Workers Wanted, But Only If Working

July 27, 2011

Young job seekers often complain about a catch-22. Employers want to see work experience on the resume, but how can they get it when no one will hire them?

The National Employment Law Project reports another, truly perverse version of the catch-22. Employers and staffing agencies, with help from online job posting services, are screening out applicants because they’re unemployed.

If you need a job, they don’t want you. Period.

For about a month this spring, NELP reviewed job postings on four of the biggest online sites. It looked for postings identified by employer or staffing agency while also, it says, “seeking a diverse sample from across the United States.” This, I take it, means that it didn’t look at all postings from an identifiable source.

NELP found more than 150 “exclusionary” ads — most of them specifically stating that applicants had to be currently employed. Postings were by employers of all sizes and in all parts of the country. Jobs were white collar, blue collar and service sector and “at virtually every skill level.”

Tip of the iceberg, as NELP acknowledges.

In some cases, for example, the exclusion isn’t communicated in an online posting, but by human resources directors to the headhunters they’re using.

There are also reported cases where applicants got as far as an initial interview only to be told that they’d been out of work too long. As with some of the online postings, “too long” is apparently more than six months.

At this point, nearly 6.3 million jobless workers who are actively looking have been unemployed for at least 27 weeks, i.e., long enough to be arbitrarily screened out of jobs they’re otherwise qualified for.

So unemployment discrimination, as NELP calls it, could — and probably does — affect a broad spectrum of jobless workers.

But not equally.

As I wrote back in February, the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative found that long-term unemployment rates were highest for older workers — and had increased exponentially.

In December 2010, 55% of jobless workers ages 55-64 had been unemployed for longer than the magic six-months cutoff. Percent even higher for those 65 and older.

Panelists at a public meeting convened by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cited similar disproportionate impacts on women, people with disabilities and racial and ethnic minorities.

At this point, the unemployment rate for blacks is double the rate for whites — about what it was at the time of the meeting.

Comparable figures on long-term unemployment are hard to come by. Last spring, however, the percent of blacks unemployed for more than a year was 8% higher. A surprising 10% higher rate for Asian Americans too.

Thus, “any practice that disadvantages currently unemployed workers relative to similar employed workers will have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color,” said Algernon Austin, the Economic Policy Institute’s lead expert on race, ethnicity and the economy.

The very fact of the meeting suggests that EEOC is considering whether policies and practices that exclude jobless people from applicant pools are a violation of the equal opportunity protections in federal civil rights laws.

There are several things it can do if it decides they are. But proving “disparate impact” can be tough. And EEOC has been short on resources for a very long time.

On the legislative front, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Congressman Henry Johnson (D-GA) have introduced a bill that would, with limited exceptions, prohibit employers and employment agencies from screening out applicants or otherwise denying employment to people just because they’re unemployed.

Needless to say, this bill is going nowhere fast. Will probably die in the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

NELP and its partners have nevertheless ginned up attention to the cruel irony of denying jobless workers a chance to work just because they’re jobless. Researching this posting, I found lots of relevant news articles and editorials in both local and national press.

Some employers have reacted by deleting the current or recent employment requirement from their job ads. Others probably will. All this means, I think, is that the screening will go on in other ways.

Unless, of course, hiring agencies and human resources directors decide that the efficiency they purportedly achieve by ignoring candidates who don’t have jobs can deny them the best qualified, most motivated workers they could find.

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Home Care Workers Denied Basic Wage Rights

July 24, 2011

My sister died just the way she wanted to. At home, with her bed near the window so that she could look out and watch her cats playing.

This was possible only because she had 24/7 home health care, provided by a quiet, caring, capable aide.

Most people who receive home care aren’t in the last stages of a fatal disease. Some are like my guest blogger Laura and her brother, whose disabilities would make it unsafe for them to be home alone.

Most, however, are elderly people who need some variable mix of services to continue living independently. My mother-in-law, for example, is able to contentedly “age in place” because a home health aide comes in to help with housekeeping, grocery shopping and the like.

All told, more than 10.3 million Americans need some form of long-term care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects the number to rise to 27 million by 2050.

Will enough qualified care workers be available to serve the many millions who’ll be best off at home? Doubtful unless some major policy changes are made.

Here’s the first — and to me a shocker. Home care workers* are, at this point, exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia provide some coverage under their own wage laws. Here in the District, as in five of these states, only the minimum wage is required — not the overtime rate.

As the National Employment Law Project explains, the federal exemptions reflect an over-broad interpretation of a carve-out Congress made when it extended coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act to domestic workers.

NELP recommends two related regulatory fixes. No Congressional action required — thank heavens! There is, however, a bill pending in Congress that would force the Labor Department to act.

In 2009, the average home care worker wage was $9.34 an hour. The average annual wage would thus have been $20,283, assuming full-time, year-round work and no overtime. Barely enough to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line.

But PHI, which advocates for long-term care workers, tells us that a large percentage work only part-time or for part of the year. Average annual earnings were thus $16,800.

