The Gig Economy May Not Be Good For Workers Or Employers

The gig economy has received a lot of attention within the last few years because of the creation of Uber, Lyft and some of the other technology driven enterprises.  This has raised awareness about workers being misclassified or not being classified as actual employees.  The California Supreme Court recently imposed criteria on businesses to determine whether or not employees should be classified as employees or contractors.  What’s going on with non-employee status?  Is it growing and is it beneficial for both employees and employers?  And what about the misclassification issue?  Is it just Uber and a few other technology organizations that have created misclassification issues?

First of all, media sources have made it seem like this is a brand new style of work.  It isn’t.  Non-employee work status has been around.  There have been many occupations that have had this type of status.   Think about  actors, musicians and other artisans who have worked for themselves for many years.  Barbers and hairdressers, media workers and computer people have also been independent workers.  In fact, just about in any profession you could find independent contractors.  But why is there so much talk about it now?  Is it really gaining in popularity?

The U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics says it’s hard to say if non-employee status jobs are growing because there are different types of workers such as contingent or alternative employment arrangements.  Plus, the data isn’t real current to really determine if an increase has occurred. The number of workers classified under either as contingent or alternative employment was less than 10% in 2005 of all the workers BLS counted. So if you’re reading headlines about the huge increases for the gig economy, they probably are not accurate because there is no real way to tell.  There has been somewhat of an uptick of this since the Great Recession as people have had difficulty finding jobs.  That could be the reason for all the talk about it.

National Public Radio did a series on the gig economy.  In one of the episodes, they looked at  workers who had non-employee status.  Workers  told about their experiences with non-employee status.    Many expressed the freedom and flexibility they enjoyed to chose when to work.  Some realized it could be feast or famine as far as the work.  Some were able to work long periods at a time while others were not.  Most of them admitted it wasn’t the best type of work for the long term so they couldn’t afford to buy homes or purchase their own benefits.  A few were doing fairly well as contracted workers.  Some said they had been laid off and it scared them enough they didn’t want to work where that could happen again. There were some, too, who couldn’t find work and working as a non-employee was what they had to do to make a living.

In another show, NPR looked at the gig economy from the employer’s perspective.  One example they cited was a law firm that contracted with legal workers to do repetitive daily tasks so the law firm’s employed staff could work on the larger caseloads.  Employers said contracted workers provide the flexibility when they need it.  In a joint report, Marketplace.org and Business Insider said employers are  rewarded for not having so many employees.  The stock market responds  more positive to lower employee levels.   As they mention in the article, a corporation’s stock will rise if there’s a layoff.  Having fewer employees brings greater profits and shareholder return.  Hiring contract workers helps with that because it reduces the labor costs of employees that can impact the bottom line.  That raises some other financial concerns.

While  independent, contract, alternative employment arrangements and other similar work styles may help the bottom line for employers, it doesn’t always help the worker.  Wages can be much lower.  The law firm from the NPR report paid the contracted workers lower than the employees because of the type of work they were doing.  The workers may have been lawyers but that didn’t determine their pay.   It may have been a way, too, for the law firm to provide higher wages for their employees but, as Brookings Institute pointed out, the lower wages for non-employee staff could have a detrimental effect for all workers because it can  suppress wages especially if the non-employee market grows.  The other issue is workers may receive a flat fee for the work they’re being hired to do and when broken down into an hourly rate, it may be less than minimum wage. It’s important non-employee workers watch the amount of time they provide their services and overtime pay is also not usually included in the flat fee which also reduces the worker’s earning potential.

It’s also not just about wages.  Under current labor laws, non employees may not receive benefits such as unemployment or workers’ compensation.  Health insurance is usually not included either.  The money earned for the work performed by non employees may not be enough for a health insurance policy especially if the amount of work changes. Again, the lack of benefits puts ALL workers in a precarious situation as it sets the precedence for employer benefits of the future and diminishes the leverage workers would have.

Many non employees can also end up with owing back taxes either because they didn’t think about the obligation of paying taxes or forgot about taxes.   This can become a huge financial strain especially if their wages are low and the penalties and interest are included in back tax payments which only increases the amount.

The employers who willfully misclassify workers are looking at savings.  They don’t have to pay benefits or their share of taxes.  In addition, by classifying workers as non-employees, they don’t have to spend time and money managing labor laws and regulations.  The consequences for misclassifying can be huge.  Again, back taxes, interest and penalties can all add up.  It also creates an unnecessary burden on those employers who actually classify their workers correctly.  They may be the ones who have the brunt of paying tax increases because of employers misclassifying workers.  This isn’t to say that all the employers who misclassify their workers are doing it on purpose because it can be a mistake.  But both federal agencies, IRS and Department of Labor, have guidelines to help employers determine non-employees and employees.

