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Labor Report

Wolf’s New Workforce Command Center Receives Bipartisan Support

Governor Tom Wolf and legislative leaders from both political parties united on February 19 to place a bipartisan workforce development program into motion. With Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler by his side, Wolf announced a new executive order creating the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center. The Harrisburg-based center will integrate workforce development initiatives statewide and be led by business and labor leaders, as well as members of the governor’s cabinet.

“Our commonwealth is on the comeback and more people are working than ever before,” Governor Wolf said. “Businesses are hiring and cannot find the trained workers to fill open jobs. And too many people are stuck in low-wage jobs without the training to advance. Our economy is transitioning and it’s a race to keep up. We either strengthen workforce development or we risk falling behind. We must be bold and ambitious and break from the status quo.”

Governor Wolf first announced his intention to create a workforce development command center during his annual budget address on February 5. He revealed details of its composition and responsibilities this week.

The six-member, public-private executive committee will include representatives from the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and the Team Pennsylvania Foundation; along with designees for the secretaries of the Department of Community and Economic Development, the Department of Labor and Industry, and the Department of State.

Senator Costa emphasized the need for Pennsylvania to prepare its workforce to fill jobs that require more skills and pay better than entry-level positions, despite the state’s low unemployment rate.

“Our low unemployment rate is a positive metric in our economy, but it doesn't mean that there's not more work that can be done and should be done,” Senator Costa said. “It just means that it’s time for us to take on new challenges. It's not enough to simply push folks through low-paying positions and then abandon them without an appropriate career and skills. Our economy works best when everyone – everyone – has the opportunity to advance into higher paying positions.”

On the same day as Governor Wolf’s announcement, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released an audit report recommending enhancements to Pennsylvania’s workforce development programs and applauding the governor for creating the command center.

The special performance audit examined whether the state’s workforce development system is identifying and meeting the workforce needs of employers, coordinating educational and vocational training programs, and helping displaced and older workers gain the skills they need to succeed in the modern job market.

“My audit found a need for a stronger commitment and more effective oversight to ensure the governor’s vision and goals for workforce development are met,” Auditor General DePasquale said.

CLEAR Coalition Leader Calls for Higher Minimum Wage and Budgetary Reforms

In an opinion article published by the Morning Call on February 21, AFSCME Council 13 Executive Director David Fillman detailed the compelling case for raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage for the first time in more than a decade.

As co-founder of the CLEAR Coalition in 2010, Fillman has been a leading figure in efforts to raise the minimum wage, which hasn’t risen in Pennsylvania since the federal government enacted a $7.25 hourly minimum wage nationally in 2009. Pennsylvania lawmakers haven’t voted to raise the state’s minimum wage since 2006, when legislation sponsored by Senator Tartaglione granted minimum wage workers a $2 hourly increase up to $7.15.

Today, Senator Tartaglione is preparing to introduce new legislation (Senate Bill 12) that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 this year and $15 by 2025. The bill will coincide with Governor Wolf’s proposed minimum wage reform.

“Raising the wage to $15 would lift wages for 2.1 million Pennsylvania workers — or 37 percent of the state’s total workforce. The majority of workers in the state who would benefit are adults who are working full time. On average, the workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase account for nearly half of their family’s income,” Fillman wrote.

“Lawmakers also need to understand that raising the minimum wage would generate at least $140 million in new revenues and savings in the state’s Medicaid program that can be earmarked for important priorities, such as our public schools or crumbling infrastructure.”

Governor Wolf has proposed using the cost savings to raise wages for home care workers who serve in state-sponsored programs for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Fillman wrote additionally that CLEAR Coalition’s support for a $15 minimum wage is part of the organization’s broader economic growth platform. The “Blueprint for Growing Pennsylvania’s Economy” also calls for additional investments in public schools, technical education, and workforce development, as well as “a commonsense and long overdue tax on the Marcellus shale drillers; closing corporate tax loopholes; and ending overpayments to charter and cyber charter schools among other proposals.”

Trailblazing West Virginia Teachers Strike Again, Defeating Voucher Legislation

A statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia, their second such labor action in a year, promoted swift action by the state legislature, which voted on February 19 to table charter school and school voucher legislation indefinitely.

One day earlier, AFT West Virginia President Fred Albert announced that members would stop reporting to work in protest of the state Senate’s amendments to an omnibus spending bill that allocated funding for the establishment of charter schools and school vouchers in the state. The walkouts included teachers represented by the West Virginia Education Association and prompted public school administrators in 54 of the state’s 55 counties to cancel classes for more than 200,000 students, according to ABC News.

