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2016: Highs, lows and farewells

Continue reading 2016: Highs, lows and farewells

Spurning Wisconsin offer, Ashley Furniture Industries takes jobs and safety issues to N.C.

Last year, Gov. Scott Walker’s job-creation agency struck a deal with Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. that would have led to a loss of 2,000 jobs.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which Walker chaired at the time, offered Ashley a $6-million tax credit in 2014 for agreeing to invest $35 million to expand its headquarters in Arcadia. But, as part of the deal, WEDC accepted the company’s plan to eliminate nearly half its labor force of about 4,000 workers in the state.

Company president Todd Wanek explained that he couldn’t find the kind of skilled workers he needed in the area near the company’s Whitehall plant.

So how could a jobs agency negotiate a deal to kill jobs? It turns out that Wanek and members of his family made donations totaling $20,000 to Walker about two weeks after the deal was struck.

“Pay-to-play certainly comes to my mind and I know I’m not alone,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now. 

According to an investigation conducted by One Wisconsin Now, 60 percent of the companies that received grants from WEDC were Walker contributors.

Better luck down south

Engulfed by bad publicity, Ashley decided to decline the $6-million tax credit and instead looked south.

According to a recent story in Business North Carolina, Ashley plans to create 454 new jobs in that state during the next five years and invest upward of $8.7 million there through the end of 2019, the magazine reported.

Not only did North Carolina get far more jobs than Walker’s team negotiated, but North Carolina appears to have gotten a better overall deal for less money than WEDC was willing to pay. North Carolina offered tax credits of $4.6 million from 2016 through 2027.

According to Business North Carolina, Ashley’s latest deal with the state comes on top of “the initial phase of development where it committed to create 550 jobs and invest $80 million between 2012 and 2015. Ashley exceeded these commitments by creating more than 1,100 jobs.”

Part of the initial phase in North Carolina included job training provided by Ashley to prospective workers.

By comparison, Ashley added 300 employees at its Wisconsin locations in Arcadia and Whitehall through 2014.

“It seems that even after his privatized commerce department agreed to give millions to a company run by his campaign donors, that Scott Walker has failed Wisconsin again,” Ross said. “Rather than create jobs in its home state, the company has decided to cut and run on expanding in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.”

Since the Ashley Furniture scandal, Walker has stepped down as chair of WEDC, which even Republicans have declared a disaster. 

Corporate culture

The case raises a broader question about WEDC’s approach: Is Ashley Furniture the kind of employer that Wisconsin should support?

Earlier this year, Ashley was hit with a $1.8-million fine from the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety violations in Wisconsin. More than 1,000 worker injuries were officially recorded at the Arcadia plant in three and a half years. All of the incidents were serious enough to have been reported by someone other than the injured employee.

“Ashley Furniture has created a culture that values production and profit over worker safety, and employees are paying the price,” U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a strong statement.

In early 2013, the company came to national attention for a discrimination suit. A lesbian worker sued the Ashley Furniture HomeStore of Secaucus, New Jersey, claiming she was grilled about her religious beliefs and then fired. According to court filings, former employee Isabel Perez said she was told that she didn’t fit in with the company’s “culture.”

Perez said the furniture store’s manager “spoke in tongues,” a state of babbling hysteria induced by religious fervor, which Pentecostal Christians believe is the result of possession by the Holy Spirit. Two managers at the store told Perez that God ordered them to let her go.

The same store was sued in 2013 for alleged harassment of two Muslim employees, who said they were repeatedly accused of being terrorists and were tormented with racial slurs.

The two employees were fired after they complained about the verbal abuse. 

According to the website Back2Stonewall, the Waneks support the Christian-right organization FamilyLife, an anti-gay group that lobbies against same-sex marriage and LGBT civil rights.

Wisconsin taxpayers ordered to pay overtime costs for Scott Walker’s 24/7 security on campaign trail after he fails to report their hours

Federal authorities are ordering retroactive overtime for Wisconsin State Patrol officers who serve as bodyguards for Gov. Scott Walker and other state officials, a television station reported.

The U.S. Department of Labor is requiring the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to award overtime pay dating to May 19, 2013, to nine State Patrol officers, WKOW-TV (http://bit.ly/1N1j1MN ) reported Friday. Those officers make up Wisconsin’s Dignitary Protection Unit, which provides security for Walker 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That includes the Republican’s protection on the presidential campaign trail. Since the State Patrol is a division of the state Transportation Department, the officers are paid out of that agency’s budget.

WISDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt told WKOW the agency was notified of the decision Monday but said that officials have not yet determined how much it will cost state taxpayers.

Rhonda Burke, a Labor Department spokeswoman in Chicago, told the station she did not yet know if the decision was handed out in response to a complaint. If a complaint was filed alleging overtime was not being correctly paid, federal wage and hour investigators would ask to examine payroll records, including hours worked and rates of pay, to ensure the state was paying overtime in accordance with the law, she said.

Burke did not immediately reply to Associated Press email requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Walker referred comment to Schmitt, who did not immediately respond to an email request Saturday.

