Opting out of Workman’s Compensation

thNew Orleans     Given all of the effort of the techies to promote the so-called “gig” economy and create a permanent class of part-time, on-call workers with few to no benefits, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some of the big boys have already found loopholes allowing them escape clauses for compensating their workers, even in the terrible and tragic situations where workers are hurt in the course of serving exactly those same employers. Not too long ago reporters for ProPublica ran a piece in Salon.com on the way Costco, McDonalds, Walmart, numerous health care companies, and others had figured out loopholes in Texas and passed laws in Oklahoma to write and administer their own self-serving workman’s compensation programs. There was nothing pretty to be found in reading the piece.

This is all complicated, but the simple backstory is that the Texas constitution had pretty much always allowed employers to opt out of workman’s comp, but until some Dallas-based lawyers started pulling and pitching the path out, most had stayed in thinking it protected them as well as their workers. One of the lawyers got so good at this chicanery that he left and formed a company, PartnerSource, to do nothing but scheme and cheat on workers’ injuries. Needless to say there was a ready market, and the shyster has a map pins all over his wall on where he wants to move the opt-out campaign.

What kind of things do they get away with and who does the damage, you might ask? Well, let’s looks at some of the cases with ProPublica:


· For nearly 40 years, every state has covered occupational diseases and repetitive stress injuries, recognizing medical research that some conditions develop over time. But in Texas, a number of companies, including McDonald’s and the United Regional Health Care System, don’t cover cumulative trauma such as carpal tunnel. U.S. Foods, the country’s second largest food distributor, also doesn’t cover any sickness or disease “regardless of how contracted,” potentially allowing it to dodge work-related conditions such as heat stroke, chemical exposures or even cancer.
· several companies, including Home Depot, Pilot Travel Centers and McDonald’s, exclude injuries caused by safety violations or the failure to obtain assistance with a particular task.
· Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest chain of assisted living facilities, doesn’t cover most bacterial infections. Why Taco Bell can accompany injured workers to doctors’ appointments and Sears can deny benefits if workers don’t report injuries by the end of their shifts. Costco will pay only $15,000 to workers who lose a finger while its rival Walmart pays $25,000.


You get the picture?

Add to these horrors the fact that disputes are often forced into arbitration and denied access to courts, the companies are pushing the costs over to Medicaid and Social Security disability and away from their own responsibilities, and all of this is virtually unregulated, and the full dimensions of another assault in state legislatures is clearly on the way. Bills are already pending in South Carolina and Tennessee, and a coalition led by executives at Loews, Walmart, Nordstrom’s and other companies has been formed to promote passage in other areas.

Open the window even a crack and the horrors come roaring in!

Redefining Employment Status Is Just Exploitation by Another Name

 lobbyNew Orleans     Tech lobbyists, led by Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are now spending almost as much as the automobile industry on Washington, DC lobbyists.  That’s not good news for the rest of us.

            A lot of the lobbying, according to recent reports, at both the federal, state, and local level is from Uber and the Uber-wannabe companies that have a huge vested interested in promoting the so-called “gig economy,” as if it is a revolutionary and utopian step forward for workers.  It almost goes without saying that anytime companies start claiming that what they think is best for their workers, eyebrows and probably voices need to be readied and raised in protest. 

            Uber, as many urban dwellers know, is the high flying tech company that is hard to define somewhere between being an application that consumers can carry on their smartphones to a huge employer of drivers, according to most recent rulings by labor standards regulators in the state of California.  They see themselves in tech-speak as “disruptors,” and in this case they disrupt the taxi industry and the huge number of drivers who work in that, admittedly imperfect, world where workers are already routinely misclassified as subcontractors already.  Uber’s defense in legal proceedings filed by some of its drivers in California is that people just love this part-time, no benefits, casual, work.  Maybe some do, but many don’t.

            Other tech companies in the wannabe Uber world are also trying to develop apps that will replace full-time workers with casual, contingent workers.  Some, sniffing the legal pleadings and understanding that the breeze is not blowing these days in favor of more worker exploitation even in this Age of Inequality in the USA, actually have done the right thing and classified their workers as employees, just as they should.  Crying like stuck pigs, they have jumped into the lobbying game because they want to see if there’s some way, some loophole, some wink-and-nod that would allow them to reclassify their workers as free agents and on their own.

