Analysis Human Rights

Workers Organize to Fight the ‘Part-Timeification’ Trend at Juicy Couture, Other Chains

Sheila Bapat

Across the country, employers are choosing to cut worker hours in order to save money and dodge requirements in the Affordable Care Act. And some workers are fighting back.

Workers at Juicy Couture clothing stores in New York City have recently alleged that the retailer is cutting employee hours to dodge health insurance costs resulting from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), making Juicy one of the latest employers to contribute to the “part-timeification” trend now popular in the restaurant, retail, and other sectors, a trend that disproportionately affects women. In response to this trend, employees are turning to new online tools to organize and fight for better benefits.

The Retail Action Project, which is helping organize the Juicy Couture workers, said the following in a statement:

“…employees … who work at Juicy’s flagship store have repeatedly complained that in February and March, all part-time associates’ hours were capped at 21 hours per week, and managers did not let workers know. Workers only found out [about the cap] when they asked why they had so few hours [and] asked for more. … Juicy workers qualify for paid time off only if they work 1,400 hours in one year. Part-time workers will never hit that total [working] just 21 hours/week, meaning that the vast majority of Juicy Couture’s retail workers will not ever get one single paid sick day, health insurance, or paid vacation.”

A representative from Juicy Couture told Rewire that the company has “no such policy with regard to employee hours nor have any decisions been made about how to best manage ACA requirements” and that it is “still reviewing the ACA’s impact and how to best continue to provide meaningful benefits options to our managers and associates.” However, across the country, employers are choosing to cut worker hours in order to save money and dodge requirements in the ACA. The New York Times reported late last year about the “part-time life” that an increasing number of employees are living. In retail specifically, over the past two decades, many major retailers went from 70 to 80 percent of staff members being employed full-time to 70 percent being employed part-time. Just 21 percent of part-time workers in the industry are likely to receive benefits, compared to 65 percent of full-time workers.

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Against this backdrop of an employer cutting worker hours, and given that union power is at an all-time low, it’s critical to have a robust organizing infrastructure that can aid workers in negotiating with employers and changing workplace policies. Over the past several months, a fledgling online platform called Coworker.org has emerged to try to fill that gap, aiding workers who are seeking to change an employer’s policy. Unlike other online platforms like Facebook, Coworker.org is focused exclusively on organizing workers.

Juicy Couture employees are among the first three groups to create a campaign using Coworker.org.

Coworker.org’s founders, Jess Kutch and Michelle Miller, have an infrastructure-building focus in mind. Both are former union organizers who also worked on economic justice campaigns at Change.org, and they have ambitious goals.

“We realized there weren’t spaces online for workers to learn from each other. Imagine if there’s a place online where you can see every active paid maternity leave campaign in the country,” Kutch told Rewire. “We’re in very early stages of this, but as we get to scale we’re going to have awesome opportunities to connect dots for people and to link them to experienced workplace activists. This is not just about workers influencing their employers, but it’s also about being able to see what other groups of workers are doing. ”

In many ways the platform feels similar to Change.org’s petition platform, but for its exclusive focus on workers. During the process of creating a petition, the site offers workers tips, encouraging them to avoid creating petitions at work and to be sure not to use work computers so that they don’t become vulnerable to retaliation.

“There are communities online that have evolved organically that regularly talk to each other, but without organizers behind the scenes figuring out ways to grow those communities and win battles over time, you’re just going to have disparate communities never building toward something,” said Kutch, adding that she and Miller hope to engage a network of workers’ rights attorneys to assist employees who are facing retaliation.

Expanding infrastructure for workers’ rights is ultimately about addressing economic justice for women. Women are far more likely than men to work in part-time positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Retail Action Project, which is partnering with Coworker.org on the campaign, argue in their advocacy materials that there is “a significant gender gap in wages in an industry that employs millions of women in America, where women are less likely to receive benefits or promotions” as average and median hourly wages are significantly higher for men than women.” At Juicy’s flagship store in Manhattan, there are 71 female and 51 male employees.

Ali, a 22-year-old college student who asked that I not reveal her last name, used to work at Juicy Couture’s flagship location. She was first hired during the holiday season to work 30 to 35 hours per week. After the holiday season, her hours were cut in half, but she and her colleagues were only notified of the cuts when a new work schedule was circulated. Ali complained about the cuts in hours. She was terminated last month for tardiness.

