Friday, June 15, 2007

Labor reform that benefits who?

Food For Thought 6-15-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I’m still a bit stuck on this latest Labor Reform legislation that is trying to make it’s way through the legislature at the moment. I understand that a lot of time and effort has gone into it so far, and that a lot of the politicians are quite proud of it, thinking they are really fixing things this time around. I have heard some of them say that it is important to get this passed quickly, so that it will prove to the U.S. politicians that we can fix our own problems, and we don’t need them to step in and intervene. I’m guessing they are under the impression that the U.S. politicians will be impressed with this document, and will be convinced that we’re finally serious about dealing with all the issues surrounding contract workers, local job preference, and all the various facets of those topics.

I believe that some of them are also hoping they can get this passed before the election in November so they can show the voters they actually accomplished something with their 2 years in office, because frankly, they don’t have much else to show for their 2 years. I guess I question just who is really going to be impressed with this document, and whether it will actually accomplish anything when it’s all said and done.

Honestly, I have not been impressed with what I have seen of it so far at all. Now I will admit, that I probably haven’t seen the very latest version, because it seems it’s being updated on a daily basis, if not more often. That is a good thing actually, because there were a lot of glaring problems with this bill the way it was first put forth. The fact that it’s being changed so often means that the drafters are taking all the comments and concerns seriously, and trying to incorporate some of them into the bill itself. But to me, it seems we’re taking a broken down ox cart that hasn’t worked in years, slapping a little paint on it, and now expecting it to be fully functional.

One of the biggest problems with our labor laws in the past is that they were too complex, too burdensome, and not really workable. For example, we supposedly fixed the problem with locals making less than contract workers several years ago. Our legislators came up with something that was supposed to be a Fair Labor Act, giving local workers the equivalent of what contract workers were making when you factored in all their mandated benefits. But how do you do that, and is it the same for every business? The legislature never came up with any kind of formula to figure out how the difference in pay should be calculated. They left that up to the businesses to figure out. The businesses said they didn’t know how to come up with that number, and most of them just never tried. Since the legislature never really came up with an answer as to how to figure it out, the Labor Department had nothing to go on, and couldn’t really mandate that the employers pay the local workers the equivalent to what the contract workers were being paid when benefits were factored in. The legislature never really did anything about it, until now that is. This is supposed to take care of that problem. They say they will have a formula in this one that shows how employers are to figure out the difference. But I still haven’t seen that formula, so I don’t know if they’ve truly made any progress or not.

The one part of this bill that bothers me the most though has to do with the 6-month exit requirement every 3-½ years for all contract workers, unless they are a business executive or a domestic helper, or a maid. I know I’ve touched on this topic a couple weeks ago, but some of the things I’m hearing continue to astound me, meaning it obviously still needs to be talked about. One of the statements I find the most ridiculous is, “now that the minimum wage increase has taken effect, there probably won’t be that many maids left anyway, so it really doesn’t matter”. Well if that’s really the case, then why not just remove “domestic workers” or maids from the exemption list? When you push that topic and try to get them to commit to removing it or to explaining why they should be kept in, they just smile with no explanation. The truth of the matter is, that a fair number of the legislators probably plan on keeping their maids, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced for 6 months every 3-½ years. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all the explanations of how the maid is like a member of the family, and how they are like a mother to the children. The sad truth in many of the cases is that the maid is probably more of a mother to the children than the real mother is. But to the parents that are employing the maid, she is not family, she is merely someone that can be hired for $300 a month to do all the jobs they don’t want to do, to pick up after them, to clean for them, to cook for them, to do the laundry, and the list goes on and on. If they really valued her like family, they would pay her a living wage, not $300 a month.

And now I understand that there are those who have figured out that if the maid is a live in maid, then she may be exempt from overtime pay under the new minimum wage law. So even though they will have to start paying their maid $3.55 an hour starting on July 25th, they figure that they can still make them work as many hours as they feel like, as long as they live under the same roof, and only pay them for 40 hours a week. If you’re banking on that, you’re playing a risky game of Russian roulette that has a very good chance of blowing up in your face. Yes, there are a few legitimate exceptions in the law, but for the most part, if you have a maid, you’d better plan on bumping her pay to $3.55 an hour on July 25th, and paying her time and a half for anything over 40 hours a week. Anything else is risky, and will most likely be challenged at some point or another.

But back to the whole exemption for maids from the 6-month exit requirement, I’m afraid we’re sending a blaring message back to U.S. politicians. And the message is this, “Fine, we’re willing to force businesses to hurt and send back their contract workers periodically, but don’t ask us to inconvenience ourselves for any reason. We should be entitled to keeping our workers, even though we don’t think businesses should. We are still looking out for ourselves and our own comforts, and really don’t care how that looks. And if you don’t like it, well too bad, we make our own laws. We’ve gotten away with it so far, and until you prove to us we can’t get away with it any longer, we’re going to keep pushing it as far as we can”.

So do we honestly believe that by passing this legislation it will do anything whatsoever to appease the U.S. legislators and make them leave us alone? Do we really think we can treat business one way, and ourselves another and honestly expect any new businesses to want to come here?

Some of the current politicians seem to be waking up in certain areas, but they all seem to be asleep at the switch on others. Some of them seem to realize that running under a party banner will probably be the kiss of death in this upcoming election, and many of them have opted to run as independents instead. This will save them the money of having to kick in for beer and food for all the pocket meetings, and will help them distance themselves from the voter backlash and anger at what’s happened the last few years. But the smart voters will pay attention to who has been in office anyway, and what they have accomplished while they’ve been there. If you were elected under the Covenant banner last election, you are not going to escape any association with them and their policies this time around just because you’re running as an independent now. You’d better hope you have done something worth while to give the voters a reason to want you back, or it doesn’t matter what color your spots are, you’re still a leopard.

But I still haven’t heard a single politician stand up and say that the exemptions for maids to go back for 6 months every 3-½ years is ridiculous. Is it because they are afraid of angering voters that have maids, or is it because they are protecting their own self-interests yet again? Technically, any lawmaker who employs a domestic worker or a maid should excuse himself or herself from voting on this bill, because it is a conflict of interest for them. But then again, avoiding conflict of interest is not something most of them are eager to do anyway.

I agree with our lawmakers that they will be sending a message to the U.S. congress by passing the Labor Reform Act, but I would strongly disagree with them on what the message is.
I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM