One out of six American workers, including manual and low-level laborers, are forced to sign non-compete agreements. It’s abusive, it’s strange, and studies say wages are 10% lower on average as a result.
Originally published by Breaking Modern:
The World Health Organization (WHO) now warns teens and young adults that they are at high risk of hearing loss if they listen to music on headphones more than an hour a day. Buy in open office spaces, headphones are required to keep out distracting noises … including co-workers’ music.
Originally published by Breaking Modern:
Occupy Wall Street is no more, but its demand that America treat its workers better remains at the forefront of the national conversation.
Jobs and stagnant salaries will probably be important issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. Even Republicans, traditionally the party of business, are building their platform around the problem of rising income inequality and how conservative ideas can alleviate it. President Obama wants to improve conditions for American workers by requiring employers to provide guaranteed paid sick days and family leave, and making it easier for them to join a union.
All great news for workers, who have been taking it on the chin since at least the 1970s, the last time real wages kept up with inflation. Yet there’s a glaring gap in the discussion: freelancers.
Ten million Americans are completely self-employed — that’s way up, from just 1.3 million people in 2001. A whopping 53 million people devote part of their workweek to freelance work. “Even though there may not be jobs in the conventional sense, there is still work,” urban analyst Bill Fulton told Forbes. “That’s the whole idea of the 1099 economy. It’s just a different way of organizing the economy.”
When politicians and the media talk about workers and how to improve their lot, independent contractors and entrepreneurs are almost always left out. But self-employment isn’t going away. Though the current tentative economic recovery has caused a slight dip in the percentage of U.S. workers who receive 1099s (as opposed to W-2s) at the end of each year, labor experts anticipate that more workers will become freelancers. This will either be by choice or, after being laid off, out of necessity. As automation and international outsourcing continue to reduce the demand for full-time workers, and CEOs increasingly turn to the “contingent workforce” to fulfill their staffing needs on an as-needed basis, being dumped like a dirty napkin when demand slackens is common.
The software company Intuit predicts that a whopping 40% of American workers will be freelancers, contractors or temporary workers by the year 2020.
Are proposed reforms enough?
No. None of the proposed reforms would do anything to help these lone wolves.
When you work for yourself there’s no employer to give you paid vacation days, much less paid sick days or parental leave. What are you going to do, unionize against yourself? Forget about going on strike for higher wages — which, given the fact that 12% of freelancers are on food stamps, the self-employed could use higher wages.
Freelancers earn less than full-timers. They work longer hours. They’re less economically secure. Because they can’t afford to say no when a possible client calls, their time isn’t their own, even on weekends and holidays. Speaking of which: what holidays?
If the balance between laborer and management has inexorably shifted toward the latter in traditional workplaces over the past half-century, the move toward an increasingly insecure, off-and-on-again workforce will only accelerate that trend. It’s a seismic shift and the main force driving down average wages. Yet public policy hasn’t merely failed to catch up — it hasn’t even begun to think about it.
As David Atkins wrote in Washington Monthly: “Simply letting the economy slide into the enforced uncertainty of the freelance economy without helping workers achieve dignity and stability is not an acceptable outcome.” But how can we avoid it?
Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union (not a union in the traditional sense, mostly just a way for independent workers to buy pooled health insurance) tells The Washington Post that one way to even out the feast-or-famine problem would be for Congress to authorize 529-like savings schemes. “Freelancers could be allowed to set up pre-tax accounts for their earnings that would go tax-free if they fell below a certain level, to keep them out of poverty during dry spells. In England, government officials have experimented with a ‘central database of available hours‘ as a public option for freelance work scheduling.”
Also in the Post: “As a general philosophy, social welfare benefits might need to shift towards how they work in Europe, where entitlements are attached to the individual, rather than their relationship with an employer. Some academics have described a new ‘dependent contractor’ status that would cover workers who serve mostly one client. These workers, the argument goes, should have more protections — unemployment insurance, for example, or workers compensation — than those who pick and choose their assignments from a number of different sources.”
