Wage Theft is an Epidemic. Here's How we Can Fix it.

Wage theft is pretty common among minimum wage employers. Since many of these employers love to pay as little as possible, they will actively skimp on the wages of their workers, and a lot has to be done to make them pay. I'm sure we all know somebody who has been a victim of wage theft. For me it's my youngest sister, who worked housekeeping at a hotel. Fortunately for her and her co workers, they fought and won. 

Nadia Hewka and Michael Hollander's article for Talk Poverty discusses the impact of wage theft on both low income and undocumented workers. The article itself focuses on wage theft laws in Pennsylvania, which are fairly lax and offer a mere slap on the wrist to employers who get caught. New York is a bit stricter in penalty and enforcement. 

The solutions provided by Hewka and Hollander rely on pushing legislative bills not only for prevention of wage theft, but for other benefits like paid sick days. They stress the importance of working on a local level and pushing for municipal laws, as state and national ones can spend years floundering in office. One other thing we should do though, is hold employers accountable. Maybe a lot of the companies responsible will change their tune if enough people put the pressure on.

Although Javier*, who immigrated from Mexico with his family, routinely worked 50 to 60 hour weeks for four years in a Philadelphia restaurant’s kitchen, he was never paid properly. When Javier demanded all the unpaid wages and overtime that had accrued, his employer threatened him with immigration consequences and physical violence against him and his family. The employer also called Javier at home repeatedly to threaten him when he learned that Javier had contacted a lawyer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a civil legal aid provider. Fearing that the abusive employer would act on his threats, Javier and his family spent days without leaving their home.

Javier’s experience isn’t uncommon. Our civil legal aid attorneys have also represented a crew of cleaners who were locked in a restaurant overnight while they cleaned (and not paid overtime for the additional hours) and construction workers strung along for years with partial weekly payments, among others. We have even had to sue the same employers multiple times on behalf of different workers. And the practice is widespread. A report from Temple University’s Sheller Center found that in any given work week in the Philadelphia area, almost 130,000 workers will be paid less than minimum wage, over 100,000 will experience an overtime violation, and over 80,000 will be forced to work off-the-clock without pay.

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Blame US Drug Overdose Crisis on Socioeconomic Misery

5851768737_8b93a1359b_z.jpgIt's no surprise that the number of drug overdose deaths has gone up. While there are drug users in every socioeconomic bracket, the impoverished are the most likely to face substance abuse problems. Benjamin Spoer's opinion article in Al Jazeera America ties the rise in overdose deaths to poverty, and when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

Substance abuse can be a form of escapism, and when you feel you have nothing to live for you escape. This is a crushing reality for many people who work minimum wage jobs. You give yourself to employers through hours of high-stress labor. For many people there's the personal sacrifices of family time, and even a healthy sleep schedule for those working 2-3 of these jobs, all to simply make ends meet. For some people it's appealing to take what little is left over, and invest in some substance or another. It's an escape from a grueling reality that leaves people in it feeling burnt out and hopeless.

Spoer's solution to this crisis is to fight against socioeconomic inequality and have a universal basic income. Make it easier for people to take care of themselves and their families, and give them the flexibility to work towards pursuing their real professional interests. It will take a culture shift to truly implement this solution, but in the long run it gets to the root of many of our poverty-tied problems. As an example, Spoer discusses the height of the AIDS epidemic, and how stigma-induced despair led to more deaths due to patients not seeking out much-needed care. Instead many coped through engaging in high risk behaviors that spread the virus. 

In ending inequity and stigma, we can build a stronger, better society. Our current system is broken and people are dying because of it. Let's not just continue treating symptoms and get to the root of the matter.

(Photo credit: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos, licensed under creative commons.)

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented drug-overdose crisis. Roughly 120 people die of a drug overdose everyday. Among white Americans ages 25 to 34 the overdose death rate in 2014 was five times its 1999 level, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The number of people now dying from drug overdose is comparable to the number dying annually from AIDS during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-90s,” Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall wrote on Jan. 26. The comparison puts the current drug-overdose epidemic in perspective, but the more important parallel here is that both crises were caused, at least in part, by inequality and the deprivation and despair that inequality creates.

