I have to pay my bills.

    At the forum, we talked about Dr. David Ciscel's study produced earlier this year, that shows that a living wage is $11.62 an hour in families of four, where two parents are able to work. But since publishing the study, family health care premiums at the University have jumped 32 percent, to $335 a month.  

   When your pay is just $1,300 a month, this is an unbearable burden. Ms. Davis is now facing a crisis of how to care for her health problems because she makes too much to get TennCare coverage, but she can't afford the University coverage.

   Equally upsetting is the attitude of some supervisors that Ms. Rimmer and Ms. Davis described. They both said that when they have asked about pay raises, supervisors have told them "you should be happy to have a job." Ms. Rimmer put it well when she said, "yes it's good to have a job, but you need a paying job." Supervisors have also told them that they can't do anything about the fact that when they arrive at work at 3:00 a.m., there is no air conditioning, even in the hottest days of the summer.

   There was plenty to be upset about. But I was also inspired at the courage of these two women in speaking out. It would be easy to keep silence out of a fear of losing their jobs in these tough times. But as Ms. Rimmer said, "I'm speaking up for those who are afraid to speak up. I'm standing here to make a way for the next person, for my kids, and for your kids." 

    All of us who care about workers rights need to be prepared to take action with these workers if they experience any retaliation for speaking out at last night's forum.

    And I was inspired by the response of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who took part in the forum. Progressive Student Alliance member Gaby Marquez wanted Mr. Davis and Ms. Rimmer to know that even though their work goes unnoticed, that it is appreciated by students like her. "My mother cleaned houses, so I know some of where you're coming from. I can promise you that when I see President Raines, I will be bringing up the living wage with her."

    While campaigning for a living wage in this economy is an uphill struggle, we also reflected last night on other wage victories in our state. I shared the story of how the campaign for a living wage ordinance with the City Council was long and hard-fought, but successful. Tom Smith, an organizer with the United Campus Workers, shared how organizing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville significantly raised workers' pay there. When he worked at the UTK Library, he saw his pay raised $3,000 over a three year period because of organizing for a living wage by the union and community allies.

   Even if you couldn't join us, I hope you're inspired to join these workers in taking action for a living wage. 

Ready to join the struggle? You can start by signing our electronic petition to President Raines. And, if you're not already on the list to get email alerts from WIN, sign up now so you'll know about future actions in this campaign. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Moses is teaching me about organizing

    Every night before bedtime, my husband, stepson and I read a Bible story together. Right now we're reading Exodus, and I've been reminded how much Moses can teach us about doing organizing. 

     For years, I've found comfort in Moses' reluctance to be sent by God to Pharaoh. Even after God tells him all of the wonderful signs Moses will be able to do in order to convince the people that God has sent him, Moses still says "O my Lord, please send someone else." As an introvert who has spent most of my life avoiding conflict, I often find myself mouthing those words along with Moses.

    But last night what caught my attention is the advice that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, gives to him after the Israelites have left Egypt. In Exodus 18:13-24, Moses is becoming exhausted because he is trying to take care of all the community's needs by himself. Whenever there is a dispute among the people, they come to Moses to have it resolved.

    Jethro gives Moses a couple of pieces of advice that I think have relevance for any of us who are organizing for justice:

1) Jethro says that Moses should teach the people the statues and instructions that God has for them. It seems like Moses has been giving these statutes out one by one as people come to him to solve a conflict. But this gives people little power to solve their problems themselves. The more people in the community there are who can teach each other, the stronger the community will be. 

   We try to live by this principle in WIN's Workers' Center. Workers usually contact the Center for the first time because they've experienced wage theft, or have had some other abuse of their rights. Before workers begin a case with the Center, they have to participate in a training on what labor rights workers have in this country. As time has gone on, we've moved from staff leading these trainings, to experienced workers leading them. Workers leave these trainings knowing what their rights are, but they also leave better equipped to inform other workers of how to stand up against abuse.