As a result, 46% are poor enough to qualify for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Sadly ironic when so many of them indirectly get their wages from Medicaid.

Needless to say, morale is low and turnover high — an estimated 50%-80% a year.

Clients who need stability have to continually adjust to new caregivers — and new caregivers to them.

Employers incur ongoing recruitment and training costs. A vicious cycle here since the more they spend due to turnover, the less they’re ready to invest in turnover-reducing wages.

And, of course, some of the best potential candidates look elsewhere from the get-go.

Still, that average hourly wage is more than the minimum the FLSA requires. And the fixes NELP recommends wouldn’t compel states with higher minimums to cover home care workers.

So what would a more appropriate federal rule achieve? Some important things, I think.

First and foremost, it would entitle all home care workers to the same base-level hourly rates as the vast majority of other workers in the country. This would mean, among other things, that they’d be paid for time spent traveling from one client to the next — and, of course, time-and-a-half for extra long hours.

It would also formally recognize home care work as a genuine paraprofessional occupation — one that entails far more than providing some “companionship” to elderly and disabled people.

These two changes would help ensure a sufficient supply of well-trained, experienced home care workers — the sort we’d want for ourselves and our family members.

Emphasis here on “help” because the FLSA rule change is, as logicians say, necessary but not sufficient. It would, however, rectify what seems a clear case of economic injustice.

There are currently about 1.7 million home care workers in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 2.5 million by 2018. That’s an awful lot of hard-working people to leave at risk of poverty.

If you agree, you’ve got a chance to weigh in right now.

The Department of Labor is holding two call-in “listening sessions” on the home care exemption. They’re scheduled for Monday, July 25 and Wednesday, July 27, both 4:00-5:00 EST. Call-in number and passcode here.

* Home care workers belong to one of two occupational categories in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ classification system — home health aides and personal care aides. This issue brief from PHI details duties and distinctions.


More Than 2 Million Jobless Workers May Lose Unemployment Benefits Next Month

November 26, 2010

As you may recall, in late July, the Senate finally managed to pass the latest extension of the two related programs that fund expanded unemployment insurance benefits. Now the programs are again about to expire. And prospects for renewal are even more uncertain.

The prior extension got hung up because the Republicans insisted that it be paid for. But, of course, they wouldn’t have accepted a tax increase offset. We know this because they had no end of objections when a larger bill that included the UI benefits extension had a pay-for that would have closed a couple of costly tax loopholes.

During the stalemate, about 2.5 million jobless workers lost their UI benefits. These were restored retroactively, though at a reduced rate. A better thing than no extension at all. But what it meant was that the six-month extension actually funded future benefits for less than five months.

So here we are again, with expanded unemployment benefits due to expire on December 1. Congress reconvened for one post-election week, then went home for a longer Thanksgiving break than most of us enjoy. That leaves perhaps just one voting day before the benefits expire.

We can expect another donnybrook over the pay-for issue — maybe even over the principle of a further extension. There are, after all, some members of Congress — Senator Jon Kyl, for example — who maintain that UI benefits deter jobless workers from seeking employment.

So what will happen if Congress ends this session without approving another extension?

The National Employment Law Project reports that more than two million jobless workers will lose their benefits during the holiday season — about 800,000 of them on December 4. The number will swell to nearly five million in the next couple of months.

And go on swelling as more and more workers exhaust the benefits available through their regular state UI programs. In all but a few states, the maximum is 26 weeks.

As of October, jobless workers who were actively seeking employment had been looking for an average of nearly 40 weeks — nearly three and a half months more than most regular state UI benefits cover. Nearly 42% had been looking for more than 27 weeks.

And no wonder when, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of the latest U.S. Labor Department Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey results, there are five job seekers for every job opening.

Here in the District, 8,017 jobless workers will lose their UI benefits before the end of December. More than 3,300 of them will be cut off immediately. The remainder will either lose some of the additional weeks they would have qualified for or exhaust their regular 26 weeks, with no federally-funded lifeline beyond.

Views across our borders are equally dismal. In Maryland, 13,915 jobless workers and their families may face the holidays with no source of income. In Virginia, the total facing a December cut-off is 30,871.

We can expect the Republicans — maybe some Democrats too — to argue that any extension of expanded UI benefits must be fully paid for because we can’t afford to add to the deficit.

Well, EPI estimates that extending the expanded UI benefits for a year will create the equivalent of 723,000 jobs. This because recipients will immediately spend most, if not all of what they get on basic necessities.

The result will be higher tax revenues and less spending on safety net programs. So, the analysts say, the actual cost of  a year-long extension would be only $25.9 billion, rather than the $65 billion “sticker price.”

A mere drop in the bucket compared to the unpaid-for $400 billion the federal government will lose in the next 10 years if the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans are permanently extended, as the Republicans insist they must be.

And the modest impact on the deficit would be only temporary, since no one’s saying the expanded UI benefits should continue indefinitely.

NELP, among others, is calling for an extension through 2011. This makes good policy sense because the unemployment rate will almost surely remain extraordinarly high. It makes even better political sense because another short-term extension will kick the issue into the opening days of the next Congress.

