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Labor Report

U.S. Labor Department Proposes New Overtime Pay Rule

More than 1.1 million additional workers would be covered by a new mandatory overtime pay threshold proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor, which would require employers to compensate workers who earn up to $35,308 a year in base wages for any extra hours they log on the job. The minimum overtime pay rate is time-and-a-half.

The new rule would represent the first extension of the nation’s overtime pay rule since 2004, when the Bush administration established a $23,660 threshold, yet would fall far short of the $47,500 threshold initiated by the Obama administration in 2016, according to the New York Times. The new proposal does not include automatic cost of living adjustments, as the 2016 rule did.

The 2016 rule would have extended overtime pay requirements to about 4.2 million workers, but a federal judge in Texas struck down the rule just before it was to take effect. The issue is still the subject of pending federal litigation.

Proponents of raising the threshold argue that the mandatory overtime threshold was established to ensure that non-supervisory and non-professional workers receive compensation for the extra hours they log. The rule generally excuses employers from paying overtime to workers who earn more than the threshold and those who hold managerial or professional jobs.

Due to inflation, the current threshold has grown obsolete and excludes most hourly workers. Also, critics have alleged that some employers attempt to skirt the overtime pay mandate by assigning incorrect job titles to non-managerial or professional workers.

Mandatory overtime pay is also an issue on the state level. In 2018, Governor Tom Wolf proposed raising the state threshold in annual increments. It would rise to $31,720 in 2020, and eventually reach $47,892 in 2022, extending eligibility to 460,000 Pennsylvania workers over four years. A public comment period concluded last September. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission awaits the submission of a final regulation.

Labor, Consumer Advocates Raise Concerns about Proposed Wireless Merger

The proposed merger of two of the nation’s largest wireless carriers is drawing opposition from labor and consumer advocates who warn that it will negatively impact market competition, consumer choice and prices, jobs retention, and workers’ wages.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Office of the Attorney General are reviewing the proposal involving T-Mobile and Sprint, which are the nation’s third- and fourth-largest carriers. The merger would leave the United States with just three major wireless networks, the others being AT&T and Verizon.

The Communications Workers of America recently released a comprehensive economic analysis of the proposed merger that concluded 30,000 jobs would be lost, including 635 in Pennsylvania, as the companies closed and consolidated many of their existing retail stores. In addition, the merger would result in increased prices (15.5 percent for prepaid plans), while still leaving rural parts of Pennsylvania without access to high-speed broadband, the CWA found.

On March 7, the FCC announced that it would suspend the 180-day timeline for the completion of its regulatory review in light new information about the proposal obtained from the wireless companies and other sources, according to Reuters. The review is in day 122. The commission said it will accept additional public comments on the new information until March 28. All filings should refer to WT Docket No. 18-197 and be submitted via the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) or in paper form to FCC Headquarters at 445 12th St., SW, Room TW-A325, Washington, DC 20554.

Dozens of Pennsylvania and federal legislators have already submitted comments to the FCC and to the Office of the Attorney General expressing concerns about the merger. Senator Tartaglione urged both regulatory agencies to withhold approvals of the proposed merger should it fail to meet the nation’s antitrust, consumer protection, and public interest standards.

“These outcomes would likely have a disproportionate affect on low- and moderate-income consumers because these two carriers are among the nation’s top three providers of prepaid wireless plans. Similarly, the merger would have a disproportionate affect on the urban areas where Sprint and T-Mobile have largely built their networks,” Senator Tartaglione wrote.

On March 5, 37 Democratic members of the U.S. House co-signed a letter to the same federal regulators urging them to block the proposed merger, arguing that it would “destroy jobs and drive down wages.”

Walmart Greeter Keeps His Job as Company Seeks to Accommodate Workers with Disabilities

Facing the imminent elimination of his job at the Selinsgrove Walmart, longtime customer greeter Adam Catlin has accepted a new position at the store, where he will be able to continue earning a paycheck and helping shoppers.

Catlin and other Walmart workers with disabilities garnered national headlines last month after their employer informed thousands of greeters that their jobs would be phased out in favor of a position with more physical demands, such as heavy lifting and stair climbing. Catlin, who has cerebral palsy, would have had difficulty meeting the new job duties. He feared he would find himself unemployed after the company’s late-April deadline.

A Facebook post of Catlin’s story by his mother attracted thousands of social media responses and the news media’s attention. Then late last week, Catlin announced that the store had offered him a new job that he could manage, assisting customers at the self-checkout aisle. He accepted the position.

PennLive noted that Catlin’s experience could usher in similar accommodations for “scores of other Walmart employees in the same spot.”

