Archive for March, 2006

News roundup: pandemics, employment law, immigrants, HR blogs

Monday, March 13th, 2006

Flu pandemic – Michael Fitzgibbon at Thoughts from a Management Lawyer asks what your business plan is should a flu pandemic hit. As a denizen of Toronto, a city that faced the SARS outbreak, he is perhaps more sensitized to the potential impact on business than many of us here in the States. He points to a study conducted by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s London Business Panel, in which 23% of respondents admitted their business would not be able to survive for three-months if their customer base were disrupted by a pandemic. More than one fifth said that they would no longer be able to operate their business model if between 10 and 30 per cent of staff became unavailable for work.
What exactly constitutes a pandemic? See some definitons via Google.
Actuarial News reports that the Society of Actuaries is beginning research on pandemic influenza and the U.S. insurance industry’s preparedness. Results from this research initiative will be made available during the SOA’s Spring Health Meeting in June in Hollywood, Fla.
We’ve previously discussed flu pandemics:
Preparing for Avian Flu
Avian Bird Flu: When Second Class Workers Meet a First Class Hazard
Employment lawGeorge’s Employment Law Blawg has a pair of interesting items this week: Is Your Company A Target for A Discrimination Class Action Suit? Ten Factors to Consider and Top 6 Things You Should Know About Employment Law. And Judge Robert Vonada at Pennsylvannia Workers Compensation Journal (PAWC) points us to an article in The Legal Intelligencer about a case argued in the state’s supreme court involving geography and light duty. At issue is whether an employer can terminate the benefits of a claimant when an offer of light duty has been extended, but the employee has moved out of the geographic area.
Immigrant workers
At Working Immigrants, Peter Rousmaniere offers a summary of the Pew Report on the Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.. The data has been updated since 2005. And Disabled Worker Law Blog discusses the Balbuena decision holding that a worker’s status as an illegal immigrant is not a bar to receiving benefits for lost wages in a personal injury law suit. Troy Rosasco discusses why he sees this as the most important labor decisions that will come down this year.
Best of the Bloggers We are pleased to be included in Human Resource Executive’s list of the Best of the HR blogs, a roundup by Christopher Cornell, who states “Human resource Web logs are popping up everywhere. We scoured the net to find the best, most informative examples.” You have to complete a free registration to read the article, but this registration gives you access to this and other worthwhile HR content.

Trouble in Neverland

Friday, March 10th, 2006

If you had asked me to guess which celebrity was facing a stop work order and fine for failure to pay workers comp, I don’t think Michael Jackson would have been at the top of my list, but there you have it. Who says nothing exciting ever happens in workers comp?
Yesterday, the Ferris wheel and carousel were shut down and the gates of the 2,600-acre ranch closed and locked. Apparently the golden-gloved boss hasn’t paid his 69 employees since December, and his workers comp policy lapsed in early January. California ‘s Department of Industrial Relations has imposed fines of $1,000 per employee and his employees will not be allowed to work until he he secures a workers comp policy.
And of course, there’s the small matter of the elephants, giraffes, orangutans and assorted other exotic animals in the Jackson menagerie that will need to be fed and cared for. I wonder what types of claims, if any, the ranch has experienced in the past? Tiger maulings and monkey bites are not standard claims fare, but they do occur in the course and scope of employment. Of course, many may remember that Michael Jackson himself experienced a rather terrible work-related injury a number of years ago.
There’s an object lesson for all employers here: states are very serious about workers comp coverage, and if you are in arrears, more and more states are getting aggressive about applying stop work orders. Small contractor or celebrity – if you don’t have workers comp, it’s a level playing field

New Health Wonk Review posted at THCB

Thursday, March 9th, 2006

The biweekly roundup of the best blogging about health care policy, business, and technology – Health Wonk Review – is freshly posted at Matthew Holt’s The Health Care Blog. With more than 57% of the claims dollar now spent on medical benefits rather than indemnity, the trends and costs of health care are worth watching. In terms of the total health care market, workers comp only represents about 3% – a mere whisper – so it’s worth keeping an eye on the 300 pound gorilla in the room.