2) Jethro pushes Moses to give up the illusion that he can take care of everything himself. He tells him "what you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." So Jethro suggests that Moses train other Israelites who are trustworthy to be judges. 

    It seems like pretty obvious advice, but how often do we try to do things alone, or with just one or two other people? The strongest community organizing groups are ones that are continually building up new leaders who do everything from speak to the media to recruiting members.

   I'll be honest with you. At Workers Interfaith Network, we need to do a better job of finding new leaders to add to those who've been with us for the last 5 - 8 years. For most of the folks who are in leadership positions today in WIN, they started off as volunteers who helped when they could with phone banking, picketing, delegations to business owners, sending mailings, and more. If you'd like to volunteer, please fill out our interest form to let us know the specific ways you'd like to help.

   When I think back over the last eight years, since I founded Workers Interfaith Network, I'm amazed to think of all the people who have shared the task of leading our work. So many people have given sacrificially of their time and their skills to seek justice with low-wage workers. Alone, it would have been too much for any person. Together, we have accomplished much more than we dreamed was possible.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How To Document Abuses of Your Rights at Work

1. Pay records: Keep a record of the days and hours you work, and how much each of your paychecks are. Keep all copies of your pay stubs, or your record of what you were paid in cash. If you discover that you are a victim of wage theft, these records will be very important for your case. Keep these at home, not at work. (Contact WIN for a booklet like one of those pictured above that you can use to keep track of your work hours.)

2. Employer information: Write down the full name, address, phone number, and license plate number of the person who hires you, and the person who is your supervisor.

3. Sub-contractors: If you work for a sub-contractor, find out the name, phone number, and address of the company that pays your boss.

4. What papers to keep: Keep copies of any personnel policies, contracts, union cards, papers or letters you receive from your boss, and copies of any documents you give to your boss. Keep these papers at home, not at work.

If you are having a specific problem at work, such as not being paid all you are owed, harassment, or being told to work in dangerous conditions:

1. Keep a diary of all incidents that happen. Write down the date, time, location of the incident, any conversations you have about it, and the names of other witnesses. Keep a record of any phone calls you make to lawyers, insurance agents, or government agencies. Make your notes as soon as possible, because it's easy to forget details.

2. If there are any witnesses to your incident, ask them if they are willing to write down what they saw and ask them to sign their statements. Get their phone numbers and addresses, in case one of you quits.

3. Don't sign any documents that are written in a language you can't read. Ask for a copy in your own language, or ask to take it home where someone can translate it for you. After you've done this, if you are asked to sign the document, ask for a copy that you can keep for your own records.

4. Find out if other workers are having the same problem. Talk with your co-workers about how you can protect your rights together.

Have more questions about your rights? The website canmybossdothat has a wealth of information on many different worker rights topics. If you live in the greater Memphis area and you are a victim of wage theft, or are being forced to work in unsafe conditions, email Workers Interfaith Network or call us at (901) 332-3570

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Community Foundation Will Match Your Gift to WIN

    I have some great news. Workers Interfaith Network has been awarded a $5,500 challenge grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis! The grant will increase our ability to bring together even bigger numbers of workers and people of faith to act for justice.      

     But the grant comes with an important requirement that I need your help to meet. In order to receive the grant, WIN must raise an equal amount - $5,500 – from generous members like you. Can you make a gift of $30, $50, $100, or more to help us reach our goal? If that’s more than you can afford, a gift of any size will help.
    And remember, whatever amount you give, it will be doubled through the challenge grant from the Community Foundation.
    Through your generosity and your action, you have helped WIN accomplish so much through the years. Thank you for standing up for justice with workers here in the Mid-South.
    Because we’re so busy at WIN acting for a living wage, working to stop wage theft, and training workers on their rights, sometimes other things have to wait.
Important things like purchasing a computer server that will save our files in case a computer crashes. (Unfortunately a crash happened last year. It wasted a lot of time I would like to have used to take action for workers’ rights!)
Important things like developing a Spanish-language newsletter to keep our Workers’ Center members up to date on WIN’s work. We have 35 worker members now, but we aren’t doing a good enough job keeping them informed.
    But the great news is that the Community Foundation’s grant – and the gift that you give – will help us take care of some of those important things that we have always had to wait on in the past.

