Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nothing You can do when You need the Job

Workers are repairing the facade of the building where we rent our winter apartment.  They started on the 17th floor on January 2 and today they've finally made it to the fourth floor, and right now they're drilling and chiseling and scraping away the old finish right outside the window next to my desk.

We've gotten to know them over the days we've been here and they're funny and polite and happy and at least two of them have pretty good voices when they sing.  I don't want to think like this but I'm way south of the Mason-Dixon line, so here goes:  Even though they're white, I'm reminded of the old plantation slaves.  Not because they're funny and polite and happy and can sing -- no, that would be stereotyping -- but because my husband just came in, spitting with rage, to tell me that they're working out there in the cold (and in the heat when it's hot), on a swaying scaffold, working a 79 1/2-hour work week, and they're getting no overtime.

It started like this:  My husband went out to kibitz and said, joking, "Don't you guys ever have a day off?"  (Because this has been going on non-stop every day since we got here, including Saturdays and Sundays)  And one of the guys said, "Ha!  You got it! I worked 79 1/2 hours last week."  And my husband, joking, said, "Wow, you better be getting some good overtime."

And the guy looks at him like he's from Michigan or something (the old Michigan, not this new one), and says, "There's no overtime."

And my husband says, not joking now, "They can't do that.  It's against the law.  You're entitled to overtime if you work more than 40 hours, and they could get in big trouble if they don't give it to you."

And one of them says, "Yeah, we know. But if we complain we could lose our jobs."

So that's that.  They're out there singing.  And I'm writing this on the dining room table because I can't think in there with all the noise.  And it turns out I can't think out here, either, because, try as I might, I don't know what I'm supposed to say now.


  1. Your husband is correct of course: Federal wage-and-hour laws compel employers to pay overtime wages. But what recourse do workers have -- especially when they're not represented by a union? And sometimes even when they are? It depends. How deep are your pockets?

    Just as the right wing sought to soften media regulations under Reagan with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, they've taken direct aim, especially in the last decade, at the National Labor Relations Act. Under George W. Bush, the NLRB ruled reliably in favor of employers over workers over and over.

    Under Obama, Republican strategy has been to filibuster his NLRB nominees, effectively rendering the oversight board moot by virtue of its inability to function.

    Using the common Executive Branch tactic of recess appointments, the president attempted to rectify the situation. He also used this approach to staff the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren's answer to Wall Street predation.

    How did the right respond? It sued. And last week, in an unprecedented move, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. overturned Obama's recess appointments. Funny they never said a word when Bush did it.

    So when you talk to those friendly, hard-working construction dudes, look upon them with new-found respect. They're not just up against a slimy employer: They're battling the weight of the anti-labor zealots in the Republican Party and their G.O.P. judicial apparatchiks.

    Great post, Mona!

    1. Thanks,Linda. I have to believe there are more pro-labor folks in this country than there are anti-labor. The anti-labor voices are louder and stronger, but our numbers should count for something. We need to be heard!

      What is wrong with workers? I get it that they think they're not in any position to complain, but don't they ever read labor history? Somebody had to start that movement, and millions of workers have struggled mightily to get the respect they deserved. Before the unions gave them their needed collective strength, each and every one of them thought they weren't in any position to complain.

      We have to work at changing attitudes, and when I wrote this piece I felt so very impotent, because I wanted to do something, but didn't want any of those good people to get in trouble or lose their jobs. Now I think something can be done without involving them.

      I got some good suggestions over at dagblog, where I repost, and I'm mulling it over. (

  2. One question to ask would be what form they get from the employer at the end of the year to do their taxes, a 1099 or a W-2 if any?? If it's a 1099 they are considered independent contractors and overtime rules don't apply.

    What some employers have done in past and probably some are still doing it is paying the employee as soon as they get 40 hours in to avoid paying overtime. My sister-in-law worked in a shoe store that did that. She and at least one other employee filed a complaint and because they had kept track of their hours the store had to pay all the employees back pay and overtime plus a fine. They went out of business because of it, but that shows that you can't get away with screwing the employees forever and eventually you'll pay the consequences.

    If only one employee complains they'll get fired, but if more than one complains the employer can be made to pay when you can show they are violating the law.

    1. Good points, K. I agree that those hours won't be showing up on a W2. Somehow they're getting around reporting the overtime hours.

      Good for your sister! I looked up this company and they aren't small potatoes around here. They've done big jobs at the airport and at plush hotels and golf courses. This is probably one of their smaller jobs, but what it tells me is that they've been around long enough to know exactly what they're doing.

      Haven't had a chance to talk to the guys again, but I suspect they won't want to talk about it anymore. Especially if they know we're wanting to nose into the company's practices. But I'm going to try to find out more and see what can be done.

      The reality is, we're down in the south. They have no history of caring about workers and I suspect any reporting to the "authorities" would go just about nowhere. These companies know they can fudge and get away with it. They've been working on ways around this stuff forever.


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