In a letter sent to Walmart U.S., Senator Tartaglione expressed her concern that the company may not have given appropriate consideration to employees like Catlin when it established its new job responsibilities. Senator Tartaglione urged Walmart – which is the nation’s largest employer – to be proactive in familiarizing itself with the varying needs of employees with disabilities, as well as the legal requirements for their accommodation. Walmart should also recognize “the many great qualities and assets that (employees with disabilities) have long brought with them to their jobs.”

Amid Tight Job Market, Boeing Machinists Win Mid-Contract Pay Raises

Thousands of unionized machinists at a Washington State Boeing plant have won a rare mid-contract pay raise to correct wage disparities implemented by the company in response to a tight labor market.

In a bulletin issued by the International Association of Machinists District 751 to its members, the union notified members of a $4 per hour wage increase for pay grades one to 11, effective retroactively to January 1, 2019. According to the Seattle Times, about 16,000 Boeing employees will receive raises, representing more than half of the District 751 membership.

Machinists are under contract at the company through 2024, but IAM was able to negotiate the raises because Boeing had begun to pay some new hires more than senior workers in the same jobs.

“Last year, after years of layoffs and attrition, management responded to an acute labor shortage in some areas by offering new hires wages that were higher than stipulated in the contract,” the Times reported.

The disparities amounted to changes in working conditions or company policies and entitled the union to demand re-negotiation. In addition to the wage increases, the parties agreed to larger pay raises tied to employee promotions and second-shift differentials. Boeing also agreed to implement a procedure to ensure that pay rates for existing employees and new hires are aligned, based on equivalent experience factors.

News wasn’t all good for Boeing machinists, however. On March 4, the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, reported that former South Carolina governor and prominent organized labor critic Nikki Haley has been nominated for a seat on Boeing’s board of directors.

“The IAM has serious concerns about Nikki Haley’s nomination to Boeing’s board,” International President Robert Martinez Jr. told the newspaper. “As governor of South Carolina, Haley had a record of using anti-union rhetoric and inserting politics into working people’s decisions.”

As governor from 2011-17, Haley signed a $120 million incentives package to help the company expand its assembly plant in North Charleston.

“Haley also wasn’t shy about expressing her disdain for organized labor. During her 2015 State of the State speech, Haley called the IAM’s attempt to organize Boeing workers ‘a union power grab’ and she also recorded an anti-union radio commercial for the aerospace giant,” the Post and Courier reported.

Congressional Committee Advances $15 Minimum Wage Legislation

In the same week that Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor & Industry released a report showing that nearly half of the state’s hourly-wage workers earn less than $15 per hour, a U.S. House committee approved the federal Raise the Wage Act, which proposes to phase in a $15 minimum wage over five years and introduce an automatic cost of living adjustment.

The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor voted 28-20 along party lines on March 6 to send the bill to the full House for consideration. In addition to mandating a $15 minimum wage by 2024, the bill would phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers, young workers, and those with disabilities. The standard federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

“After nearly 10 years with no increase in the federal minimum wage, minimum-wage workers have suffered a 17 percent pay cut due to inflation,” committee Chairman Bobby Scott of Virginia said. “The result is that there is no place in America where a full-time worker who is paid the current federal minimum wage can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.”

More than 1.75 million Pennsylvanians make less than $15 per hour, according to the “Analysis of the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage” produced by the state’s Minimum Wage Advisory Board, while half of workers making near minimum wage ($12 or less) are employed full-time, and more than half are 25 and older.

State lawmakers have not voted to raise the minimum wage since 2006. Since then, all six of Pennsylvania’s bordering states have raised their minimum wages above the federal minimum. Senator Tartaglione, in partnership with Governor Tom Wolf, has proposed legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $12 this year in Pennsylvania, and $15 by 2025, followed by annual cost of living adjustments.

“Pennsylvania continues to lag behind other states, including all our neighbors, in ensuring fair wages that keep up with the cost of living,” Gov. Wolf said in a published statement.

The report also found that the 2018 value of the $7.25 minimum wage will fall by 22 cents by 2020 (as measured in 2018 dollars), due to inflation.

Tartaglione has also proposed a PA Senate resolution urging Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.

Philly Becomes First U.S. City to Ban Cashless Stores

Philadelphia has become the nation’s first major city to enact legislation prohibiting cashless stores, a policy that would impact companies like Amazon who seek to open all-digital, self-checkout stores in the city, as well as retailers who seek to convert to all-digital models.

City Council voted 13-4 in support of the measure on Feb. 14. Mayor James Kenney signed it into law last week.

The new ordinance will take effect in July and is expected to protect retail jobs in the city, while helping to ensure that low income consumers who pay in cash will have access to the same goods and services as people who use credit and debit cards. Opponents warned that the measure could discourage business growth in the city at a time when a growing number of retailers are adopting digital checkout models.