Good suggestions, but pretty weak tea compared to the really big problems — much lower pay, much less security — faced by the new rising class of on-demand workers.
The best way to reverse decreasing wages
The best way to reverse downward pressure on wages would be for the federal government to set prices for labor on everything from the cost of a new roof to the price per word received by a writer to create an article like this one. For Americans accustomed to letting the “magic of the marketplace” govern their financial destinies, this would be a radical reform. But it’s not unprecedented. Wage and price controls have been deployed in India, the world’s biggest democracy. In 1971 President Nixon went after inflation driven by predatory corporations by freezing all wages and prices — a move conservatives declared a failure but that dramatically helped working poor people like my mom, who still says it saved our lives (even though she hated Nixon).
This would require a new government bureaucracy, but hey, hiring federal workers would reduce unemployment. Setting minimum wages for freelance work would be challenging, but experts know the marketplace. As a writer, I know that outfits that offer $25 for 1,000 words ought to be ashamed of themselves — no one should write anything for less than $1 a word.
Congress should extend protections against workplace discrimination based on race, age, gender, sexual orientation and disability to allow wronged freelancers to sue for compensatory as well as punitive damages.
Companies and individuals who engage the services of freelance workers should be required to pay into a general compensation fund managed by the federal government. This would probably be remitted as a percentage of compensation. Freelancers should be able to draw on the fund to take paid vacation and sick time off, as well as paternity and maternity benefits.
The only way to prevent American freelance workers from sliding into a chattel class indicative of life in a third-world country will be to give them the same rights, privileges and protections as those enjoyed by full-time workers.
Which, of course, will likely reduce the number of employers who transition from a full-time to an on-demand workforce.
Originally published at Breaking Modern:
Your phone rings. It’s your boss. “Hey, Ted, can you step into my office now?”
You enter your boss’ office. The first thing you notice is the lady from human resources is also with your boss. He says, “Have a seat, Ted.”
Then informs you you’re out of work.
Here comes that hollow stomach feeling.
What do you do now?
The first thing to do is to understand that you are not alone. They say the economy is recovering, and by many measures it is, yet 300,000 Americans still lose their jobs every year. If this is the first time for you, congratulations! With the old “work at the same company your whole life and retire with a gold watch” days dead and gone, the boom-and-bust cycle, coupled with the economic disruptions created by mobilization and new technology, jobs coming and going throughout your life is the new normal. If this is the second or third or fourth time, sorry – but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It isn’t personal. It’s capitalism.
The second thing to do is to not do something:
Don’t Get Angry.
You may be tempted to call your soon-to-be former supervisor bad names. You might want to cry. Trashing the office might seem like a satisfying way to go. Don’t. This particular form of temporary satisfaction comes at an unacceptably high price.
Why did you work there in the first place? Survival. You have bills to pay. Now that you have gotten fired/laid off/downsized/rightsized/whatever they’re calling it nowadays, survival is about to get tougher. Maybe your boss was an asshole, maybe it wasn’t your fault, who knows? You might even have a genuine lawsuit to file down the road. But that’s not the first, second or third thing you need to take care of.
Save your revenge for later. Right now, you have work to do.
That’s right: being unemployed is a full-time job.
Make a Graceful Exit.
This is an age of instant communications and social networks. Flame out as you head out the door with your banker’s box full of office supplies, and word will get out – most worriedly, to future potential employers who work in the same field. Assume a stoic demeanor. Take your dismissal with dignity, say goodbye to your co-workers, and be sure to leave your personal email and other contact information with those you’d like to be in touch with in the future.
Give Yourself Time to Adjust.
One of the best pieces of advice anyone gave me the last time I got laid off was: “Give yourself some time to process what has happened.” What that means in practical terms is, don’t go home and start sending out resumes right away.