Within hours, the state House of Delegates voted, 53-45, to postpone indefinitely action on the amended spending bill. The teachers’ unions chose to extend their strike into Wednesday to demonstrate further against the proposed legislation.

“We cannot trust the leadership in the Senate,” Albert said after the House vote. “We are staying out one more day to ensure that this is a dead bill.”

“The Senate can amend it into another education bill. We can't take anything for granted,” Jennifer Wood, spokeswoman for AFT West Virginia, told ABC News. “There is a history with the Senate leadership. Teachers don't feel like they argue in good faith.”

West Virginia teachers conducted a similar walkout for nine days in late February and early March 2018 to protest their low pay and high healthcare costs. The strike resulted in a five percent pay raise, as well as better health benefits and the withdrawal of charter school legislation, according to U.S. News & World Report. It also ushered in a wave of teachers strikes in other states, including some traditionally conservative-leading states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

In January, about 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles won contract concessions in a six-day strike. About 3,000 teachers in Oakland, California, went on strike on February 21 seeking retroactive and future raises for 2017 through 2020, as well as improved nurse and guidance counselor ratios. They oppose the district’s planned public school closings in minority communities, and its charter schools expansion.

ABC noted that West Virginia has no collective bargaining statutes so public school budgets – including teacher pay levels – are set by state legislators rather than local school boards.

“In states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, strikes by teachers are considered illegal and educators risk being fired for participating in them. Because teachers in those states have shown statewide solidarity in their job actions, state government leaders have had little choice but to bargain,” ABC reported.

In Chicago, unionized charter school teachers settled a nine-day walkout on February 19, marking an end to what is believed to be the first strike of its kind in the United States involving charters.

Backed by the AFT, the Chicago Teachers Union tentatively agreed to a new four-year deal with Chicago International Charter School that includes pay raises for about 200 teachers, class-size limits, shorter work schedules, and paid parental leave, as well as higher pension contributions by CICS.

Google Backs Off Forced Arbitration as Drivers Bombard Uber With Filings

In a move that may foreshadow a broader shift in employers’ mandatory arbitration policies, Google told CNN and other news agencies that it will no longer force employees to settle claims against the company through individual arbitration, rather than in open courts of law.

The company reportedly informed employees of the change in a February 21 email. In November, when 20,000 Google employees walked off the job in protest of the forced arbitration policy, the company agreed to drop the policy for complaints alleging sexual assault or harassment. The latest change covers all complaints by current and future employees, including discrimination, wage disputes, and other labor issues.

“The agreements, which are often signed as a condition of employment, make it so an employee can't sue the company or participate in class action lawsuits against it. Complaints are instead brought through arbitration, a sort of alternative legal system, with the company. Critics of the agreements argue they help companies keep issues ranging from sexual violence to racial and age discrimination quiet,” CNN reported.

Uber, Lyft, and Facebook have also eliminated their arbitration requirements for employee complaints involving sexual assault or harassment, according to the news agency. However, in Uber’s case, non-employee drivers are still subject to a forced arbitration policy.

In recent months, disgruntled drivers and their attorneys have been leveraging Uber’s individual arbitration requirements against the ride-sharing behemoth. According to Reuters, 12,500 drivers filed arbitration cases against the company between August and November 2018 alleging they had been paid less than the federal minimum hourly wage. Under the terms of Uber’s own forced arbitration policy, each case must be handled independently, and the company is required to pay the arbitrator’s $1,500 retainer fee in each case. That would leave Uber on the hook for more than $18 million in arbitrators’ fees alone. The company was also responsible for initial filing fees under its own policy.

As of December 6, Uber had paid filing fees in just 296 of the more than 12,000 cases. And it had paid retainer fees in just six cases. On January 25, Reuters reported that the national arbitration service provider used by the company, JAMS, informed Uber that it would not allow the company to consolidate similar employee claims into group arbitration proceedings because that would violate Uber’s own individual arbitration policy.

“In the big picture, in which enterprising law firms sign up thousands of employees to demand individual arbitrations, using the leverage of filing fees and arbitration expenses to obtain concessions from employers, the JAMS notice is a really significant development,” Reuters reported. “It says that companies can’t ignore contracts to pick and choose when they want to arbitrate collectively. Mass arbitration remains a strategy.”