Inequality became understood as a public health problem with the introduction in 1995 of the Fundamental Causes approach, which maintains that access to economic and social resources have a huge influence on health. Moreover, while the immediate causes of health disparities may vary, social inequalities such as poverty, discrimination and prejudice will always have a negative effect on health through one mechanism or another.

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How Wal Mart Keeps an Eye on its Massive Workforce

8058208410_c51fa604ff_z.jpgDid you know Wal Mart hired the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and Lockheed Martin to spy on its workers? It's true! Wal Mart has hired these organizations to spy on workers for union-busting purposes. Your tax dollars have been used to protect the Walton family's heinous employment practices so they can fatten their corporate welfare checks.

Susan Berfield's article for Bloomberg Business was published back in November 2015, but has been making round again with the announcement that Wal Mart is closing 154 stores in the US. While they're claiming to only be closing smaller stores to focus on their super centers, it's been speculated that this action may also be in retaliation to pressure from employees and supporters to treat their workers better. It's happened before.

It's also noted in the article that there's been a long history of corporations spying on their employees to prevent worker organization, today there's more sophisticated tools to do so. Either way, it's wrong of Wal Mart to squander government resources solely for the purpose of protecting their own interests. Companies as big as Wal mart can afford to pay their workers a living wage, provide full benefits, and give their employees stable schedules. There's no excuse for how they treat their workers!

Photo credit: Neon Tommy, licensed under Creative Commons

In the autumn of 2012, when Walmart first heard about the possibility of a strike on Black Friday, executives mobilized with the efficiency that had built a retail empire. Walmart has a system for almost everything: When there’s an emergency or a big event, it creates a Delta team. The one formed that September included representatives from global security, labor relations, and media relations. For Walmart, the stakes were enormous. The billions in sales typical of a Walmart Black Friday were threatened. The company’s public image, especially in big cities where its power and size were controversial, could be harmed. But more than all that: Any attempt to organize its 1 million hourly workers at its more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. was an existential danger. Operating free of unions was as essential to Walmart’s business as its rock-bottom prices.

OUR Walmart, a group of employees backed and funded by a union, was asking for more full-time jobs with higher wages and predictable schedules. Officially they called themselves the Organization United for Respect at Walmart. Walmart publicly dismissed OUR Walmart as the insignificant creation of the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union. “This is just another union publicity stunt, and the numbers they are talking about are grossly exaggerated,” David Tovar, a spokesman, said on CBS Evening News that November.

Internally, however, Walmart considered the group enough of a threat that it hired an intelligence-gathering service from Lockheed Martin, contacted the FBI, staffed up its labor hotline, ranked stores by labor activity, and kept eyes on employees (and activists) prominent in the group. During that time, about 100 workers were actively involved in recruiting for OUR Walmart, but employees (or associates, as they’re called at Walmart) across the company were watched; the briefest conversations were reported to the “home office,” as Walmart calls its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

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Young People are Poorer, Jobless, and Believe that the American Dream is Dead

Young people have been hit hard with economic inequality. With their demographic having a higher than average unemployment rate, student loans, and declining social mobility many have felt hopeless and disenchanted. For those who could remember how things were before 9/11 it's especially disenchanting. After a childhood of promise, being told that if you stayed in school, said no to drugs, and volunteered your time you would be on the path to a great future. Yet, those futures stagnated. 

This Vice article by Liz Fields explores a recent State of the Millenial report by Generation Opportunity. Oddly enough, Generation Opportunity is a Koch-backed conservative/libertarian organization. The Kochs and their ilk are the ones responsible for the fact that so many millenials and post-millenials have declared the American Dream dread. 

Yet despite the dismal election turnout numbers for millenials, most likely from off-year election stats, younger people have been crucial in the effort to change things. Many of the fast food organizers in Fight for 15 are young people. Younger people have had a major presence in a number of rallies ranging from labor rights to fighting climate change. For an election year as crucial as this one it's likely young voters will be coming out in droves. Their future depends on it.

Young Americans are facing higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and student loan debt than the two generations before them, and their predicament is fueling the view that the American Dream is bankrupt, according to the authors of a new State of the Millennial Report.

Generation Opportunity, a conservative/libertarian advocacy group primarily funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust, issued its annual state report card for the millennial generation ahead of President Barack Obama's final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, in which he is expected to tout his administration's support of students and its record in helping to reduce education debt.

