Looks like there will be further delay when it comes to the White House’s determination whether or not to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Conflicts of interest have come to light that call into question the validity of the latest environmental impact statement on the pipeline. The Office of the Inspector General is investigating concerns that Environmental Resources Management, the contactor responsible for the environmental impact statement, had worked for the prospective pipeline builder (TransCanada Corp.) and for other oil interests that would benefit financially from the KXL.
So while we expected a Presidential decision on the KXL any time now – the Administration isn’t likely to make a move before the Inspector General’s report next year. This buys us more time to oppose the pipeline. On the other hand, Mr. President, why not cut to the chase and oppose the Keystone XL pipeline now, in accordance with your commitment to reducing carbon pollution?
Today, Green America joined our colleague organizations in the release of a report authored by the Sierra Club and Oil Change International, “Fail: How the Keystone XL Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test.” The report compiles all the information that the President and the public need to understand the wisdom and necessity of halting the Keystone XL pipeline – now and forever.
Did you know there is a whole sector of American workers who do not have the right to organize, to overtime pay, or legal protection from workplace discrimination and harassment?
Domestic workers, such as those providing care for children and the elderly, are actually exempt from a large number of the employment rights many Americans take for granted. Excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, this sector was left out of many of the legal protections.
This means that many domestic workers
- Do not have a right to minimum wage
- Do not have a right to unpaid maternity leave
- Do not have a right to weekends or time off
- Do not have a right to overtime pay
- Often face sexual or emotional harassment
The potential for exploitation faced by domestic workers is made even more dire by the fact that many of these workers are recent immigrants without the English language skills and supportive social networks to fight back against abuse.
Fortunately, activists have already successfully passed a bill in New York, making it the first state to recognize domestic workers as real workers under state law and granting the sector many of the protections that other workers enjoy.
Now they’re taking the fight to California, Illinois, and Massachusetts — here’s how you can get involved.
Go to the National Domestic Workers
Alliance’s California Bill of Rights campaign page to:
- Take part in their letter -writing campaign
- Take part in their phone-in campaign
- Make a donation to Mujeres Unidas y Activas
- Promote this bill through your social media handles
Are you an Illinois resident? Click here to tell your representative to support the Illinois Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights (note that while the website notes an April date, the bill is still in the works and you do have time to make your voice heard) . Also — go to the NDWA’s campaign page or Arise Chicago to stay in the loop about developments on Domestic Worker Rights in that state.
You can support the Massachusetts campaign in a number of ways.
Go to NDWA’s campaign page to
- Sign a pledge card
- View photos
- Learn more about the campaign
You can also stay in the loop by liking the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers’ Facebook page.
Fair Labor in the USA
In the last issue of the Green American, we highlighted the sweatshop conditions, wage theft and slave labor that occur right here in the USA. Providing legal protection for domestic workers is a key part of creating fair labor in America.
We’ve been blogging about labor issues in the USA for the past month — check out our other posts, may of them written by our editorial fellows, Krisna Bharvani and Sierra Schellenberg:
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides “standards for the basic minimum wage and overtime pay, affects most private and public employment. It requires employers to pay covered employees who are not otherwise exempt at least the federal minimum wage and overtime pay of one-and-one-half-times the regular rate of pay,” according to the United States Department of Labor. Laws such as the FLSA are meant to cover every worker, regardless of immigration status. Despite the fact that this law has been in effect since 2009, studies and research of low-wage workers all over the US, in particular immigrants, reveal the high prevalence of wage theft—the failure to pay workers the wages that are owed to them.
As covered in last month’s issue of The Green American, “Fair Labor at Home,” about 23.1 million immigrants work in the US, and only eight million are undocumented. Another 240,000 come here legally as temporary workers. Many of the most exploited workers on American soil come from this immigrant population, both those who are undocumented and those who are legal residents or recent citizens. Thus, because many recent immigrants are unfamiliar with US labor laws or are still learning English, they are easily taken advantage of, making them frequent victims of wage theft, dangerous conditions, and uncompensated workplace injuries, discrimination and physical assaults.
