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President Obama declared the H1N1 flu outbreak a national emergency on Saturday. Forty six states, including North Carolina, are experiencing widespread flu activity.

To stem the spread of the swine flu, the common advice coming from the Obama Administration and public health experts is: if you’re a sick worker, stay at home. If you’re the parent of a sick child, keep them out of school until they feel better.

Some pretty knowledgeable folks are also chiming in with some words on the business side of things:

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, a guy who probably knows a two or thing about business best practices said, “If an employee stays home sick, it’s not only the best thing for that employee’s health, but also his co-workers and the productivity of the company.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose primary charge is to keep Americans healthy said, “one of the most important things that employers can do is to make their human resources and leave policies are flexible and follow public health guidance.”

And finally, the Centers for Disease Control, in their guidance to employers: “During an influenza pandemic, all sick people should stay home and away from the workplace… Regardless of the size of the business or the function or services that you provide, all employers should plan now to allow and encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.”

Common sense advice, right? Too bad that for half of North Carolina’s workers, they just don’t have the option to stay home from work when they’re sick without risking a day’s pay or even their job.

That’s because thousands of employers have not historically been following Secretary Locke, Sec. Sebelius, and the CDC’s line of thinking. More than 1.6 million North Carolina workers lack a single paid sick days to take care of themselves or a sick family member.

So when H1N1 symptoms start showing up, these workers are just going to have to arm themselves with hand sanitizer, tissues, some medicine and hope that they don’t get everyone else sick and cause a workplace outbreak. Or send their child to school sick because they can’t afford to take a day off without pay.

Especially in today’s economy, with six workers for every single job opening, workers are particularly pressed to do everything in their power to hold on to their jobs. Missing a day due to flu symptoms is simply not a feasible option.

Legislation was introduced in North Carolina to provide workers with a minimum number of paid sick days (HB 177/SB 534) and federal legislation, the Healthy Families Act, is now beginning to pick up steam in Congress that would do the same.

Perhaps Secretary Locke and Secretary Sebelius could use their soapbox to add another sentence to their sensible advice and say:

“Mr President, we believe it is essential that you and Congress act now to ensure that working families don’t risk their financial security to do what is right for their own health and the public health of their workplaces, schools and communities. Please pass the Healthy Families Act to guarantee all workers a basic number of paid sick days.”

It sure would make it easier for those workers to listen to them. And, more importantly, it would make it easier to improve public health and restore dignity to the workplace.

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While some folks are starting to say that the current recession might be over, this means squat in regard to when our economy will actually recover and start swinging again.

Economic forecasting, a shaky mishmash of science at best (as even the official chief economic forecaster himself, Ben Bernanke, has acknowledged), typically only takes into account GDP growth and traditional job loss data. These folks are not addressing long-term labor market trends or the real-world implications of long months of unemployment on families.

By saying that the recession is almost over, these economists are simply saying that on a couple of graphs, the sky has stopped falling. It does not mean it’s time to party.

Far from it as in fact, it’s pretty clear that we are experiencing the longest recession officially since the Great Depression. Our GDP perhaps isn’t contracting as much but as the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan predicts, national unemployment is likely to keep rising above 10% and stay there for a good while. And then there’s the actual recovery process. Hint: it’s going to take a very very very long time.

To give you an idea of how far we’ve got to go, just consider how large our gap is between the number of prime-age workers and the number of jobs our economy needs to create to make up for job losses since the start of the recession. As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out:

To return to the pre-recession unemployment rate and fully fill in the gap in the labor market by September 2011, employment would have to increase by an average of 573,000 jobs every month for the next two years straight.

The likelihood of that happening? I have absolutely no economic forecasting creds or a crystal ball but that seems pretty nil.

But that’s just talking about one textbook aspect of economic recovery—getting our unemployment rate down. What about the real-life, long-term impacts of a recession on working families in the coming generation?

A new dismal but excellent brief from EPI, “Economic Scarring, the long-term impacts of the recession”, looks at this questions and finds, among many things that:

Economic recessions are often portrayed as short-term events. However, as a substantial body of economic literature shows, the consequences of high unemployment, falling incomes, and reduced economic activity can have lasting consequences.

For example, job loss and falling incomes can force families to delay or forgo a college education for their children. Frozen credit markets and depressed consumer spending can stop the creation of otherwise vibrant small businesses. Larger companies may delay or reduce spending on R&D.

In each of these cases, an economic recession can lead to “scarring”—that is, long-lasting damage to individuals’ economic situations and the economy more broadly.”