While some employers may view non-employees as being more of a savings and allowing greater flexibility, it may not be a good alternative.  Non-employees, depending on the status, may not have to answer to management at the company they are contracted through.  This can cause several problems that can be improper work being performed, not working  when needed, not getting along with others, not being productive and the list can go on.  In other words, those type of problems can eat up the savings of having contracted workers as more time and money is spent to resolve those issues.   Although some would say loyalty is hard to come by now, there still can be some issues when it comes to non-employees.  Contracted employees usually are not as committed and loyal as regular employees which can reduce productivity. There also can be a loss of continuity as non-employees doing a single job can change quickly.  This can cause problems with customer service as the experience and knowledge isn’t available.

As far as workplace flexibility and some of the other reasons to have contact workers, those can be great issues for workers and employers to work on together.  Other alternatives may be identified as both sides can utilize problem solving strategies to help them.  Yes, training may be needed, even a facilitator but it may provide the organization with a much better long-lasting and sustainable solution.

Unions, too, can help non-employee status and misclassification issues. They are great sources for knowledge of labor laws and regulations.  Non-employees can also be good organizing opportunities and that can help with suppressed wages that only hurt everybody.  Actors, writers, and other media people are great examples of how unions have helped them wages and benefits and workplace issues within a non-employee environment.

For some people and some workplaces, contracted working  may work but it’s important both workers and employers really look at the issue before deciding.  We as a society also need to look at what we want and value.  More current labor laws are needed to address issues workers and unions have in addition to those of  workplaces.  We need to address the value of shareholder return over workers.  Why are companies rewarded for fewer employees?  Why should they be rewarded for laying people off?  Is shareholder gain so much more important than the lives of everyday people?  All of these things need to be considered as we look at how we work.

In a Harvard Business Review article, a former U. S. Labor Department  official writes of his concern about a possible trend on non-employee status.  He says it could hurt the overall economy as income inequality broadens and wages continue to be suppressed.  In addition, employers, he says, should not shirk their responsibilities as employers.  If they do, other problems will follow.  Is that what we value?  Is that what we want?

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What is Behind Wage Stagnation?

Last time, we wrote about the positive impact on wages created by unions, even for non-union workers. This time, we will look at a less positive trend involving earnings.

We will start with some good news. In Ohio, as in many areas, we have reached a point where the number of available jobs exceeds the number of job seekers. This is obviously good news for job seekers and is typically bad news for employers.

Traditionally, when employers have difficulty finding new employees, wages tend to increase. It is a basic example of supply and demand. Unfortunately, this is where the bad news for workers comes in.

According to the Paychex/IHS Market Small Business Employment Watch, hourly earnings growth in June fell to a gain of 2.47%, the first time it has been below 2.5% since early 2016. Both values are below the 3% economic growth goal of the administration.

Why are workers lagging behind economic growth? Studies point to a reduced interest on the part of workers to move to a different area where jobs are more plentiful, declines in productivity in some jobs, and the people no longer looking for work. The biggest single factor they list is the decline in unionization of the workforce which limits the power to bargain for higher earnings.

One thing that is clear is employers cannot blame weak profits for stagnant wages. A study by Yardeni Research reveals operating and reported margins have doubled since 1994, at least for the S&P 500 companies. A report from Harvard Business Review states total wages account for 57% of total revenue today compared to 65% in 1975. While the US economy has expanded over the past decades, the portion earmarked for workers has declined.

It appears often the reason for wage stagnation is the refusal of some employers to pay more. Without a driving force for higher wages such as a bargaining unit, this trend is likely to continue or even worsen. Keep this in mind when considering the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision on union dues which certainly has the potential to damage unions and workers.

There is one group appears to be winning: CEO’s. CNBC reports the compensation for top executives at the 350 largest US corporations has skyrocketed, with the average CEO in 1978 earning 30 times the salary of a typical worker versus a hair-raising 271 times today.

The stagnation of wages has many impacts on the workforce, including difficulty in meeting basic needs. The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio reports only 2 of the 10 most common jobs in Ohio pay enough for a worker to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.

They reported the hourly wage a renter needs to earn to pay for a basic, two-bedroom unit is currently $15.25. The coalitions said the average Ohio renter earns $13.32 an hour, nearly $2 less than needed. Only registered nurses ($30.59) and customer-service representatives ($15.34) had median hourly wages that topped the amount needed for housing.

We wish the news was better for workers this week. We hope the need to work together cooperatively to address issues, including wages and productivity will continue to be recognized.

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For Organizations To Be Successful, They Need to Help Employees Be Successful

In Bloomberg this week they wrote about Amazon’s plan, Pivot, to help with employee performance.  Pivot is to help employees placed on PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) and also help them remain as Amazon employees.   Apparently, PIP did little to help improve performance or maintain employment at Amazon.  Amazon admits they probably weren’t using PIP as they should have and stories from employees placed on the internet validate it.  In his 1997 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos warned the Amazon workplace could be difficult and that appears to be true, also.

Performance improvement plans are used by a lot of different workplaces.  They can be a good tool to help resolve misunderstandings and correct behavior.  The problem is some use them in a negative way and that appears to be what happened at Amazon.   The stories from employees are fairly consistent .   Employees tell the improvement plans have happened too often and are used whether an employee is performing well or not.  Some employees also say it’s a way for Amazon to terminate employees and that created the need for executives to develop Pivot.