“Being late was a legitimate reason to fire me, but it’s also possible they fired me because I was outspoken about the hours issue,” Ali told Rewire. “I spoke with every manager in the store about it.” (A representative for Juicy Couture said that “while we do not share specific details about our associates, we would not fire an employee for speaking their mind.”)

When there is strong organizing around policies like Juicy’s, dramatic change is possible: In late 2012, Darden Restaurants—the company that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and a handful of other restaurants—famously cut worker hours in an effort to skirt rules about employee insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but the public reacted with outrage, and Darden’s profits plunged. As the modern labor movement evolves away from arcane collective bargaining structures, attempts at innovation like Coworker.org will become an important part of the workers’ rights landscape.

News Economic Justice

Wage Theft Could Cost $32 Million Weekly for Pennsylvania’s Low-Wage Workers

Michelle D. Anderson

Advocates say that government oversight is weak, and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent refusal to consider a case involving several thousand Walmart employees brought attention to what employment advocates in Pennsylvania call a hidden crisis: wage theft.

Legal aid agencies and advocacy organizations such as the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project use the term to describe employers’ refusal to pay wages due their workers.

“Shortchanged: How Wage Theft Harms Pennsylvania’s Workers And Economy,” a study released by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, revealed that cooks, dishwashers, and food preparers, along with stock/office clerks and retail salespeople, were among the largest low-wage worker groups experiencing weekly minimum wage violations.

Employers commit wage theft by paying a daily rate that does not meet Pennsylvania’s $7.25 hourly minimum wage requirements, misclassifying people who work as independent contractors, paying in cash, failing to keep adequate records, and taking money out of paychecks to account for uniforms, supplies, and other products necessary to perform the job.

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Terry L. Fromson, managing attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal center, told Rewire that the practice compromises women’s economic security in Pennsylvania, where women make up about two-thirds of people who work for minimum wage, and where the minimum wage is the lowest allowed by federal law.

“Factor in losing 15 percent of a would-be paycheck to wage theft, and a family led by a primary or sole breadwinning mother sinks further into poverty,” Fromson said.

In the Walmart case, first decided by a Philadelphia jury in October 2006, 186,000 current and former employees from the retailer’s Pennsylvania stores were awarded $187 million in a class action suit for unpaid wages that were withheld between March 1998 and April 2006.

The workers’ counsel, Donovan Litigation Group, said the employees had been owed $140 million of the $187 million and will now split $224 million due to interest, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Walmart had appealed the decision in 2006, taking the case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, who affirmed the jury verdict in 2014. U.S. Supreme Court justices on April 4 decided to not take up the case and to support the state’s high court decision.

In the years since Walmart employees first took action, workers and legal aid agencies across the United States, including in Pennsylvania, have brought many more wage theft cases.

Last year, for example, more than three dozen people who work for low wages at the Denver-area Carniceria y Verduleria Guadalajara grocery store won $305,000 in back wages and penalties in a U.S. District Court ruling using federal and state “wage theft” laws.

Papa John’s franchisees in New York were found guilty of wage theft last year and ordered to pay back more than $500,000 to settle claims that they swindled employees out of earned income.

There remains, however, little information as to how prevalent wage theft has become across the country, advocates for low-wage workers told Rewire. The Sheller Center last year sought to fill the void in wage theft data in Pennsylvania.

The study, which used the state’s right-to-know law to obtain data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) and relied upon extrapolations rather than original data, found that the state’s people who work for low wages, on average, lose about 15 percent of the their earnings to wage theft.

The study suggested that nearly 400,000 people who work in Pennsylvania experience a minimum wage violation and more than 300,000 experience an overtime violation every workweek. The weekly loss amounts to an estimated $19-32 million in wages, according to the “Shortchanged” authors.

The study revealed that the DLI, the state agency responsible for handling wage theft matters, was unable to collect wages in more than half of the complaints filed by people who work.

In fact, despite closing 5,000 cases annually, the DLI collects wages in about 2,000 of those incidents, according to the Temple University study.

The U.S. Department of Labor in a study released last year acknowledged the prevalence of wage theft among wage and salary workers in California and New York.

The report concluded that more than 300,000 people who work in those states were victims of wage theft. Many of those affected, the federal study revealed, work in service-based positions in the restaurant and hotel industries and were more likely to be women, people of color, and undocumented people.

Undocumented residents in New York, for example, were 3.1 times more likely to experience wage theft.

A local report released by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha in Minneapolis found that nearly half of low-wage workers in the Twin Cities have experienced wage theft.

