Occupational Health News Roundup

Fast food workers may have just received a huge boost, thanks to a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.

Steven Greenhouse reports in The New York Times that the board’s general counsel has ruled that McDonald’s is jointly responsible for labor violations at its franchises — “a decision that if upheld would disrupt longtime practices in the fast-food industry and ease the way for unionizing nationwide,” Greenhouse writes. The article reports that of the 181 unfair labor practice complaints filed against McDonald’s and its franchises in the last 20 months, the board’s counsel decided that 43 had merit on grounds of illegally firing or threatening workers for supporting unionization and that McDonald’s would be listed as a joint employer. Greenhouse said the ruling could be a significant boost to the growing movement of fast food workers organizing for a living wage. He writes:

The fast-food workers movement has argued that McDonald’s should be considered a joint employer because it owns many of the franchisees’ restaurant buildings and requires franchises to follow strict rules on food, cleanliness and hiring. McDonald’s has even warned some franchisees that they were paying their workers too much.

The cases were brought on behalf of workers who assert, among other things, that they were wrongfully fired, threatened or suspended because of their campaign for a $15 a wage and to unionize McDonald’s.

“McDonald’s can try to hide behind its franchisees, but today’s determination by the N.L.R.B. shows there’s no two ways about it: The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,” said Micah Wissinger, a lawyer in New York who filed some of the cases against McDonald’s. “The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchisees to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.”

So how does this ruling, which is being contested by McDonald’s and roundly criticized by restaurant, business and franchise groups, help union efforts? Lydia DePillis at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog explains:

In theory, it's easier to form a bargaining unit and hold a union election if it's clear that one large company could be party to it, rather than just a bunch of little employers. Right now though, the Fast Food Forward campaign is being cagey about how they'll proceed. On a press call, campaign director Kendall Fells explained they might not want to hold an election at all.

"We're not convinced that we want to have elections at these stores, we're not convinced we want to have a card check," he said. "This campaign is about highlighting the workers that work in these stores and the conditions they work under. What we're talking about is having these corporations come to the table and have a conversation about what workers want, which is $15 an hour, and a union."

McDonald’s claims that it isn’t liable for how franchisees treat workers, but Alan Pyke over at Think Progress notes that:

Workers have repeatedly challenged that interpretation of the franchisee relationships, most recently in a slew of class-action wage theft lawsuits this spring. Those cases centered on a computer system installed by McDonald’s at franchisee stores that compares labor costs to money coming in in real-time, encouraging managers to fiddle with workers hours and timesheets as necessary to keep that expenses ratio as low as possible at all times.

For more details on the ruling, read Greenhouse's article here.

In other news:

ABC News: Scott Wilson interviews politicians who participated in the Live the Wage Challenge, which calls on Americans to live for a week on minimum wage, which only comes out to about $77 per week for a full-time worker after housing costs and taxes. The article chronicles the experiences of Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. (Ryan and Schakowsky sponsored the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10.) Strickland wrote a first-person perspective on the experience over at Politico, writing that it’s “un-American that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty.

Washington Post: In the post’s She The People blog, writers Brigid Schulte and Nia-Malika Henderson discuss the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new guidelines clarifying workplace accommodations for pregnant women and reminding employers that refusing to provide pregnant workers with reasonable working conditions is illegal. The article notes that pregnancy discrimination complaints are on the rise, increasing 46 percent between fiscal years 1997 and 2011.

FairWarning: The online publication, which focuses on issues of health, safety and corporate conduct, published an in-depth profile of longtime occupational activist Garrett Brown, who this year launched Inside Cal/OSHA. Brown spent 20 years working for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health before retiring and launching the watchdog site. In the FairWarning article, writer Jane Kay profiles Garrett’s life, work and dedication to workers’ rights.

Center for Public Integrity: As part of his Breathless and Burdened series, writer Chris Hamby reports that about 1,100 miners who had claimed black lung benefits may have been wrongly denied due to Johns Hopkins physician Paul Wheeler, who Hamby writes “systematically found that miners did not have black lung when, in fact, many of them did.”

NIOSH Science Blog: Writer Brenda Jacklitsch blogs about the importance of protecting workers from heat stress. She outlines what makes up a good heat illness prevention plan, the science of heat adaptation and why heat acclimatization matters.

EHS Today: OSHA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration just signed a memorandum of understanding allowing the two agencies to work together on whistleblower cases within the commercial carrier industry. The federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act protects industry workers from retaliation for speaking up about safety and health violations. Writer Josh Cable writes about how the partnership will work and why it’s important.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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