Analysis Law and Policy

Workers Frustrated by Pritzker Nomination—But What Impact Will She Have?

Sheila Bapat

Commerce secretary nominee Penny Pritzker has been a consistent supporter of reproductive rights organizations, but she's also a director and part-owner of Hyatt hotels, which has recently been the target of many workers' rights protests.

The commerce and labor departments were founded as a single unit under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The two departments split in 1913 and today are viewed as representing opposing forces—the former dedicated to expanding business competitiveness and innovation, and the latter to protecting workers and regulating workplace conditions. This dichotomy couldn’t be illustrated better than by President Obama’s nominees to lead each department. Earlier this month, Obama nominated his longtime friend and billionaire Penny Pritzker to lead the Commerce Department. And in March, he nominated Thomas Perez to lead the Department of Labor. Labor groups, though generally satisfied that Perez will follow in many of former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ pro-worker policies, feel slighted that Obama has tapped Pritzker to head a federal agency.

Pritzker, a consistent supporter of reproductive rights organizations, is also a director and part-owner of Hyatt Hotels, which is embroiled in a high-profile battle with the union Unite Here and has received Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warnings for injuries women Hyatt workers have faced.

Therein lies the workers’ overarching concern: Will the Democratic Party, which is reliant on unions and women voters to get politicians elected, move further toward advocating corporate practices that are harmful to low-wage and women workers? This is a big question that will be answered in the coming years.

Pritzker has barely spoken to the press, so other than than her history of philanthropic giving as well as her business background, the public has little insight into her broader priorities. As Steven Rosenfeld noted last month at AlterNet, “The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest largest labor federation, joined in the call for a global boycott of Hyatt properties last July. The NFL Players Association and the National Organization of Women have also joined.”

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As such, the coalition of labor and women’s groups that worked so hard to elect Obama during both his campaigns may be disappointed in his choice of nominee.

Rewire spoke with two Hyatt workers and labor union members who are Obama supporters and who are frustrated about Pritzker’s nomination.

“I respect Obama. I myself campaigned for him, but he chose to pick Pritzker,” said Cathy Youngblood, a Hyatt housekeeper based in Los Angeles and one of the most vocal spokespeople for Unite Here. “If you can’t run a hotel fairly, how can you be trusted to run the Commerce Department?”

Hyatt has received ergonomic risk warnings from OSHA for the working conditions housekeepers—a job dominated by women—have faced over the years. Youngblood is well known for fighting to join Hyatt Hotel’s board of directors to help influence the company’s policies with regard to its workers.

“I wouldn’t begin to question why Obama nominated her. I respect him,” she said. “I just have to say I think he made the wrong choice.” Youngblood and other Hyatt hotel workers attended Pritzker’s Senate hearing to express their opposition to her nomination.

Cristian Toro is a Hyatt banquet waiter based in Chicago, where he has worked for nine years. “Personally, I am disappointed in our president. He is friendly to progressive causes but he shouldn’t have nominated Pritzker,” Toro said.

Toro said he took issue with Pritzker’s plans to “lay off his colleagues left and right,” an apparent reference to Hyatt’s use of subcontractors, which many believe may undercut Pritzker’s commitment to creating jobs—a focus in her position on Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. According to Unite Here, only nine of the 30 to 40 housekeepers working at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore are full-time and directly employed by Hyatt; the rest are subcontracted temporary workers, many of whom earn minimum wage. “For me, this is not just about wages, it’s about on-the-job injuries our housekeepers are facing, creating jobs, other workplace issues,” Toro added.

Though symbolically troubling to labor groups, given her role at Hyatt (as well as her much written about family finances), it is unclear that serving as Commerce Secretary would really give Pritzker any significant authority. Recent history suggests the Commerce Department is far from a formidable federal agency. With a relatively small $8.8 billion budget, compared to the Department of Labor’s roughly $13 billion budget, many have actually called to eliminate the Commerce Department entirely. Both Democrats and Republicans have explored getting rid of the department since the 1970s, arguing that the department has “outlasted its usefulness” and has “never been much of a heavyweight in terms of national policy.”