While most managers dislike situations escalating to a performance plan, it can sometimes be absolutely necessary and many times they can provide a remedy to a difficult situation.  The problem can be it can cause resentment from the employee but it also depends on why the plan is needed, how it is done and how it will be used.  When performance plans are done correctly, it requires some work and follow-thru not just on the employee’s part but also on the supervisor, too.  The purpose behind any performance plan should be to help the employee succeed and that’s also why regular meetings need to be held while the performance plan is in place.  Both the employee and supervisor should meet together to develop a plan both think will work.  Any goals established should be realistic and obtainable.  It also provides the employee with an opportunity to have some feedback so they know whether they are doing something right or an adjustment is needed. It did not appear Amazon supervisors were applying PIP effectively.

Amazon added Pivot to give another dimension to performance plans.  Executives said employees needed to be able to respond to the issues being raised when being placed on a performance plan.  In addition, executives realized employees also needed the chance to maintain their employment since so many appeared to fail.  That sounds like a great approach but, unfortunately, especially for employees, it hasn’t always worked out.   As with the PIP process, there have been issues with Pivot, too, as both Bloomberg and Business Insider articles point out.  Both articles describe the process.  When an employee receives a performance improvement plan under Pivot, they have three choices they can make.  They can quit and obtain their severance pay or they can work on some performance goals set by their manager or they can meet with a panel of their peers and tell their side of the story and the manager will give their argument.  A fourth person, called a career ambassador, helps the peer panel with their decision and later informs the employee of that decision.  The career ambassador is someone experienced in team and employee matters according to the job openings on Amazon and other job placement sites.

Again, the idea of allowing employees to respond to their performance improvement plan is important and should be part of any improvement plan such as with Pivot.  Even though employees may show resentment, supervisors need to allow and listen to the concerns and issues the employee raises.  There may be some reasonable counter arguments by employees that need to be taken into consideration.  A good supervisor will do that and it can provide some help with the plan development.  It also may be best to meet a day or two after the plan has been given to allow the employee to think about what happened, maybe to help eliminate some raw feelings and work on a rebuttal.  It’s critical for supervisors not to wait too long from giving the performance plan because the behavior or issue needs to be addressed and it also is important to give the employee the time to work on improving the situation.  This will allow the employee time to succeed.

The problem though with Pivot is it didn’t really make any improvements for employees or the performance plan process.  It has been a band aid for the old process, PIP, and  is one plan on top of another that has its own set of issues.  For instance, the panel is supposed to listen to both sides of the story, from the manager and from the employee.  They are then, with the guidance of the career ambassador, supposed to make a decision just like a jury.   The panel members don’t know the employee and may not know the job the employee has done but can represent the employee. Even though they may represent the employee, it doesn’t mean they will decide in the employee’s favor, which apparently happened frequently.  It also doesn’t mean the decision reached will actually result in an effective process that will lead to clear expectations or change of behavior.   Another issue with Pivot is having peers decide the fate of a fellow employee is never a good idea because it can cause division, resentment and trust issues among employees which create a bad workplace environment.  The culture becomes “us versus them.”  In addition, it puts a burden on the employees on the panel of having to decide what happens to a fellow employee, and they, in turn, may be concerned about their own fate if in the same position.

Pivot is also a bad communication tool between everyone.  When meeting with an employee to put them on a performance plan, it should be done in private without interruptions.  There was no guarantee of privacy on at least two of the three choices.  Having peers involved is not a good idea because it’s uncertain if they will keep the matter confidential.  For most employees this can be an embarrassing situation and shows lack of respect for them.

In addition, video conferencing was used with the panel choice and that’s not a good way to resolve serious issues such as performance.  No reason was given why video conferencing was used but meetings regarding performance should always be face-to-face situations.  It demonstrates the seriousness and concern of the problem.  It also helps to convey the sincerity of trying to resolve the issue, too, and can be a way to show a supervisor wants to help the employee succeed. Plus, there’s less of a chance of miscommunication problems. There are too many occurrences of technology breaking down which reduces the ability of everyone to actually listen and comprehend during the session.  It also can mean important information could be left out.

There are other issues with Amazon’s performance plans but both plans show a much bigger underlying problem that occurs within Amazon culture and some other companies as well.  That issue is the lack of understanding of the important role employees play in the success of the organization and why it’s necessary to help them succeed, too.  It helps to establish the culture of an organization which can determine the fate of the organization.  There have been stories of Jeff Bezos throwing out insults or criticizing employees.  It’s not an example of good leadership and it doesn’t help the culture as that behavior will trickle down to others.   This is not a critique of Jeff Bezos because he’s not alone.  There are plenty of CEOs out there that exhibit similar behavior but it only hurts the organization.  It may be okay for a short period of time but it will eventually drag the organization down if that continues. If an organization wants to be a success for both the short term and the long term, then they need to help employees be successful, too.

