Commentary

International visitors work in North Carolina, nationally through J-1 program

If you have traveled to the Outer Banks recently, chances are you have been waited on by an international student. Stores, restaurants, and hotels on the North Carolina coast are increasingly turning to temporary foreign workers to fill customer service and cleaning positions in the summers.

These workers come to North Carolina on what is known as a J-1 visa. The J-1 program was developed to provide a cultural exchange experience for international visitors. Described by the State Department as a “work and student-based exchange visitor program,” the J-1 program attracted 6,927 people to North Carolina in 2014 for a variety of different programs, among them camp counselor, au pair, intern, trainee, and summer work travel. A few of the programs are designed as specific learning opportunities for international visitors, scholars, and students, but others place people into short-term employment.

While some J-1 workers undoubtedly have a positive experience with their host employer, others have found the promised cultural exchange and training to be sadly lacking. Unfortunately, some J-1 workers have experienced exploitative working conditions. Dozens of J-1 workers from Asia and Eastern Europe went on strike in 2011 to protest working conditions at the Hershey packing facility where they were placed. A year later, the Department of Labor settled their complaint against the plant for $213,000 in back wages and $143,000 in safety and health violations.

Au pair workers on J-1 visas recently won an important victory when a federal judge in Colorado allowed their lawsuit against multiple cultural exchange sponsoring agencies to go forward. The workers, typically paid $197.75 per week, allege that the sponsoring agencies illegally conspired to keep wages low and failed to ensure they were paid the minimum wage and overtime. Au pair workers can get in touch with the attorneys conducting this litigation here.

J-1 workers in North Carolina can learn more about their rights through the North Carolina Justice Center’s new J-1 worker factsheet, found here.

Uncategorized

GAO finds hazardous conditions in poultry, meatpacking continue

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The General Accounting Office (GAO) publicly released a report yesterday on workplace health and safety conditions in the poultry industry.  While noting a decline in injury and illness rates from 2004 to 2013, the report highlights the problem of underreporting and inadequate data collection.  The GAO report includes 3 recommendations for Executive Action:

Recommendation: To strengthen DOL’s efforts to ensure employers protect the safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, working together with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics as appropriate, to develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on musculoskeletal disorders.
Agency Affected: Department of Labor

Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics to study how they could regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.

Agency Affected: Department of Labor

Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses these workers experience, including their causes and how they are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to this population, NIOSH may want to coordinate with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop ways to initiate this study.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

The report follows a recent release from Oxfam America focusing on the poultry industry’s denial of bathroom breaks to workers.

Commentary, News

OSHA actions, OSHA inactions

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The US Department of Labor announced yesterday that information about injuries and illnesses suffered by employees in certain high hazard industries will now be made publicly available, analogizing this to the requirement that restaurant safety grades be posted where the public can see them.  The increased transparency is welcome news for worker safety advocates in North Carolina, who last year criticized NC OSHA for not accurately reporting the number of worker fatalities in North Carolina.  At a Worker Memorial Day observance in Raleigh last month, attendees asked the Department of Labor to increase its commitment to worker safety on the job.  Oxfam America also issued a follow-up report on the poultry industry earlier this week, highlighting the need for OSHA to ensure workers have access to bathroom breaks. Unfortunately, the House budget, released yesterday, calls for the elimination of two OSHA safety compliance positions, which inexplicably have been vacant for more than two years.

 

Commentary

Another tool for local governments to combat wage theft

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.

Commentary

Children continue to work in NC fields

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.