            You might ask the reason they offer about why this is new and different?  Well, they say, to no one’s shock, that it cost them money:  social security payments, unemployment, health insurance, and workman’s compensation – the whole package.  How does that sound like a “new economy?  In fact it seems word to word like exactly the same complaint that employers have been making for decades as they plead for the right and wherefore to be able to completely exploit their workforce and then walk away when they are out of work, elderly, hurt, or sick.

            The answer from Washington, state capitals, and city halls needs to be the same to these new hustlers as it should be and sometimes has been to the old employers:  shut up and pay up!  Hiring workers is not a license for exploitation.  We have an app for that and it’s called laws that prevent it.

Is the Chattering Class Calling for the Poor to Organize?

ACORN PLATFORMNew Orleans   The darned poor! They are so exasperating! They won’t get jobs, when there are no jobs to be gotten. They won’t simply abandon their children, when there is no daycare they can afford or place to put them. They still want to eat even when they don’t have enough money for food. They won’t get off the streets, just because they don’t have homes. Perhaps worse, some believe that they’ll always be with us.

And, now some in the chattering class are calling for the poor to rise up and organize and do something about this inequality problem that the rich insisted successfully for so many years was the only way to go.

Alec MacGillis, a political reporter for ProPublica, recent author, and former reporter for The Washington Post and The New Republic writing about the paradox of poor areas voting for politicians who want to sock it to ‘em and the Democratic Party’s loss of the white working class, especially in rural areas, asks the question in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?”

His answer, so to speak, is a stab in the dark, more a prayer than a wish. He says, “For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor….Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions….” Then rather than actually spelling out how poor people in general, or in rural areas where it is even harder, are going to get this organizing and mobilizing done, he shifts to his second answer of sorts and that has to do with reducing “…the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst.” He concludes his lengthy piece with the conclusion that, “If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities – not least by turning out to vote.”

Like I said, he’s clueless and reduced to wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams, but worse, he seems to be blaming the poor for the resentment others might feel about them, and in some convoluted and crazy way saying miraculously if there are less of them needing benefits, then others will hate them less, and then somehow low income folks will come out of the shadows and vote. Unbelievable. The nation has decimated the welfare population since Bill Clinton’s presidency, but now almost twenty years later there’s no fading of resentment, heck, politicians are still targeting the ones that are left and moving on after the working poor and seeing if they can take away their food stamps to boot. Vote, heck, if people mobilize and organize, you better hope they stumble on voting as a program!

Even esteemed sociologist and well-known author, William Junius Wilson seems confused about all of this. Earlier in the Times he was quoted saying, “Unfortunately no one has organized for these poor people. There is not a mobilization of political resources among the poor.” When I first read it, I said, “Right on! Look Professor Wilson is advocating that the poor organize! About fricking time!!” Then I read it more carefully. What does he mean, “…organized FOR these poor people?” Is he thinking about calling Ghostbusters or somebody to go advocate for the poor? Like MacGillis he seems to want to see “redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs.” Meaning poor people. Wilson wants there to be “a mobilization of political resources among the poor,” but is he blaming the poor for not mobilizing their own “political resources,” like MacGillis was blaming them for calling resentment down upon themselves, or is he asking for someone somehow to get the poor moving, like MacGillis is hoping maybe the Democrats will shake off their doldrums and do?

Hey, don’t get me wrong, these are guys that know better and the times are hard and at least they are trying to say the right thing and calling for organization of the poor, which makes them special and super in my book, even though they both seem hopelessly confused about what that might mean and how it might be done.

Look, I know quite a bit about the ways and means of organizing and mobilizing the poor, and the one thing I can guarantee is that it will NOT reduce resentment and when they start voting and winning, the wrath of the powers that be will be called down upon them and then Wilson, MacGillis, and others like them had better not be in the long chorus line claiming they are asking for the right things just not going about it in the right ways, but they better be in the amen section. In the meantime, they and others who understand there has to be organization of and by the poor, need to put some money and muscle where their mouths are. There are plenty of people ready and able to see the job done, but it takes more than wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams to make it happen. Believe me!

Mobile Phone Remittances Increasing in Africa with Questions Unresolved

mobile-money1New Orleans   The constant risk in reading the business press, and, yes, I’m talking about Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, is picking a path between the facts, the news, and blatant sales and promotion. That’s especially dangerous because at ACORN we eat up almost any article that pretends to talk about lowering the costs of money transfer remittances for migrant workers and immigrants as if it were an ice cream sundae. Needless to say, I scooped up an article with the headline, “Turning African Phones Into Wallets,” particularly because days ago in a Canada to France to the USA skype conference we had been all over this topic!