With the unsigned legislation sitting on the Mayor’s desk late last month, the Inquirer reported that it had obtained emails sent between city officials and Amazon detailing how the company had lobbied the administration in an effort to “slow down and amend” the cashless store ban or to exempt Amazon from the ordinance’s requirements.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the new Philadelphia law has exceptions for parking garages and lots, membership-based wholesale stores, rental car companies, and hotels. By enacting the legislation, Philadelphia joined Massachusetts, which has the nation’s only similar statewide statute. Lawmakers in New Jersey have passed similar legislation, but it has not been signed into law. A similar ordinance has been proposed in New York City, but is pending in City Council.

Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder Patients Win Landmark Insurance Lawsuit

A federal judge in California has issued a landmark ruling against a subsidiary of the nation’s largest insurance company, finding that it crafted coverage guidelines that deprived mental health and substance use disorder patients of adequate care.

CNN reported that U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero wrote a “scathing” opinion, finding that United Behavioral Health, a subsidiary of UnitedHealthcare, placed profits over patient care in crafting coverage guidelines. The jurist also found that company executives and expert witnesses were “deceptive” under oath.

The class action lawsuit was brought on behalf of more than 50,000 people who were denied coverage for mental health or substance use disorder treatments. The coverage policies violated federal law as well as laws in several states.

“The judge said such decisions had real impacts on patients because United Behavioral Health ignored ‘effective treatment of members' underlying condition’ and that ‘UBH knowingly and purposefully drafted its Guidelines to limit coverage to acute signs and symptoms,’ " CNN reported.

Labor Board Approves Union Vote for Pitt Grad Students

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has granted graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh approval to conduct a unionization vote, a decision that effectively affirms employee status for about 2,000 teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate assistants, and graduate student researchers, according to the Post-Gazette.

The students are seeking to affiliate with the United Steelworkers. An election date has not been determined.

USW International President Leo W. Gerard issued a statement that said in part, “Pitt’s grad students work as hard as teachers and as researchers, providing valuable services to the university. They are absolutely employees and deserve a seat at the table.”

Graduate students seek greater influence over university decisions about their working conditions, and protections against discrimination and harassment. The Pitt unionization movement is among dozens that have taken place across the nation in recent years, largely in the wake of a 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling that recognized employee status for graduate students at Columbia University. That decision reversed an earlier NLRB precedent involving Brown University students.

February 2019 National Jobs Update

The seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate fell to 3.8% in February 2019, down 0.2% from January 2019’s rate of 4.0%. Over the month, unemployment rolls decreased by 300,000 individuals, lowering total unemployment to 6.235 million. National unemployment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Unemployment – 6,235,000
  • Change Over Month –   DOWN   300,000
  • Change Over Year –   DOWN   452,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN   1,330,000
  • Rate Change Over Month –   DOWN   0.2%
  • Rate Change Over Year –   DOWN   0.3%
  • Rate Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN   0.9%
  • Rate Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   DOWN   3.3%

As indicated above, total unemployment’s rounded percentage of the labor force, or unemployment rate, decreased over the month (rate = unemployment / labor force). The labor force is the total number of employed individuals combined with the total number of unemployed individuals actively searching for work. Growth in the labor force can be a sign of a strengthening economy from more people working and/or more individuals searching for jobs. In February 2019, the national labor force fell slightly by 45,000 individuals, a combination of total employment* up by 255,000 individuals and total unemployment down by 300,000 individuals as noted above.
Since President Trump took office, the national labor force has grown by 3.491 million individuals (unemployment -1.330 million & employment +4.821 million). While this growth is encouraging, continued progress will be needed to match labor force growth seen over President Obama’s second term (3.930 million: unemployment -4.906 million & employment      +8.836 million). National labor force statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Labor Force – 163,184,000
  • Change Over Month –   DOWN   45,000
  • Change Over Year -   UP   1,284,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   UP   3,491,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   3,930,000

Non-farm* jobs grew by only 20,000 over the month in February 2019, well below economist’s projections and the second smallest monthly gain over President Trump’s term so far (Sept. 2017 lowest). With this growth, average monthly non-farm job gains under President Trump stand at 196,000, 21,000 below average monthly growth of 217,000 seen over President Obama’s second term. National non-farm employment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Employment – 150,606,000
  • Change Over Month –   UP   20,000
  • Change Over Year –   UP   2,509,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   UP   4,911,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   10,412,000

(*Total employment for labor force provided by U.S. Census Household survey. The separate BLS Establishment survey measures non-farm jobs only.)