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Workers Can ‘Don and Doff’ Off the Clock, Says Court

9:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Bill Jacobus / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

For workers in dangerous industries, safety should be non-negotiable. But the Supreme Court may have just given employers a little more leeway to put critical protections for workers on the table when bargaining over labor contracts.

In a unanimous decision issued last month in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of steelworkers who argued that they should be compensated for the time they spend suiting up before and after their workdays, or “donning and doffing” protective gear including hard hats and safety glasses. Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana had sought compensation for what they believed were unpaid overtime wages, earned during their time spent changing into and out of their work clothes, which they argued was not properly clocked.

But the justices ultimately ruled that the steel company’s labor contract did not require the company to count the “donning and doffing” of workers’ clothes as paid overtime labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that the workers will lose their claim to back pay for the time spent putting on and taking off their gear.

The Sandifer ruling is limited from a legal standpoint, as it applies only to section 203(o), an obscure provision of the FLSA governing wage negotiations in collectively-bargained union contracts. According to an analysis in legal news outlet SCOTUS Blog, section 203(o), a 1949 amendment to the FLSA, “allows collective-bargaining agreements to exclude time spent ‘changing clothes’ from the work time subject to the statute.”  Read the rest of this entry →

A New Day, A New Danger: Temporary Workers Face Safety Hazards at Work

3:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Representatives from the advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative are taking OSHA to task for historically failing to protect temporary low-wage workers. (Chicago Workers’ Collaborative)

Originally published at In These Times

Rosa Ramirez, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother in Illinois, knew something was odd about the plastics factory where her temporary-labor agency had sent her. “From the minute one walks into that factory, one is hit by this incredible odor of [chemical] thinner … It just goes right through you,” she recalled through an interpreter in an interview with Working In These Times.

But soon, the noxious smell was the least of her concerns. While making plastic molds on her first—and last—day in April, Ramirez suffered a searingly painful burn on her hand. When she tried to report the injury to her temp-work agency, Staffing Network, she says dispatchers laughed at her and called the wound minor, pressuring her to drop the issue.

Looking back now, she remembers seeing several other people at the plastics factory with burns on their arms and hands. But as Ramirez points out, many temporary workers don’t report injuries to avoid potential employer retaliation. “[We're] very afraid of saying anything for fear of losing our jobs,” she says, who notes that she hasn’t been called back to work by Staffing Network since she, as she puts it, “stood up for [her] rights.”

Temporary workers, or “temps,” often go into work every day without even knowing what their job will entail, let alone what safety precautions they should take. These “contingent laborers” form a growing share of the workforce that is increasingly anonymous, dispersed, disorganized and, sometimes, in dire danger.

Temps occupy nearly every sector today, including day-labor builders, office staffers and food-processing workers. They may be stepping in as you vacation this holiday season, running Big Box retail warehouses on Black Friday or fulfilling your gift mail-order. The one thing all these positions all have in common, though, is their high “cost-efficiency.” This labor pool is usually indirectly hired by companies through subcontractors, allowing the company to generally avoid dealing with contracts, pensions, unions or organizing by workers—and to have an additional buffer against liability when workers fall at a construction site or faint from chemical fumes. And the temps who fill these roles–who comprise an estimated 2.8 percent or more of the workforce—are disproportionately female and of color, further reinforcing the systemic gender and racial inequalities present in the American job market.

According to the worker advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC), of which Ramirez is now a member, the group’s temp members earn just $11,000 per year on average and “labor for minimum wages during short periods of time without any benefits such as sick days, holidays, vacations, or health insurance.” Whether they’re just trying to make ends meet this month or have become long-term “permatemps,” they form part of a seldom-regarded workforce that provides contracted manpower and logistics services for some of the largest and most prominent commercial brands, such as Wal-Mart and Nike. Read the rest of this entry →

Toxic Train Wreck Exposes Weakness in Federal Chemical Policy

11:21 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The August 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, caused by a release of flammable vapor, was one of several recent accidents in an industry with little to no government oversight. (D.H. Parks / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In late November, while other parts of New Jersey were recovering from the superstorm, the quiet town of Paulsboro was blindsided by a very unnatural disaster. A train derailed while crossing a local bridge, sending freight cars tumbling into the water below and releasing a toxic swirl of the flammable gas known as vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastics. In the following days, chaos ensued as residents hurriedly evacuated. Authorities struggled to manage the emergency respons, leaving people confused and frustrated by a lack of official communicationabout hazards.

Though the derailment came as a shock to residents, this was an accident waiting to happen, environmental advocates say. Paulsboro is just one of the latest in a spate of recent disasters(including others involving vinyl chloride) in industries that handle massive amounts of toxins with minimal oversight.

At a recent community meeting about the aftermath of the incident, residents expressed exasperation at the government’s disaster-response team, accusing officials of keeping them in the dark about toxic risks, reports the South Jersey Times:

“How much is all of our lives worth to you?” Michael Hamilton, a Pine Street resident, asked. “What if somewhere down the line we develop cancer? Who is responsible, and when will you take responsibility?”

Community activists and officials are seeking accountability for the chemical fallout as well. There are immediate concerns—that residents were not adequately informed about the exposure risks, or that in the initial emergency response, workers may not have received appropriate protective gear. Read the rest of this entry →

In Anti-Government Politics, “Time-Out” on Regulation versus Shortened Lives

5:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

Seizing upon a reliable “job creation” talking point, conservatives have stoked their war against “big government” by trying to freeze federal actions to protect the public.

The proposed “Regulatory Time-Out Act,” which would impose a one-year moratorium on “significant” new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers—in other words, policies that capitalists call “job killers.”

According to the champion of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, “significant” rules are those “costing more than $100 million per year,” and those projected to “have an adverse impact on jobs, the economy, or our international competitiveness.” The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people’s health and safety.

This particular bill may not make it through Congress, but it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality on the Hill by offering a convenient tool for undermining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—that clean-air promoting, worker-protecting, “job killing organization of America,” which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has promised to shutter once and for all if elected.

Zeroing in on a textbook example of regulatory evil-doing, the measure seems to aim directly at a planned EPA regulation that would reduce emissions from boilers. According to a federal analysis, the pending boiler MACT rule would target tens of thousands of boilers at in various facilities including refineries, chemical plants, universities and commercial buildings, along with dozens of solid waste incinerators. The rule would reduce public exposure to mercury, soot and other toxics linked to cancer, child developmental problems, and premature death. Read the rest of this entry →