A study for the National Employment Law Project, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Center on Urban Economic Development found that foreign-born workers were nearly twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation, and of the overseas-born, Latino workers had the highest minimum wage violation rates of any ethnic group.
In 2009, NPR reported that an employee at a family-friendly chicken place in New York City earned $25 for an eight-hour shift—this is less than half of New York’s minimum wage for waiters. He also worked several 12-hour days yet received no overtime. Another employee claimed that he was paid in cash and worked more than 80 hours a week.
Undocumented immigrants are in a particular bind, because employers can threaten to expose their immigration status if they complain about wage theft or other abuses. Last month, the Huffington Post reported that an undocumented worker working at Quick Pita at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C. publicly claimed that his boss had been violating the labor law. The Guatemala native shared that he was paid under the table, earned $6.50 per hour his first year and $7 his second year—both of which are below D.C.’s minimum wage rate of $8.25—all while working more than 40 hours per week without the overtime pay he should have received by law. Shortly after, he was turned over to immigration officials and spent four days in detention, and now is waiting for his immigration hearing this month, after which he may be deported.
To halt the egregious abuse of vulnerable immigrant workers in the US, the federal government needs to adopt whistleblower protection laws. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) had proposed an amendment to the Senate immigration bill that would have provided such protection. Unfortunately, the amendment was taken out of the final version of the bill, which was passed in June. The bill has now moved to the House.
In the meantime, citizens are banding together to help protect exploited workers. In an effort to combat these violations, “the Labor Department has joined forces with immigrant advocacy groups for what they call “wage watch”—an approach taken straight from the concept of Neighborhood Watches,” according to NPR. These groups, comprised of ordinary people, will undergo training and will be given materials by the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards. Groups will then select a specific geographic zone and organize activities to improve labor law compliance in those areas. For example, they will conduct know-your-rights training, provide employers with information about compliance, and distribute informative literature to workers in different industries. Furthermore, when these groups come across workers who have been violated, they will refer them to a specific person in the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards, who will then enforce wage and hour laws.
“Thousands of workers every year are victims of wage and hour violations, and this initiative is a great tool to help enforce the labor laws that most of the time are not known by the workers nor by their employers. Immigrant workers are the most exploited and most vulnerable and we look forward to collaborating in this endeavor,” says Gonzalo Mercado, director of the nonprofit El Centro del Inmigrante.
How can you help to prevent wage theft in immigrant workers? Know the minimum wage laws in your state: http://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/america.htm; note that where the Federal and state laws have different minimum wage rates, the higher standard applies. Even though New York’s Wage Watch is just a few months old, send an email to NewYorkWageWatch@labor.state.ny.us or call 1-888-52-LABOR (if you are from NY), to find out what you can do to establish a group in your community. You can also call your Representatives and ask them to add strong worker whistleblower protection to future immigration reform bills.
– Krisna Bharvani, Green America Editorial Fellow
This past weekend’s New York Times article on the environmental, social, psychological, and financial costs of oil spills is a sobering reminder of the vast toll on people and planet when oil spills occur. As President Obama considers whether or not to approve the dirty tar sands Keystone XL pipeline, the lessons of recent heavy, Canadian crude oil disasters are grounds enough for saying no.
After three years of clean-up, the Enbridge Energy spill in the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek in Michigan is still not complete. The spill is the company’s largest. Enbridge believes that clean-up costs will approach $1 billion. The long clean-up time and staggering costs are not surprising if you consider that the more than 840,000 gallons of oil released were heavy crude that is extra difficult to clean up. As reported in the Times article, “The (Environmental Protection Agency) estimated that 180,000 had most likely drifted to the bottom, more than 100 times Enbridge’s projection.”
And more recently this past spring in Arkansas, an ExxonMobil spill of heavy, Canadian crude oil dumped approximately 210,000 gallons in a residential neighborhood. Residents, the State of Arkansas, and the Justice Department are all involved in litigation against ExxonMobil for damages.
