Commentary, News

House members introduce bill to raise NC’s minimum wage, improve worker rights and incomes

In case you missed it, State Representatives Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe)  introduced some long overdue legislation yesterday to dramatically improve the treatment of workers in North Carolina. House Bill 46 — the “Economic Security Act of 2019” — would make the following changes to state law:

  • it would increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years;
  • it would add North Carolina to the list of states that guarantee pay equity by barring employers from paying employees of one gender less than employees of another gender for the same work;
  • it would require employers to provide workers with paid sick days and family medical leave (with some exemptions for small employers);
  • it would increase the tipped minimum wage;
  • it would enact new protections against “wage theft” by employers;
  • it would enact new “ban the box” protections to bar employers from inquiring into the criminal history of job applicants on initial application forms;
  • it would repeal the state’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees;
  • it would reinstate the state earned income tax credit and state child care tax credit.

Needless to say, the measure faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led General Assembly, but if there was ever a bill around which North Carolina working families could and should rally in 2019 and beyond, this is it.

Commentary, News

AFL-CIO unveils its 2019 “Good Jobs Policy Agenda”

The good people at the North Carolina AFL-CIO are unveiling the group’s “Good Jobs Policy Agenda” for 2019 today at a conference in Raleigh that Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to attend and address.

Among the highlights of the agenda:

  • Raising our poverty-level state minimum wage, as a majority of states have done.
  • Raising the wage for tipped workers, which is currently a paltry $2.13/hour.
  • Adding public school employees to the list of state employees who are entitled to a minimum wage of $15/hour.
  • Improving our laws to better eliminate the deliberate “misclassification” of workers as independent contractors—a practice that cheats employees as well as lawful employers, and it also cheats our state government out of tax revenue.
  • Restoring the level and duration of unemployment benefits, now that the Trust Fund is more than solvent, so that they are no longer among the lowest in the country.
  • Allowing municipalities to require employers in their communities, and particularly contractors doing work for those municipalities, to pay more than the state minimum wage, or to require workplace benefits or safeguards greater than what state law requires.
  • Requiring employers that receive tax incentives to provide jobs that will raise, not lower, the standard of living of working families.
  • Restoring the film industry rebate program to expand film jobs in our state.
  • Making employers that relocate call centers overseas ineligible for state subsidies and requiring that call center work contracted by or for state agencies be performed within our state.
  • Requiring that domestic and agricultural workers be covered by minimum wage, overtime, and recording-keeping laws. Maintaining a stable workers’ compensation system that pays adequate benefits to those injured on the job. This includes increasing the maximum allowable amount for permanent injury to body parts including the heart, lungs, and brain—a maximum that has not be raised in a quarter century, and creating certain presumptions for firefighters injured in the line of duty.
  • Requiring employers to provide work breaks—something not currently required under state law.
  • Requiring two-person crews on trains and creating strong penalties for those who assault transportation employees on the job.
  • Ensuring workplace safety for all workers, including our migrant workers. Guaranteeing a minimum number of paid sick days for workers to care for themselves and their loved ones, including expanding the definition of “family” in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to allow leave to care for siblings, grandparents or grandchildren, while preserving the exemption for family farms.
  • Providing funding for child care subsidies to offset costs of affordable, quality childcare for low income workers and those pursuing education and training.
  • Creating work-sharing programs that will keep people employed, preserve the skills of our workers, and reduce both lay-offs and costs to employers.

The agenda also includes a number of other important recommendations, including supporting public education, healthcare for all, an end to big money domination of our elections. Click here to read the entire list.

Commentary

Columnist: Speaker Tim Moore’s legal work raises ethics issues

In case you missed it this morning, journalist Colin Campbell of The Insider has a good piece in this morning’ News & Observer about the problems arising from House Speaker Tim Moore’s far flung law practice. As Campbell points out, it raises serious ethical issues when a powerful politician represents multiple private and public clients on the side.

While some local governments pay lobbyists to represent them in Raleigh, Moore’s home county decided it would be smarter to pay one of the most powerful people in the state to attend every commission meeting. Moore also serves as attorney for his county’s public utility.

