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A consistent trend in the US business environment over the past three years has been a shift from federal to state and local governments as the main source of regulatory pressure on employers. Even as federal regulations stall or are rolled back under the Trump administration, businesses are facing higher minimum wages, paid leave mandates, and other new regulations at the state and local level. This trend has continued so far in 2019. While the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives plans to push for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to (eventually) $15 an hour, their intent is largely to put political pressure on Republicans with regard to labor issues, and the effort is unlikely to bear much fruit as long as Republicans control the Senate and the White House.
Meanwhile, however, the patchwork of state and local wage floors is rising and growing more complex. Minimum wages are going up this year in at least 22 US states plus Washington, DC, as well as a number of cities and counties. Most of these increases reflect automatic increases or inflation indexing built into the states’ minimum wage laws, while a few are the result of legislation or referenda passed last year.
Google revealed on Tuesday that it was phasing in a policy that will require its outside suppliers to provide health insurance, paid parental leave benefits, and a $15 minimum wage to employees working for the tech giant on a temporary or contract basis. The announcement was made in an internal memo issued to all employees and shared with the Hill:
Google will now require that the outside companies employing the workers provide them with comprehensive health care, a minimum wage of $15 per hour, 12 weeks of parental leave and a minimum of eight days of sick leave.
Google is beginning the efforts in the U.S., where there are not specific regulations around paid parental leave or comprehensive health care. Other countries in which the company operates have specific legislation around paid parental leave and other benefits. The company said it made sense to start in the U.S. because Google is setting a standard.
Google is giving the “suppliers” — companies that employ the temporary workers and contractors — until January to institute the minimum wage requirements. A Google spokesperson said it will give suppliers until 2022 to institute comprehensive health care benefits.
Google has faced increasing pressure from its “TVC” (temporary, vendor, and contractor) workers, as well as an activist community of its full-time employees, to improve the conditions under which TVCs work for the company. A day before the memo was issued, the Guardian reported on a letter signed by more than 900 Google workers calling for significant changes in the way the company deals with its contingent workforce. The letter originated from TVCs working on the global “personality team” responsible for crafting the voice for Google Assistant, most of whom had their contracts abruptly and unexpectedly shortened in early March:
For many years, business publications and research organizations have put out “best employer” lists, ranking organizations based on their employees’ reported job satisfaction, the quantity and quality of their benefits, learning opportunities, and other selling points of the employee experience. These lists offer employers an opportunity to earn some good press and burnish their employer brand, and can be particularly valuable in helping lesser-known companies get their names out there and compete for talent with their higher-profile peers. These lists are typically opt-in: Employers that have good stories to tell submit their information, the top ten or 20 of them get a brand boost, and the rest don’t need to tell anyone they didn’t make the cut.
With more information about organizations’ talent policies becoming publicly available, these lists have evolved to draw on new sources of information and to focus on issues of increasing importance to employees today, like diversity and inclusion or corporate social responsibility. Glassdoor, for example, puts out an annual list of best places to work based on employee ratings and reviews, while Forbes and the activist investment firm Just Capital have begun publishing a “Just 100” ranking of the most socially responsible publicly-traded companies in the US and Bloomberg’s Gender Equality Index highlights companies that are investing in gender equality. The proliferation of best-of lists, however, has led to diminishing returns in their reputational value: Our research at Gartner has found that only 7 percent of candidates say being on one of these lists was an important factor for them in deciding whether to accept an offer from an employer.
The Lists Organizations Don’t Want to Be On
At the same time as the value of a spot on the nice list is waning, a growing trove of publicly available data has led to the emergence of new lists on which employers didn’t ask to be included. Some of these are extensive indices that identify both the best and the worst, like FertilityIQ’s Family Builder Workplace Index, which ranks employers based on the generosity of their fertility benefits. In some rankings, even the best-scoring companies are not great: Equileap recently published a special report on gender equality in the S&P 100, in which the highest grade was a B+. Furthermore, investors, governments, and media outlets have begun to compile what we might call “naughty lists” of companies that are not living up to expectations in terms of fairness, inclusion, transparency, or social responsibility — and you really don’t want to see your organization’s name on one of those.
These naughty lists tend to focus on gender pay equity, executive compensation, handling of sexual harassment claims, and the experiences of diverse employees. One recent, prominent example was a BuzzFeed report in November that pressed leading US tech companies on whether they required employees to resolve sexual harassment claims in private arbitration and called out those that did have such policies or declined to answer (Ironically, the reporters also discovered that BuzzFeed had a mandatory arbitration policy itself). The publication of this report prompted several companies to announce changes in their policies.
In a deal reached earlier this month with one of the UK’s largest trade unions, the courier company Hermes is offering its self-employed drivers the option to obtain some of the rights enjoyed by regular employees, including a guaranteed minimum wage and holiday pay, the Guardian reported:
Under the agreement with the GMB union, Hermes’ 15,000 drivers will continue to be self-employed but can opt into contracts with better rights. The deal comes after almost 200 Hermes couriers won the right to be recognised as “workers” at an employment tribunal last summer in a case backed by the GMB. Under employment law, “workers” are guaranteed rights including holiday pay, the legal minimum wage, minimum rest breaks and protection against unlawful discrimination.