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New York's Governor Wants to Force Homeless Indoors, but it's Not a Good Thing

23474179340_9b31f1e2f9_z.jpgIt finally feels like winter, which means it's been cold. State Governor Andrew Cuomo has passed an order that any homeless person found by a state official is to be taken to shelter for the night. While we can hail this as a thoughtful decision, sheltering people in need from the elements, there is more that could be done. 

Bryce Covert's article for Think Progress brings up how simply sheltering the homeless at night is not enough. It's treatment of a symptom, and will push shelters beyond their limits to comply with the executive order. People may be sheltered at night, but inclement weather strikes during the day that can be just as harmful. There is also the matter of the fact that it doesn't treat the overall issue of homelessness.

To truly treat the issue of homelessness, there should be more permanent solutions. More shelter needs to be available. The state of Utah is providing permanent shelter to the homeless, and it's actually saving the state money! Austin, Texas is utilizing the tiny house movement as a means to give homeless people permanent shelter.

Moving from a "shelter first" to a "housing first" approach could do wonders for those who are homeless. Permanent shelter for many is the first step to getting one's life back in order, and would be much more compassionate than simply pushing people into overcrowded shelters. Those shelters are doing their best, but will be stretching their boundaries to accommodate everybody.  

(Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, licensed under Creative Commons)

On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced an executive order that will require all local officials to bring homeless people inside when the temperatures dip below freezing, even against their will. It also requires shelters to extend their hours whenever there is dangerous inclement weather.

The cold can be deadly for someone outside without shelter, even at temperatures above freezing. “It’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s about helping one another and basic human decency,” Cuomo told NY1 in describing the new policy. He also told WCBS radio, “I’m not going to argue an individual’s right to freeze to death.”

But Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, doesn’t see it as compassion. She sees it as a misdirection from the steps the state should be taking to help its homeless population of more than 88,000 people.

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Why Every Student Will NOT Succeed With the New Education Law

No Child Left Behind is no more! This is great news for educations, as it gives States and schools more power in determining how children should be educated. Hopes are that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will help create more opportunities for students and schools to grow. 

It isn't a perfect bill though. While nothing is perfect, ESSA does still turn to standardized testing (albeit on a smaller scale) to determine how schools are doing. Teaching the test as an approach is going the way of the dinosaur, opening up for curricula that focus on the learning process. 

Kevin Kumashiro's article for The Progressive discusses where ESSA hurts education more than helps. Funding will continue to go to private, religious, and charter schools, allowing these schools to continue siphoning education tax dollars from public schools. Teacher training will be more lax, which has the potential to reduce the quality of education in public schools. Possibly the biggest is that there's less room for families to advocate for their children. Tests that students could at one time sit out of in protest will need to be taken by 95% of the student body or schools could risk losing Title I funding.

ESSA is a step forward, and it will improve our education system. There is still room for improvement, and fortunately the time period between reauthorizations has been shortened, allowing for change to come quicker when needed. What are your thoughts on ESSA? Do you think it's going to help our education by leaps and bounds? Or do you feel it won't do enough?

Last week, after a seven-year delay, Congress overwhelmingly voted, and the president signed, to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dubbed No Child Left Behind in 2002, and now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  This new law fixes some problems but creates others, especially for children who struggle the most.

The new law ends the NCLB requirement that states look almost exclusively at test scores to determine whether and how to reward or sanction schools, and also ends the Race To The Top requirement that states use tests that are linked to the Common Core State Standards in order to evaluate and reward or punish not only students and schools, but also teachers.  This is good news, because the research clearly shows how an obsession with raising test scores leads to “teaching to the test,” narrowing and dumbing-down what we teach, especially for struggling students who are in most need of a richer and more rigorous curriculum.  Assessment experts have long argued that using test scores for such decision making lacks validity and reliability, and we should stop doing so.

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Are Uber Drivers Figuring Out a Way to Fight Back?

5359658176_89943bb234_z.jpgWhile Rochester currently does now allow ride sharing services, we do have "sharing economy" brands present in the city. Airbnb comes to mind, with a number of residents renting out extra rooms or guest houses to travelers who want an alternative to the hotel/motel experience. 