You’ve just gone through the wringer; getting fired, especially in a country like the United States where your societal status is closely tied to your work, and which has a ridiculously thin safety net, is one of the most-stressful setbacks you will experience in your life. Allow yourself to pass through the four stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, acceptance.
If you feel like going out and getting drunk, do it. Wallow, rage, call your friends and chew their ears off about how evil your boss was. Vent.
But don’t make it a lifestyle. You have bills to pay, remember? The mourning process deserves at least a week, but no more than two.
File for Unemployment.
If you’re eligible – in other words, you were working a regular job, one that issues you a W-2 form, as opposed to a 1099 for freelance work – you probably qualify for state unemployment benefits.
Filing for unemployment is one of the first things you should do when you get home. Like: on day one.
Don’t feel guilty about filing for unemployment. It’s not welfare. You paid into your state’s unemployment system; all you’re doing is taking your money back out now that you need help. Depending on where you live, your salary at your previous job, and how long you worked there, your maximum unemployment benefits range from $240 to $674 per week. Considering the fact that the average duration of a job hunt is about 10 weeks, you’re going to need every penny to get by. Since we are talking about government bureaucracy, it probably will take several weeks before you start to see any money. So file quickly.
The old days of standing in line at the unemployment office are over. It’s easy to file online; simply Google the name of your state and the phrase “file for unemployment benefits.”
Answer the questions truthfully, but bear in mind that every question can and will be used against you as an excuse to deny paying you. So if you aren’t sure whether or not you’re going to receive severance, it’s better to answer the question “Will you receive severance?” with a no.
A few important quirks to bear in mind about unemployment benefits:
They don’t last forever.
If you earn money while looking for a new job, you have to deduct the earnings from that gig from your benefits. In other words, if you are getting $430 a week from the state, and you pick up $200 in freelance work that week, you have to report it, and the state will only pay you $230 that week.
However, you can mitigate this effect. Let’s say you receive two checks, each for $500. You could deposit them both the same week, report that income toward that one week, and the state will only withhold one $430 payment, in the example above.
While on unemployment, you will be expected to be looking for a new job. Most states require that you file at least three applications per week. But it’s not as hard as you think: sending an email to a prospective employer qualifies. Just keep track of the name and contact information for the companies; they will ask you for them later.
Some states will also require you to attend a “job training” seminar. Basically this will involve teaching you how to prepare a resume and cover letter and how to search job sites. Most people will find this kind of silly and useless, not to mention a distraction from actually looking for a job, but conservative politicians have managed to make this a legal requirement for receiving unemployment benefits. This will take place at an office at your nearest county seat.
Thanks to President Ronald Reagan, unemployment benefits are taxable. So remember that at the end of the year Uncle Sam will come looking for his piece of those “huge” payments you’ve been living high on.
If you were fired “for cause,” you won’t qualify for unemployment. Basically, “cause” means they let you go for a legitimate reason other than a general economic downturn or simply not meeting your position anymore, something like theft, incompetence, absenteeism, disobedience, etc.
If you really did something wrong, suck it up and learn a lesson and don’t do it anymore at your next job. But some employers fire good, honest workers “for cause” because it’s cheaper: they don’t have to pay severance and, in some states, unemployment subsidies.
That happened to me in California: I took a vacation day, came back to work and got fired, allegedly for not asking for the day off. Fortunately, I had printed out both my request email as well as my supervisor’s response message authorizing the vacation day. I applied for unemployment, the state opened an investigation, I faxed them the two emails, and they ruled in my favor in less than a week.
If you don’t deserve it, don’t let your former employer screw you. File for unemployment and make sure you present a clear, easy-to-follow case that explains why you didn’t deserve to be fired.
Maybe Do COBRA.