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Even in the South, the Benefits of Unions for All Workers is Recognized.

When I read newspapers from my home in South Carolina, rarely do I look for articles about the benefits of unions. After all, the state has one of the lowest levels of unionized workers in the country. Most employers and elected leaders actively oppose unions. This probably contributes to the low ranking of employee earnings (45th among the states) and higher than average occurrence of workplace injuries (44th).

One of the employers actively opposing unions has been Boeing. Employees at their North Charleston facility make less than their unionized colleagues in the company’s facilities in the northwest. Whenever union representation elections have occurred, strong anti-union campaigns have contributed to the union being rejected.

You can imagine my surprise when a recent article in the Charleston Post and Courier reported the results of a recent representation election, which was won by a union, could benefit all workers at the North Charleston plant.

A small unit of flight-line workers voted 104 to 65 to be represented in collective bargaining by the International Association of Machinists. As the article pointed out, “Employers typically raise wages and benefits for all workers – not just those covered by union contracts – whenever a labor union is successful in organizing part, but not all, of a business.

“Whatever the union contract provides, employers will typically extend that to non-union workers in order to avoid further unionization.” They noted when a union has a strong workplace presence, the average pay of non-union workers is 5 percent higher.

These increases also tend to spread to other area employers who must compete for workers from the same labor pool. Even though they may not be union members, they will benefit from the presence of the local at Boeing.

Do not expect workers to receive these increases anytime soon. The company has already promised to challenge the results, contending the composition of the unit is prohibited by federal law. This will undoubtedly make its way through the NLRB and into the courts before it is resolved. In the meantime, Boeing could delay the start of negotiations with the IAM until after the appeal is decided. Since initial contracts for a new unit take longer than other agreements, a long process lies ahead.

CALMC encourages both Boeing and the IAM to begin their relationship by pledging to avoid traditional labor-management behaviors. If the parties agree to work cooperatively, they will have the opportunity to build by working together, not against each other. The outcome would benefit both parties.

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In a couple of weeks, we plan to explore the issue of the impact a shrinking pool of candidates is having on worker earnings. The result may not be what you think for most workers.

In the meantime, check out our first Podcast. You can listen by clicking the On-Demand tab on our website and selecting Podcasts.

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It’s Time To Start Working Together

I ran across a U. S. Chamber of Commerce report on worker centers in America.  The Chamber appears to be worried worker centers are increasing and they look at them as  comparable to a union, which they are not, or a way to organize workers against an employer or group of employers in a particular industry.

In their report, the U. S. Chamber admits there is a key difference between worker centers and labor unions.  That difference is worker centers do not negotiate labor contracts.  Labor unions may help worker centers because they have expertise in helping all workers with workplace issues and they also know how to campaign and raise awareness for social causes.  Some worker centers have affiliated with a union but not all of them do that.

According to their website, the Chamber sites labor as one of their issues.  They say many positive things about U. S. labor but they also say they want to keep wages at current levels instead of narrowing the wage gap.  In fact if you do a search on their website about income inequality, the Chamber will lay blame on many other issues instead of CEOs receiving enormous pay increases from their boards.  But according to Forbes magazine,  income inequality is directly related to those pay increases.  CEOs and business owners,  the people the Chamber represents, make 270 times more than the average worker according to the Forbes article and they also say CEO pay has increased 930% since 1978.

In addition, the U. S. Chamber is fighting safe working conditions.  They argue against      U. S. Department of Labor regulations that would require federal contractors to disclose violations in regards to regulations.  The Chamber feels this imposes a hardship on companies because it costs them more and takes more time to report any problems. On the other hand, Liberty Insurance says they will identify on a regular basis the top 10 most common non-fatal injuries and accidents to encourage and help U. S. employers have safer working conditions.  They say the $50 billion cost to employers for those injuries and accidents obviously impacts their ability to be profitable.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of fatal accidents that occurred in workplaces during 2016 increased by 7% from the year before.  In other words, over 5,000 worker deaths happened that didn’t need to happen.  That may explain why tighter regulations are necessary.

One community in Colorado started a worker center because there were so many day workers staying in homeless shelters.  The center was started to help workers understand their rights and to help them find a job with a livable wage instead of relying on others or public assistance for support.  Another worker center in Florida helped tomato pickers have safer working conditions.  Many of the workers were working in extremely hot working conditions and were not permitted to take breaks.  The worker center helped them change work rules so that they now take regular breaks under shade.  I think most people would agree safe working conditions including heat related protections are absolutely necessary.

In 2006, Cornell University under their Industrial Labor Relations department wrote a report on worker centers.  Worker Centers:  Organizing Communities at the Edge of a Dream by Janice Fine tells about the benefits worker centers provide not just for workers but for communities and employers. In addition to helping workers find jobs with livable wages, they also help those who are having problems finding assistance in an already convoluted system.  Some centers also provide legal assistance for possible wage theft issues.  Centers can also be an organizing location for campaigns or drives to raise awareness on certain social issues.  This  helps to teach workers  leadership skills which can aid an employer. Some worker centers help with safety training which can help prevent accidents and injuries from occurring. Workers can also learn  English which also helps employers as they show new workers what’s expected of them.