    The grant is for “capacity building.” The term may sound complicated, but what it means is making sure that WIN has the basics covered so that we’re strong enough to take action with workers. Because I have a computer that is so slow that I can’t always access email, sometimes it keeps me from sending out an urgent action alert to you. Then you miss out a chance to stop wage theft with a worker who is counting on your support.

    Up-to-date technology and better English and Spanish communications with all of our members will allow WIN to do more in the fight for workers’ rights. We can build a bigger movement of more Mid-Southerners who will:

  • Organize with workers at the University of Memphis for a living wage. Every University worker should be paid enough to at least meet her basic needs, without having to work more than one full-time job.
  • Press members of Congress from the Mid-South to co-sponsor new federal wage theft legislation. This ground-breaking legislation was introduced last week. It will help the Department of Labor stop employers who steal workers’ wages from them.
  • Train workers on how to stay safe on the job. WIN’s trainings teach workers everyday safety skills. Most importantly, workers practice how to say no when the boss orders them to do something so dangerous that it could kill them.
     Please help us build a stronger, more efficient Workers Interfaith Network so we can tackle these worker rights’ struggles. Each dollar you give will be matched by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis’s challenge grant. Thank you for helping WIN take advantage of this incredible opportunity.

Want your gift doubled by the Community Foundation? 

Our progress in reaching the goal for the Community Foundation grant (as of 10/20/2010):

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Got questions about the living wage at University of Memphis? Get them answered on October 26th

    A couple of months ago, I had the chance to talk with a University of Memphis worker who I'll call Lisa. Now, whenever I step on to campus, I think about her. About the work that she does. About how invisible she is to most people at the University, even while they depend on her labor to keep the place running.

    Each morning, Lisa arrives at work before 4:00 a.m. She and her co-workers make a long walk in the dark from the least expensive parking at the University to the buildings that they clean. Because Lisa makes minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - she has to choose the cheapest parking even though it means an unsafe, lengthy walk to work.

    Lisa knows what it's like to have more month than she has money. "With the money we make, it's impossible to make a living. I really do not want to work a second job, but as a single parent I have to. You have to juggle bills. It is really hard. Something has to change," Lisa says. Yet, because of the odd work schedule the University has for Lisa, she has not been able to find a second job that she can work while keeping her University job.

    But the point is that she shouldn't have to work more than one full-time job just to meet her most basic expenses. Hearing Lisa's story first hand brought home to me the importance of the new living wage campaign that Workers Interfaith Network and United Campus Workers are launching at the University. 

    I want you to have the opportunity to hear from workers first-hand too, so that you can ask your questions and hear what it's like for them to try to make ends meet on what the University pays them. That's why WIN, United Campus Workers, and the Progressive Student Alliance are sponsoring a community forum about the living wage campaign at the University on Tuesday, October 26th at 6:30 p.m. The forum will feature U. of M. workers who are paid poverty wages, students, and economist Dr. David Ciscel, author of "What is a Living Wage for Memphis: 2010 Edition."

     We'll talk about what conditions are currently like for workers, whether the University can afford a living wage (read my take here), what the current living wage rate is for workers in our city, and what it will take to win an agreement to pay a living wage from the University. If you have questions, this is your chance to get them answered! If you have a topic you want us to cover at the forum, leave it in the comments section, and we'll do our best to address it.

Can you join us at the October 26th forum? Sign up here

    The forum will be held in the University Center's Bluff Room. The UC is located off Walker Ave., just north of J.M. Smith Hall. Parking is available in the garage on Zach Curlin, or in the parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks on Southern. View a map of the campus with all buildings and parking.