Moore’s legal client base extends far outside Cleveland County. The North Carolina Bail Agents Association paid him $10,000 for work involving the N.C. Department of Insurance in 2012. Later that year — after Moore was no longer on the group’s payroll — the legislature passed a law that gave the association a monopoly in providing required bail bond training. Moore recused himself from the vote, but anonymous allegations that claim he was involved behind the scenes have drawn the interest of the FBI.

Moore also did legal work for Durham businessman Neal Hunter, a few years after Moore sponsored legislation that intervened on Hunter’s behalf in a dispute with Durham officials over a new development project, The News & Observer reported.

Moore’s work for the businessman and the bail association prompted a review from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who announced last month that she’d “found no misuse of public office for private gain or other wrongdoing as to these payments.”

Moore’s actions appear to be perfectly legal, according to Freeman. But it’s still likely some of Moore’s clients are hiring him because of his political power instead of his legal prowess. And while Moore may be following ethics rules and keeping legal work separate from legislative work, the current system is easy to abuse.

Campbell’s correct in highlighting Moore’s work as highly problematic and in identifying a couple of possible solutions:

There’s an easy solution to this: Elected officials should be required to list all legal clients on their ethics forms. They’re already required to list their business interests, major investments and real-estate holdings, so legal work should be no exception.

Lawyers, of course, will claim that such a rule would violate attorney-client privilege. That problem would be easily solved by having elected officials’ legal clients sign a form agreeing to the public disclosure.

Or we could go a step further — make serving in the House and Senate a full-time job with full-time pay, and ban legislators from taking on outside employment while in office.

Taxpayers would spend more on legislative salaries, but they’d know that their representatives are working exclusively for them. We’d have fewer political scandals and greater confidence in government.

And House Speaker Tim Moore wouldn’t have to worry about answering questions from the FBI, or making sure the legislative session is over in time to attend a county commission meeting three hours away.

Commentary, News

From ICE raids, to UNC-CH’s new chancellor to combating climate change: The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. ICE tearing apart families in historic raids across state

Kay* was cooling her machine down Tuesday morning at Bear Creek Arsenal in Sanford when she and a mechanic nearby noticed a supervisor looking visibly worried talking to someone they had never seen before.

It didn’t take long for word that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had arrived to spread like wildfire. Before Kay could process what was happening, other employees were trying to run away – one even tried to climb out a window.

That’s when the officers made their presence known. They flooded into the building and began yelling at everyone. They surrounded the area and no one could leave. [Read more…]

2. Critics to state regulators: Duke Energy must do much more to combat climate change

Since Colson Combs was born just over 15 years ago, the planet Earth has recorded more than 10 of its hottest years on record. If humans have not dialed back greenhouse gas emissions by the time Combs reaches his late 20s, the world will likely be headed toward a climate crisis that will stalk him for his entire life.

This dystopian prospect compelled Combs to speak for the third time before the North Carolina Utilities Commission Monday night, on this occasion to plead with the board to reject Duke Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan. The plan details the utility’s proposed energy mix for the next 15 years, at which point, the planet’s climate could pass the point of no return.

“I’m here fighting for renewable energy,” Combs said. “I’m fighting for our future. It’s a scary time. Our world is changing for the worse.” [Read more…]

3. Gov. Cooper to Congress: Our future depends on climate action

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday, urging Congress to step up the fight against climate change as Democrats move to elevate the polarizing problem into a key campaign issue in the 2020 elections.

Speaking at one of the first House committee hearings on global warming in more than eight years, Cooper said North Carolina is the poster child for what can happen if the problem continues to go unaddressed.

In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Cooper told of mountain mudslides in western North Carolina that hurt apple growers and closed ski areas. He said high temperatures in the central part of the state have killed poultry and crops, while hurricanes and tropical storms have lashed coastal communities on the eastern shore. [Read more…]

4. New UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, system president agree: Silent Sam needs to go

UNC-Chapel Hill’s new interim chancellor wants the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument moved off campus – a position the interim UNC system President said Thursday he also shares.

At a press conference to welcome Kevin Guskiewicz as interim chancellor, interim UNC President Bill Roper went further than he ever has in opposing the statue’s return to campus.

“He is on record as saying that the monument should not be anywhere on the campus, and rather should be somewhere else,” Roper said of Guskiewicz’s position on the controversial monument.

