Archive for July, 2016

Fighting Wage Theft in the Senate Cafeterias

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Trade deals tend to be the focus of many discussions these days about stagnant wages, but it’s important not to forget the role played by old-fashioned repressive management. Such a reminder just emerged in a case brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division involving lousy working conditions at the very heart of U.S. policymaking.

DOL found that Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor Personnel Plus have been violating the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act by improperly classifying foodservice workers in U.S. Senate cafeterias in order to pay them less than their proper wage. The employer was also found to be engaging in wage theft by requiring workers to begin their duties prior to scheduled starting times without compensation. DOL announced that hundreds of the workers will receive back pay in excess of $1 million.

Credit for the case belongs largely to the workers themselves, who for the past two years have been agitating about unfair working conditions with the help of Good Jobs Nation (which has no organizational relationship to my employer Good Jobs First).

In 2015 workers staged a series of strikes, prompting friendly senators (including Bernie Sanders) to put pressure on Restaurant Associates to agree to a modification of its contract requiring wage increases. Pay rates for job categories were boosted, but at the same time the company forced many workers into lower categories. The Washington Post reported on the underhanded practices back in January, citing as an example a cook who should have seen his pay jump to $17.45 an hour (from $12.30), but he was reclassified as a “food service worker” with a wage of $13.80.

Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of Compass Group, one of the giants of the international foodservice industry. The UK-based corporation has been involved in numerous other controversies about its labor practices. In 2014 Compass Group USA paid $5 million to settle a wage-and-hour class action case. Earlier this year, UNITE HERE filed unfair labor practice charges against a Compass unit called Eurest for its actions during an organizing drive by foodservice workers at Intel’s headquarters in California.

There are other blemishes on its record. In 2012 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that Compass Group USA would pay $18 million to settle allegations that it overcharged school lunch programs throughout the state. In 2015 Chartwells, a Compass company, paid $19.4 million to settle another school lunch case, this one in the District of Columbia in which the allegations included poor food quality as well as excessive costs.

Some member of the Senate are now calling for the termination of the Restaurant Associates contract. Deciding what should take its place is not easy. All of the other major foodservice companies have their own accountability challenges. And conditions were certainly not better before the Senate began contracting out the management of its cafeterias in 2008. It used to be known as the “last plantation” because of the poor treatment of workers.

At the very least, the Senate cafeteria workers need a strong union like that enjoyed by their counterparts at the House facilities. The reason they don’t is complicated and involves inter-union relationships. Good Jobs Nation deserves credit for helping bring about the DOL settlement, but a solid collective bargaining agreement would be even better.

Defending Disclosure

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

SEC2In 2012 proponents of financial deregulation managed to generate bipartisan support for a dubious piece of legislation that became the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. Among the provisions of the law was the requirement that the Securities and Exchange Commission review the provisions of Regulation S-K, which determines what publicly traded companies need to disclose about their finances and their operations.

Presumably, this process was meant to get the SEC to weaken its transparency rules, but the Commission seems to be approaching the issue in an even-handed manner. In April it issued a document called a Concept Release that reviewed the various issues and asked for comments from the public.

Quite a few progressive policy groups have responded with comments urging the SEC to tighten rules regarding the disclosure of foreign subsidiaries. In recent years, many corporations have been using a loophole in Regulation  S-K to avoid listing entities that are likely to be vehicles for engaging in large-scale tax dodging.

On the last day of the comment period, my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First and the Corporate Research Project submitted our own comments that support that position on foreign subsidiaries but also address several other disclosure issues. What follows are excerpts from those comments.

Subsidy Reporting. A key piece of information about a registrant’s finances has been missing from SEC filings, thus giving investors an incomplete picture of a company’s condition: the extent to which the firm is dependent on economic development incentives provided by state and local governments and other forms of financial assistance from the federal government.

It is estimated that companies receive a total of about $70 billion a year in state and local aid, while federal assistance is thought to total about $100 billion. Our Subsidy Tracker database contains information on more than half a million such awards with a total value of more than $250 billion.

For some companies (including their subsidiaries) the cumulative amount of such assistance is substantial. In Subsidy Tracker there are more than 60 firms that have each been awarded $500 million in assistance, and for more than half of those the amount exceeds $1 billion. The most heavily subsidized company, Boeing, has been awarded more than $14 billion. Other companies, including start-ups, may receive sums that are smaller but which account for a larger portion of their cash flow or assets. There are many cases in which a company’s total awards reach a level of materiality.

Investors should know to what extent a company is depending on subsidies — whether in the form of tax credits, tax abatements, cash grants, or low-cost loans. This is vital information for several reasons. First, many of the awards are contingent on performance requirements such as job creation and can be reduced or rescinded if the firm fails to meet its obligations. Second, investors currently face undisclosed political risk, since some state and local subsidy programs cause a significant fiscal burden and may be curtailed at times of budget stress.

