More Things That Matter More Than Lipstick

From the New York Review of Books the story of a man named Drew Pooters, who served in the Air Force for 14 years, got out, and eventually ended up as a department mananger at a Toys ‘R’ Us:

“He liked the job but it didn’t take long before he found that an assistant manager was reducing the recorded hours worked by his employees on the company computer. A few days after he complained to the assistant manager about the practice, Pooters was demoted to stocking shelves.

He placed his resume on and found a $26,000-a-year job at Family Dollar, another discount store, as a manager-in-training. He rose quickly to become manager, but he was now required to cut back the hours worked by his employees. And he found he had to put in fourteen- to sixteen-hour days to keep up with the work they would ordinarily have done. A father of four, he needed the job. But then Pooters found that his district manager also was jiggering the time records of his employees. He felt he had to leave and eventually joined Rentway, a rent-to-own retailer near Detroit, where he and his wife decided to move. Rentway also demanded that he falsify the recorded hours worked by employees. Pooters balked and was ultimately fired. After much inquiry, Greenhouse found that not only was Pooters’s story true but that illegally cutting back hours was a common practice.”

Falsifying employees’ time records is, of course, illegal, as is forcing them to work those deleted hours without being paid. One of those little things we expect government to do is to enforce the laws. However:

“The government, Greenhouse found, is simply looking the other way. Three decades ago, there were more federal wage and hour inspectors than there are today, though the labor force was 40 percent smaller. Retailers, fast-food restaurants, and call centers have become the new sweatshops, and federal inspectors seldom visit them. Delivery men at Manhattan’s Gristedes and Food Emporium grocery store chains often have to work as many as seventy-five hours a week, earning less than $3 an hour. Employees told Greenhouse that managers at Toys-R-Us, Wal-Mart, Pep Boys, and Taco Bell, among countless others, erase hours worked from the time clock in order to reduce their pay or make them work illegally long hours.

Workers at some call centers are regularly docked for every minute they spend in the bathroom, according to Greenhouse. Wal-Mart and others have become notorious for locking in night-shift workers, often forcing them to work longer hours. A careful study in 2007 of workplace practices in New York City by three economists found violations of labor laws were widespread. Pay of $3 an hour, they report, is hardly unusual, although the New York State minimum wage is now $7.15 an hour.”

For eight years, we have had an administration that does not seem to believe in enforcing laws against employers, even when their practices are plainly abusive. And it’s not just laws that protect the right to form unions: the examples above don’t concern the right to form a union, just the right to get paid for the hours you work, to be paid the mandated minimum wage, etc. (Obviously, unions would help prevent such abuses, but there you go.)

“Putting government on the side of the people” isn’t just a slogan. It ought to translate into concrete policies, like enforcing these kinds of laws so that people who work hard get paid what they are due. They deserve a government that upholds the law for everyone, labor and workplace safety laws included. We have not had such a government for eight years. I see no reason to think that John McCain would change that. I think that making sure that people have decent working conditions as required by law, that they get paid for the hours they actually worked, that they are not docked per minute spent in the bathroom, and that they do not have to quit, as Mr. Pooters did, because they refuse to participate in violating the law, matters; and that it would behoove us to think about Mr. Pooters and people like him, not about the distraction du jour.