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Labor Report

Governor Calls on General Assembly to Raise Minimum Wage

Joined by Senator Tartaglione and State Rep. Patty Kim, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf renewed his call for legislation to raise the minimum wage in the Commonwealth.
During a virtual news conference, the governor said that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would result in pay raises for 1.1 million Pennsylvania workers and would “provide better stability for women, rural and tipped workers and allow thousands of people to work their way off public assistance and strengthen the economy for everyone.”

Senate Bill 12At $7.25 an hour, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is the lowest permitted under federal law. It has not increased since 2009. The Pennsylvania General Assembly last adopted legislation to raise the minimum wage in 2006.

“Too many essential workers are earning poverty wages while putting themselves at risk to keep our society running,” Governor Wolf said. “They keep food on shelves, move crucial supplies, take care of our children, and support people with disabilities. And thousands of them earn poverty wages. These hardworking people deserve better. They deserve a living wage.”

With the start of a new legislative session in Harrisburg, Senator Tartaglione will re-introduce her minimum wage bill, Senate Bill 12, which would raise the rate to $12 this year and further raise it incrementally to $15 by 2027. The legislation would provide for automatic annual adjustments after 2027 based on the consumer price index. It would eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, repeal the preemption law that prevents local governments from raising the minimum wage within their jurisdictions, and would enhance enforcement of the state’s Minimum Wage Act.

Representative Kim announced she is introducing similar legislation in the PA House.
“In our current economic and social climate, raising the minimum wage through legislation such as my SB 12 is prudent and urgent,” Senator Tartaglione said. “It is supported by a preponderance of academic and scientific research and would improve wage equity for women and minorities. Furthermore, it is endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians.”

On the federal level, Congress is considering its own minimum wage proposal. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would increase the federal minimum to $15 by 2025. President Biden has called for a $15 minimum wage as part of his economic recovery plan, but on February 5th the president told CBS News that he did not expect Congress to include a minimum wage increase in the proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package.

The Congressional Budget Office has reported that a $15 federal minimum wage would increase the incomes of 17 million Americans – about one in 10 workers – and would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty. Another 10 million workers could see wage increase as pay scales adjust to the new minimum, the CBO reported according to The Washington Post.

The CBO further estimated a $15 minimum wage would cause the elimination of 1.4 million jobs and increase the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years. Other minimum wage experts, such as University of California-Berkeley Economics Professor Michael Reich, dispute the CBO’s methodology and say that minimum wage increases around the country have had minimal effect on employment and have improved economic conditions for low-wage earners.

PA Labor & Industry to Offer Mobile Texting to Assist Unemployment Claimants

Senate Bill 12The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) is planning to launch a mobile texting system that will help its customer service staff communicate with unemployment compensation claimants.

Acting Secretary of Labor & Industry Jennifer Berrier discussed the project during a February 9th news conference, according to the Post-Gazette.

“Using the new feature, UC staff will be able to text claimants to see if they are available to discuss an issue, rather than spending time playing phone tag or exchanging emails,” the newspaper reported.

Berrier said the system could go live as soon as the end of February.

As of February 6th, L&I had received more than 5.2 million initial claims for traditional unemployment benefits or for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) since the start of the pandemic. The high volume of claims has caused lengthy wait times for many claimants seeking to contact the Department by telephone or email.

In June, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) temporarily reassigned 75 customer service representatives and three supervisors to Labor & Industry to help relieve the workload. Earlier this week, PHEAA announced it would provide an additional 120 staff to L&I.

“PHEAA’s team of trained customer service representatives will greatly improve L&I’s ability to respond to the unprecedented surge in unemployment program claims that we are experiencing as the result of the pandemic,” Secretary Berrier said.


Biden’s Changes Signal Move Toward Pro-Labor NLRB Agenda

One of President Biden’s first official acts following his inauguration was to dismiss the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel Peter Robb from the agency, followed soon after by the dismissal of Robb’s chief deputy.

National Labor Relations BoardBiden then named Peter Sung Ohr as the NLRB’s acting general counsel. Ohr previously served as the regional director in charge of the agency’s Chicago office.
The personnel moves are widely viewed as early indicators of Biden’s strong pro-labor agenda, and have drawn harsh criticism from Republican lawmakers.

“Firing Robb and installing Ohr … marks the opening steps of the Biden administration’s effort to reorient the NLRB and change board law toward protecting workers and boosting union rights,” Bloomberg Law reported.

“Presidents traditionally let the NLRB general counsel to finish out their term,” The Hill reported. “… When asked why Robb was the exception, a Biden administration spokesperson said he was not carrying out the objectives of the NLRB.”

Catherine Fisk, a professor of labor law at the University of California-Berkeley, told The Hill, “The president does not routinely ask for the resignation of the general counsel of the NLRB in part because there once was a tradition of the position being non-partisan. General counsel Robb is extremely partisan. He is probably the most aggressive anti-labor general counsel the agency has had in its history.”

The National Labor Relations Act permits acting general counsels to serve a maximum of 40 days in the position unless the president nominates someone to fill the role permanently, Bloomberg Law reported. Nominations are subject to a US Senate confirmation process.

Ohr may not become Biden’s eventual nominee. Jennifer Abruzzo, a special counsel to the Communications Workers of America and the former number-two attorney in the Obama era NLRB is viewed as the front runner for the permanent post.

Union Voting Underway for Alabama Amazon Workers as Nation Watches Closely

Workers in perhaps one of the unlikeliest places are mounting what has been described as the biggest union push in the history of one of the world’s largest private employers.

AmazonUnion certification voting by mail is underway for about 5,800 employees of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The National Labor Relations Board has rejected efforts by Amazon to delay the election or to force in-person balloting, according to The Associated Press. Voting will continue through March 29th.

The election is considered historic for many reasons. Last summer, organizers held their first meetings in an economy hotel in Bessemer, a town on the outskirts of Birmingham in the heart of a staunchly conservative right-to-work state. With the help of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and union members from nearby food processing plants, they persuaded more than 2,000 Amazon workers to sign in support of an election, according to The New York Times.

On February 4th, President Biden tweeted in support of the campaign: “Every American deserves the dignity and respect that comes with union organizing and collective bargaining. The policy of our government is to encourage union organizing, and employers should ensure their workers have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

Organizers have used the Twitter handle @BAmazonUnion to keep supporters updated.
The effort is also significant because of Amazon’s oft-documented efforts to prevent union organizing.

“The company has managed to head off major labor unions since its founding in 1994,” CNBC reported last year. “Labor unions have organized some of Amazon’s European workforce, but no U.S. facility has successfully formed or joined a union. … Unions stand to disrupt the level of control that Amazon has over its warehouse and delivery employees, like their ability to unilaterally set the pace of work and hourly wages, said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT.”

Last year, Fortune reported that Amazon had 1,125,300 employees worldwide, the third-most among private companies after Walmart and China National Petroleum.

The company’s growth is impacting Pennsylvania employment. Last year, it began hiring 1,000 workers for its new Berks County warehouse. Amazon employs more than 16,000 full- and part-time workers in the Commonwealth.