“That’s my position as well and I’m comfortable with his position,” Roper said. “That’s one of the reasons that I thought he was the right person to lead UNC-Chapel Hill at this crucial time.” [Read more…]

5. School districts, lawmakers, launch new fight for calendar flexibility

Two bills being considered by the State House would give several local school districts calendar flexibility, but could also reignite a long standing disagreement between educators and tourism officials about when North Carolina schools should open and close.

On Tuesday, the House Standing Committee on K-12 Education reviewed House Bill 12 that would exempt the Alamance-Burlington School System from state law requiring it to open no later than the Monday closest to August 26 and to close no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Lawmakers who spoke Tuesday said local school boards should have the authority to set school calendars.[Read more…]

6. Why North Carolina needs state leaders, not the Koch brothers, to save public education

Public education advocates in North Carolina are ablaze these days, after a report from The Washington Post in late January teased a nebulous plan hatched by the conservative Koch network to spend boatloads of cash on a massive, as-yet-unnamed, K-12 initiative in five states.

If North Carolina is one of the five, state leaders and the Kochs are mum, even as Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson promises a “big” announcement later this month with business leaders.

Speculation abounds, even if Johnson’s announcement has nothing to do with the Kochs. Ramp up the anticipation, or anxiety, depending on where you stand.[Read more…]

7. Marching this Saturday in Raleigh: The moral (and effective) thing to do

There’s a vexing conundrum that frequently confronts movements for social justice when they’re trying to rally supporters to action. It turns out that the best and easiest times to spur people to action often coincide with the moments at which the movement is at its weakest and least able to effect real change.

Think about it.

Five-plus years ago when the Moral Mondays movement really took off in North Carolina, it was at a moment of historic impotence for the state’s progressives. With the Governor’s office, the General Assembly and the state Supreme Court in conservative hands and an aggressive, hard right policy push in full swing, progressives had few, if any, venues in which to make a stand or push back. A similar reality confronted progressives at the national level in early 2017 after the inauguration of Donald Trump.[Read more…]

Commentary

NC public opinion on the death penalty appears to have reached a tipping point

There is powerful new polling data today on the public attitudes of North Carolinians toward the death penalty.

A press release from the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation explains:

New poll shows death penalty supporters now in the minority among N.C. voters
Public concerns grow over racial bias and the execution of innocent people

Durham, NC — North Carolina has long been considered a solidly pro-death penalty state, but a new poll finds that N.C. voters overwhelmingly believe the death penalty is error-prone and racially biased – and a majority believe it should be replaced with alternative punishments.

The poll of 501 voters across the state, conducted last week by Public Policy Polling, comes as a capital trial begins in Wake County. It is the first comprehensive statewide survey of death penalty views in North Carolina.

It reveals that a steep decline in new death sentences – North Carolina juries have sent only a single person to death row since 2014 – is the result of a sea change in public opinion about the death penalty that reaches across political divides. Of those polled, 47 percent voted for Donald Trump and 45 percent for Hillary Clinton.

“I was stunned when I saw these numbers,” said David Weiss, a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “Seventy percent of people believe an innocent person has likely been executed in North Carolina. Almost 60 percent believe that racial bias affects who is sentenced to death in our state. With these kinds of serious concerns about the death penalty, it’s inconceivable that North Carolina could execute anyone or even continue to sentence people to death.”

The poll found that voters have concerns about the death penalty’s fairness on several fronts:

  • More than 70 percent said defendants should have the right to bring forward evidence of racial discrimination in capital trials and jury selection.
  • 70 percent believe it is likely that an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina.
  • 68 percent said they support the creation of a new law to exempt people with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
  • 61 percent said they believe the courts should reexamine the death sentences of prisoners who were tried before a series of legal reforms were enacted to protect defendants’ rights and ensure fair trials. More than three-quarters of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were sentenced before these reforms.
  • 57 percent said it is likely that racial bias influences who is sentenced to death.

The poll also showed that voters are willing to consider a range of alternatives to the death penalty:

When given a choice between the death penalty and a maximum sentence of life without parole, more than 50 percent of voters said they favor life without parole, while only 44 percent leaned toward keeping the death penalty. The rest were unsure. Read more