    If you can't make it to the forum, but want to launch the campaign, sign our petition to U. of M. President Shirley Raines. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ground-breaking wage theft legislation introduced in Congress

Wednesday was an exciting day for those of us fighting wage theft in the trenches. After almost two years of organizing by folks like you, the Wage Theft Prevention and Community Partnerships Act was introduced in the House of Representatives.

The bill is exciting because it would establish a competitive grants program for community organizations like workers' centers and legal clinics to partner with the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). One thing that workers' centers like WIN's have learned in the fight against wage theft is that we have special knowledge about which companies and industries in our community are committing wage theft. We also have trusting relationships with low-wage workers. Too many times, the USDOL does not have either of these. That knowledge and those relationships can be a huge asset in reaching workers who are most likely to be victims of wage theft.

Plus, even with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis' increase in the number of Wage and Hour investigators who follow up on wage theft claims, there are still only 1,000 investigators to cover the entire country.  A landmark study by the National Employment Law Project finds that two out of three low-wage workers have experienced wage theft. 1,000 investigators is  clearly not enough to serve the two-thirds of workers whose wages are being stolen. Just like police in Memphis and throughout the country have become better equipped to stop crime because of community policing, community partnerships like the ones proposed by this legislation can reduce wage theft.

But this legislation will only be passed if we create a cacophany of voices calling for it in the halls of Congress. You can help by emailing your Representative today and urging him or her to co-sponsor the legislation. We're especially hopeful that if Congressman Cohen hears from enough constituents about this, that he will come on board.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does the tip you leave actually get to your waiter?

    Do you leave your waiter or waitress their tips on a credit card? If you do, they might not be getting all of them - or even any of them.

    On Friday, I was able to be part of a wonderfully high-spirited protest in New Orleans against Tony Moran's Restaurant. I was there speaking to the National Lawyers Guild about the importance of workers' centers and unions to protect workers' rights. We were protesting at Tony Moran's because of the restaurant's wage theft. When customers leave server's tips on their credit cards, the restaurant is taking 20% of the tip as a service fee, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)

   And the wage theft doesn't stop there, Labor Notes reports. The owner has two restaurants that are in the same building. Workers are given two employee identification numbers. When they are close to reaching overtime hours using one identification number, they are switched to the other number so the owner won't have to pay overtime.

     At WIN, we've seen that wage theft in the restaurant industry is all too common, both in the Memphis area, and across the country. Some restaurants don't give servers any of the tips that are left on a credit card. Some, like El Patron in Southaven, MS, haven't paid their wait staff the $2.13 an hour base wage that is required by federal law. 

So what can you do to reduce wage theft in Memphis restaurants?

1. Always tip your server in cash, even if you pay the rest of your bill by credit card. To be extra safe, hand the tip directly to the server instead of leaving it on the table, where a supervisor might pocket it.

2. Remember to be generous and fair when you tip. The law requires restaurants to pay servers the minimum wage if their tips and the $2.13 an hour base wage don't add up to $7.25 an hour for each shift. But plenty of places don't do this, or do it inconsistently.

3. When WIN sends you an action alert about wage theft, show up to picket with us, or send that email to the restaurant owner. What is most likely to stop wage theft in restaurants is owners knowing their customers aren't happy with the practice and will stop eating there if they continue to steal wages.