We urge the SEC to use this review of Regulation S-K to correct the long-standing gap in financial disclosure relating to government assistance. Companies should be required to disclose both aggregate subsidy awards and breakdowns by type and jurisdiction.

Legal Proceedings. Like subsidies, corporate regulatory violations and related litigation have grown in size and significance. Violation Tracker, a database created by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, has collected data on more than 100,000 such cases since the beginning of 2010 with total penalties of about $270 billion. The database currently contains information on cases from 27 federal regulatory agencies and the Department of Justice.

Also as with subsidies, some corporations are significantly impacted by these penalties. In Violation Tracker there are 52 parent companies with aggregate penalties in excess of $500 million, including 26 with more than $1 billion. The most heavily penalized companies are Bank of America ($56 billion), BP ($36 billion) and JPMorgan Chase ($28 billion).

The Item 103 requirement that registrants report on material legal proceedings results in disclosure of the largest cases, but some companies fail to provide adequate details on other penalties that may not be in the billions but are still substantial. Since regulatory agencies and the Justice Department base their penalty determinations in part on a company’s past actions, companies omitting adequate data about their regulatory track record are denying investors information that may indicate a heightened risk for much larger penalties in the future.

At the very least, the Commission should do nothing to weaken the provisions of Item 103 and related provisions requiring reporting about regulatory matters and legal proceedings. It is also worth considering whether changes are needed in the Instruction 2 language allowing companies to omit cases with potential penalties that do not exceed ten percent of the firm’s current assets. Losses at or close to the ten percent level could have severe consequences for many companies and pose the kind of risk investors deserve to know about.

Current disclosures based on materiality should be expanded to also require registrants to indicate which of their cases involve repeat violations of specific regulations. Such recidivist behavior will be a matter of concern for many investors.

Subsidiaries. Good Jobs First joins with the numerous other organizations that are urging the Commission to strengthen rules regarding the disclosure of offshore subsidiaries that may be involved in risky international tax strategies.

We believe that better disclosure is necessary with regard to domestic subsidiaries as well. In the course of our work on the Subsidy Tracker and Violation Tracker databases, we have looked at hundreds of the Exhibit 21 subsidiary lists included in 10-K filings. We make extensive use of these lists in the parent-subsidiary matching system we developed to link the companies named in individual subsidy awards and violations to a universe of some 3,000 parent corporations. This enables us to display subsidy and penalty totals for the parent companies and thus provide our users, including investors, with what we think is valuable information about the finances and compliance records of these companies.

When looking at these Exhibit 21 lists we have seen a great deal of inconsistency. Using the Item 601(b)(21)(ii)  exception, some companies are listing few if any subsidiaries, whether domestic or foreign. We find it hard to believe that any large corporation has no subsidiary of significance. The omission of subsidiary names makes it more likely that we will miss an important linkage in our databases relating to a significant subsidy award or violation. It also means that investors doing their own analyses may be working with incomplete information.

In addition to making sure that all registrants provide complete subsidiary reporting, the Commission should mandate that the information is the Exhibit 21 lists be presented in a standardized format. Currently, some companies list all subsidiaries in alphabetical order, while others group them by country. Some companies list second-tier and other levels of subsidiaries under their immediate parents, while others place the various tiers in one alphabetical list or exclude the lower levels entirely. Whichever standardized format is mandated should also have to be made available in machine-readable form.

Employees. Another area of widespread inconsistency is in the reporting on employees. Numerous companies seem to be omitting this piece of information, and a larger number have abandoned the traditional practice of indicating how many of the employees are based in the United States and how many are at foreign operations. An even smaller number of firms maintain the once widespread practice of providing information on collective bargaining.

The size of a company’s workforce is information that investors deserve to know. Given the widespread discussion in the political arena about offshore outsourcing and the talk of compelling firms to bring jobs back to the United States, the foreign-domestic breakdown is of great importance to investors. They should also be told about the extent to which both types of employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

And given the growing controversy over employment practices and the potential for stricter regulations, companies should also be required to provide details on the composition of their labor force, including the number of workers who are part-timers, temps or independent contractors.

Racism in Corporate America

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

racismRecent events have brought increasing attention to the persistence of racism in American life. While policing and criminal justice are currently in the spotlight, there are many more institutions that continue to exhibit systemic bias and must be held accountable.

Among them is Corporate America, which usually says the right things but often harbors dirty secrets. For example, African-American motorists stopped by police for dubious reasons – sometimes with deadly consequences – may have already been victims of racism when they purchased the vehicle they are driving. During the past few years, several major auto financing companies have paid tens of millions of dollars to resolve accusations that they routinely charged higher interest rates to minority customers.