Nadia Hewka, senior attorney at Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia-based legal aid outlet, said many businesses exploit undocumented workers’ vulnerabilities.

“Employers cut corners—some of them will choose to hire immigrant workers because they think they won’t complain,” Hewka told Rewire.

At Community Legal Services, Hewka said many people who work don’t know they are entitled to overtime and often seek to recover wages after they haven’t been paid for extended periods of time.

“That often happens with immigrant workers who are not familiar with laws in the U.S.,” said Hewka, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Workers Rights Coalition.

The “Shortchanged” authors noted that undocumented workers fear their supervisors will call immigration authorities, while immigrants with employment visas are often afraid they may lose visa privileges if they speak up.

Identifying Wage Theft

The Temple University study, which excluded low-wage employees in more rural settings, like farm, forestry, and fishing workers, outlined the many ways employers get away with wage theft.

The report relied upon a landmark investigation released in 2009 called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” which surveyed low-wage workers in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles.

The “Broken Laws” study estimated about 90 percent of home health-care workers were victims of off-the-clock violations.

Philadelphia resident Natasha, whose last name was withheld by the “Shortchanged” authors, was a victim of wage theft while working as a home health-care worker.

Her employer, who often avoided workers and created barriers to keep employees from engaging each other about their paychecks, failed to compensate Natasha for travel time between client homes and even missed paycheck due dates.

The mother of four, who made $9.50 per hour and witnessed her boss call the police on coworkers who complained about wage theft, was ultimately fired after becoming ill despite her stellar attendance and documented excuse for missing work.

“I was so frustrated and I wanted to break down and cry because I couldn’t spend another week not being able to feed my children, having to choose between bread, eggs or milk,” she said, according to the study. “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Advocates for people who work low-wage jobs contend that wage theft also hurts the state’s economy, because money that would otherwise be spent in the economy is stolen from people who work, while businesses evade taxes that could be used to fund schools and road projects.

Law-abiding businesses may struggle to compete with enterprises that steal wages, advocates said.

The U.S. Department of Labor study noted that the burden of wage theft ultimately shifts from the private sector to the government because people who work for low wages will seek public assistance if their pay is insufficient.

People who work for low wages and their allies have looked to key policy changes to address wage theft, though it’s proven difficult because of resistance in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, Hewka said.

Some measures proposed during the 2015-2016 legislative session, like HB 250, which sought to raise the penalty for wage theft and for retaliating against an employee for reporting said theft, get stuck in committees and die there, she said.

A resolution to discharge the house’s labor and industry committee from further consideration of HB 250 was presented in October 2015.

Legislators in other states have proposed measures aimed at addressing wage theft. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin last year proposed legislation that would allow the state’s Department of Workforce Development to charge interest on unpaid wages and levy fines up to $1,000 per violation against employers who break state wage theft laws.

Hewka added that government oversight, overall, is weak and laws only provide a slap on the wrist when they are enforced, she said. Pennsylvania—much like the federal government—lacks enough regulators, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the Minimum Wage Act and the Wage Payment and Collection Law are the protections low-wage workers can rely on to reclaim stolen wages.

The Wage Payment and Collection Law limits penalties to the higher of $500 or 25 percent of wages owed, and includes criminal fines limited to $300.

The state’s minimum wage law, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any damages to people who work low-wage jobs, unlike federal law.

“Shortchanged” authors have recommended harsher penalties for employers, including business license revocation and allowing people who work to place a hold on employer’s property until they receive unpaid wages.

Other solutions encourage state policymakers to collaborate with community groups to target investigations and to create a process for workers to submit anonymous or confidential complaints.

The state has enjoyed some successes in battling systemic wage theft against people who work.

Philadelphia City Councilman William “Bill” Greenlee sponsored a bill that will create a wage-theft watchdog in the city’s Managing Director’s Office.

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the council in November, requires a wage-theft coordinator to respond to worker complaints and find victims who may lack education about their rights.

The coordinator will be responsible for looking at thefts of anywhere between $100 and $10,000, and can revoke business licenses and impose a city fine of $2,000 per incident.

Hewka, who worked with Greenlee on the measure, said the city should be prepared to handle complaints in July.

The measure, she said, will offer relief to low-income citizens who cannot afford a private lawyer and legal aid groups who can only provided a limited amount of free services.