The Wobblies Versus Starbucks, revisited: Chalk One Up for the Union

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

The U.S. Labor Relations Board issued a finding in favor of the IWW (“Wobblies), in their ongoing effort to organize Starbuck baristas (employees). No, this does not mean that Starbucks has been unionized, or even that an election will take place any time soon. In agreeing to the finding, Starbucks does not admit any fault. However, they have agreed to take a limited number of corrective actions, including:
· The reinstatement of two IWW members, Sarah Bender and Anthony Polanco, who had been discharged for their union activity. Bender’s back pay totals a little over $1,600, with about $50 in interest. Polanco receives $58.87 in back pay, plus $1.99 in interest.
· Starbucks is rescinding its policy that prohibited the sharing of written union information and joining the union on company property. (As we pointed out in our previous blog, Starbuck’s lounge chairs are an excellent place to sit and discuss union strategy.)
· Starbucks has agreed to rescind its national “no-pin” policy. Workers had been banned from wearing IWW pins and had been sent home from work without pay for refusing to take them off. (The agreement does not stipulate whether body piercings containing union logos are acceptable. I await a clarification.)
· Starbucks has agreed to end threats, bribes, and surveillance of union members. (The company apparently did try to promote some organizers, in exchange for their dropping all union activity.)
The full text of the agreement is available here. This document provides a valuable summary of the kinds of union activities that are still protected by law. It’s worth a look.
I’m not sure where this victory stands in the historic struggle for worker rights, but congratulations to the IWW are in order. I would point out that the interest that Polanco received on his back pay ($1.99) will not buy him a latte at Starbucks. If he wants to celebrate with a cup of coffee, he’ll have to go somewhere else.

Blogging in Bentonville

Tuesday, March 7th, 2006

As part of its public relations offensive, Wal-Mart has taken to the blogwaves. They are encouraging bloggers sympathetic to their cause to publish positive news about the ubiquitous company. According to an article by Michael Barbaro in today’s New York Times, the bloggers are using the tidbits, but not necessarily identifying the source.
Here’s a sample: One blogger in Iowa wrote that a new Wal-Mart opening in Illinois had received 25,000 applications for 325 jobs. “That’s a 1.3 acceptance rate,” the message read. “Consider this: Harvard University (undergraduate) accepts 11 percent of applicants.” Insider readers can probably figure out the difference between applying to Harvard and applying for a job at Wal-Mart, but as they say, the numbers speak for themselves. My guess is that any new jobs in a depressed area will generate a lot of interest. But the original source of the unusual comparison is not the blogger, but Wal-Mart itself.
According to Wal-Mart’s Mona Williams, this is “part of our overall effort to tell our story. As more and more Americans go to the Internet to get information from varied, credible, trusted sources, Wal-Mart is committed to participating in that online conversation.”
As one who tries to represent a “varied, credible and trusted source,” I beg to disagree with Mona. There is a significant difference between setting up your own blog and ghost-writing your way into the blogs of others. Even in the wide open frontiers of blogging, there is a strong notion of integrity. Wal-Mart “participates” in the conversation in the same way they “provide jobs in local communities”: on their terms, using their own value system, and with zero consideration for the local businesses they are nudging toward oblivion.
The author of Wal-Mart’s “blog feeds” is someone named Marshall Manson (no relation, no relation?), a senior account supervisor at the Edelman pubic relations firm, a contractor to Wal-Mart. Manson writes for a number of conservative Web sites trying to limit the role of government. Obviously, Manson – and many others – are alarmed by state initiatives to force Wal-Mart into higher levels of health insurance coverage for its many employees. These bloggers are more than willing to use the Wal-Mart feeds, some with attribution, others without.
Wal-Mart has invited a number of bloggers to attend a media conference in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alas, they are not footing the bill for the trip. I would point out to the behemoth retailer that the Insider has consistently covered Wal-Mart news: we are fascinated by their locking in (illegal immigrant) cleaning crews, targeting loyal employees for termination, forcing employees onto public assistance to survive, and telling managers with differing views to find another job. We’re doing our part to “tell Wal-Mart’s story.” Nonetheless, I am still waiting for my invitation to Bentonville.

Guns at work – coming to a neighborhood near you?

Monday, March 6th, 2006

Should employees be able to keep guns in their cars on company premises? This has been a hotly contested legislative issue in several states recently. We’ve previously discussed the NRA’s push in various states to get legislation passed that would forbid employers from banning guns in company parking lots. Legislation allowing employees to keep guns in their cars has passed in several states, and it was expected that Florida would be the next state to enact such legislation. But after a significant outcry from the state’s business community, Florida’s House Bill 129 was put on hold. This setback is expected to be temporary as the NRA regroups. It’s expected that similar measures may soon be introduced in the Senate.
A Brady Center report released in November 2005 was influential in the debate. The report – Forced Entry: The National Rifle Association’s Campaign to Force Businesses to Accept Guns at Work” (PDF) – cites a May 2005 study demonstrating that ” … workplaces where guns were permitted were five to seven times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide.” The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and The Society for Human Resource Managment (SHRM) were among the many industry associations that opposed the bill.
This is not the only setback the NRA has faced. In 2004, Oklahoma passed such a measure in reaction to an incident in which eight Weyerhaeuser employees were fired for having guns in their cars on company premises. Last month, a federal appeals court upheld the employer’s right to ban guns on company property.
If you are an employer, how do you feel about allowing employees to keep guns on your property? Learn whether your state has such legislation pending, and what you can do about it. Forewarned is forearmed.

