Today’s News & Commentary—May 11, 2017

The New York Times reports that Canada’s technology sector may benefit from the Trump Administration’s efforts to restrict immigration and immigration’s increased centrality in the American political debate.  After the travel ban was announced, Canada received an increase in temporary and student visa requests.  While not enough time has elapsed to determine whether the “Trump effect” has staying power, early signs indicate that fields, such as artificial intelligence, will benefit by attracting foreign workers.  The Atlantic suggests Canada is well-positioned to capitalize on these developments.  The country has publicly welcomed immigrants and invested in its technology sector.  Read more here.

Uber is piloting a personal injury insurance program for drivers in eight states.  The insurance program will be funded by a mix of increased fares for customers and a fee for drivers who opt-in.   Customers will pay five cents more a mile in these states, and drivers will contribute 3.75 cents per mile.  Maximum benefits will equal $1 million for medical expenses, $150,000 in survivor benefits, and wage replacement of fifty percent of a driver’s weekly earnings.  However, Uber has not escaped criticism by instituting this program.  Commenting on this development, Rebecca Smith, the deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, objected to the optional nature of the program and stated that “[i]f Uber valued its workers, it would simply pay its workers’ compensation premiums and cover all of them.”

In other gig economy news, the New Yorker published a piece on liberals embrace of the gig economy.  Nathan Heller details the connections between Democratic political operatives and companies, such as Airbnb and Uber.  While showing that the gig economy is a source of wealth for some, the article highlights evidence suggesting that those who benefit the most from the gig economy are not the same people who benefited from the service industries being disrupted.  Describing the findings of Boston College Sociology Professor Juliet B. Schor, Heller observes,

“[i]nstead of simply driving wealth down, it seemed, the gigging model was helping divert traditional service-worker earnings into more privileged pockets—causing what Schor calls a ‘crowding out’ of people dependent on such work.  That distillation-coil effect, drawing wealth slowly upward, is largely invisible.”

In light of these effects, Heller asks what can be done to make the gig economy viable over the long-term.  Read more here.

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Today’s News & Commentary — May 3, 2017

Hollywood writers have achieved victory.  As the New York Times reports, the Writers Guild of America reached a “middle-of-the night deal” with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group that bargains on behalf of studios.  As the Los Angeles Times put it, the deal itself “was a pulse-pounding climax that a Hollywood screenwriter might have conceived.”  Although the union did not get everything it wanted — namely, uniform pay for writing done across platforms — it won major concessions from the studios, including better pay, job protection for paternity leave, and a bailout for the union’s struggling health insurance plan.

The New York Times also weighs in on the “lopsided pay structure in coal.”  While coal executives take home huge sums of money — recent bonuses have been in the $10-$15 million range — pay for the average coal worker has stagnated.  From 2004 to 2016, the average salary of chief executives in the coal industry increased as much as five times faster than the salaries of lower-wage coal workers.  Although this disparity reflects widening income inequality across all sectors of the American economy, pay for coal executives “grew much faster, on average, than that of their counterparts across the wider economy, while the average pay for coal industry construction workers failed to keep up with similar jobs in other fields.”  As the Times also notes, the “yawning gap takes on an added significance” in the coal industry since “Trump has made lifting the fortunes of blue-collar and rural Americans a centerpiece of his administration.”

At U.S. News and World Report, Andy Stern addresses the subject of automation and its effect on jobs.  As Stern posits, “automation is increasingly replacing jobs and leaving too few good new jobs in its wake,” but elected officials have failed to take action. According to Stern, “[i]f we want an economy that allows everyone to be economically secure, we need our economists to get out of their bubble and thinking about how we can rightfully address automation.”

According to CNBC, industries from hospitality to landscaping are struggling to find seasonal help because the government “tightened up on visas” for temporary foreign workers.  At-issue are H-2B visas, which are issued to temporary, non-agricultural foreign workers, with a cap of 66,000 visas per fiscal year.  Although the 2015 spending bill exempted returning workers from the cap, no such exception was passed for 2017. On Monday, lawmakers introduced a government spending bill that would increase the number of allotted H-2B visas to about 130,000, but even if the measure passes, it will take weeks for the visas to be processed.  The result?  Many workers “probably won’t arrive in time for Memorial Day and maybe not until after the Fourth of July.”