First the news. The World Bank, years away from the G-8 commitment to lower all costs of remittances to 5%, is now saying that they believe the cost globally is 8% and in Africa 12%. The facts continue to be that they are hedging their bets on the figures by not including all of the charges, but I’ll get to that. They do offer that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 2.2% to $32.9 billion in 2014 compared to 2013, doubling the average growth rate globally and projected to hit even higher between 2015 and 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of the transfers are now cross-border transactions between migrant workers in other African countries led by Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. Seeing that development elsewhere ACORN has been trying to change our strategy in Honduras and Ecuador. In Africa many of the transfers are being enabled by mobile phones, led by MFS Africa a 6 year old South Africa based company. Importantly, a smartphone is not required. 500 million users of cooperating communications companies allow access through a mobile payment account on the cell enabling transfers to the mobile phones of other enrolled customers who can essentially text something like a money order to the receiver’s phone and confirm completion with a PIN number. Pretty straightforward. MFS Africa makes its money, according to the Journal on a 30 cents per transaction charge with the average transfer being $80, which also resonates with ACORN International’s research.

There’s still a devil in Paradise though, which is where the story takes a bad turn into sales and promotion for the businesses and against the workers who are moving money home. There’s no discussion of the charges applied for currency exchange and pickup. The Journal obliquely mentions that MFS Africa gets a taste of the exchange from some communications companies, but it’s silent on how much rip-and-run is there. Same problem with the World Bank figuring.

In a conversation with an interesting startup called Wave.com that thus far was only transferring money from Kenya and trying to open soon in Ethiopia to channels in the USA and Canada, their representative told me they take no front end charge but make all of their money on the exchange rate, though assuring me they took less than the 5% cap ACORN has been fighting for globally. There are huge, deep-pocketed companies trying to get a slice of migrants’ hard earned wages going home, including MasterCard and other joint ventures, so having no money for marketing makes such small efforts like Wave imperiled, but it also signals that without strong rules and regulations the exchange and after-transfer charges will likely continue to be predatory.

For a change it would be nice if the G-8, the World Bank, and countries around the world, desperate to maximize the money for development and personal investment in communities represented by remittance receivers, actually got ahead of the dark-side of this market, rather than just sitting in the stands and waiting for businesses to flash an applause sign. ACORN Canada is hopeful that it can convert a platform commitment from the Liberals to remittance reforms and caps into reality, given their recent election success, which would break new ground.

In the meantime the best we can hope is that we’re at two steps forward and only one step back, but it’s hard to be certain.

Land Grabbing, GRAIN, TIAA-CREF, Africa and Brazil

ImageGen.ashxNew Orleans    Funny how some issues, even very big ones, linger right off your radar and then seem to pop up everywhere. Recently, I’ve felt that way about “land grabbing.” Working mostly in cities and slums around the world, out of sight is too often out of mind. Meeting in France with ReAct, our international partner, and getting a better understanding of their on-the-ground organizing of rubber and palm oil farmers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Morocco to force accountability from the French-based transnational, Bollore, I had thought the issue was wages and working conditions, but the more I listened, the clearer it became that the issue was actually land grabbing.

According to Wikipedia, “land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals.” Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct is attending a pan-African conference in Nairobi on land grabbing now and meeting with ACORN Kenya’s organizers as an extra benefit to his short visit. We can look forward to understanding the global planning and response when we get his report upon his return to France.

Meanwhile there’s a troubling story in the Times about the US-based giant retirement fund, TIAA-CREF, including a well-documented analysis of its troubling role in land grabbing in Brazil. Their behavior is especially dodgy given the rules Brazil had put in place in 2010 to limit foreign investment in land to prevent such exploitation. TIAA-CREF seems to have tried to play button-button with the new legislation and put the lawyers and its partners to work to concoct a wink-and-nod formation that seemed to follow the letter of the law while trampling the spirit of it and then pouring in even more millions into such land deals. Were they depleting rain forests? Technically no, because they were involved in after-market transactions abetting shadowy, unscrupulous, and often rough handed wheeler dealers who grabbed the land and laundered it for purchase by TIAA-CREF and its partners later.