All this is to say—we are stuck in the woods for a good long time and there’s no use on putting on blinders to the lasting consequences of this recession. And even worse, it’s misleading to the public to do so and short-sighted as we’ve got some work to do to craft policy solutions to help families in the years to come.

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In honor of the impending Labor Day weekend, I shall leave you with a digest of stellar but sobering reports that have recently come out around workers and workplace conditions.

If you can’t bring yourself to pore through these while at the beach or firing up the grill, here’s my synopsis:

Today’s economic crisis has turned the spotlight back onto the struggles of working families. But the reports below show that what we’re experiencing today, and will continue to feel, absent strong federal, state and local leadership, is the result of decades of turning a blind eye to the plights of workers and their eroding workplace standards.

And we can’t afford to continue this status quo—strong labor standards and quality jobs are the backbone of a strong American economy. One can’t happen without the other. It’s time to put them back together.

Confronting the Gloves-Off Economy: America’s Broken Labor Standards and How to Fix Them
This stellar report broadens the standard focus on workplace conditions beyond low-wage workers and makes the case that the bigger problem has been a “quantum shift in working and living conditions as many employers, aided by lax enforcement, have made a lucrative game of flouting labor and employment laws”. It stealthily paints a comprehensive picture of our economy and its deep relationship to working conditions, from day laborers to ex-offenders, from globalization to broken health and safety codes.

Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities:
The New York Times highlighted this report this week, which explains the results of the most comprehensive examination of wage-law violations in a decade. The uplifting study found that “in surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.”

Fractures in the Foundation: The Latino Worker’s Experience in an Era of Declining Job Quality:
NCLR released this report in advance of Labor Day and takes on the cracks in our workplace standards as they impact Latino workers. Its findings include the facts that:
Latino workers are more likely to die from an injury at work than White and Black workers and Two in five Latino workers do not earn sufficient wages to keep their families out of poverty.

Young Workers: A Lost Decade:
This report is now out from AFL-CIO and puts the spotlight on young workers (ages 18-35), a segment of the working population that has been slogging along with less health care benefits, fewer paid sick days, and scant opportunities for advancement than even the average working population (which ain’t doing so hot either). It spells out a grim future if we don’t make changes to our labor laws and re-dedicate ourselves to enforcement.

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Today, hundreds of MomsRising.org members delivered a message to state legislators: give kids and families a fair shake in their budget negotiations. That means preserving investments in programs like Smart Start and NC Health Choice, which ensure that young children get a healthy start in life.

State lawmakers received more than 1300 email messages today from moms across North Carolina reminding them that moms vote and will continue to vote for legislators who preserve critical programs for kids and families.

MomsRising.org members also personally delivered hundreds of hand-printed tiles to legislators’ offices to make their point. It’s pretty darned hard to ignore cute kids but without adequate revenues, that’s precisely what will end up happening with North Carolina’s budget.

The more than 12,000 North Carolina moms who are members of MomsRising.org get it that revenues are needed to provide their kids with affordable health insurance and quality early childhood education.

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Many people have been working as part of NC’s Campaign for Paid Sick Days to advance our legislation (HB 177/SB 534) within the General Assembly to provide all workers with a minimum number of paid sick days to care for themselves or a sick family member.

We were successful in getting a hearing in the House Commerce Committee on the Healthy Families and Healthy Workplaces Act a couple of weeks ago. Committee members heard compelling testimony from a mom who knows firsthand the challenges of balancing work and family without paid sick days, a child care provider who understands the public health and business benefits of providing paid sick days to her employees, and a representative from AARP North Carolina who spoke poignantly about the elderly and frail members of our society who are subject to ill caregivers because the majority of nursing care aides don’t have paid sick days.

And now we’re stalled. We’ve been trying to get a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee and the bill has appeared on the committee agenda several times, with each committee meeting running out of time before our coalition members have a chance to share their stories about paid sick days.

We’re just asking for a hearing on why paid sick days are so important for the hundreds of thousands of workers who don’t have them. It’s a small ask.

Meanwhile the NC Chamber and NFIB are spewing out their usual bunch of recycled tirades against paid sick days (it looks like they copied it verbatim from their minimum wage “fact” sheets) calling this an “unfunded mandate”, “costly”, and “inflexible”.

Well we know better and we know the facts. Paid sick days improve public health, strengthen family economic security, and make business sense.

Hopefully we’ll actually have a chance to tell the truth about paid sick days soon in the Senate. North Carolina’s working families deserve it and need it now more than ever.