Why would take on additional oil spill risks with heavy Canadian crude when we cannot cope with existing spills? The contamination of the natural environment endures, and as one affected resident in Michigan summed it up,” There are not enough zeros to pay us for what we’ve been through.”
President Obama, your new climate commitments demand a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline now.
In the last issue of the Green American, we looked at labor abuses in the US. We’d found that the Made in the USA label doesn’t necessarily mean the product was made under decent (or even legal) working conditions. US workers are often subjected to sweatshop-like conditions, sexual violence, prison-like working conditions, and other forms of exploitation.
Fortunately, there are green companies out there doing things right. Here are four ways that green companies are making products in the USA, and doing it under fair labor conditions:
Alvarado Street Bakery makes delicious organic breads in a holistically green manner. In addition to being organic, powered by renewable, and avid recyclers, they are run by their workers.
“We are a worker-owned cooperative owned and managed entirely by the people who work here,” Michael Girkout of Alvarado Street Bakery told us last January. “Our democratic workplace follows the “one person = one vote” principle, and we share our profits equally with all of our workers.”
RocknSocks not only sources their yarn from pre-consumer scraps, they also pay a premium to keep decent-paying manufacturing jobs here in the US.
“It can be done cheaper in other countries,” owner Misty Reily told us last week, “but we stay true to made-in-the-USA values, our growing to the size to utilize several mills has served to help control manufacturing costs.”
3. They Source From Unions!
Unions have brought us a number of wonderful things throughout the years — from weekends to medical leave, and fought to end child labor in the US.
Companies that source from unions support unions’ ongoing activism for worker rights.
“Justice Clothing has been selling union-made, sweatshop-free apparel from the US and Canada since 2003,” Eric Odier-Fink told us. “When our first employee reached 6 months employment, we re-formed into a coop to guarantee an egalitarian work environment, and that was when we joined Green America, then known as Co-op America.”
4. They Lift Up Vulnerable Workers!
Esperanza Threads takes the role of a socially responsible employer to another level, going beyond fair wages and safe working conditions. Although they make 100% organic cotton products, they say that social justice is the “leading force” behind their existence.
“As a project of the Grassroots Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice of Ohio, Esperanza Threads works to train people with barriers to employment,” said Esperanza’s Sister Mary Eileen Boyle. “We work with the under- and unemployed, as well as recently incarcerated women and political refugees (from Burma and Bhutan) to teach them a trade and create good green jobs in our area.”
To learn more about companies creating opportunities for vulnerable populations, click here.
Make Sure Your Purchases are Ethical:
In order to make sure the products you’re spending your money on reflect your values, it’s important to look beyond the organic label and the Made in the USA label.
Purchasing from companies listed in the National Green Pages is a good way to make sure that when you vote with your dollars, you’re voting for both environmental responsibility and social justice — companies listed in the National Green Pages are screened in both these areas.
You can also check out goodguide.com — a website that rates individual products on their social and environmental impacts, taking into account the conditions of workers. Finally, make sure to read through the latest issue of the magazine for more tips on how to buy ethically products made in the USA.
If you know a young person or someone who has been young in the past 10 years, you’ve probably heard an internship horror story. If not, a simple internet search should fix that…or just keep reading, because you’re about to meet one.
Hi. My name is Sierra Schellenberg. I’m 22 years old, and I just graduated college. I’ve had an internship every semester and summer as an upperclassman, and most of them have been pretty close to useless. Though competition’s tough in this division, probably my worst internship was my last one at a news blog. My average work tasks there included stealing pictures from Google, finding news stories for the other writers to blog about, and blogging my own stories. I would have gladly put up with the more inane tasks if I’d gotten any sort of guidance for my writing, but this wasn’t the case. My articles were scantily edited (my early portfolio is riddled with errors) and forget any sort of help with style. They’d often ask me to write about topics I had absolutely no claim to expertise in, such as the 10 best places to get margaritas in the city (I’d never had a margarita in my life at that point) or a critical analysis of the city’s budget plan (my degree is in philosophy). Sometimes they’d straight up forget to post my articles—which actually wasn’t that bad when compared to my previous internship, where a staff writer would post articles I’d written under her name. When I told my supervisor I was getting nothing out of my time there, he consented to give me some technical training, which lasted 10 minutes.