The new Republican House Majority Leader will want to prove he’s serious about rolling back most categories of discretionary spending to the pre-Recovery Act level. The strengthened Republican minority in the Senate will still be led by Senator Mitch McConnell, whose top priority is to make President Obama a one-term president.

The Republicans banked on voters blaming the President for their economic woes — and election results suggest they were right. Every reason to believe that at least those on the Senate side will pursue the same strategy going forward.

So those of you with voting representation in Congress need to make your voices heard loud and clear. I’ve got an editable online letter you can use.

And, as always, I ask that you pass the word along.


We Need Action On the Job Crisis Now

December 14, 2009

For months, President Obama has been preoccupied with Afghanistan, the climate change summit and getting a health care reform bill passed. The rest of the country has been saying, Do something about JOBS!

And with good reason. We’re told that the November unemployment figures are good news. But 15.4 million American workers are unemployed–over 38% of them for more than six months. An additional 10 million have given up looking for work or are working part-time because that’s the best they can do.

The situation is even worse for black and Hispanic workers. Unemployment rates for them are 15.6% and 12.7% respectively. The Economic Policy Institute says it expects 40% of them to be unemployed or under-employed at some point over the next year. Worst off are black teenagers, with an unemployment rate close to 50%.

The economy continues to shed jobs, though at a much lower rate than earlier this year. Looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest job openings and labor turnover survey, EPI figures there were 6.3 job seekers for every job opening in October.

The ratio of seekers to jobs will grow unless something dramatic happens. Because it won’t be enough for employers to stop eliminating jobs. EPI says the labor market would have to grow by an average of 581,000 jobs a month to bring the unemployment rate back down to its pre-recession level.

Now the President has outlined a plan to jump-start job creation, using funds appropriated for the bank-bailout. I’m still chewing it over. So, I suspect, are members of Congress–except, of course, the House Republican leadership, which is dead set against more spending.

What Congress can–and should–do is act on the most urgent elements now. Otherwise, the extended unemployment insurance provisions in the economic stimulus package will expire–notwithstanding the recent legislation to extend them.

A new brief by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the National Employment Law Project says that 1 million workers will lose job benefits in January unless Congress acts. By March, the number will have increased to 3.2 million. NELP has a customizable e-mail we can send to support the needed legislation.

Congress should also immediately extend the COBRA health insurance subsidies. Beneficiaries have already started losing these. Millions more could face a tripling of their premiums in the months to come.

A third priority are the stimulus provisions that have helped states balance their over-stressed budgets. An estimated 900,000 jobs will be lost unless Congress extends these ASAP.

More about them in another posting.


Low-Wage Workers Underpaid and Over-Exploited

September 5, 2009

Just in time for Labor Day come two new reports on deplorable conditions in our labor force.

One report documents violations of core legal protections in low-wage industries. You may already have read some of the lowlights in the New York Times, other newspapers and/or on  blogs like Daily Kos and Poverty USA. So I’ll just briefly summarize.

A team of researchers at the National Employment Law Project and four major universities surveyed more than 4,300 workers in a variety of low-wage industries in our three largest cities–Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. They found numerous instances in which workers were:

  • Paid less than the applicable minimum wage.
  • Underpaid or not paid at all for overtime work.
  • Denied meal breaks they were entitled to.
  • Subject to illegal deductions from their paychecks.
  • Deprived of tips they’d received.
  • Denied workers’ compensation when they were injured on the job or discouraged from filing a claim.
  • Retaliated against when they complained or attempted to organize a union.

The pay violations alone cost the average worker an estimated $2,634 a year–15% of his or her total earnings. In the three cities alone, this translates to an astonishing $56.4 million per week.

The other report–this one from the National Council of La Raza–focuses on conditions in the Latino labor force. These, it says, reflect a “decades-long deterioration of job quality” that has affected millions of workers–and not only Latinos.

Latinos have been disproportionately affected in part because many work without legal authorization and so have to lay low and keep quiet. However, they’re also vulnerable because they’re highly concentrated in:

  • Hazardous jobs that aren’t sufficiently regulated or monitored for occupational safety.
  • Occupations not covered by key federal labor laws, i.e., agricultural and domestic work.
  • Industries where employers routinely evade labor laws and regulations by misclassifying employees as independent contractors.
  • “Nontraditional” employment arrangements, e.g., work for temporary help agencies, other work without a set schedule or advance notice.

The two reports are quite different, but both lead to the same basic conclusions:

  • Existing laws and regulations to protect workers aren’t being adequately enforced.
  • Our laws need to be updated to reflect the 21st century labor market–and penalties strengthened so that they’re meaningful deterrents to noncompliance.
  • Our federal immigration policies and administrative processes must be reformed to provide sufficient channels to legal status.
  • Workers need to be informed of their rights and to have the protections and resources to assert them.

What does all this have to do with poverty? Well, consider that more than 60% the families below the federal poverty line have at least one working member.

What if so many weren’t being ripped off by employers who can take advantage of our flawed policies and equally flawed enforcement systems?