A Blueprint for Progressive Federalism: Washington State’s Portable Benefits Bill

The gig economy has been coming under a lot of fire lately.  Last month, The New Yorker skewered Lyft and other businesses for their grueling work culture, running the headline: “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.”  It pointed to the cautionary tale of Mary, a Lyft driver who — nine months into her pregnancy — started experiencing contractions behind the wheel and still decided to pick up passengers on her way to the hospital, right before she gave birth.  Lyft thought Mary’s story was “exciting.”  Others found it disturbing — especially because Lyft provides neither maternity leave nor health insurance.

This kind of story is not unique to Lyft.  Most employers in the gig economy classify their workers as independent contractors, not employees, thus excluding them from basic protections such as minimum wages and overtime pay.  And as the gig economy grows, this means that as much as 40% of the American workforce could lack an adequate social safety net.  In response, some local governments are taking action, experimenting with new benefit schemes for gig workers.  Many of these experiments are promising.  But cities and states should be careful, when creating new protections, not to displace the existing protections that workers are already entitled to.  To avoid this risk of “regressive federalism,” local governments should legislate against the background of employment law, building on it rather than bargaining it away.

This month, legislators in Washington state proposed a bill that establishes a portable benefits system for gig workers.  The bill offers a useful blueprint for progressive federalism, showing how local governments can help update the social safety net for the gig economy.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 16, 2017

Noncompete agreements — once limited to senior executives — are now a widespread practice, locking in almost one fifth of American workers.  This includes low-wage workers at fast-food chains and factories.  A recent report from The New York Times revealed how such agreements can harm workers, preventing them from finding new jobs or embroiling them in costly legal battles.  This morning, the Editorial Board called for an end to “such morally dubious practices.”  It pointed to California  — where state law makes noncompete agreements generally unenforceable — as one potential blueprint for reform.

Waymo has scored a big win in its lawsuit against Uber.  Yesterday, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction, barring one of Uber’s star engineers — who is accused of stealing trade secrets — from working on its self-driving car program for the duration of the litigation.  Wired has more.

Ford is cutting jobs, Reuters reports.  The auto manufacturer plans to shrink its salaried workforce in North America and Asia by as much as 10%, in a move that could attract the ire of the Trump administration.  President Trump has promised to expand jobs in the auto industry — earlier this year, he took credit for Ford’s decision not to shift its manufacturing plants to Mexico — but this most recent announcement (which will likely affect thousands of American workers) is a serious setback.

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Weekend News & Commentary — April 29-30, 2017

Yesterday was the 100th day of the Trump presidency, and the report cards are in.  In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, President Trump maintained that he has “kept his promise[s]” to the American people.  He pointed to his achievements in curbing immigration and overhauling the United States’ trade relationships.  But there’s one area in which he has few concrete wins to show: jobs.  The White House website claims that the Trump administration has created “over 500,000 new jobs” — but the number is probably closer to 300,000, and it’s far from clear whether Trump can take credit for those, according to NPR.  The Washington Post looks ahead to what the President’s next steps will be, as he tackles tax reform with the hopes of stimulating job growth.

New research has confirmed what has long been suspected: income inequality reduces economic opportunity.  In a new paper published in Science, Stanford economist Raj Chetty tracked rates of income mobility since the 1940s, finding a distinct downward trend: whereas 90% of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents at the age of 30, only 50% of children born in the 1980s have done the same.  In the face of widening income disparities, the American dream could be “fading.”  Read the accompanying essay from economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger here.

Are women allowed to love their jobs?  That’s the question that Jill Filipovic tackles in The New York Times this weekend, reflecting on a culture that values work as a crucial component of male identities, but “remains ambivalent about whether adult women working . . . is a good thing.”  She suggests that, until this attitude changes, workplace reforms for women — however much needed — could be slow to materialize.

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The NFL Combine: Does the 40-Yard Dash Violate the ADA?

The 2017 NFL Draft begins on April 27, when the nation’s most promising college football players will be holding their breath, waiting for their names to be called out (or not).  Their draft status will depend on an unknowable combination of factors, including their college career, their future potential, and last but not least, their performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.  This year’s Combine was held last month, with over 300 players — the top prospects in their draft class — descending on Indianapolis to participate in the most grueling job interview they will ever face.