You might be wondering why I submitted to such a terrible situation. Easy: every paid writing position I looked at requiring at least two years experience in the field. My ex-employers aren’t alone in taking advantage of the current job market and cultural climate to exploit young workers, as a simple internet search will tell you.
Employers often hire interns to work for little or no pay, often asking them to perform menial tasks that don’t contribute anything new or relevant to their skillset. And interns often comply, all in the name of a good reference, networking opportunities, or exposure, even when the experience forces them to go into debt or a 40 hour plus work week.
While I’ve since moved on to a much better environment (shout out to Green America!), I’ve been hoping to write more about the toxic culture of internships. So when my editor proposed doing a follow-up series to a piece on worker exploitation here in America, intern exploitation came immediately to mind. While not quite as vile as some of the working conditions imposed upon immigrants, internships are nonetheless a sector of the American workforce where exploitation runs rampant.
Here are some ways you as an employer can go above and beyond the legal minimum for ensuring a fair workplace for interns.
NOTE: While I do reiterate the law here, this post should not replace legal counsel! Read more…
Although women make up slightly less than half of the US labor force (47 percent in 2010), the number of women subjected to sexual harassment or sexual violence vastly outnumbers that of men. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 84 percent of the sexual harassment complaints received were filed by women. And 9 of every 10 rape victims were women in 2003, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
The situation is far worse for working immigrant women, who, because they are new to the country face additional barriers to fair treatment. They may still be learning English, for example, and may not be well-acquainted with US labor laws.
(Check out “Fair Labor at Home,” the July/August issue of the Green American to learn how workers in the US are subjected to sweatshop-style working conditions.)
The case of female immigrants working on US farms aptly illustrates the vulnerability of all women immigrant workers to sexual violence and harassment, as detailed in a 2012 report released by Humans Rights Watch, titled, “Cultivating Fear.” The report is based on interviews with over 160 farmworkers working on various types of fields in California, North Carolina, and New York, as well as members of the agricultural industry, service providers, police, and other agricultural workplace specialists within the US.
Sexual violence and harassment seems to be a manifestation of power as the people carrying out these abuses on farmworkers are supervisors, employers, and farm labor contractors—anyone who has the ability to hire and fire workers.
According to the report, most farmworkers that were interviewed had personal experiences or directly knew others who had been raped, stalked, molested or had endured exhibitionism or vulgar and obscene language.
Patricia M., was twenty-one years old when she first came to the US. She did not have a work visa but was still able to get a job harvesting almonds. A foreman would pick and drop off all the workers every day, but on her third day, he dropped everyone off except for her. Instead, he took her to a remote field.
Patricia described him as “fat, very big.” She reported that he got on top of her and tied her hands with her bandanna to the hand grip above the truck door. Then, she said, “He took off my clothes and he raped me…. He hurt me badly.”
According to the report, after the rape, Patricia continued to work at the same farm. She could not leave the job because there was no other work available. The abuse continued. “He kept raping me and I let him because I didn’t want him to hit me. I didn’t want to feel pain.”
The worst part is that most females had not reported these abuses as they feared reprisals, and depend on their employers for their livelihoods. If a legal guestworker laboring on a farm is fired, she no longer has legal status in the US and can be deported. The situation is even worse for undocumented immigrant farmworkers, who may be threatened with deportation if they complain about sexual abuse.
So far, the US Congress has failed to pass legislation that would reform the existing guestworker system for agricultural workers, and it has also failed to pass a bill that would protect whistleblowers from reporting abuse on farms, regardless of their immigration status. So, many females suffer in silence while abusers use this fact as their weapon.