Many sharing economy brands laud themselves as a fun, friendly, affordable alternative to traditional services. There is a certain warmth to staying in someone's home that you can't get from a hotel, or getting a ride from a friendly stranger as opposed to a traditional taxi service.  We also have hopes that such traditional services step up their game to improve their own services in the "American free market". There is a darker side to the share economy though. Many people who participate as service providers find that the flexibility of their services is at a cost. Companies like Uber state that their drivers are independent contractors, who don't receive benefits, or have a choice in negotiating pay for their services. For many drivers  find themselves making less than minimum wage after Uber's cut, fees, fuel costs, and vehicle maintenance expenses are included.

Steven Hill's post for Common Dreams bring up how some drivers are fighting back. Uber's PR would make you believe things are rosy, but there's a high turnover for drivers, many lasting less than a year. A number of them scoff at the idea of being called "partners" when they have no say in company operations.  

The ideas and services of the "sharing economy" can revolutionize how certain services are provided, and companies capitalizing on this model are making big money. Uber argues that classifying their drivers as employees would take away the flexibility that makes working for them appealing, but is the cost worth that flexibility? Maybe it's time Uber revolutionizes employment models so they can fairly compensate their drivers. 

(Photo by Kristian Thogersen, licensed under Creative Commons)

The behemoth ride-sharing service Uber has jolted city after city like a mighty earthquake. It has gained a momentum that seems almost unstoppable. Some say it portends the future of the U.S. economy. At the least, taxi companies and their antiquated medallion system are being crushed.

And yet Uber may not be as invincible as it seems. As CEO Travis Kalanick fully knows, Uber’s success or failure will hinge on one major “input” into its business: its drivers (at least until driverless cars come online, which, depending on who you talk to, is either just around the corner or will never be perfected enough to clear the regulatory and liability hurdles for everyday use. I lean toward the latter view.) Without sufficient numbers of drivers, Uber’s $51 billion valuation will head south. Any smart investor should be asking, “How does Mr. Kalanick treat his drivers?”

Uber is fond of calling drivers “partners,” yet it doesn’t treat them like that. Instead, it treats them like—in the words of one driver who I interviewed—“gum on the bottom of their shoe.” Time and again, Mr. Kalanick’s self-interest has clashed with that of his driver-partners. As the history of taxis shows, drivers are better off when the number of cars on the road is limited to some degree—fewer cars keep demand as well as wages up. But Mr. Kalanick is flooding the streets with Uber cars, creating a large “reserve driver pool,” not only to reduce customer wait times but also so he can swamp the competition and grab market share.

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Here's What it's Like to Work at Planned Parenthood

8887306220_8c8ed76011_z.jpgPlanned Parenthood has been under attack for decades. Last week's shooting is the most recent in a history of violence against the organization and its employees, a battle that has grown more tumultuous ever since the Center for Medical Progress released heavily doctored videos with the purpose of defaming the organization. 

Kevin Drum's article for Mother Jones shares some tweets recently made by former Planned Parenthood employee Bryn Greenwood. Greenwood shared a series on incidents that happened at the clinic she worked at at the hands of "pro-lifers". This includes arson attempts during clinic hours which have required evacuation. Mind you, her clinic didn't even offer abortion services. The incidents she shares also happened nearly twenty years ago, showing just how long the war on reproductive rights has been going on. 

Such behavior is uncalled for and should be classified as terrorism. This isn't just a group of people peacefully assembling to voice their concerns, these are people who resort to violence and harassment as means to get their message across. There is nothing pro-life about their tactics. Planned Parenthood as an organization has been vital in providing healthcare to to underserved and disadvantaged populations. It's important to stand up and support reproductive healthcare. 

Photo credit: Kenny Louie, licensed under Creative Commons)

Last night, Bryn Greenwood, who worked for Planned Parenthood in the late 90s,tweeted about her experience:

I worked at a #PlannedParenthood clinic in Kansas for 3 years. My coworkers & I were subjected to the following acts of terrorism:

  • Gasoline was poured under our back door & ignited 4 times. Twice while the clinic was occupied, causing patients to be evacuated.
  • Butyric acid (used as a stink bomb) was poured under our doors & into ventilation system so many times I lost count. Clinic evacuated.
  • 2 cherry bombs were left on our doorstep after hours, causing damage & clinic closure. Imagine what it's like going to work after that.