    Lots of you out there have worked in restaurants in the past or are working there now. What kinds of wage theft are you seeing? What's your advice for customers who want to do the right thing when they eat out?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Raised $23,000 to Stop Wage Theft and Work for Living Wages Through This Year's Faith and Labor Picnic

As you can see from the photo slideshow above, this year's Faith and Labor Picnic was a blast! It was the ultimate party with a purpose. You raised more than $23,000 to help Workers Interfaith Network fight wage theft and campaign for a living wage at the University of Memphis. At this year's Picnic, you:

  • Raised critically needed funds to support workers' rights. Despite the tough economy, you raised even more than last year. Scroll down to learn about the specific ways WIN will be putting your Picnic gifts to work.
  • Celebrated what you've accomplished as a member of WIN. You got the Shelby County Sheriff and District Attorney to agree to treat certain wage theft cases as criminal offenses, among many other victories.
  • Demonstrated the true meaning of Labor Day with other people of faith, workers, and allies who believe in justice in the workplace. This year, 125 of you signed living wage petitions to University of Memphis President Shirley Raines. Click here to sign our online petition.
  • Enjoyed great entertainment by Alicia Washington, Valerie June, Marcela Pinilla, and Danza Azteca.
  • Ate a lot of food! Approximately 100 of you volunteered at the Picnic by preparing and serving food, selling tickets, making homemade cookies, and helping with kid's activities like the dunk tank, Moon Bounce, and face painting. Thank you!
Here's how WIN will be putting your Faith and Labor Picnic gifts to work:
1) You'll campaign for a living wage with University of Memphis workers.
2) You will partner with workers to recover their stolen wages from employers.
3) You will advocate for new federal wage theft legislation to stop employers from taking advantage of workers.
4) You will train construction workers on how to prevent on-the-job injuries and deaths.

I look forward to seeing you next Labor Day! Want to make sure you get notified about all the plans for next year's Faith and Labor Picnic? Sign up for WIN's email alerts

Friday, August 27, 2010

UT Health Science Center Refuses to Allow Clergy, Laid Off Workers to Enter Administration Building

   In the eight years that I've been director of Workers Interfaith Network, I've been part of numerous clergy delegations that have attempted to talk to managers and owners about working conditions and problems in the workplaces. In a number of cases, we have managed to talk to a plant manager or similar person. I can think of only one occasion in which a company in a small town, which was notoriously unsafe and discriminatory in their practices, would not allow our delegation to even enter the building.     
   I certainly expected that when a delegation of clergy joined workers laid off from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) yesterday to talk about the layoffs, that we would be able to speak to someone from the Chancellor's Office. Instead, we were greeted by a security guard and a police officer (we must have looked like an intimidating group!) who would not allow us to enter the lobby because we did not have an appointment. When a representative of the United Campus Workers asked if security could call the Chancellor's office to let them know we were there, because he had already made multiple attempts to make an appointment, the security guard claimed he did not have the phone number of the Chancellor's office. I wonder how we would have contacted them if we had an appointment if he doesn't have the phone number? I guess I am naive, but I expected that a state institution would behave at least as well as the many union-busting private companies I have visited over the years.
   The refusal of UTHSC officials to return letters and calls from workers and the union, as well as their refusal to allow us to set foot in the lobby of a state building, are signs of much more serious concerns. Even though UTHSC has received over $30 million in stimulus money from the federal ARRA and state MOE funds, that money has not been used to save jobs. Thirty-three workers were laid off this month, including long-time employees like Michele Burrell, who has posted a you tube video outlining workers' concerns about the way that were laid off, severance, and recall rights. 
    Two of the laid-off workers I spoke with on Wednesday are single mothers who were making very modest salaries, leaving them totally unprepared for a layoff. Since workers did not get any advanced notice of the layoffs, not even one day, how could they have prepared? One of the women has a disabled son that she does not know how she will care for; the other asked where she could get health insurance after September 30th because there is no possible way she can afford COBRA. 
    The demographics of who was included in the layoffs is also of concern. While Chancellor Schwab is paid $550,000 a year by UT, many laid off workers were making less than $25,000 annually. When 18 of the laid off workers are African-American women, 10 are white women, and 5 are white men, you have to wonder if gender and racial discrimination could have been at work in decisions about who would be laid off. Because UTHSC has not disclosed what methods they used to decide on layoffs (such as seniority or performance reviews), there is no way to check for possible discrimination. 
   What do workers want?
1. UTHSC should use recovery money to stop additional layoffs.
2. Laid off workers should have recall rights for new positions that come open, and/or placement into currently open UTHSC positions.
3. Workers deserve severance pay that is equal to that of other laid off state of Tennessee workers. UTHSC workers received less than six weeks severance (with no notice of layoffs) while other state and higher education workers have received up to four months of salary and up to two years of tuition assistance. Because the current severance package only goes through September 30th, workers will not be eligible for any possible bonus money the state may give.
4. UTHSC should fully disclose how layoffs were conducted to verify there weren't irregularities or discrimination based on race, gender, or age.
    You can support laid off UTHSC workers by calling Chancellor Schwab's office at 901-448-4796. Urge him to use federal stimulus money to save workers' jobs, and call on him to meet with laid off workers to hear their concerns. You can also send an email on United Campus Workers' website.
   UT needs to know that the Memphis community wants stimulus funds to be used for their proper purpose: preventing layoffs in a time where it will be incredibly difficult for workers to find new jobs. 


