Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

A Washington Post editorial entitled "Down and Out" (9/8/09) alerted me to a new report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) on working conditions experienced by low-wage workers in the U.S.  The 72-page report "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers:  Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's cities," describes the results of a survey conducted in 2008 of more than 4,300 workers employed in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, and their experience with wage-and-hour violations, and retaliation for attempting to organize or pointing out safety problems.

Among the survey respondents, 

  • 10.3% were cooks, dishwashers and prep cooks;
  • 10% were sewing and garment workers;
  • 9.5% worked in building services and groundskeeping;
  • 8.7% factory and packaging jobs; 8.2% childcare workers;
  • 7.9% general construction;
  • 6.5% home care workers;
  • 5.6% housekeepers/maids;
  • 5% waiters, cafeteria workers, bartenders.

Only a small portion of their survey specifically addressed health and safety, but that which did provides some troubling findings, including that 12% of their respondents experienced a serious work-related injury during the last three years.  Moreover the low-wage workers' responses reinforce what we've read before on the experiences of injured workers:

  • "43 percent of seriously injured respondents reported that they were required to work despite their injury";
  • "an additional 30 percent said their employer refused to help them with the injury";
  • "13 percent were fired shortly after their injury";
  • "10 percent said their employer made them come to work and sit around all day";
  • "only 8 percent of employers instructed injured workers to file a workers' compensation claim."

 The NELP report offers a number of recommendations, from updating labor laws themselves to strengthening enforcement of them.  It suggests a common sense approach:

"Increase the reach and effectiveness of enforcement by partnering with immigrant worker centers, unions, service providers, legal advocates, and where possible, responsible employers.  Government alone will never have enough staff and resources to monitor every workplace in the country on a regular basis.  Community partnerships can provide teh vital 'ears on the ground' to identify where workplace violations are most concentrated..."

This is one of the strategies used in New York State by Patricia Smith, the pending nominee for the Solicitor of Labor, who's confirmation is now actively opposed by the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, Michael Enzi (R-WY).

As I wrote in a previous post, as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor and co-chair of New York Stateâs Economic Security agency, Patricia Smith devoted resources to protecting low-wage workers by

 â...conducting more strategic enforcement we have changed the culture of the department through partnering with unions, labor and immigrant groups to target our enforcement efforts to keep our most vulnerable workers from being exploited. â

Ms. Smith devised some creative and aggressive approaches to ensure that workers are paid their legally earned wages.   These are the kind of programs needed to address the abuses highlighted in the NELP report, and why Senate leaders should buck-up and insist that Mr. Obama's choice for Solicitor of Labor be confirmed.

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