Four women who worked together in California, packing cauliflower, had a supervisor who would frequently expose himself and make offensive and degrading remarks about women. One day, they tried to defend a young woman—which resulted in all of them getting fired.
All workers, including immigrant workers, documented or not, should be entitled to the same workplace protection that workers born in the US have. However, several steps need to be taken in order to stop the pervasive problem of sexual abuse of immigrant workers, such as passing the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill (S. 1952) or similar legislation, which would protect whistleblowers and enhance protections for immigrant victims of violence.
– Krisna Bharvani, Green America Editorial Fellow
Despite the promise of certain legal rights to safe, healthy, and fair work conditions, sweatshops and slavery still exist here in the United States. As exposed in last month’s issue of The Green American, “Fair Labor at Home,” in fleeing from terrible working conditions in their native countries, many immigrants are flung from the frying pan into the fire. Seeing their precarious financial or legal situation, certain unscrupulous employers will sometimes lure desperate immigrants into their employment with promises of a better life, only to subject them to the very conditions many were trying to escape in the first place.
While in very sad cases employers use economic coercion, threats of deportation, or physical force to exploit their workers, part of the battle is knowing your rights as a worker. After all, how can you know when your rights are being violated and thus be incited to action, if you weren’t aware you had rights in the first place?
So whether you’re just touching down on American soil for the first time or have never left it, it’s important to get acquainted with your legal rights. That’s why we here at Green America have compiled a short list of some of your most fundamental rights as a worker.
A quick caveat: The information provided in this post does not constitute legal advice. It is merely a list of certain legal rights and certain resources that can describe your rights more in full. It is my hope that this post will serve as a simpler alternative to the labyrinth of links and pages that is the Department of Labor’s website.
There’s a federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour) and your state’s minimum wage (varies) — employees are entitled to the higher of the two. However, there are certain industries (agriculture, industries where tipping is prevalent, etc.) and positions (internships mostly) where it is legal for employers to pay their employees less than minimum wage. Some of these exceptions will be covered below.
Overtime for Hourly Workers
According to Federal labor law, when an employee works over 40 hours in a single week, s/he is owed a minimum of 1.5 times regular pay for every additional hour worked over 40. The week “need not coincide with the calendar week, but may begin on any day and at any hour of the day.” Federal law does not permit averaging of hours over two or more weeks.
Employees are not automatically entitled to overtime pay for work on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, or regular days of rest. Overtime is about the hours worked in a given week, so as long as the 40 hours plus is worked within a seven day window, the exact days worked doesn’t matter – be it Veterans’ Day, Christmas, or the day of your mother’s funeral.
Keep in mind that many professions are exempt from receiving overtime so make sure to check if you qualify before you go busting any doors down.
Overtime for Salaried Workers
If you make less than $23,600 ($455/week) you automatically qualify for overtime — even if you work in an industry that does not typically allot overtime rates. If your employer cuts your pay when you miss part of the work day, you’re not exempt. However, if neither of the aforementioned criteria applies to you, you may still merit overtime (unless of course you work in an exempt field).
There are no federal mandates requiring that employers allot their employees meal breaks during the workday, only state laws. However, not every state has bothered to enact regulations. Only 20 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia — require that employers to provide some sort of break for meals. Click here for a rundown of your state’s regulations if you’re lucky enough to work in an aforementioned state.
The outlook is even bleaker when it comes to breaks before and after lunch. A paltry nine states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – require that employers give their workers’ intermittent “rest” periods throughout the workday.
According to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in order to merit sick leave you must (1) have worked for your employer for at least 1,250 hours over the last 12 months; and (2) work at a location where there are at least 50 employees employed by your employer within 75 miles.
Those who do qualify are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child or for the serious illness of the employee or their spouse, child or parent.
But if the FMLA doesn’t apply to you, don’t give up hope! Many local governments have enacted their own regulations regarding sick leave.