The AFL-CIO supports worker centers because they help ALL workers.  They joined with  several non-profit organizations including the Ford Foundation to provide grants for worker centers.  On their website, the AFL-CIO says workers who are not represented by collective bargaining rights may need other types of assistance.  They also list the 17 worker centers they help.  Unions would be wise to continue to provide assistance to worker centers.  It demonstrates their commitment to helping all workers and to social justice issues.  It also provides a positive image and can help build relationships with workers who are not currently organized but may seek assistance in the future and this is why the Chamber is uncomfortable about worker centers.

The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives lists over 3,000 affiliations across the U. S.  The UCLA Labor Center report lists 250 worker centers across the U. S. so why are worker centers really a threat?  Does the Chamber see them as a threat because they found out in their research other organizations see a benefit in worker centers?   The Chamber lists many different organizations in their report who are providing financial support in addition to the support unions are also providing.  And let’s not forget the Pew Research poll of how Americans view unions and corporations.  Not all Americans are as happy with corporations as they are unions.  Abothree-fourths of the young adults polled  favored unions over corporations.  It’s time the Chamber and corporations start providing a more favorable impression.

Instead of complaining about worker centers and unions, why not  collaborate with them and also get some benefit.  Some of the ways worker centers and  employers could collaborate have already been identified but it also would allow employers  to show a positive image, too, as they provide good community support.  Some employers complain about training costs.  Maybe by partnering with a union or worker center employers could lower their training costs and at the same time allow their distinct needs to be met.    Some  worker centers have already formed alliances with employers to help them find new employees.  Training would actually go a step further.

So, again, why is it so necessary for the U. S. Chamber to worry about the number of worker centers or labor union memberships?  Why is it so important  to eliminate worker centers and unions?  There are so many other ways chambers, unions and worker centers could all partner to save costs, provide expertise and create competitive workplaces but it starts by one side not looking at the other two sides as the enemy.  In other words, why can’t we just get along?  Why does everything have to be a fight?  Think how much could actually happen if we all just work together.  Enough is enough!

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Saluting a Champion for Labor-Management Cooperation

This month marks the retirement of Walt Workman, Executive Director of the Central Ohio Labor Council, AFL-CIO. After 53 years in the labor movement and 20 years as Director of the CLC, Walt will be moving on.

Walt (L) listens to the presentation at a CALMC Membership meeting

As CLC Director, Walt also served as Labor Co-Chair of the Columbus Area Labor-Management Board of Trustees. I first met Walt following his election and was immediately struck by his commitment to labor and management working together. He related stories of his time working with the United Food and Commercial Workers union where the two sides had been at odds over issues in a food manufacturing facility. By winn

Walt Workman checks his shot at a CALMC Golf Outing

ing the support of upper management, a joint problem-solving process replaced traditional behaviors and piles of grievances as both sides strived to find lasting solutions to problems in the facility.

Walt Workman (second from the left) discusses details with CLC President Theo James at the Worker Memorial Park ceremony this May.

As leader of the CLC, Walt helped unions do the best possible job of representing their members, promoted labor in the community, worked with local leaders and politicians to promote issues that impact workers. He is widely respected by political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Walt as honored this week at the annual CLC Golf Outing. Among the gifts he received was a quilt/tapestry depicting an American flag. On the white stripes were the logos of the various unions that make up the Central Labor Council.

The tapestry presented to Walt at the AFL-CIO Golf Outing this week. The white stripes are logos of CLC member union locals. Photo Courtesy of Judge Eileen Paley.

Walt was a strong supporter and an advocate for CALMC. His efforts to win the support of local leaders for CALMC has been instrumental to our continuing our work. Over the last 20 years, he has been my valued colleague, supporter, and friend. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and everyone at CALMC, we will truly miss him.

Walt’s successor at the Central Labor Council is Mark Fluharty. Mark, who is also a veteran labor leader, will serve as Labor Co-Chair of our Board. We are looking forward to working with Mark to continue to build opportunities for employee engagement.

Thanks, Walt! We’ll see you on the golf course.

Posted in CALMC, Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee, Employee Engagement, Employee Involvement, Labor-Management Cooperation | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jobs and Communities Are Not Disposable!

Like many other small communities across the United States, a community in southern Ohio will be devastated when their largest workplaces with good paying jobs are closing.  Two coal-burning power plants are being closed because the cost of both coal-burning and nuclear plants have become too expensive  thanks to low natural gas prices and alternative energy sources.  In addition, EPA issued strong guidelines for clean energy which resulted in an agreement reached with environmental groups. More communities in Ohio and other states with power plants face a similar fate as many of these types of energy producing plants are becoming obsolete.   The sad part with this closure, as in many small communities like Adams County, Ohio, has very little industry which means the  impact to the community will be huge.