Federal law gives you the right to keep your existing company health insurance for up to 18 months. But your employer no longer subsidizes it. You pay for it in its entirety, which can make it pretty expensive, even if it’s at the corporate rate. I recommend you sign up for it for a month or two, and then apply for Obamacare either via the federal Affordable Care Act website or the one for your state. If you are still unemployed in a couple of months, you may qualify for Medicaid or highly subsidized health care that is a lot cheaper than COBRA.
Of course, if you are a “young invincible” millennial without any major health concerns, you might choose to go without health insurance until you find a new job. Obviously not a great idea – you never know when a meteor might crash through your ceiling – but if you go that route, make sure you stay healthy.
The second thing you should do after filing for unemployment is to let everyone you know – friends, family members, neighbors, everyone you meet – that you’re looking for work, any work, while you struggle to get back on your feet. Even if that last part about taking any work isn’t 100% true – you’re probably not really going to get involved in asbestos mitigation or fishing for Alaskan king crab – it broadcasts both your desperation and your character. People want to help you, but showing that you are open to branching out outside of your comfort zone and aren’t too proud gives them a solid inducement to do so.
Since networking is by far the most effective way to land a new job, getting the word out that you are available, and keeping the word out by repeatedly checking in with your personal and business contacts both by email and by phone, has the best chance by far of paying off.
If you got laid off as part of corporate downsizing, there is a strong chance that your former employer will offer you a severance payment. In bigger companies the amount will be tied to the length of your service; in smaller ones it will basically be as little as they think they can pay you to get you to shut up.
About the shutting up part: severance payments usually go with a so-called “separation agreement” that the company will ask you to sign. Among the highlights will likely be passages in which you agree not to smear your former employer in a public venue like the Internet (a “non-disparagement clause”), promise not to share company secrets (a “nondisclosure clause”), and possibly a “noncompete” section in which you agree not to go to work for your former company’s competitors.
It will be tempting, given how broke you are about to become, to take the money and run – in other words, sign the separation agreement without attempting to negotiate. If the agreement is relatively benign, that may be okay, but read it over carefully, and if you don’t understand it have a lawyer take a look at it. Separation agreements are often legal minefields that take advantage of people who have just been fired and are still in shock.
When I got laid off from United Media, a subsidiary of Scripps Howard, they demanded that I agree to all the standard sections I described above, plus something outrageous: that I agree to never work in print or online media again. For the rest of my life. I wanted the $5,700 severance, but to never work again in my chosen field, $5.7 million wouldn’t have been enough. Scripps refused to give an inch or change a word, so I ended up leaving without getting a penny of severance. (They claimed they would never have enforced it, but if that were true, why ask for it?) Going without severance made my layoff harder, but looking back now, I’m happy I didn’t sign.
Like any legal document, you’ll have to live with the ramifications of a separation agreement for years to come. Be careful. Give your former employer what they need, like the nondisclosure and non-disparagement sections, but draw the line there. Remember: HR wants to close the file on you just as much as you want that last check.
Can You Sue? Probably Not.
It comes as a surprise to most American workers to learn that, unlike employees in most other Western countries, they are “at will” workers – in other words, their employers can fire them at any time, without notice, for no reason.
There are two exceptions to this:
If you have an employment contract that specifically states possible causes for termination, and they want to let you go for some other reason, you have legal standing to challenge your firing. But most American employment contracts specifically state that you are an at-will employee.
If you can prove that your firing is the result of discrimination due to your age (for being too old, not too young), race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, you can sue your ex-employer for back wages, reinstatement and punitive damages. Some discrimination laws depend on the state where you were working; others are federal. However, you have to reach a very high bar to prove workplace discrimination and, thanks to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, that bar has been raised even higher. Among other things, you will have to obtain testimony from within the company, as well as documents, that confirm a systemic pattern of, say, sexism, to which you fell prey. That is almost impossibly hard.
Launching a successful discrimination lawsuit requires either deep pockets or a lawyer willing to work on a contingency, as it will likely take many years to see your day in court, which even if you win, will be followed by countless appeals. And even if you ultimately prevail, the odds are that you will not walk away with millions of dollars, but perhaps only a nominal sum, or enough to pay your attorney’s fees.