Minimum Wages for Tipped Employees
Some states allow an employer to pay their employee less than minimum wage when the remaining portion can be made up in tips. For example, in North Carolina an employer can pay a waiter, bartender, or hotel maid as little as $2.13/hr as long as they make more than $20 in tips a month. For a full list of wages by state, check out the DOL’s website.
Filing a Complaint
Think one of your rights has been violated? For wage violation employees may find out how to file a complaint by contacting the local Wage and Hour Division office or by calling the program’s toll-free help line at 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243). “In addition, an employee may file a private suit, generally for the previous two years of back pay (three years in the case of a willful violation) and an equal amount as liquidated damages, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.”
For safely or environmental violations, workers or their representatives may file a complaint or request that an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA standards via fax, email, or telephone.
Protection for Whistle Blowers
The OSHA will withhold the identity of the whistle blower if requested by the worker. Thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, it is illegal for an employer to fire, demote, transfer, deny a raise, or discriminate in any way against a worker for filing a complaint or using other OSHA rights. Remedies can include job reinstatement and payment of back wages.
– Sierra Schellenberg, Green America Editorial Fellow
First the good news: The DC living wage bill, a measure that would force certain big-box retailers to pay a living wage of at least $12.50 per hour, was recently passed by the DC city council.
Next the better news: Wal-Mart stridently objected to the living wage bill — actually issuing DC councilmembers with an ultimatum: kill the bill or Wal-Mart would halt construction of three of its six planned stores.
Why is this good news? Well, for starters, Wal-Mart stores tend to bring many difficulties into local communities, including fewer small businesses, poverty wages, and a higher taxpayer burden.
The bad news is the bill isn’t out of the woods yet — DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who has the power to veto the bill, is being urged to shut the whole thing down by other mega-retailers such as Target and Home Depot.
We spoke with DC Council Member Vincent Orange on why he’s taken a leadership position on the living wage bill, his thoughts on the possibility of a veto and his personal vision for DC’s economy.
Green America / Martha van Gelder: What kind of responses to the bill have you gotten from your constituents?
DC Councilmember Vincent Orange: I’ve gotten good response — [voters] want us to stay strong and keep pushing the living wage bill. We’re going to see if we can get a ninth vote of support so we can override the mayor if he vetoes it.
Martha: How hard is it to live in Washington, DC on minimum wage?
Orange: DC is the ninth most expensive city to live in – our expenses are 42% higher than the average US city. The housing market has doubled in cost. It is extremely difficult to live off of $8.25 per hour, which comes to a yearly salary of about $17,000.00.
Martha: You‘ve noted that 1,000 people are moving to DC each month — and that you want to make sure the people who were here during the bad times get to stay for the good times. What are your plans for making that happen?
Orange: By ensuring the entities that are coming to town are providing good jobs, jobs that citizens can utilize to purchase a home and have a good quality of life without government assistance – people shouldn’t have a full-time job and yet rely on the government to provide food stamps, and housing assistance, where your kids have to get reduced fare lunches. DC residents should have full-time jobs where you can stand on your own.
We do not believe at this point that Wal-Mart is offering that kind of job. What Wal-Mart does is they pay poverty wages and shift the social cost to Government and the tax payers of DC.
Martha: If Wal-Mart doesn’t represent your ideal DC employer, what is your vision for DC’s economy?
Orange: My vision includes implementing policy that consists of the ability to earn a living wage, have affordable housing, affordable health care, and quality education. Then our citizens can prosper. We would like more partners like Costco who are paying an average of $21 per hour. 84% of DC Costco employees are DC residents. That is the kind of company we want to grow and prosper with.
Want to learn more?
In the last issue of the Green American magazine, we explore the question of whether “made in the USA” means sweatshop-free. We found that it doesn’t — and Wal-Mart’s labor practices are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mistreatment of workers in the US.
How can you ensure your dollars aren’t supporting worker abuse? Subscribe to our magazine, sign up for our free e-newsletter, or read up on the “Fair Labor at Home” tips from the latest issue of our magazine.