Archive for the ‘Wage Theft’ Category

Tipping the Scales Against Workers

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Donald Trump built his presidential campaign on the claim that he would be a champion for working people, yet his administration finds one way after another to tip the scales in favor of employers. The latest example involves tips themselves.

In December the Labor Department, bowing to the wishes of the National Restaurant Association, proposed to rescind an Obama Administration rule that prohibited employers from pooling tips. The rule had been adopted to prevent restaurant owners from claiming a share of the gratuities.

While the DOL has claimed that the change would benefit back-of-house workers who don’t directly receive tips, groups such as Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United say that employers often grab a portion of tips when it is not permitted and that legalizing the practice will only encourage owners to take more.

It turns out that ROC United’s position is shared but some at DOL, but those views are being suppressed. Bloomberg has just reported that political officials at the department rejected an internal analysis concluding that workers could lose billions of dollars from tip pooling. DOL sources told Bloomberg that the officials ordered staffers to change their methodology to reach a different conclusion.

Anyone who takes an honest look at the restaurant industry is bound to conclude that employers will do their utmost to exploit tip pooling. After all, these are companies that already steal from their workers through violations of wage and hour rules concerning off-the-clock work, overtime, misclassification and the like.

Consider the large full-service chains such as Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Capital Grille and other brands), Brinker International (Chili’s and Maggiano’s), Bloomin’ Brands (Outback Steakhouse and others) and DineEquity (Applebee’s and IHOP). As shown in Violation Tracker, each one of these has had to pay fines to the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division; six times in the case of DineEquity.

The chains have also been targeted in private collective action lawsuits brought by groups of workers. In 2007 Darden agreed to pay $11 million to settle a group of suits alleging that the company improperly classified certain types of workers as exempt from overtime pay eligibility.

In 2014 Brinker International agreed to pay $56.5 million to settle a long-running lawsuit alleging that the company had routinely violated California rules about meal and rest breaks. In 2016 Bloomin’ Brands agreed to pay $3 million to settle allegations that workers at its Outback outlets were required to show up early to perform unpaid pre-shift prep work. DineEquity has faced similar litigation.

Why would anyone think that companies involved in such transgressions would pass up another opportunity to enrich themselves if DOL gives a green light to tip pooling?

Wage Reparations

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Donald Trump got a lot of mileage during his presidential campaign from criticizing the poor record of wage growth during the Obama era. Since taking office he has done nothing to directly address the issue. In fact, his administration’s attacks on labor rights have made it more difficult for workers to push for higher pay through unions.

Instead, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress came up with the cynical ploy of promoting their massive corporate tax giveaway as an indirect way of boosting paychecks. The right has always tried to lure labor with the promise of higher net pay that would come from reduced withholding schedules. Yet this time the claim was that companies would respond to reductions in their tax liabilities by boosting gross pay.

From the perspective of labor market dynamics, this made no sense whatsoever. There is no direct tie between corporate tax rates and wage levels. Most of the U.S. public seemed to understand this and expressed little enthusiasm for the tax bill.

Now, however, selected corporations are in effect colluding with Trump by announcing selective wage increases that they claim are inspired by the corporate tax reductions. Walmart is the latest and largest of the employers to play this game with plans to increase starting wages for its “associates” to the princely sum of $11 an hour. Some employees will be awarded one-time bonuses ranging from $200 (for those on the job for less than two years) to $1,000 for those hardy souls who have stuck it out for 20 years.

This plan, like the ones announced by the likes of AT&T and Wells Fargo, is far from a market response to lower taxes. These companies are no doubt using the increases to curry favor with the White House in the hope of better outcomes in their federal regulatory problems.

Then there’s the fact that these are increases that Walmart in particular had to make in response to previous wage hikes at its competitors. Even so, Walmart’s increases will leave many of its employees short of a living wage.

Another reason to doubt these moves are tax-inspired acts of generosity is that the companies involved each have a history not only of keeping wages down but of taking steps to deny workers the full pay to which they were entitled. In other words, all three have a history of wage theft.