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The Devious New Conservative Plan to Turn LGBT People Against Each Other


The easiest way to create a continuation of oppression is to create infighting within an oppressed group, which is exactly what the "Drop the T" petition is pushing for. For those who haven't heard, there's a Change.org petition calling for major LGBT organizations to exclude transgender rights in their efforts. 

Zack Ford's article for Think Progress gives ample detail on how social conservatives are applauding the petition, as well as detailed deconstructions against the petition's arguments either in the article itself or in the links provided. The ever-popular "bathroom argument" is used, citing that transwomen are merely sexual predators thirsting to assault hapless women in public restrooms. There's also the claiming of victimhood by primarily white, cisgender activists when transpeople speak out on inclusion, or the historical inaccuracy of the film Stonewall.

Infighting among disadvantaged groups is a common and popular tactic to continue oppression. Look some of the infighting we see with some people in poverty. Whether it's working class people who have just enough to eke out a living complaining about people on public assistance, or white people in poverty touting respectability politics against black neighbors. Or in feminism when you have people who fight for women's rights, but exclude trans women, reducing womanhood to a set of genitals regardless of the argument that women are so much more than that. 

Unity is the best way to fight for the rights of all socially oppressed people. When we work together, we become stronger. Throwing others under the bus out of fear our causes won't be taken seriously just continues the cycle of oppression. If we stand together our added power will create a better world for everyone. Look at our local Fight for $15 movement, and how our rallies include a number of different groups, all who recognize that working together benefits everybody.

 A new Change.org petition seeks to capitalize on the defeat of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance — spurred by fearmongering about transgender women — by driving a new wedge between people who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual and those who identify as transgender. The petition calls on the top LGBT rights organizations to “Drop the T,” i.e. abandon support for transgender rights entirely.

Anti-LGBT conservatives are now actively highlighting the petition to support their anti-transgender positions. The Federalist, a publication that attacks transgender people as part of its editorial policy and is generally anti-LGBT, interviewed the person who claims to have started the petition, but kept his identity anonymous “out of fear of retaliation from the trans movement.” The Heritage Foundation’s chief opponent of LGBT equality, Ryan T. Anderson, similarly promoted the interview, further demonstrating the anti-LGBT motives behind the petition.

GLAAD, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), three of the targets of the petition, have responded, rejecting its message outright. HRC condemned it as “unequivocally wrong,” pointing out that “the bullies at school aren’t just harassing the gay kids, they’re harassing the transgender kids.”

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Collective Victory Declared as Obama Takes Small Step to "Ban the Box"

14066879786_d7ab3b4725_z.jpgAnyone who has ever applied for a job has noticed the part on the application where you have to notify whether or not you have been convicted of a felony or have gone to prison. Did you know that this seemingly innocuous question is a tool used for job discrimination, even if the disclaimer says checking off 'yes' will not bar you from employment? 

It's another sign of how broken our justice system is. Rather than reforming the incarcerated, our society ostracizes them; from a for profit prison system that relies on the incarceration of nonviolent offenders, to the fact that many formerly incarcerated are unable to find work, or become underemployed. Not to mention the countless forms of abuse the incarcerated are likely to face while in the prison industrial complex including solitary confinement, sexual abuse, and shackled birth for those who entered prison while pregnant (all considered human rights abuses). 

Sarah Lazare's article for Common Dreams brings up one small victory. Obama has told some federal employers to remove the incarceration/felony question from their application forms. This does not apply to federal contract jobs, or employment in general, but it's a small victory that can help those formerly incarcerated to get back on their feet. 

Last year Rochester 'banned the box', have you noticed any changes? For any of our readers who were formerly incarcerated, has it helped you in any way? Do you work with someone who was helped by this law? Please share your stories in the comments. 

(Photo credit: Flazingo Photos)

Following years of organizing by formerly-incarcerated people and their families, President Barack Obama announced Monday that, henceforth, he will instruct some federal employers to "ban the box"—or delay inquiries into a job applicant's incarceration history to curb discrimination and stigma.

The proclamation was embraced by rights campaigners as a meaningful step towards eroding system-wide prejudice against the formerly incarcerated, but short of the deep change that is needed.

Obama announced the initiative, as well as a number of other small actions to promote "reintegration for the formerly incarcerated," at an address delivered late Monday afternoon in Newark, New Jersey.

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