The GMB has been active in advocating for the rights of British workers in the gig economy, also backing similar labor tribunal cases against other companies operating on an independent contractor model, including Uber, which lost a landmark case in 2016. Other British unions and union federations have also supported claims regarding the rights of gig economy workers, with tribunals ruling in favor of the workers in most of these cases. The settlement reached this month means that Hermes will drop its planned appeal against the ruling last year, while the GMB will refrain from pursuing further litigation against the company.
The “worker” classification in UK employment law defines a space between employees and the self-employed, but the tests for classifying workers as such are primarily defined by case law and increasingly unclear as technological shifts have brought about changes in the way people work. The Taylor Review of modern working practices recommended in its 2017 report that the government relabel “workers” as “dependent contractors,” write a clearer definition of this category into law, and make it the default status for companies that have a self-employed workforce above a certain size. The government said last year that it would adopt most of the review’s recommendations, but did not commit to writing this “worker by default” model into law.
Yvonne Gallagher, A partner at the London-based law firm Harbottle and Lewis, commented to Personnel Today that the Hermes deal would raise some questions about these drivers’ tax and national insurance obligations:
On Tuesday, October 2, Amazon announced that it would raise its internal minimum hourly wage for US employees, including part-time workers and those hired through temporary agencies, to $15 an hour. This includes workers at the company’s warehouses or “fulfillment centers,” as it calls them, in addition to store employees at Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired last year. The e-commerce giant also said it planned to lobby the US government to raise the federal minimum wage from its current hourly rate of $7.25, last updated in 2009, the New York Times reported:
The new wages will apply to more than 250,000 Amazon employees, including those at the grocery chain Whole Foods, as well as the more than 100,000 seasonal employees it plans to hire for the holiday season. The change will not apply to contract workers. It goes into effect on Nov. 1. “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, said in a statement. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.”
The move came amid growing pressure on Amazon from the media and politicians regarding its pay practices and the work conditions of its lowest-paid employees, particularly those at its warehouses or “fulfillment centers.” Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken critic of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, who is currently estimated to be the wealthiest individual in the world, citing news reports that large numbers of Amazon’s low-wage employees were dependent on public assistance. Sanders and California congressman Ro Khanna have been pushing legislation that would require companies to compensate the federal government for the cost of public assistance benefits received by their employees, including food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing.
The next day, however, Bloomberg reported that Amazon was cutting monthly bonuses and stock awards for hourly employees to help offset the costs of the minimum wage hike. Still, the company insists that these workers’ total compensation is rising:
The holiday hiring season is already in full swing in the US and the number of seasonal workers hired this year is expected to grow, according to a new forecast from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, citing year-to-year trends and announcements retailers have already made this year:
Last year, seasonal retail employment increased by 668,400 during the final three months of the year, 4.3 percent higher than the 641,000 jobs added in 2016, according to employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). … Last year, BLS data showed that transportation and warehousing employment increased by a non-seasonally adjusted 279,700, up 13.4 percent from the 246,700 workers in the final quarter of 2016 and 6.6 percent higher than the 262,300 workers hired in this sector in the final three months of 2015.
Companies in this sector are averaging 5.2 million workers this year, compared to 4.9 million in 2015 and 4.2 million in 2008, according to non-seasonally adjusted BLS data.
Challenger points to several companies that have announced they will hire as many holiday season employees as last year or more: Macy’s announced this week that it planned to hire 80,000 seasonal workers, as many as it planned to at the start of the 2017 season (it ultimately hired 87,000 last year). FedEx announced plans for 55,000 holiday hires, a 10 percent increase over last year’s number, and said it would also increase hours for some current employees. The big-box retailer Target, meanwhile, said on Thursday that it would hire around 120,000 seasonal workers for the holidays, 20 percent more than last year, while also raising starting pay by $1 per hour, the Star-Tribune reported:
The New York City Council passed legislation on Wednesday to put a one-year cap on for-hire vehicle licenses and to empower the city government to set a minimum wage for ridesharing drivers, in a crackdown on the largely unregulated growth of platforms like Uber and Lyft, the New York Times reported:
The proposal to cap ride-hail companies led to a clash among interest groups with taxi industry officials saying the companies were dooming their business and Uber mounting a major advertising campaign to make the case that yellow cabs have a history of discriminating against people of color.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said the bills will curtail the worsening traffic on the streets and improve low driver wages. … But Uber has warned its riders that the cap could produce higher prices and longer wait times for passengers if the company cannot keep up with the growing demand.
New York is the largest market for Uber in the US, but already regulated ridesharing more stringently than many other American cities. To address concerns about unfair competition from the local taxi industry, New York requires drivers to obtain special licenses from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, along with commercial liability insurance and special plates for their vehicles, which must meet certain eligibility criteria.
The new will not affect Uber and Lyft drivers who are already licensed to operate in the city, but will pause the issuing of new licenses immediately while the city studies the effects of the rise of ridesharing on traffic, driver wages, and the local economy.