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Labor Report

Commerce Secretary Doesn’t “Understand” Why Locked Out, Unpaid Federal Workers Need Food Banks

With thousands of furloughed and unpaid federal workers lining up at emergency food markets in Philadelphia and across the nation as a result of the government shutdown, and with many of the 800,000 affected employees and contractors missing their second bi-weekly paycheck on Jan. 25, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he doesn’t really know why the workers are so stressed.

“I know they are and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross told a CNBC interviewer on Jan. 24 when asked about the growing number of federal workers who are seeking charity relief as the shutdown begins its second month.

For many years, Ross was identified by Forbes as one of the 400 richest Americans with several billion dollars in assets. Nonetheless, Ross reportedly complained to the publication that their estimate of his worth was too low. Yet, Ross reported less than $700 million in assets on financial disclosure forms he filed in late 2016 upon his nomination to Trump’s cabinet. Forbes concluded that Ross had been lying about his true worth for more than a decade.

Ross, 82, a career investment banker known as the “King of Bankruptcy,” made a fortune buying distressed companies – particularly those in manufacturing industries – reorganizing them and selling them for profit. As a representative for investors in Trump’s failing casinos in the 1980s, he helped formulate the deal that enabled the future president to maintain control over the casinos.

In his CNBC interview earlier this week, he said struggling federal employees should simply borrow money from banks using their future earnings as collateral, although those employees do not know when their next paychecks will come.

“The obligations that they would undertake, say, borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are in effect federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it,” Ross said.

The shutdown reached its 35th day on Friday and is the longest in American history, surpassing the 21-day shutdown of 1995-96.

In the face of widespread criticism, Ross appeared to walk back some of his earlier comments while doubling-down on others in a second interview on Jan. 24 with Bloomberg.

“We’re aware, painfully aware, that there are hardships inflicted on the individual workers,” Ross said. “All I was trying to do was make sure that they are aware that there are possible other things that can help somewhat mitigate their problems.”

Earlier in the week, Gov. Tom Wolf provided an update on the impact of the federal shutdown. He said that state agencies are working closely with local officials and organizations that rely on federal funding, as well as affected workers. The state may allocate state funds temporarily to help organizations and encourages businesses and creditors to “show compassion for federal employees that are not being paid,” the governor said.

The state’s efforts span numerous departments including Human Services, Health, Labor and Industry, Transportation, Conservation and Natural Resources, Community and Economic Development, and Environmental Protection, along with the PA Emergency Management Agency and the Office of Administration.

Unions, Individual Workers Taking Action in Protest of Shutdown

As federal workers continue to feel the tightening grip of financial pressure, they have expanded their actions collectively and as individuals in response to the government shutdown.

Shouting “No more food banks, we need paychecks,” hundreds of furloughed federal workers and contractors demonstrated at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington on Feb. 23.

About a half-dozen federal workers’ unions organized the Occupy Hart protest, which included a 33-minute period of silence representing the 33rd day of the shutdown, according to the local CBS affiliate, WUSA. A dozen union leaders were arrested for staging a sit-in protest outside the office of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Two days later, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO organized a “Rally to End the Shutdown” at Philadelphia International Airport in solidarity with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 333, which represents TSA agents at the airport.

Meanwhile, the leader of the National Treasury Employees Union – which represents about 150,000 workers at 33 federal agencies – said he expects absences to surge among Internal Revenue Service employees, “some in coordinated protest, others out of financial necessity,” the Washington Post reported.

“U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors have begun to call in sick, Transportation Security Administration sickouts at airports have been rising, and federal law enforcement agencies say the shutdown is increasing stress among agents and affecting investigation,” the Post wrote.

Los Angeles Teachers Win Concessions, Return to Work

The 30,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles declared victory on Jan. 23 as 81 percent of voting members elected to ratify a collective bargaining agreement to settle a six-day strike that “reshaped the future of public education in Los Angeles,” according to the union.

Almost 25,000 votes were cast on the package that includes a six percent salary increase with no healthcare givebacks; more nurses, counselors, librarians, and mental health professionals in schools; lower class sizes; and reduced standardized testing. The agreement followed a 21-hour bargaining session.

According to the Associated Press, the district administration “maintained (throughout negotiations) that the union’s demands could bankrupt the school system, which is projecting a half-billion-dollar deficit this budget year and has billions obligated for pension payments and health coverage for retired teachers.”

However, the UTLA, district, and mayor’s office agreed to advocate for more county and state funding for public schools.

The AP further reported that teachers in Denver have voted to strike as soon as Monday, Jan. 28, over their pay structure, while some teachers in Oakland conducted a sick-out amid contract negotiations there.

Out-of-Contract W-B Nurses Set February Strike Date

Registered nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital are planning to conduct a one-day strike on Feb. 13 as contract negotiations with hospital management have dragged into a 14th month without a resolution.

In a Jan. 22 announcement, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals said that adequate staffing is the principal issue for members of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association local union, whose last contract expired on Jan. 31, 2018. The PASNAP statement also noted a Department of Health inspection report issued in November that found the hospital in violation of 19 state and federal health codes related to patient rights, staffing, and emergency services.

The nation’s largest for-profit hospital company, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, owns Wilkes-Barre General. WVNA conducted a one-day strike of the hospital on May 31, prompting management to hire temporary replacements on five-day contracts and lock out the permanent staff nurses for the four additional days.

NLRB Counsel Has Pet Peeve in Scabby the Rat

The longtime management attorney whose current job is to investigate and prosecute unfair labor practice cases and to supervise National Labor Relations Board field offices in the processing of cases has a new pet peeve.

According to Bloomberg Law’s Daily Labor Report, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb has been scouring labor law dockets for months trying to identify “a case he can use to exterminate” the oversized inflatable rats often used by labor unions to draw attention to non-union worksites. The gray balloons feature elongated teeth, pointy claws, beady eyes, and a large pink spot on their underbellies representative of scraping the ground. They are invariably known to organized workers by the singular pet name “Scabby.”

A senior NLRB official reportedly told Bloomberg, “GC hates the rat (and) wants to find it unlawful to picket, strike, or handbill with the rat present.”

Robb, the agency, and the board chairman all declined comment.

The news organization reported that the inflatables have their own Twitter handle (@ScabbyTheRat) and that courts and the NLRB have issued numerous rulings that their use is protected under labor laws and the First Amendment.

Labor Board Reverses Precedent in Statutory Employee Test

Shuttle van and delivery vehicle drivers will have a harder time gaining statutory employee status and benefitting from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act after the National Labor Relations Board reversed precedent on its “entrepreneurial opportunity” test on Jan. 25.

By a 3-1 partisan vote, the Republican-majority board ruled that drivers who work for SuperShuttle DFW Inc. at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport are independent contractors and excluded from the Act’s coverage.

In a public statement, the board said it “found that the franchisees’ leasing or ownership of their work vans, their method of compensation, and their nearly unfettered control over their daily work schedules and working conditions provided the franchisees with significant opportunity for economic gain.”

The ruling reversed a 2014 precedent decision in a case known as “FedEx Home Delivery” in which a Democrat-controlled NLRB reduced the significance of the “entrepreneurial opportunity” test as a factor in determining employee status.