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.