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Our neighbors in the Midwest Money Exchangehad a big victory earlier this year when Cincinnati passed an innovative ordinance aimed at reducing wage theft. Recognizing the devastating impact of this common problem on workers and the local economy, Cincinnati is setting expectations for companies that do business with the city or that receive incentives. These companies must disclose prior labor law violations as part of the bidding process and report to the city any wage or payroll fraud complaints received from employees (including employees of subcontractors) during the performance of the contract. In turn, the city will refer complaints to appropriate agencies and, if an adverse determination is issued, will take steps such as termination of the contract, reduction of the incentives payment, and/or debarment from future contracts.

In 2013, the NC General Assembly clamped down on local governments’ ability to take some of these steps in our state. In its expansion of the public policy known as “preemption,” the state now prohibits cities and counties from placing certain requirements on their contractors. Local governments in North Carolina do have the ability to take some measures to improve worker wellbeing in their communities, as explained in our brief The power of wage policies: how raising public sector wages can promote living incomes and boost the economy  – but legislative action is required to enable North Carolina communities to follow Cincinnati’s lead and put other proactive measures into place to protect workers’ wages.

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farmworkerAlthough agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S., federal and North Carolina law continue to allow the employment of minors in farmwork.  This week, Human Rights Watch issued a follow up to their 2014 report on the dangers to children employed in tobacco.  The new report, Teens of the Tobacco Fields, features interviews conducted with child laborers in North Carolina.  Though some positive changes have taken place since 2014, including a new federal regulation prohibiting pesticide applications by children under 18 and voluntary pledges by the tobacco industry regarding the employment of young children, 16 and 17 year old tobacco workers are excluded from most of the limited protections that do exist for farmworker children.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network’s efforts to pass child labor protections for children in North Carolina stalled in 2013.  However, the federal CARE Act (HR 2764) would remove labor law exemptions that allows children to do wage work on farms at age 12 and perform hazardous work at age 16.  Rep. Cicilline (D-RI) has also introduced legislation to end the use of child labor in tobacco.

Key recommendations from the report can be found here.

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A report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), (In)dependent Contractor Misclassification, lifts up the parade of horribles that goes along with this increasingly common method of cheating workers, taxpayers, and honest business competitors. Author Francoise Carré documents the harm caused by fraudulently claiming employees as contractors includes lost wages and benefits, unpaid payroll taxes and Social Security, and lack of worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance coverage. The effect of worker misclassification on North Carolina was exhaustively researched by McClatchy last fall in their series, Contract to Cheat. According to this new report, worker misclassification is more often found in industries that benefit the most financially from the practice (e.g., industries with high worker’s compensation costs) as well as industries where workers tend to work alone, such as housecleaning or trucking.

Key recommendations include information sharing between state and federal agencies and employer and worker education. However, the report also notes the importance of strong deterrents:

The impact of inspections and audits would be greater if fines for fraud were increased and represented a significant risk for businesses; fines could be calibrated not only to the number of workers affected but to the size of the business that commits the fraud.

Tomorrow, the House Commerce and Job Development Committee is taking up HB 482, the Employee Fair Classification Act. Committee members should look at the recommendations of the EPI report and consider the Contract to Cheat findings as they determine how best to tackle this pervasive problem.

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pesticide sprayingOne of the ALEC bills that is making the rounds across the country is so-called “ag gag” legislation, designed to prevent animal rights groups from conducting undercover operations to film abuses of animals on factory farms and research facilities.

In North Carolina, the House has passed HB 405, the Property Protection Act. While not precisely an ag gag bill, the intent to restrict anyone from shedding light on embarrassing or illegal activity appears the same. A person who “intentionally gains access to the nonpublic areas of another’s premises” and commits an “act that substantially interferes with the ownership or possession of real property” may be liable to the property owner for $5000 per day. Also liable is any person who directs another to engage in the prohibited activities.

The primary purpose of HB 405 may be to keep animal exploitation out of the news, a move opposed by nearly three quarters of North Carolinians, according to a recent poll.  The effects, however, could be even more sweeping.  If this bill passes, will a farmworker be able to take pictures of illegal migrant housing conditions to provide to the Department of Labor? Will a tester who does not intend to accept employment be able to apply for a job to test whether illegal race discrimination is taking place? What will happen to the worker who takes a picture similar to the one posted here?

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construction workerToday is Worker Memorial Day, a day to honor workers who have died on the job. The recent construction accidents in Raleigh are stark reminders of why this day matters. Worker advocates will gather at 10:30 at 7 W. Lenoir Street in Raleigh, the site where 3 workers died, and will walk to the NC Department of Labor. There they will deliver a letter asking Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to provide an accurate count of all worker deaths in North Carolina, and to convene the OSHA Advisory Council as required by law. Check out the op/ed today by the NC AFL-CIO’s MaryBe McMillan.