Whether the Combine is a reliable indicator of NFL talent is a hotly contested topic.  The event has been criticized as “overrated,” “a waste of time,” and a “ridiculous meat market.”  And if we take a close look at its process, we might also add another criticism to that list: a potential violation of federal law.  By subjecting prospects to tests that are invasive and insufficiently job-related, the NFL Combine could be running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Today’s News & Commentary — April 5, 2017

Title VII protects LGBT workers from discrimination, a federal appeals court ruled for the first time yesterday.  The plaintiff in the case, Kimberly Hively, alleged that she had been fired from her teaching job because she is a lesbian.  In an 8-3 decision, the full Seventh Circuit held that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” prohibited under Title VII.  The decision — which LGBT advocates have called a “gamechanger” — makes the Seventh Circuit the highest federal court to reach this conclusion.  It comes only weeks after the Eleventh Circuit arrived at a contrary ruling, setting up a circuit split for potential Supreme Court review.  The New York Times has more.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka blasted Washington for losing sight of workers’ interests, in a public address on Tuesday.  Trumka criticized the Trump administration for not fulfilling its campaign-trail promises — he called for more drastic changes to NAFTA than the President’s initial plans suggest — and encouraged workers to bargain with their employers for better wages and better working conditions, “whether [they] have a union or not.”  NPR reports.

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, as noted on the blog.  This year it fell on April 4, meaning that women had to work an extra three months to catch up with their male counterparts — only a slight improvement over last year, when Equal Pay Day was on April 12.  The Christian Science Monitor looks at the numbers, finding that far too little progress has been made on closing the gender wage gap in the last decade, and that the gap is even larger for women of color.

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Weekend News & Commentary — April 1-2, 2017

Fox News has paid out as much as $13 million to fend off sexual harassment claims against their top anchor, Bill O’Reilly.  A New York Times investigation has revealed that five women (including employees) have received payouts either from O’Reilly or the network in exchange for their promise not to pursue litigation or speak out in public.  This is the second sexual harassment scandal to hit Fox News in the last year: long-time chairman Roger Ailes resigned in July after several female employees accused him of inappropriate conduct.

President Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary is on his way to the Senate floor.  On Thursday the Senate HELP Committee approved Alexander Acosta.  No date has been set for the confirmation vote, but the expectation is that he will be approved.  And while Acosta has been welcomed as a far more qualified candidate than Trump’s last nominee, Andrew Puzder, some remain skeptical.  The Nation warns that Acosta’s deference to the President’s labor policies — such as the rollback of overtime rules and the elimination of OSHA training grants — makes him “more dangerous” than he might appear.

Does the United States need a wall?  Not according to the numbers, The New Yorker argues.  A recent paper from researchers at UC San Diego reveals that the pace of undocumented immigration into the United States has slowed over the past decade, meaning that the competitive pressure on low-skilled jobs and wages is easing up.  The dilemma facing the United States is not how to protect its borders, the researchers claim, but rather “how to prepare for a lower-immigration future.”

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Weekend News & Commentary — March 18-19, 2017

On the campaign trail, President Trump pledged that he would create 25 million jobs over the next decade.  Will he keep his promise?  The New York Times thinks not.  The Editorial Board takes aim at the President’s “wheezing jobs effort,” pointing to his recently released budget proposal — which would cut the Department of Labor’s budget by 21% and eliminate several important jobs programs — and his neglect of important job markets, such as the clean energy sector.

President Trump’s labor policies have also attracted the ire of unions and labor leaders.  The SEIU and Food Chain Workers Alliance have announced a general strike on May 1 (#May1Strike), coinciding with International Workers’ Day.  More than 300,000 food chain employees and 40,000 service workers are expected to turn out, The Hill reports, to protest the Trump administration and in particular its hardline stance on immigration.

Meanwhile, the administration’s immigration crackdown has worsened the farm labor shortage in California, The Los Angeles Times reports.  Although farm wages have shot up, few Americans have been willing to accept those jobs — casting doubt on President Trump’s claim that tougher borders will help American-born workers.

Disney will be paying $3.8 million in back wages to 16,339 of its “cast members” as part of a settlement with the Department of Labor.  The DOL’s investigation revealed that Disney resorts in Florida deducted a “costume” expense that caused some employees’ hourly rates to fall below the federal minimum wage.  The Christian Science Monitor has more.

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