Cancerous Conservatism Debilitates Workers

Isaiah J. Poole

Perhaps the ultimate workplace expression of conservative “you’re-on-your-own” ideology is FedEx Ground, where all of the workers who deliver packages are not FedEx employees but are independent contractors.

FedEx sells that as “the ability to grow your own business.” But for Jean Capobianco, a FedEx contractor who was the subject of a profile in Sunday’s New Work Times, it meant that FedEx could fire her for, in effect, having cancer.

FedEx is among the most aggressive users of independent contracting as a way to get out from under the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the bane of conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, which derisively calls it a burdensome “Depression-era labor law,” and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which touts independent contractors as a way to “avoid some of the legal and financial drawbacks of being an employer.”

Drawbacks such as paying Social Security and payroll taxes, compliance with wage and hour rules, providing health and other benefits and allowing workers to choose union affiliation should they want to do so.

FedEx, as The Times reports, exercises almost total control over worker schedules, what they wear—even, Capobianco was quoted as saying, how workers wear their hair. Federal law says that workers can only be considered independent contractors if they have a degree of actual independence in setting the terms of their employment. But the Labor Department has been notably acquiescent in what labor activists, and legislators in a number of states, say is rampant abuse of the rules governing classification of independent contractors. In the absence of federal action, states have had to fill the void with court suits and legislation.

There is a bill in the Senate (S 2044, sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.) that would require the Labor Department to more aggressively police abuses of independent contractor classifications so that employees will in fact have all of the rights of employees. The legislation has not moved very far in the Senate. There were roughly 10 million workers classified as independent contractors in 2005, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Their rights deserve the attention both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.

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Another conservative outrage against workers—a Supreme Court ruling that makes it practically impossible for workers to file claims against employers for equal pay violations—is expected to get some favorable attention in the Senate this week.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (HR 2831) would undo the damage done by the court’s conservative majority, which ruled that Ledbetter, an employee with Goodyear Tire and Rubber, could not recover damages for being paid less than men doing the same job because she did not discover the pay disparity quickly enough. (Because individual workers’ pay is usually confidential, pay disparities could be undetected by workers for years, as it was in Ledbetter’s case.)

The House has already passed this bill, and the Senate is expected to act on it Wednesday.

How serious is this issue? Women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. In other words, the average woman had to work from January 2007 until today to match what the average man had made by December 31.

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