Occupational Health News Roundup

At The Nation, leaders in the domestic workers movement write about what’s next in their efforts to improve conditions for the thousands who work in people’s homes, often with no rights or recourse.

Authored by Ai-jen Poo and Andrea Cristina Mercado, both with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the article chronicles the “legacy of exclusion” that domestic workers have experienced, such as their exemption from federal labor protections, as well as the day-to-day conditions they often face in people’s homes — conditions that can result in serious and long-term injuries. The authors write:

The intrinsic power imbalance between employer and employee is heightened in the context of a private home, compounding the absence of legal protections. Domestic workers typically work without a contract. They are routinely given tasks beyond their job description (when there is one). They work long hours without meal or rest breaks, are entitled to no paid holidays or vacation days, are subject to arbitrary termination without severance pay and theft of wages due, and experience high rates of injury on the job without access to workers’ compensation or adequate healthcare. The workforce of nannies, housecleaners, and elder caregivers is also especially vulnerable on account of race, ethnicity, gender, and immigration status and limited English-language proficiency.

The domestic work industry urgently needs to raise and clarify the baseline requirements of the employer-employee relationship, both to empower workers and to hold employers accountable to the legal and ethical responsibilities of their role.

Poo and Mercado go on to write about the movement’s legislative and advocacy strategies, which helped pass Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Oregon. They also note that such victories “demonstrate that there is room for workers to maneuver and make progress in a political environment in which organized labor has struggled to make gains.” However, they also write that enforcing new legislative rights remains a problem, though creative solutions are emerging:

Enforcement presents many challenges. At the top of the list are the woefully insufficient funds provided by public agencies and workers’ fear of retaliation for complaining about violations — a fear that is especially strong and well-founded for undocumented workers. In response to these challenges, domestic worker organizations in New York, California, and Massachusetts, and supportive employers working through an organization called Hand in Hand, are developing a grassroots enforcement agenda that builds organized worker density and trains leaders to educate colleagues about their rights and show them how to negotiate for contracts and better working conditions. Hand in Hand also educates employers about their obligations and about the “Fair Care Pledge,” which includes living wages, paid time off and a clear work agreement. The most productive ways to advance this work are not firmly established, but we are experimenting and innovating.

To read the entire article, visit The Nation.

In other news:

Huffington Post: Janie Velencia reports that Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker signed a new state budget into law that had the words “living wage” stripped from its contents and replaced with “minimum wage.” The last-minute change means minimum-wage workers in Wisconsin will earn about $6000 per year less than what researchers estimate is a living wage for the state. Velencia reports that the change will also mean workers have no recourse either — she writes: “The new law eliminates the ability of low-wage workers to appeal for a living wage. Previously, Wisconsin law stated that employee pay ‘shall be not less than a living wage,’ defined as ‘adequate to permit any employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being."’ In related news, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, summed up Walker’s presidential candidacy with these six words: "Scott Walker is a national disgrace."

The Washington Post: Sandhya Somashekhar and Craig Whitlock report that just yesterday, the Pentagon announced that transgender service members will be able to serve openly beginning next year. In the coming months, officials will develop new rules in support of the announcement; a new directive was also put in place to make it harder to discharge transgender members while the new rules are being developed. About 15,000 transgender people serve in the U.S. military, according to research estimates. Somashekhar and Whitlock write: “Gay rights groups praised the decision, which they said was long overdue. They noted that several other countries, including Israel, Canada, Britain and Australia, have successfully incorporated transgender members in their ranks and predicted that a policy change in the United States would be relatively simple.”

USA Today: OSHA has designated DuPont a “severe” violator of federal workplace safety rules after a second inspection of the company’s La Porte, Texas, facility, where four workers died in a gas leak last year, writes reporter Jeff Mordock. OSHA’s action means the La Porte plant will be under extra scrutiny from safety inspectors. Mordock writes: “Following a second inspection, OSHA found eight violations at the Texas plant and fined the company $273,000, citing an ‘indifference’ to creating a safe workplace. The company didn't properly inspect equipment, implement operating procedures or an have equipment safety plan, according to OSHA documents.”

Detroit News: Gary Heinlein reports that a Detroit-based effort known as the Time to Care Coalition is launching a ballot petition drive for paid sick leave for all Michigan workers and to reverse a state ban that prohibits local officials from implementing local workplace requirements. The proposed policy, which organizers hope to get on the 2016 ballot, would require employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. Heinlein writes of efforts to reverse the local ordinance ban: “Lawmakers last month passed the Local Government Labor Regulatory Limitation Act prohibiting any local government from requiring employers to pay more than the minimum wage, provide paid or unpaid leave time or other benefits, or regulate employment in way that exceeds state or federal requirements.” In related news, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently held a ceremonial signing to celebrate the state’s new paid sick leave law.

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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