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vote in the Faith and Labor Picnic Contest for the Chance to Win a Free Family Ticket!

It's week two in our contest for two free family tickets to the Faith and Labor Picnic, coming up in just two weeks on Labor Day! Six people responded to my invitation to post their best reason for coming to the Faith and Labor Picnic. Now, you can enter the contest for a free family ticket to the picnic (worth $30) by voting for your favorite reason.

How to enter the contest:

1) Read the six reasons below and decide which one gets your vote.

2) Post a comment with your vote and your full name. (For example: My vote is for reason #4, Rebekah Gienapp). If you are not on the WIN email list, please also post your email address so I can contact you if you win. You can choose to post your comment using the "anonymous" profile, but you must include your name to be entered in the contest.

3) One winner will be drawn at random from all those who vote. The other winner will be the person whose reason gets the most votes.

Reason #1
I love the picnic because of the way it brings together good-hearted folks of different faiths, colors and ages. Every year when I look out at the crowd, I feel I'm getting a glimpse of God's kingdom.

Reason #2

I think going to the picnic would be wonderful experience. I would meet and learn so much for regulars. I usually volunteer to help others but it will be a great experience. I'm very interested in helping other get the wages they need in order to support their families. I think having picnic will unite so many different backgrounds to a common goal.

Reason #3
The best reason to attend the picnic is to interact with others who have experienced discrimination in hiring, pay, and job loss. The more people that share their experiences, the more of a 'working force' we become.

Reason #4
Last chance to show off your white summer sandals.

Reason #5

This will be my eighth (8) year of having a freedom holiday, free from labor such as cooking for my family. They all know that on Labor Day nothing is being served at my house, I have attended every Faith and Labor Picnic since its inception. I encourage them to attend also, and most do attend each year. By doing so, they are supporting a very worthy organization, Workers Interfaith Network. The picnic is its most effective fundraiser each year. WIN is consistently working to improve the conditions in which many low wage workers have to endure in their struggle to provide for themselves and their families. I don't know of a more hardworking group of people than the committed Staff and Volunteers of Workers Interfaith Network.

What great fun my family and I always have at these family oriented picnics, there are activities for children, good food and fellowship, door prizes and even entertainment for the whole family. Don't pass us this opportnunity to serve other while you are being served. I encourage you to come see for yourself and leave the cooking to someone else.

Come out and support WIN, and you will be glad that you did.

Reason #6
It is a fun way to support WIN who helps those in need--"one of the least of these."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Contest: Win a free family ticket to the Faith and Labor Picnic

What's the best reason to attend WIN's Faith and Labor Picnic, coming up soon on Labor Day, September 6th at Trinity United Methodist Church in Midtown? Since this is our 8th picnic, we figure those of you that have been joining in for years know best what makes it a great event. So we're holding our first ever picnic contest to get your feedback.

