New York Times: Don’t Let Congress Cheat Workers Out of Basic Rights

House Republicans on Tuesday took another step in their campaign to cheat workers out of fair pay and workplace rights. On a vote largely along party lines, the House advanced a bill to roll back longstanding “joint employer” protections for workers contracted by big companies like Apple or Alaska Airlines.

For years, when two companies both control the terms and conditions of employment, they are also both considered responsible for workplace violations like wage theft, sexual harassment or safety problems. So if a window washer working for a contractor fell because safety equipment was improperly installed by the company whose building he was cleaning, he could sue both the contractor and the larger company for damages.

But under the bill passed on Tuesday, large corporations that outsource jobs would get virtually full immunity from workplace violations, while the typically smaller, poorly capitalized local businesses that provide the workers would bear all the liability. This could leave these small businesses exposed to bankruptcy, leaving workers in danger of having no remedies at all.

Contracting out work is not necessarily bad; it’s often a smart way for companies to efficiently handle certain tasks, like payroll administration and cleaning work.

But the problem is that many companies also contract out to lower compensation costs and, sometimes, to avoid basic legal responsibilities to workers. Even when such cost-cutting is not the top reason a company outsources, workers usually suffer.

Several studies have shown that contracting out, along with misclassification of workers as independent contractors (think Uber and Fed Ex drivers), contributes to rising income inequality and stagnant wages, along with declining benefits and job insecurity.

On average, contracted workers’ pay lags that of their direct employee peers. It’s a 7 percent dip for janitors, 30 percent for port truckers, and 40 percent for farm workers. Minimum-wage violations and wage theft are rampant as well. In addition, working as a contract employee can mean leaner (if any) benefits like paid vacation and sick leave, and sparse retirement packages.

Contracted workers are also by definition more isolated than non-contracted workers. That separation from other employees limits social connections that would help them advance at work, and it also makes it harder for workers to join together to improve their conditions, whether in a union or otherwise.

When lead companies, like a hotel that contracts out housekeepers, hand off their obligations to the lowest bidder, the transaction rarely benefits the workers. Often, the lowest bidder is a struggling company that itself is at the mercy of terms and conditions foisted upon it by the larger entity. This may drive the contractor to play fast and loose with wages or safety to make the balance sheet work.

My organization, the National Employment Law Project, has found that Americans largely disapprove of the rise in contracting, and that they strongly support measures to ensure that all working people get decent wages, have safe workplaces and are treated with respect.

Americans don’t want Congress to dole out another big break for business. Companies that retain control over contract employees’ working conditions — explicitly or otherwise — must continue to be held responsible for how those workers are treated. They must sit at the bargaining table, along with their contractors, to negotiate terms and conditions of employment.

It’s not too late to stop this bill from becoming law. The Republican Party should see this bill for what it really is: just the latest way to keep America’s workers down.

Christine Owens is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

This op-ed was originally published in The New York Times.

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Christine L. Owens

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