Walmart, of course, was long the most notorious employer in this regard. It found myriad ways to get employees to work off the clock, thus violating the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In the late 2000s Walmart was fined $33 million by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and paid out hundreds of millions of dollars more to settle a slew of private collective-action lawsuits.

AT&T and its subsidiaries have paid out more than $80 million to settle about a dozen similar wage and hour and misclassification cases.  Wells Fargo and its subsidiaries have paid more than $120 million in at least 17 cases.

These settlements provided some necessary relief, but the amounts probably don’t begin to approximate the full extent to which the companies shortchanged their workers.

Consequently, whatever voluntary pay increases the companies are offering now can be seen as additional reparations for their past sins of wage theft.

If the management of Walmart really wanted to solve its compensation shortcomings once and for all, it would at long last recognize the right of its workers to form a union and bargain collectively.

Note: the litigation figures cited here come from data being collected for a forthcoming expansion of Violation Tracker.

Grand Theft Wage

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Several weeks ago, in one of his few legislative successes, President Trump signed a bill rescinding the Obama Administration’s executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The order, designed to promote better employment practices by companies doing business with the federal government, instructed procurement officials to consider the labor track record of contractors, which were required to disclose their recent violations.

Business groups, which had attacked the order as a form of blacklisting, have gotten their way, but it is still possible for a federal procurement officer to determine whether a bidder is a rogue employer. It’s simply a matter of plugging the company’s name into Violation Tracker, the free database on corporate crime and misconduct I have assembled with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

We’ve just announced the latest expansion of the database: 34,000 Fair Labor Standards Act cases brought since the beginning of 2010 by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department. The dataset, covering cases with back pay and penalties of $5,000 or more, represents the recovery of more than $1.2 billion by WHD investigators.

Many of the offending employers are smaller businesses, but wage theft is far from unknown among large corporations. The biggest cumulative amounts collected by the WHD since 2010 came from oilfield services company Halliburton, which in 2015 agreed to an $18 million settlement of alleged overtime violations, and CoreCivic (the new name of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America), which in 2014 agreed to an $8 million settlement. Also among the top ten are Walt Disney ($4.2 million) and Royal Dutch Shell ($2.6 million).

The wage and hour cases supplement existing Violation Tracker data in two other key areas that had been included in the executive order: workplace safety (OSHA cases) and employment discrimination (cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs). We are now in the process of obtaining data on the remaining category — unfair labor practice cases — from the National Labor Relations Board.

DOL administrative actions are not the only game in town when it comes to challenging wage theft, which a 2014 Economic Policy Institute report estimated could be costing U.S. workers as much as $50 billion a year. Some of the biggest recoveries come in lawsuits known as collective actions that are brought in federal court on behalf of groups of workers and often result in multi-million-dollar settlements. Unfortunately, there is no central information source on these settlements. The Corporate Research Project is in the process of piecing together the data from multiple sources and will add it to Violation Tracker later this year.

The issues covered by the Obama executive order are just a portion of what can be found in Violation Tracker. We now have 158,000 cases brought by 42 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The fines and settlement amounts in these cases total more than $320 billion.

Violation Tracker data is now current through late March of this year, but for some agencies there was not a lot of case information to collect for the first two months of the Trump Administration. For example, the Wage and Hour Division, which in recent years usually announced numerous case resolutions each month via press releases, has posted only a handful of such releases since Inauguration Day. There’s no indication that the work of the division has stopped, but it appears that the Trump appointees now running the Labor Department are not eager to publicize enforcement activities.

Labor Unenforcement

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.

There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.

Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.

This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.

A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.

Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.

Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.

There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.

In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.

The 2016 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

The two biggest corporate crime stories of 2016 were cases not just of technical lawbreaking but also remarkable chutzpah. It was bad enough, as first came to light in 2015, that Volkswagen for years installed “cheat devices” in many of its cars to give deceptively low readings on emissions testing.