Even President Obama proposed eliminating the department, or at least streamlining it to include just the Small Business Administration and a few other departments, a move that was endorsed by the last Commerce Secretary, John Bryson. (Bryson was criticized by Republicans and some business groups because he helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

If she’s confirmed, it’s possible Pritzker could try to reverse this course, or use her role to advocate for more pro-business practices. She is believed to be a solidly pro-business Democrat who could improve Obama’s relationship with business while also advocating for some liberal causes like reproductive rights. The longer-term implications of her appointment, and her role in shaping corporate practices that impact many women workers, remains to be seen.

News Law and Policy

Obama’s Overtime Pay Overhaul to Have Big Impact on Women, People of Color

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The proposed rule would boost the overtime exemption from $23,660 a year to $50,440 a year.

The Department of Labor announced a rule Tuesday the Obama administration claims will extend overtime protections to nearly five million employees within the first year of implementation. The rule change could have an outsized impact on women and people of color.

The revised rule would raise the threshold under which most salaried workers are guaranteed overtime. Under current regulations, only salaried workers who make $455 a week, or $23,660 a year, qualify for overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week, and only if their job duties are not professional, executive, or administrative.

The Department of Labor estimates the overtime protections will affect women and people of color the most. About 56 percent of the affected workers are women, 53 percent of whom have at least a college degree, according to the federal government.

Salaried workers who earn below that threshold and who are not considered “white collar” must be paid time-and-a-half for each hour worked beyond 40 hours a week.

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That threshold would be raised to a projected level of $970 a week, or $50,440 a year, in 2016, under the Obama administration’s proposal. The proposal also seeks to update the manner in which “white collar” employees are exempt from overtime rules. That update is designed to address the problem of employers like Walmart misclassifying employees in order to avoid paying workers overtime wages.

The Obama administration’s order comes as the national fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage ramps up. Seattle, which is on the front lines of the wage fight, has seen employment increase since policymakers there implemented a $15 hourly minimum wage. This stands in contrast to lawmakers who have steadfastly opposed any wage increases for fear of hampering employment rates.

Corporations spend about 91 percent of their earnings on stock buybacks and dividends, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). This boosts CEO compensation and contributes to wage stagnation, per EPI analysts.

Roundups Law and Policy

Legal Wrap: Protections for Pregnant Workers Advance in States, But Where’s Congress?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Slowly but surely pregnant workers are gaining more workplace protections, but Congress still needs to act.

Legal Wrap is a weekly round-up of key legal reproductive rights and justice news.

It’s not that often we report on Republicans and Democrats working together on policy proposals that actually help women, but Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center has this piece on the wave of bipartisan measures passing that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. This is great news in places like West Virginia and Philadelphia, but until Congress passes similar protections at the federal level far too many families risk falling through the gaps that currently allow employers to discriminate against pregnant workers.

For more on this point, read Sheila Bapat’s piece, which argues that while increasing support for beneficial family policies is a good sign from lawmakers, it’s time the private sector steps up its commitment to those same policies on its own.

Debo Adegbile is a superbly qualified candidate to lead the Department of Justice’s important Division on Civil Rights. Too bad racism sunk his nomination.

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The Supreme Court won’t take up a school district’s appeal over attempts by administrators to ban breast cancer awareness bracelets that read “I Heart Boobies.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a decision that taking “upskirt” pictures was not a violation of a woman’s right to privacy. Thankfully, lawmakers got right on it and pushed a legislative fix. Martha Kempner has the latest here.

West Virginia advances a 20-week abortion ban, which is especially terrible considering the legislature is run by Democrats.

A Montana abortion provider was severely vandalized and is closed indefinitely in what some have called a coordinated effort to intimidate the clinic from no longer providing abortion care.

Reproductive rights advocates filed a lawsuit challenging new regulations in Arizona that threaten to make medication abortion unavailable in the state.

Irin Carmon has this great piece on the reproductive rights revolution that is expanding access in California.

Meet America’s most-hated doctors.

In unrelated news, this judge seems nice.

And lastly, Republicans managed to filibuster, again, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand’s military sexual assault bill. But yeah, Sarah Palin, you’re right: The “war on women” is a total fiction.