A Note to Fellow Immigrants

Friday, March 3rd, 2006

Franklin Roosevelt may or may not have begun an address to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the memorable line, “Fellow Immigrants.” (A curmudgeonly blogger says a reporter made up the quote.) If Roosevelt didn’t say it, he should have. It’s a great line and perhaps more compelling than ever. The current debate over illegal immigrants – as fractious and divisive as the debate over abortion – has created a fault line that runs through every aspect of our culture.
In an excellent article in the New York Times (registration required) by Nina Bernstein, we read about the effect on access to health care that well publicized “throw them out” legislative initiatives have had on undocumented immigrants. Not surprisingly, these immigrants are sensitive to anti-immigration sentiments. For example, knowing that identity requirements are tightening, Chinese immigrant workers in New York City are shying away from the conventional health system (which in many cases is not exactly welcoming) and relying more on traditional herbal remedies. Bernstein writes of the sad demise of Ming Qiang Zhao, a 52 year old restaurant worker who could not afford to continue treatment for his nasal cancer. He relied on street remedies until he finally collapsed in a coma. The system which discouraged him from securing ongoing treatment readily admitted him on an emergency basis: a very expensive proposition ($5,400 day) involving several near-bankrupt hospitals. Unable to decipher the effect of the herbal remedies that he had been taking, the doctors treated him as best they could until Ming died.
Who cares?
Beyond the humanitarian issues, beyond the inflammatory rhetoric seeking to toss the illegals out, is the reality of having a two-tier health care system. In the system that most of us subscribe to, treatment is readily available, pharmacology is the best in the world, and minor ailments are treated with respect and concern. In the parallel universe of undocumented immigrants, there are bootleg remedies and unlicensed practitioners – until you collapse and are taken by ambulance to an emergency room.
The public health implications of this two-tiered system are alarming. Bernstein quotes James Tallon, president of the United Hospital Fund: “Anything that keeps anyone away from the health system makes no sense at all. It takes one epidemic to change everyone’s attitudes about this.” (We’ve already blogged the terrifying conjunction of avian flu and illegal workers in the poultry industry.)
The debate over what to do about illegal immigration impacts every one of us. I highly recommend that Insider readers track the current debate in Washington through Peter Rousmaniere’s working immigrants blog, which is devoted solely to immigration-related issues.
Public Policy Parameters
The immigration issue is complex. There are no easy solutions. The problem is going to test us in ways that we can hardly envision. It brings to mind something that Roosevelt definitely did say: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. “I would hope to see the debate over immigration guided by a few basic assumptions:
– It’s neither feasible nor desirable to deport 11+ million undocumented people and their families.
– Undocumented workers are an important part of our economy. If they disappeared tomorrow, we would all suffer the consequences.
– It’s counter-productive to cut off immigrant access to the health care system. You don’t want people treated by quacks. Somehow, we must open health care to everyone residing in our borders. It’s the right thing to do and it’s in our own selfish interests to do it.
– No matter what people think about illegal immigration, we must develop some kind of fundamental accommodation, some way of making every immigrant visible, so that these people are able to engage in the mainstream culture on a basic level.
– As we figure out ways to accommodate undocumented workers, the cost of doing business will definitely go up. When the protective umbrella of fair labor laws and fundamental benefits begins to cover workers who are currently “off the books,” the cost of labor will rise.
– You can build walls to keep people out, but walls tend to become prisons for people on both sides.
There are undoubtedly many more assumptions could be added to this list. Insider readers should jump in on the discussion. This problem is not going away. And how we address it as a nation has powerful implications for all of us.

Short takes: HR resources & tools

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Is a good employer also a good investment? That’s a question that Brent Hunsberger from The Oregonian’s At Work blog explores in some depth in a recent posting. Jerome Dodoson of Parnassus Investments noted that companies listed in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for regularly outperform the market. That’s a philosophy we ascribe to: doing the right thing is not just “nice”, it usually makes good economic sense too.
About.com’s Human Resources Guide, Susan Heatherfield, usually provides solid content that is well worth a read. One recent feature of note: Top 10 Ideas About What Employees Want From Work: Employee Motivation. For future articles, here’s the main Human Resources page.
Check out The HR Lawyer’s Blog – a new look and a new name for the Texas Employment Law Bulletin. The HR blog world keeps expanding – lots of great free resources and advice for employers that take note. George’s Employment Blawg keeps a good list of recommended HR blogs.
Compliance Aid e-Library provides a comprehensive list of links to federal, state, and general Web resources – worth a bookmark.
What’s the employment forecast look like over the next few years? The Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections home page offers information about the labor market for the nation as a whole for 10 years into the future.