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Chicago One Week Away From New Office Of Labor Standards

A city council committee Tuesday approved an ordinance that would create an Office of Labor Standards to enforce laws governing workplace issues such as the minimum wage, sick time provisions and other worker protections. The proposal moves to the full council for a vote next Wednesday. If approved, Chicago would follow cities including New York, Seattle and San Francisco in creating such an office.

The pending ordinance is the result of a two-year campaign led by local workers' rights organization Arise Chicago.

"From my experience I've learned that just passing laws is not enough. Many workers are suffering from wage theft, discrimination, harassment, and other abuse that causes both physical and moral pain, and damages workers' dignity," Arise's Martina Sanchez told councilmembers at Tuesday's committee hearing.

Sanchez was a leader of the Earned Sick Time campaign, spurred from her own experience of living without paid sick days. When her husband was hospitalized and she stayed with him, their household lost both incomes.

Through tears, Sanchez pleaded with councilmembers to think of their own constituents, such as a worker she recently spoke to. "Someone right now is suffering. He was working repairing roofs, in the cold, risking his life for over eight hours a day. His employer stole his whole week of wages. His wife is pregnant. How can they survive?"

Committee chair Patrick O'Connor confirmed with the chair of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which would house the new Office of Labor Standards, that "When the Office investigates, and mediates or brings about a settlement, the City can and would include restitution for those aggrieved."

Given that O'Connor is Mayor Rahm Emanuel's floor leader, the ordinance is likely to pass the full council next week and become law.

Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor - an alliance made up of eight local worker centers - voiced the need for city-community partnerships in order to best improve low-wage working conditions.

"As an alliance of worker centers, we organize in low-wage sectors where the work is most precarious and contingent, and disproportionately held by women, immigrants, and people of color," Zaman said. "Every day we see that illegal abuse of Chicago's most vulnerable workers has become standard practice. This is true for low-wage workers across identities, industries, neighborhoods.

"Oftentimes, these workers don't have the protections of a collective bargaining agreement, so they rely on agencies to monitor workplaces and ensure their rights are respected.

"And in order for agencies to effectively enforce the law, they require the tacit knowledge workers have about workplace practices and conditions.

"But often, without a worker center bridge, low-wage workers are skeptical of placing their trust in government agencies. That's why community partnerships are so important. We look forward to working with the new Office of Labor Standards to achieve our shared goals of ending workplace abuse and creating a healthy, stable economy for workers and businesses alike."

Workers speaking before the committee shared stories of current violations of city ordinances.

Lamar Hendrix-Glass, a former Treasure Island worker, said that company closed its grocery stores the store closed without properly notifying its workers. He also said the company may have violated the Chicago Earned Sick Time Ordinance.

"I worked at Treasure Island grocery store in Hyde Park until its abrupt closing on October 28th, leaving my co-workers and I unemployed," Hendrix-Glass said. "It wasn't until workers from the closed North and Clybourn store were relocated to Hyde Park that I learned about Treasure Island's 'Paid Time Off' or PTO policy. One of the Clybourn co-workers told me about the app I could download from ADP, the paycheck company that showed my schedule and hours, and how much PTO I had earned. The company never told me about the app or PTO so hearing this news left me disturbed. I had been working there for months and not one manager brought that to our attention. As soon as I learned about the app tracking our hours and PTO, I told my co-workers. None of them knew about it either. I even took a sick day earlier in the year, and wasn't paid. It's only now, that I see this may have been a violation of the Earned Sick Time Ordinance."

Juan Sandoval, a member of Arise Chicago, says he is currently experiencing wage theft. "I work at a restaurant in the West Loop. I began working there in April, when the city's minimum wage was $11 an hour. The owner offered me $10. It took several conversations requesting the full minimum wage before she agreed to pay $11.

"In July, when the city minimum wage increased to $12 an hour, the owner did not raise our wage. Again, I had to have several conversation just to be paid the full minimum wage.

"Then in September, the owner decided to pay me at flat salary rate as an independent contractor to not pay employment taxes. I'm paid for my 72 hours per week, but I'm not paid time-and-a-half for my 32 hours of overtime. So the owner is stealing $312 from me every paycheck.

"I talked to my co-workers about this wage theft, but they all think that either there's nothing we can do, or are afraid of losing their jobs. That's why it's important for the city to open the Office of Labor Standards. So that if one worker like me reports a problem, they can investigate and benefit all workers."

Dr. Linda Forst, senior associate dean and a professor of environmental and occupational health at UIC's School of Public Health, described the benefits of a higher minimum wage and paid sick days on public health. "Low wage work has been shown to have a negative impact on health. It is often dangerous, putting workers at risk for illness and injury. Low wage workers tend to be women, African Americans, Hispanics, low educated individuals, and immigrants. The average age of low wage workers is 36, contrary to the misconception that it is young workers who are most affected.

"I strongly urge the passage of this progressive legislation. The Office of Labor Standards will improve the health of a most precious resource - the Chicago workforce. At the same time, it will assure sound business development. But most importantly, it is a demonstration of the moral health and leadership of this great city at a time when we sorely need it."

The final speaker was Arise Chicago's Worker Center Director Adam Kader. "As we anticipate Chicago's economy to continue to grow, we must ensure that workers share in its prosperity," Kader said. "For it is the workers who not only produce our economy; it is they who also produce our city's culture and make it great. Chicago's culture is made by its neighborhoods. And those neighborhoods reflect the workers who live and labor in them. The Office of Labor Standards is an affirmation of the value working people in Chicago and represents a commitment to workers' well-being."


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 24, 2018

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