Whether it’s power plants or manufacturing plants closing or other jobs lost, communities have to make adjustments.  Depending on the size of layoff or closure, it can be a big adjustment especially for smaller communities.  In Adams County, local government officials are slashing budgets.  Residents’ safety is at risk because the sheriff’s department is already spread too thin for the sprawling territory they have to monitor.  The school system, too, is concerned how children will receive their education as the tax base the power plants provided helped with school funding.  And then there’s the trickle-down effect as car dealerships furniture stores, and restaurants have to prepare for lower sales and that also can mean more layoffs or no hiring.

Every day a worker or community goes through this.  While the economy appears to be doing fairly well in some places, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of mass layoffs that continue to occur.  March had  the lowest number of mass layoffs in the last year but that make it good.  There were 1,564 layoffs during the month.  That means over 1,000 people lost their job.  Imagine the affect if that was in one community.  Half of that number will be the amount for the layoffs in Adams County, and, if you take the average of the first three months of the year and multiply by 12, that’s 20,000 jobs impacted.  These numbers are for mass layoffs.  The number of layoffs grows when you add in smaller layoffs.

It’s been said we have become a disposable society and it seems like jobs are a part of that.  Every day people have to be prepared for the worst.  Closing plants and layoffs have become a way of life.  That secure, economic well-being that we all want and crave isn’t always there.  Our lives, homes and communities can be transformed as quickly as day and night.  Just like the people in Adams County, workers and their families have to make decisions, and sometimes motivated by fear and anguish, as to whether to stay or move.

Both local leadership and the union that represented the  workers at the power plants, Utility Workers of America, tried to obtain assistance.  They looked for a buyer, talked to politicians, even came up with an alternative plan but nothing happened.  The only response workers received was to look for jobs elsewhere and move.

All the people wanted was to maintain their livelihoods in a place they called home but everybody turned their backs on them and Adams County.  Some families moved even though selling their homes was going to be difficult because of the surplus of homes on the market.  One family did try to relocate to the state of Washington but they returned within a year because they were homesick and missed family members.  But did any of this need to happen?

In 2014, EPA held an energy hearing about the need for clean energy which really was the impetus for the shutdown of coal and nuclear power plants.  Many voiced concerns, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW.   They questioned the reports from EPA on emission problems with coal and nuclear energy, how electrical demands would be met especially during the winter time, and they also mentioned other countries being contributors to air quality problems. They warned 400,000 jobs would be impacted as the transition would occur and there wouldn’t be enough time to make the transition to avoid the loss of jobs.  There simply wasn’t enough planning time.

That hearing was four years ago.  Nothing, or very little, was done to  plan for the job loss.  Instead of preparing for the power-plant shutdowns, other energy job creating possibilities were shut down.  In May of 2014, the Ohio legislature put a two-year moratorium on the growing alternative energy field.  Governor John Kasich, who now touts the need for alternative energy as he gears up for a presidential run in 2020, signed the bill the next month that killed an industry that was to produce more than 30,000 jobs in Ohio by 2025.  There is nothing to guarantee those jobs would have gone to Adams County but it may have been a possibility as the transition for the closure of the power plants.

Everybody loves to talk about jobs, especially jobs that are created but what about the number of jobs that are lost and the response when people cry out for help?  Training for workers in transition is always the usual response but what does somebody do until they’re trained?  It can sometimes take up to two years.  Unemployment insurance barely covers average expenses and it’s humiliating for most people to rely on public assistance.  Training is okay but in the end, will it replace a good-paying job with another good paying job?  Had those alternative energy jobs been available at the power plans, there would have been little break in service time and the community, too, would be have been able to plan as well.

The Center for American Progress also recognizes the need for alternatives to happen when workers and communities are faced with closures or layoffs.  In their plan, A Blueprint For the 21st Century, they recognize the economic differences in different areas of the country and acknowledge some communities need assistance quicker than others with jobs.  They propose a guaranteed jobs program that would be tailored more to the community and area instead of a “one size fits all” approach.  Communities could apply for assistance but certain criteria would also have to be included.  This would allow not just training but a job that can help keep people working.   By creating these jobs it may help to keep younger people in communities.  That sense of community and rural life appeals to many young people.   Having employment opportunities for young people helps communities grow and sustain themselves for the future.

It’s time for ordinary people and their jobs to be put first instead of coming behind the needs of  corporations, governments and special interest groups. Lives are not and should not be disposable.   What’s wrong with wanting to live in the community you grew up in and knowing the people that have grown up with you?  As one of the power plant workers said it was great to know he could send his child to the concession stand at a game where his friends were working because he knew they would take care of his child or that it was nice to be able to call a family member when last-minute assistance was needed.

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If You See Something, Say Something

I’m sure you’ve heard the admonition, “If you see something, say something”.  A couple of weeks ago, I was riding on a New York City subway and frequently heard that message. The intent is clear, if you see something that does not look right, let someone know. Whether it is a strange behavior, an abandoned bag, or any other cause, speaking up helps keep everyone safe.