Having dealt with them on some business for my mother some months ago and finding them pretty reasonable in the rapacious crowd of vultures exploiting the elderly and the infirm, I was sadden to read about their shifty dealings in Brazil. On the other hand it was uplifting to read about the think-and-action tank in Barcelona, called GRAIN, an acronym originally for Genetic Resources Action International. The outfit had begun as a research think tank and took a look at its work and re-engineered itself into an organization designed to support small farmers and social movements on the ground with their research. They also reorganized as a small collective now staffed out by almost half women and eleven different nationalities. Clearly, if their work in uncovering the shenanigans of TIAA-CREF is any indication, the victims of land grabbing have found an effective ally and friend in GRAIN, and that’s good news.

Working in cities we become familiar with all of the ways that crooks steal the houses and properties of lower income families with false deeds, forged papers, and financial mayhem. It’s easy to forget that of course the same thing is operating, perhaps even on a larger scale, in stealing land from poor and indigenous farmers around the world. It’s the story of America and our history after all, but somehow we think we’re past all of that now, rather than still right in the middle of the mess. Wrong!

Loopholes on Employer Mandates of Obamacare Killing Low Wage Workers

ACA-Employer-Mandate1Shreveport    The devil is in the details, and lower waged employers, like large nursing home chains, have figured out a way to be the devil with the details when it comes to making a mockery out of the employer mandate to provide healthcare coverage. Bargaining a renewal contract for Local 100 United Labor Unions at a nursing home in Shreveport that we had represented for almost thirty years was a case study in the travesty of the law and the tragedy for the workers.

In fulfilling the information request and providing details on the health insurance offering for the workers, this company, the second largest nursing home chain in Louisiana, gave us a mishmash of materials forcing the bargaining committee to ask a number of questions hoping for a glimmer of hope that didn’t seem obvious from the materials, but no such luck.

We saw two plans. One that covered some our bargaining unit, including the activities director and maintenance staff. The other for all of the certified nursing assistants.

The first plan was no Cadillac plan, believe me. The deductible was $2500 for an individual in or out of the network. The examples of coverage were cautionary. If you had a baby costing $7540 from the hospital, the plan would pay for $3530 and you would be out $4010. The second plan was from land of Simon Legree. The deductible was a whopping $6350 per person, the highest we have seen or heard of anywhere, no matter the low wage employer! Worse, it covered almost nothing. Having a baby with the same cost would have the plan paying less than a grand and in fact only $940 while the patient paid $6600 with the deductible now stated to be $6400 and something called “exceptions” adding another $200. Managing diabetes was another example where if the cost were $5400 on the first plan, the worker would pay $3280 and the plan $2120. On the second plan we devolve into farce, where on the cost of $5400, the plan would pay a measly $20 bucks and the worker would pay $5380. Yes, $20.

This is more than enough to describe the horrors here, but adding insult to injury, remember that the worker would also be paying for this sorry story. The rate of payment was not fixed which was a first for in our experience, but was calculated to the wage of each individual worker so that the company could squeeze the last penny of the 9.5% allowable for an Affordable Care Act plan from the worker. The cap was $175 per month at the highest worker’s wage and the minimum was around $111 per month figured at the individual worker’s hourly wage times 130 hours for a regular employee times 9.5%. No math shaming here but if you are a certified nursing assistant to elect this plan the employer begrudgingly was providing under the employer mandate of Obamacare, you would be paying anywhere from about $1300 to $2100 for the ability to claim health insurance on your job where you would then have to pay more than $6000 before you got the first dollar worth of health insurance benefit. The math is daunting. These are workers making less than $20,000 per year and closer to $18000 annually who would be paying up to $8000 out of their income to access any benefit from the policy! Incredible!

The employer insisted that the plan qualified, despite our objections, and, frankly, it may. The employer had no answer to the question of why all workers were not put in the first plan which was hardly a gift. The employer pretended not to have available the number of workers who had elected to pay for this travesty of insurance, even as the union asked if it was more than one and less than ten workers.

Meanwhile the workers are blocked from the subsidies and cost sharing payments provided under the Affordable Care Act, because their employer supposedly provides health insurance if that is what you call what is described here. And, to pile on since none or next to none are foolish enough to join this so-called plan that means beginning in 2016 the workers will pay a 2.5% penalty on their gross income or $450 to $500 for not having insurance, so their boss can take more money to the bank.

Needless to say there’s no Medicaid expansion yet in Louisiana – and many other states. This is not a health care solution for lower waged workers who desperately need health care protection!