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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Today’s News & Commentary — March 13, 2017

The confirmation hearing for President Trump’s Labor nominee, Alexander Acosta, has been rescheduled due to scheduling conflicts.  The hearing is now set for March 22.  In the meantime, Acosta has been meeting one-on-one with senators to drum up support for his nomination.  Several Democrats have still not made up their mind on Acosta, Bloomberg BNA reports, and will continue to scrutinize his reputation.

That reputation is mixed, according to The New York Times.  Some — including immigration advocates and his colleagues at Florida International University — believe that Acosta is “a fair leader” who won’t let his conservative values affect his decisions.  But former colleagues claim that during his time at the Justice Department, Acosta sometimes acted out of political expedience, hiring candidates based on political connections instead of merit.

Can an employee be punished for refusing to participate in genetic testing?  Maybe, if a new bill — H.R. 1313, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act — becomes law.  The bill, which secured House committee approval last week, would allow employers to collect genetic information on employees who participate in workplace wellness programs (read our previous coverage of corporate wellness programs here).  The Washington Post has more.

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Educating America’s Twenty-First Century Workforce

The nature of work in America is changing, with increasingly sophisticated automation, advanced digital platforms, and other technological innovations serving as a catalyst.  And these transformations are only adding to the challenges facing the American labor force and its readiness to succeed at work, especially younger workers who are relying on their secondary educations to jump-start their careers.  In a survey released by Achieve in 2005, employers estimated that about 39 percent of high school graduates were unprepared to meet entry-level job expectations, and the same percentage of recent graduates in the labor market found “gaps” in their workforce preparation.  Even more notable, employers in the same survey estimated that about 45 percent of recent graduates in the workforce were not prepared to advance in their companies beyond entry-level positions, a problem that at the time resulted in millions of job openings that companies are unable to fill with the right people.  A similar 2011 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona found similar results, with about 40 percent of high school graduates unprepared for career training.

And these numbers could become even more stark as technology continues to impact the labor landscape, leaving millions of Americans without the skills necessary to secure and maintain employment.  For instance, technological advancements will increasingly polarize “labor-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment (especially among young people), and stagnating incomes for a large share of households.”  Moreover, while automation “brings the promise of higher productivity, increased efficiencies, safety, and convenience,” it also carries the danger — continually increasing as robotics and artificial intelligence advances — of job displacement and depressed wages.

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Today’s News & Commentary — February 22, 2017

The influx of refugees into upstate New York has helped revitalize previously-suffering communities.  As the New York Times reports, “[t]he impact has been both low-budget and high-tech”: refugees have provided local businesses with inexpensive, willing labor; foreign-born students have enrolled — paying tuition and fees — at upstate schools; and street-level entrepreneurs have opened new shops.  Somewhat ironically, the cities’ struggles made them popular locations to settle refugees.  Because people left, housing prices dropped, and refugees came in and were willing “to put in the sweat equity that a lot of people weren’t anymore.”  That, in turn, “put properties back on the tax rolls.”

The Wall Street Journal also weighs in on the benefits that refugees bring to the economy. In addition to providing a key source of labor, many refugees “bring a resilience and level of expertise that makes them well-suited for learning on the job.”  According to a study from the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 28% of the refugees over the age of 25 who settle in the U.S. arrive with at least a bachelor’s degree.  The Wall Street Journal notes that skills from abroad may not always translate, and some employers have found that refugees need help with translation services, resume writing, American-style management techniques, and tips for navigating their new lives.  Despite potential training challenges, however, refugees can provide companies with  “a strong competitive advantage,” enabling them to better understand, for example, the needs of clients in key markets across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Chief Judge Patricia Elaine Campbell-Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims recently held that the government had violated the FLSA by failing to examine whether it was required to pay employees who continued to work during the partial government shutdown in 2013.  That those workers were later paid for their time was irrelevant. The Washington Post explains that the decision entitles workers to minimum wage pay for the hours they worked between October 1 and October 5, 2013.  Judge Campbell-Smith ordered the government and the plaintiffs to calculate amounts due and report back by April 7.

The New York Times editorial board posits that blaming robots for job loss, “while not as dangerous as protectionism and xenophobia, is also a distraction from real problems and real solutions.”  The Times points out that if automation were rapidly accelerating, labor productivity and capital investment would be increasing as well.  But the data shows the opposite: in the 2000s, labor productivity and capital investment decelerated.  The problem lies instead with “politicians, who have failed for decades to support policies that let workers share the wealth from technology-led growth.”