The same principle applies in the workplace. If we see something that is not being done in a safe manner, we need to speak up. In doing so, we are proactively striving to prevent injuries and keep our colleagues safe.

This is one of the principles of the Safety Always process we use with companies and employees. We train safety committees to be aware of safe practices, observe their colleagues, and help remind them to work safely at all times. The reminders of colleagues are more effective at maintaining safety than posters, games, or the cajoling of managers.

Most workplace injuries fall into one of four causes:

Methods – Procedures may not be clear or are not followed, short cuts are taken, or the pace of work leads to unsafe practices.

Equipment – Equipment may not be well maintained and appropriate, workflow may not be conducive to safe practices, or personal protective equipment may be inadequate.

Leadership – Management and the union must be committed to safe practices, issues raised by workers need to be addresses, and staffing must be adequate to get the job done and avoid repeated overtime.

Workplace – Injuries can result from inadequate training, such as lifting techniques or the use of machinery, worker fatigue, job stress, lack of properly maintained safety equipment or plans, or a lack of understanding of the tasks and the risks involved.

If an injury occurs in your workplace, is the first reaction to find out who to blame or look for causes of the problem? If we waste time trying to affix blame, we do nothing to prevent future injuries. We need to find the root causes of the problem and make necessary changes to the work system to help avoid recurrences.

This sounds easy, but it is not. Making systemic change requires time, commitment, and sometimes a cultural change. It’s easier to jump to conclusions than study our systems. When organizations demonstrate the need to make this type of change, they demonstrate their commitment to safety to workers.

I want you to think about an incident in your workplace that resulted in an injury. It could have involved you or a colleague. Which of the four causes listed earlier describes the injury. Was the response to the injury blame finding, punitive, or a search for root causes? Did the incident result in systemic changes to try to prevent it from happening in the future?

Are there practices in your workplace that have or could result in an accident, injury, or even a near miss? They occur in almost every workplace. When they do occur, is the response appropriate and designed to fix the causes of the problem?

If this is not the response, your organization would benefit from a safety program based in employee involvement and listening to the worker voice, one like our Safety Always process. Contact us to learn more about this proven process.

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Is The Workplace A Democracy?

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders and some of his colleagues in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation called  The Workplace Democracy Act to help with union organizing drives at workplaces and eventually narrow income inequality.  This week onlabor.org blogged about workplace democracy.   The blogger revived some workplace democracy thoughts of Senator Robert F. Wagner who, in 1935, sponsored the current legislation known as the Wagner Act that has given unions the ability to organize for collective bargaining rights.

According to U. S. Senate history, Senator Wagner created legislation that continues to profoundly impact us both as a society and at workplaces.  Not only is he responsible for the Wagner Act, Senator Wagner introduced the legislation for the Social Security Act which, of course, is now something we all rely on to provide benefits in retirement.

While on an oversight committee to review the tragic fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, Senator Wagner realized change was absolutely necessary and he believed giving workers a voice in the workplace was important.  As Hitler was beginning to make his moves in Germany, Senator Wagner, a German immigrant in his childhood, also thought unions could be a model to help workers, who were also voters, understand the importance of a democratic system.  What he considered as workplace democracy was also a fight against evil dictators and fascism.

What did Senator Wagner envision when he wrote about workplace democracy?   There have been a number of interpretations of his idea of a democratic workplace but many see it as social justice and the ability of workers to be free to vote for union representation.  He believed workers should have a voice as to their pay and working conditions.

The OnLabor blog sites low union membership has diminished the ability for workplaces to be the models of democracy Senator Wagner wanted.  The blogger says another problem with the workplace democracy model is that it can’t happen until after an election for union representation because unions may not be successful.  Employers  sometimes put relentless pressure on employees against unions and that, according to the blogger, isn’t a fair democratic process.

The blog compares workplaces to kingdoms with the manager or CEO as a king who makes all the decisions and the shareholders as a governing body based on the number of shares they own.  Comparing workplaces to kingdoms and CEOs as dictating monarchs can be somewhat harsh especially when the other side is not always innocent in their tactics.

Yet there are some employers who will threaten and intimidate employees with anti union information during organizing drives and that not only gives the impression the workplace environment is autocratic, which is what Wagner was trying to counter with his legislation, but it does remove the ability of employees to make their own clear and free choice.

All workers, both management, non-union employees and unionized employees, should be respected and allowed to have a voice in the workplace.  Worker voice can be such a tremendous tool for workplaces to change culture, be more productive and develop new ways to increase business.  But what about this idea workplaces should be democracies?  Can a true democracy exist in the workplace?  For a democracy to exist within the workplace, it needs to be beneficial for everybody.  Can that happen for both employers and employees?

