August 12, 2014 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

It didn’t make a lot of headlines, but a new presidential executive order could be a big deal for workers’ rights and safety. On July 31, President Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which requires federal contractors to disclose prior labor violations and prohibits contractors from forcing workers into arbitration to settle workplace discrimination cases.

The National Law Review explains the order in detail. According to writers Dwight Armstrong and Nisha Verma, the order applies to federal contracts valued at more than $500,000 and could affect a substantial number of workers. Under the disclosure requirements, employers seeking federal contracts must make public any “administrative merits determination, arbitral award or decision, or civil judgment” associated with a violation of state or national labor law. Based on those disclosures, an awarding agency must consider whether the employer “is a responsible source that has a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.” Employers who do receive federal contracts must then update their disclosures every six months and ensure any subcontractors do the same.

The arbitration provision applies to contracts worth more than $1 million and bans employers from requiring workers to sign pre-dispute agreements that would send any discrimination claims automatically to arbitration. Emily Bazelon at Slate quoted Paul Bland, executive director at Public Justice, describing the executive order as “one of the most important positive steps for civil rights in the last 20 years.” Bland especially praised the arbitration provision. Bazelon writes:

The second part of the order is what Bland is so excited about. This provision says that companies with federal contracts worth more than $1 million can no longer force their employees out of court, and into arbitration, to settle accusations of workplace discrimination. “Here’s why this is so important,” Bland said when I asked him to explain. “For the last 20 years, the Supreme Court has been encouraging employers to force their workers into a system of arbitration that has been badly rigged against the workers. And so this order will result in millions of employees having their rights restored to them.”

Arbitration is a private mechanism for dispute resolution. If both parties freely choose to use it rather than going to court, then it can be perfectly legitimate as well as cheaper and faster. The problem is that companies increasingly sneak mandatory arbitration clauses into the fine print of contracts with employees and consumers. Deep into the deal you sign when you take a job, or get a loan, or buy a product, is language in which you agree that you’ll settle any related dispute through a private arbitrator rather than before a judge.

Bazelon notes that the “new executive order says that if you’re a federal contractor with a workplace complaint rooted in your sex, race, ethnicity, or religion, you get to go to court — unless you agree to arbitration voluntarily and after the dispute arises.”

Obama’s executive order is attracting praise from worker advocates. International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) said the order “will create a level playing field for businesses that do the right thing.” The National Employment Law Project said the order “incentivizing federal contractors to obey the law protects taxpayers’ interest in ensuring that their tax dollars do not underwrite illegal conduct.” And the NAACP applauded the order, saying that “promoting competition and protecting civil rights in federal contacting is a measure of both our business ethics and democratic values.”

For a White House fact sheet on the executive order, click here.

In other news:

ESPN: Student athletes may see some of the billions that universities make from collegiate sports. In a recent decision, a federal judge has struck down National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules that prohibit athletes from receiving anything other than scholarships and other costs associated with going to college. However, the ruling also states that the NCAA can cap such payments. In an editorial about the ruling, the Los Angeles Times noted that “considering how much money they make, major-college football and basketball programs carry more than a whiff of exploitation.”

EHS Today: Brooklyn’s Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center faces $78,000 in OSHA fines after the agency found that the medical center failed to protect employees from violent patients. Reporter Josh Cable wrote that the most serious incident involved an assault on a nurse, who sustained serious brain injuries after being attacked by a patient. In its investigation, OSHA uncovered 40 incidents of workplace violence between February and April. More on this story is at New York Daily News.

Reuters: In a somewhat ironic twist, LinkedIn Corp, whose mission is to “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,” was found to have violated wage law to the tune of millions of dollars. In a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor, the company has agreed to pay more than $3.3 million in overtime wages and more than $2.5 million in damages to workers in California, Illinois, Nebraska and New York.

The Nation: Reporter Michelle Chen chronicles the state of low-wage work at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall International Airport, a major airport just outside of Washington, D.C. In particular, the article explores the significant concentration of black workers in the airport’s lowest-paying job positions. A local worker advocate told Chen: “It’s not fair that we work on publicly owned property, paid for by tax dollars, our tax dollars, but we are paid barely above minimum wage…. Some of us are paid so low that the only time we get a decent meal is when we are at work.”

Huffington Post: Last week, two workers filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s of systematic wage theft. Reporter Dave Jamieson writes that the workers “claim that they were forced to regularly work off the clock because of unreasonably low payroll budgets provided to individual Jimmy John’s stores, leading to minimum wage and overtime violations.” (Last year, the Pump Handle interviewed Jimmy John’s workers in St. Louis who were taking part in a local campaign to bring living wages to fast food workers.)

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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