News Human Rights

Elizabeth Warren, Workers Take Aim at ‘Walmart Economy’

Emily Crockett

When Sen. Warren and Rep. George Miller invited Walmart workers to brief Congress on Tuesday about the retail giant’s abusive practices, the conversation was about more than just Walmart.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) invited Walmart workers to brief Congress on Tuesday about the retail giant’s abusive practices, the conversation was about more than just Walmart.

“No one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty,” Warren said.

“This is about the simple dignity of the people you have hired to work,” Miller said. “When you have a higher minimum wage, fair scheduling, and equal work for equal pay, the perception of the business goes up in the people’s mind, the customers go up and the revenues go up.”

Cantare Duvant, a Walmart customer service manager, said at the briefing that since Walmart is the nation’s largest retailer, it sets the standard for others in the industry. “So not only do we as Walmart workers deserve better, our economy also deserves better,” she said.

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Duvant is a member of OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), a union-backed group of Walmart workers who are, in Duvant’s words, “struggling to support our families on low pay and erratic scheduling” in what is now “Walmart’s low-wage economy.”

“Walmart specifically is worth discussing not only because of the 1.3 million workers it directly employs, but also because of the impact its employment practices have on the rest of our economy,” said Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at Demos. She said Walmart does this by “pushing down wages, limited workers hours, and squeezing its suppliers and its competitors.” 

A majority of Americans are paid by the hour, and about half of early-career adults have no say in their work schedules, said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. “This isn’t just a narrow section of people,” she said.

Sen. Warren, a progressive hero who was recently appointed to a position in the Senate Democratic leadership, said that the issue of low-wage work in America is “deeply personal” for her.

When her father lost his job after having a heart attack, Warren said, her working-class family couldn’t pay the bills, lost their car, and almost lost their home. Then one day, “My mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home, pulled on her best dress, put on her lipstick, put on her high heels, and walked to Sears to get a minimum-wage job.”

“But here’s the key: It was a minimum-wage job in an America where a minimum-wage job would support a family of three.”

That could never happen today, Warren said, when “a momma and a baby on a full-time minimum-wage job cannot keep themselves out of poverty.”

Warren used the briefing to promote three pieces of legislation aimed at helping low-wage workers, including but not limited to people working at Walmart.

Those bills would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, give workers more reliable and flexible schedules, and help women address unequal pay based on gender.

Equal pay came up because women make up about two-thirds of the low-wage work force, and many are family breadwinners. Warren said that women in about half of American jobs can be fired just for asking whether their pay is unequal to their male coworkers.

The Schedules That Work Act, Warren said, is about the “basic fairness” of workers being able to plan for a second job, child care, or schooling. It would require employers to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance, compensate them for showing up for work only to be sent home, and not retaliate against workers for requesting more flexible or predictable schedules.

All three bills have been blocked by Republicans, which Warren openly acknowledged.

“I know that change is not easy. We might not pass these bills right away,” she said. “But don’t kid yourself about the importance of these bills, and the assurance that we’re eventually going to get them through.”

The Schedules That Work Act in particular would help Fatmata Jabbie, a Walmart worker and refugee from Saudi Arabia whose story was read at the hearing.

“Although I am not full-time yet, I am virtually on call seven days a week to pick up extra hours,” she said in her written statement. Her reward for that trouble is usually only 30 to 36 hours of work and $150 to $200 in take-home pay.

“I am a mom with two beautiful children, so I am not the only one who relies on that salary to survive,” Jabbie said.

OUR Walmart is pushing for bigger reforms than the three bills Warren promoted though. Members of the group are calling for their aggressively non-unionized employer to pay a minimum living wage of $15 an hour, provide stable, full-time schedules, and stop retaliating against workers who speak out against the company’s practices.

Duvant, for instance, already makes the $10.10 per hour that the federal minimum wage bill would guarantee—but that doesn’t do her much good, she said, when Walmart will only schedule her for 16 hours of work per week.

And Evelin Cruz, who worked for Walmart for 11 years, said at the hearing that the company fired her a few weeks ago for her activism with OUR Walmart.

“We spoke out for change, and Walmart did what it does best, which is bully, retaliate, and fire me,” she said.

Cruz told Rewire that even though she no longer works at Walmart and is looking for other work, she’ll keep up the fight with OUR Walmart.

“That’s what they count on, for people to be out of Walmart and no longer want to participate,” she said. “But this is an issue that is not only affecting people in Walmart. It’s a widespread problem of scheduling, lack of hours, and a minimum wage that you can’t survive on.”