We'll be giving away two family tickets to the Picnic. Here's how it will work:

1. In the comments section on this blog entry, tell us what you think is the best reason to attend the picnic by Monday, August 16th at 5:00 p.m. Providing a reason to attend the picnic will get you 5 entries in our contest for a free family ticket (worth $30). Please include your first and last name in the comment so we can follow up with you if you are the winner. Remember, the more creative your reason, the more likely you are to get votes from your fellow WIN supporters! If you need some ideas, check out my list of reasons from last year.

2. Next week I'll write a new blog post with all the reasons to attend the picnic that all of you have come up with. An email will be sent out to the WIN list, inviting people to vote on what they think is the best reason to attend the picnic. Each vote will get 1 entry into the contest for a free family ticket.

3. One family ticket will be awarded to the person who got the most votes for the best reason to attend the picnic. Another family ticket will be awarded at random from all the entries made by posting a reason or by voting for a reason.

And while you're thinking about the Picnic, why not become a sponsor? Our goal is to raise $4,640 from individual sponsors this year, and we're only $770 away from reaching that goal. Make a difference for Memphis workers all year round by sponsoring the picnic today. You can also buy tickets to the picnic on WIN's website.

If you'd like to volunteer the day of the picnic, we'll need lots of help setting up, serving food, running games, taking tickets, cleaning up and more. Please contact Picnic chairperson KC Warren if you would like to volunteer, or Picnic committee member Joanne Rhea if you are willing to bake homemade cookies for the picnic.

I look forward to hearing all of your great ideas about why the Picnic is not to be missed!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Living Wage Would Make Huge Difference to U. of Memphis Workers

      Can the University of Memphis afford to pay its workers a living wage? With state budget cuts, it's certainly a legitimate question. It's interesting how when low-wage workers, who need a raise the most, call for a living wage, people ask about the cost. But can the University really afford to pay Athletic Director R.C. Johnson $307,500 (which is even more than President Raines earns)? His pay is 21 times higher than what some janitorial workers at the University make, and I don't hear a lot of questions about his pay.

      I'm not saying that janitorial workers at the University and Director Johnson or President Raines should all be paid the same salary. But I do believe that the University has a moral obligation to make sure all its workers earn at least enough that they aren't forced to live in poverty. Or work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and therefore can rarely spend time with their children. Or have to apply for Food Stamps just to put groceries on the table. Until all workers at the University are paid a living wage, perks like company cars and entertainment budgets - only available to a handful of top-paid people - should be put on hold.

     Unlike some town-gown relationships, the University of Memphis shows real concern for the problems like poverty and crime that so many people in our city struggle with. One example of that concern is two living wage studies that the University of Memphis' Center for Research on Women produced in 1999 and in 2002.  These studies helped WIN determine the living wage rate for the City of Memphis and Shelby County living wage ordinances. Now the University has the opportunity to set an example for all employers in our community by paying a living wage to its own employees. You can help press the University to do this by signing WIN's petition to President Raines.

     The benefits of a living wage to workers are pretty obvious. Not having to worry about whether you can pay the rent, buy enough groceries, and get the school clothes your child needs is just one benefit. If you've had to work a second job to pay the bills, quitting it gives you time to spend with your children, become more involved in their education, or be active in the community.

     But there are significant benefits to paying a living wage for employers too. For example, when the San Francisco Airport began paying a living wage, turnover among security screeners dropped from 95 percent to just 19 percent. Less turnover means more experienced workers, and less time spent on recruitment and training. A study of the Los Angeles living wage ordinance found that absenteeism among workers went down after the living wage was implemented, boosting productivity.

    I'm glad that so much research demonstrates that living wage is good for both employers and employees. What's most important, is that businesses, including the University, recognize their moral obligation to their workers. The workers who make the University's success possible should be rewarded with wages that are at least enough to keep them out of poverty. If you agree that a hard day's work deserves a fair day's pay, please sign the petition to President Raines today.