We can focus on the other side of a union gaining representation.  What’s the perspective of the owner or CEO of the workplace who has just experienced a vote from the employees?  Does that owner or CEO think they have a voice?  Some obviously do especially those that use extensive anti-union strategies.  While it may not allow the worker to make a good decision, it does provide the employer an opportunity to have a say. But what about the owner or CEO who tries really hard to do the right thing and doesn’t resort to the scare and intimidation tactics while under the pressure of an extremely aggressive union organizer.  Is that democracy for that owner or CEO?

What about supervisors who may have some concerns about a specific problem or issues related to their job classification but they’re not comfortable about voicing those concerns or talking about issues. They also may not even be asked for an opinion on workplace problems.   Is the workplace a democracy for them?  Supervisors are in very awkward positions.   They must address concerns and help subordinates with their issues but they may have to take those issues to another level and respond to the needs of their boss even when they may not feel supported.  Does that sound democratic?

Workplace democracies can also be bad for the very people trying to create that environment.  Workplace democracy can become a very high pedestal for unions to achieve.  In other words, some members may have a completely different expectation of what workplace democracy is compared to their leadership.  Unless the union has been explicit in just exactly what workplace democracy means, it can be very destructive for the union.  We’ve had more than one  experience where leaders wanted to go one direction and members another or didn’t understand why leaders were making decisions for them they didn’t necessarily agree on.   Sometimes leaders have to make decisions without taking it to members for a vote.  Some members may see that as contradicting workplace democracy.  There can be issues just among leaders, too, which causes them to disagree and that can pull a union apart.

Workplace democracy sounds great!  It’s a very powerful term!  But it can be treacherous when not applied as everybody envisions. The term may be well intended but the nuts and bolts of it can be very difficult to uphold and manage.

Using a term like worker voice has a little more explicit meaning plus doesn’t hold people to a standard they may not be able to deliver.  Both Senator Wagner and Senator Sanders had good intentions and focused on helping employees with union representation, allowing them a voice and be more involved in issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions and that’s good.    It’s also important for workers to be able to decide whether to be part of a union or not without aggressive interaction from either side.  That may be more democratic but it doesn’t necessarily identify as workplace democracy and that’s important.   Using another term might be a better idea!

 

 

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This Week – A Look at Two Recent Events in Columbus

This week, we want to report on two events that happened this month in Columbus. Both focused on workers from a different perspective.

On May 2 CALMC held our regular membership meeting. Our audience of management leaders, union officials and members, neutrals, and other interested people enjoyed breakfast and networking with each other, along with the opportunity to hear a presentation on difficulty in finding skilled employees in Central Ohio. Cheryl Hay, the Director of Workforce Development for JobsOhio, described some of the ways they are helping new and existing employers find the kind of workers they need. JobsOhio is a not-for-profit organization established by Governor Kasich to replace to role originally played by the Department of Development in recruiting new employers to Ohio.

Cheryl began by contrasting the ways employees used to find jobs with the process in use today. Employers who previously advertised in newspapers or relied on word-of-mouth today need to be more actively involved in the recruitment process. This includes the reliance on technology to find workers.

Cheryl mentioned some of the methods being used by JobsOhio to get the most from the use of information systems in finding employees. She mentioned the use of social media, noting the type of job determined which platforms worked best. For example, if candidates are needed for jobs involving coding, Twitter is the best way to reach them. On the other hand, some management positions are best filled using LinkedIn, while other positions can be found with Facebook.

Other issues required a more complex process. Combatting the “brain drain” issues of educated college graduates leaving Ohio has proven to be a challenge.JobsOhio is exploring ways to not only keep recent graduates from leaving the state, but also encouraging former Ohio residents to return to the state.

Cheryl also discussed to need to begin the recruitment process for some jobs in high schools. They have been encouraging school districts to publicize the needs of new employers in their regions, urging students to build their skills in the areas needed. They also use apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to build necessary skills for new employees.

A couple of weeks ago we reported on the difficulty employers have getting new employees in this time of low unemployment. In this presentation we heard of proactive methods available to employers in Ohio that help attract new employers to the state.

The Workers’ Memorial, Columbus, Ohio

The other event was the rededication of the Workers’ Memorial in Columbus. Located in Riverfront Park in downtown Columbus, the memorial remembers workers who lost their lives at work and union leaders who recently passed away.

Theo James reads the names being added to the Memorial Wall

This year, the ceremony recognized four individuals, including Billy Boyce, former Sub-District Director of the United Steelworkers and member of the CALMC Board of Trustees. Speakers included Theo James, President of the Central Ohio Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Walt Workman, Executive Director of the Labor Council, Dr. Ned Pettus, Jr., City of Columbus Safety Director, and Michael Stinziano, member of the Columbus City Council. Each highlighted the importance of safe workplaces and the hope that next year there would be no names to add to the wall.

It was great to see the number of union members, public officials, and others who gathered to pay their respects to those we have lost. It was a moving ceremony in a beautiful setting. We hope you will have an opportunity to visit the Memorial.

Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga

City Council Member Mike Stinziano speaks about the importance of worker safety.

 

 

To see more pictures of our Membership Meeting and the Memorial Ceremony, take a look at our Facebook page.

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