In 2013 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced that Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) would pay $80 million in consumer relief and an $18 million penalty to settle such a case involving more than 235,000 minority borrowers. In similar cases in 2015, American Honda Finance Corporation agreed to pay $24 million in restitution and Fifth Third Bank was required to pay $18 million.

Racial discrimination in commerce is not limited to auto loans. It’s well known that major mortgage lenders steered minority borrowers into predatory mortgages in the period leading up to the financial meltdown and that many of those customers ended up losing their homes. In 2011 Countrywide Financial (which by that time had been taken over by Bank of America) had to pay $335 million to resolve allegations of racial discrimination.  The following year, Wells Fargo paid $234 million and SunTrust $21 million in their own mortgage discrimination cases.

Since the beginning of 2010, ten additional banks and mortgage brokerage firms have settled racial discrimination cases brought by the CFPB and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Race accounted for nearly all of the high-penalty discrimination cases included in the recent expansion of Violation Tracker. There are also dozens of cases involving discrimination based on nationality, gender, age, disability, etc. Among the major corporations involved in such cases in recent years are McDonald’s, IBM, Carnival cruise lines, Continental Airlines (now part of United Continental) and Greyhound bus lines. These don’t cover workplace discrimination cases, which we are still collecting.

Along with matters explicitly involving racial bias, the CFPB has brought numerous cases against payday lenders and other predatory financial services firms whose unsavory practices disproportionately harm African-Americans and other minorities.

While corporate discrimination does not involve the life and death issues of unequal policing, it is another aspect of systemic racism that must be eradicated. 

 

Serial Corporate Offenders

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The vast majority of regulatory enforcement cases end with an agreement by the corporation to correct its behavior in the future. Monetary penalties are meant to reinforce the lesson and act as a further deterrent.

If only it worked that way. Most large companies are, in fact, repeat offenders. In the recently expanded Violation Tracker database, the 2,000 parent companies account for nearly 30,000 individual cases, an average of 15 each. And that’s only since the beginning of 2010.

Such recidivism is all the more troubling when a company has faced criminal rather than civil charges and been allowed to evade serious consequences through a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) or a non-prosecution agreement (NPA). The Justice Department uses these gimmicks to allow corporations to resolve criminal matters by paying a fine while avoiding a guilty plea. The theory is that this brush with the law will prompt the company to come into full compliance. If that does not happen, it faces the threat of a real prosecution.

Of the 80 parent companies in Violation Tracker that have signed a DPA or NPA, about half have subsequently had no other reported offenses. Maybe the Justice Department system does work — in some cases.

Yet the other half includes companies that continued to rack up numerous violations from agencies such as EPA and OSHA with seemingly no concern that this would jeopardize their agreement with DOJ. These serial offenders include some of the world’s largest banks, both those based in the United States and those doing substantial business here.

The track records of nine of these banks contain serious cases that were resolved following a DPA or NPA. In some instances, these subsequent matters involved behavior that completely pre-dated the signing of the agreement with DOJ, but not always.

Take Bank of America, which has the dubious distinction of being the most penalized corporation in Violation Tracker, with a total of $56 billion in fines and settlements. In 2010 it signed an NPA and paid $137 million to resolve civil and criminal charges of conspiring to rig bids in the municipal bond derivatives market. Yet in 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that BofA would pay a $20 million penalty and some $700 million in consumer relief to resolve allegations that it engage in abusive marketing of credit-card add-on products during a period that continued after 2010. The CFPB did not refer to the earlier bid rigging case and there was no indication that BofA’s NPA was a factor in how the credit-card case was handled.

Several banks have managed to follow one DPA or NPA with another. Deutsche Bank has been allowed to sign three such agreements: one in 2010 relating to fraudulent tax shelters, one in 2015 for manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate benchmark, and another that year by its Swiss subsidiary in a tax case related to undeclared accounts held by U.S. citizens.

In other cases, a DPA or NPA was followed by a guilty plea in another criminal matter. After signing an NPA in 2011 in a municipal bond case and a DPA in 2014 for its relationship to the Madoff Ponzi scheme, JPMorgan Chase went on to plead guilty on a foreign exchange market manipulation charge in 2015.

It seems that previous DPAs or NPAs mean little to subsequent cases unless the offense is exactly the same. In 2015, for instance, Justice rebuked UBS for violating its 2012 NPA relating to LIBOR manipulation and terminated the agreement, forcing the Swiss bank to enter a guilty plea.

These various outcomes seem to make little difference to the banks. They continue to break the law in one way or another while paying affordable penalties and being allowed to go on operating as usual. Life is good for career corporate criminals.