The cost for Walker’s security detail jumped from $1.6 million in 2011 to $2.4 million in 2014, WKOW reported. The out-of-state portion of that 2014 tab was $89,454, a number which is expected to rise in 2015 with his run for the GOP presidential nomination.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, announced a new legislative proposal last week that would require any state elected official who is running for — or even considering running for — higher office to submit a monthly travel form with the Government Accountability Board that explains what costs were incurred and who paid for them. Any campaign costs incurred by taxpayers would have to be reimbursed in a timely manner.

Both Shankland and Hansen cite the Labor Department’s overtime decision as an example of a lack of transparency associated with Walker’s security expenses.

“Instead of waiting for the federal government to step in, the state should have paid these officers the overtime pay they were owed to begin with,” Shankland said.

President outlines rule changes, says more workers deserve overtime pay

President Barack Obama on June 30 said the Department of Labor will propose extending overtime pay to nearly 5 million workers.

The White House, in a fact sheet released on June 30, said the proposal would guarantee overtime pay to most salaried workers earning less than an estimated $50,440 next year.

The salary threshold guarantees overtime for most salaried workers who fall below it, but it is eroded by inflation every year and has only been updated once since the 1970s.

The current threshold is $23,660 — $455 per week — which is below the poverty threshold for a family of four and only 8 percent of full-time salaried workers fall below the threshold.

The White House said the president directed the secretary of labor to update regulations relating to who qualifies for overtime pay to again reflect the intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act and to simplify the rules so they’re easier for workers and businesses to understand and apply.

The Labor Department’s proposal involves:

• Raising the threshold under which most salaried workers are guaranteed overtime to equal the 40th percentile of weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers. This would raise the salary threshold from $455 a week to a projected level of $970 a week or $50,440 a year in 2016.

• Extend overtime pay and the minimum wage to nearly 5 million workers within the first year of its implementation, of which 56 percent are women and 53 percent have at least a college degree.

• Provide greater clarity for millions more workers so they — and their employers — can determine more easily if they should be receiving overtime pay.

• Prevent a future erosion of overtime and ensure greater predictability by automatically updating the salary threshold based on inflation or wage growth over time.

The proposal does not include specific regulatory changes to the so-called “duties test” that determines whether salaried workers earning more than the threshold are entitled to an exemption from overtime rules.

Hourly workers would generally continue to receive overtime pay, as they do under current rules.

Consistent with the normal rulemaking process, when the Labor Department’s notice is published, there will be a comment period.

Reaction to the announcement …

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, said, “I applaud the president for lifting wages for nearly 5 million hard working Americans. Far too many people these days are working more hours for less pay and struggling to make ends meet. The President’s proposed overtime rule will level playing field for employees — providing them with appropriate compensation for their hard work.”

U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva and Keith Ellison, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a joint statement, “We applaud President Obama for standing with American families who deserve fair pay for their hard work. People all over the country are working longer hours, but their paychecks continue to come up short. The Progressive Caucus believes that in the richest nation on earth, no one working overtime should worry about making ends meet. This new overtime rule is a powerful step towards that goal, helping nearly 5 million Americans feed their families, pay their rent, or clothe their children. We look forward to working with President Obama to continue putting more money in the pockets of America’s working families.” 

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Labor Department celebrates great works in LGBT literature for Pride

From George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” work-related LGBT literature and authors whose books focus on work are being highlighted for LGBT Pride Month as part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Books that Shaped Work in America.

The Web-based project, http://www.dol.gov/books, aims to engage the public about the Labor Department’s mission and America’s history as a nation of workers as portrayed through published works. It serves as an online resource library where people from all walks of life can share books that informed them about occupations and careers, molded their views about work and helped elevate the discourse about work, workers and workplaces.

“The Books that Shaped Work in America initiative bears witness to the nation’s promise of opportunity for everyone,” said Carl Fillichio, the department’s senior advisor for communications and public affairs. “This promise cannot be understood and fully appreciated without exploring the LGBT community’s struggle for equality and protections both in and out of the workplace.” 

From Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” many of the new additions to the list show the relationship between work and the LGBT experience. As they advocated for greater protections from harassment and discrimination, members of the LGBT community were also demonstrating the societal and economic benefit of more diverse and inclusive workplaces. Many of the books reflect the struggle of being “different” in the workplace and the positive impact it has when employers accept and value all workers. Brian McNaught’s “Gay Issues in the Workplace,” for example, became the essential human resources guide to help employers understand the challenges faced by LGBT workers, and its recommendations are now part of the diversity policies of some of the nation’s largest corporations.

Work, like our nation, is constantly evolving, and the Books that Shaped Work in America is no different. To get it started, 24 individuals, including current U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, eight former secretaries of labor from Democratic and Republican administrations, civil rights leaders, authors and media personalities, submitted suggestions. This month the department added recommendations from contributorsChad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign, and Mara Keisling, Founding Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Interested in adding to the list?

The simple, online form, which can be found at http://www.dol.gov/books/form, makes it easy for anyone to suggest a book.