Earlier this year it came out that the company continued to mislead U.S. regulators after they discovered the fraud. VW has agreed to pay out more than $15 billion in civil settlements but it is not yet clear what is going to happen in the ongoing criminal investigation.

Brazenness was also at the center of the revelation in August that employees at Wells Fargo, presumably under pressure from managers, created more than one million bogus accounts in order to generate fees from customers who had no idea what was going on. The story came out when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that the bank would pay $100 million to settle with the agency and another $85 million in related cases.

But that was just the beginning of the consequences for Wells. CEO John Stumpf was raked over the coals in House and Senate hearings, and he subsequently had to resign. Criminal charges remain a possibility.

The other biggest corporate scandal of the year involved drugmaker Mylan, which imposed steep price increases for its EpiPens, which deliver lifesaving treatment in severe allergy attacks. The increases had nothing to do with rising production costs and everything to do with boosting profits. The company’s CEO was also grilled by Congress, which however could do little about the price gouging.

Here are some of the other major cases of the year:

Toxic Securities. There is still fallout from the reckless behavior of the banks leading up to the 2008 financial meltdown. Goldman Sachs paid more than $5 billion to settle a case involving the packaging and sale of toxic securities, while Morgan Stanley paid $2.6 billion in a similar case.

Mortgage Fraud. Wells Fargo had to pay $1.2 billion to settle allegations that during the early 2000s it falsely certified that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance. Many of those loans later defaulted.

False Claims Act. Wyeth and Pfizer agreed to pay $784 million to resolve allegations that Wyeth (later acquired by Pfizer) knowingly reported to the government false and fraudulent prices on two of its proton pump inhibitor drugs.

Kickbacks. Olympus Corp. of the Americas, the largest U.S. distributor of endoscopes and related equipment, agreed to pay $623 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors and hospitals in the United States and Latin America.

Misuse of customer funds. Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank of America, agreed to pay $415 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that it misused customer cash to generate profits for the firm and failed to safeguard customer securities from the claims of its creditors.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Nishikawa Rubber Co. agreed to plead guilty and pay a $130 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix the prices of and rig the bids for automotive body sealing products installed in cars sold to U.S. consumers.

Accounting fraud. Monsanto agreed to pay an $80 million penalty and retain an independent compliance consultant to settle allegations that it violated accounting rules and misstated company earnings pertaining to its flagship product Roundup.

Consumer deception. Herbalife agreed to fully restructure its U.S. business operations and pay $200 million to compensate consumers to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that the company deceived customers into believing they could earn substantial money selling diet, nutritional supplement, and personal care products.

Discriminatory practices. To resolve a federal discrimination case, Toyota Motor Credit Corp. agreed to pay $21.9 million in restitution to thousands of African-American and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers who were charged higher interest rates than white borrowers for their auto loans, without regard to their creditworthiness.

Sale of contaminated products. B. Braun Medical Inc. agreed to pay $4.8 million in penalties and forfeiture and up to an additional $3 million in restitution to resolve its criminal liability for selling contaminated pre-filled saline flush syringes in 2007.

Pipeline spills. To resolve allegations relating to pipeline oil spills in Michigan and Illinois and 2010, Enbridge agreed to pay Clean Water Act civil penalties totaling $62 million and spend at least $110 million on a series of measures to prevent spills and improve operations across nearly 2,000 miles of its pipeline system in the Great Lakes region.

Mine safety. Donald Blankenship, former chief executive of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards in a case stemming from the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners.

Wage theft. A Labor Department investigation found that Restaurant Associates and a subcontractor operating Capitol Hill cafeterias violated the Service Contract Act by misclassifying employees and paying them for lower-wage work than they actually performed. The workers were awarded more than $1 million in back pay.

False advertising. For-profit DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that it misled prospective students in ads touting the success of graduates.

Trump University. Shortly after being elected president, Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle fraud allegations made by the New York State Attorney General and others concerning a real estate investment training course.

Remember: thousands of such cases can be found in the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First produce. Look for expanded coverage in 2017.

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.