In short, you might be able to sue, but you probably don’t want to. (An exception would be in order to make a political stand against discrimination that would protect workers from being similarly abused in the future.)
Furthermore, suing a former employer all but guarantees that you will never again find work in the same profession. Once the word gets out that you are litigious, no one will want to hire you lest you turn around and sue them too someday. So unless you are one of those 1% of 1% of 1% for whom suing is a righteous cause in and of itself, hide those revenge fantasies of soaking your evil former boss for billions of dollars away in the dark recesses of the back of your brain.
Job Hunt Smart.
You’ve read those stories about people who have been unemployed for a long time: “I sent out 5,000 resumes and never heard back from any of them.” Job sites like Indeed, Monster and LinkedIn are useful, and people do find work from them, but you are literally five to six times more likely to get a job through direct contact than by replying to a job listing.
Direct contact means exactly that: reaching out to an employer where you’d like to work, and where you’d be a good fit, regardless of whether or not they have advertised for a position. Email the big boss – yes, the president or CEO or top manager – with a cc to human resources if they have such a department just to show that you are willing to work through the system – with a two- to three-paragraph email explaining who you are, why you want to work for them, and what you can do for them. Personalize it as much as possible but don’t go crazy; you’re not going to hear back from most of them so it’s not worth spending hours on each email. The shotgun approach will work as long as it isn’t painfully obvious to your prospects.
Don’t spend all day burning yourself out sending out emails. It’s very easy to get depressed while you’re not working, and depression clouds your mind and makes it more difficult for you to brainstorm about what to do next. I recommend getting out of the house in order to clear your mind, heading down to Starbucks or your local café with your laptop, and spending from 9a.m. to 12 noon every day, Monday through Friday, with a view toward just sending out resumes and cover letters to people and places for whom you’d like to work. Don’t bring your dog with you, don’t take any phone calls, don’t chitchat with anyone else there, just work. If the café is too distracting, head to the local library.
Then kick off and enjoy the extra free time. (Some of which should include staying in good physical condition, since being in good shape will keep you mentally healthy and make you more appealing to potential employers.)
Work While You Don’t Work.
Try to scare up some freelance work while you are looking for something permanent and full time. As with unemployment benefits, every penny you have coming in will stave off financial ruin.
Think outside the box. Consider renting out that extra bedroom on Airbnb. If you live in a city or a resort community, the income could be substantial.
What you should not do, however, is to take a poorly paid full-time job – at least not until all your other prospects have been exhausted and your unemployment benefits are gone. The reason is simple: if you are working 40 hours a week at $10 an hour, when will you have time or energy to look for a job that pays $30 an hour?
Budget Cut Smart.
You’ll find it easier to find additional income than to cut your budget to solvency. After all, you can’t cut your budget to zero.
In other words, focus on the job hunt, not on cutting expenses.
That said, we all have expenses that we can cut back upon. If you have premium cable, you might be able to live with basic cable instead or cut the cord and rely on video streaming. But don’t cut back anything that could impede your job hunt, like high-speed Internet service. You’re going to need that. Same thing with the phone. Any communications lifelines have to be paid up on time.
A successful job hunt relies upon persistence, ingenuity and open-mindedness. Even if you don’t have great luck at first, keep looking and eventually you will find something.
Consider ways you can apply your existing skills that may not have previously occurred to you. For example, you might want to look into fields that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. And be open to the world: Talk to everyone, ask questions, think about opportunities and jobs no matter what they are and where they come from.
According to a study by UC Berkeley, 95% of income gains since 2009 went to the top 1%. Which makes one wonder: where is the incentive for the 99% to bust their asses working for the man?
Why Doesn’t the Pentagon Let Its Employees Be All They Can Be?
The U.S. military isn’t supposed to allow child soldiers to enlist (though reality can differ). So why does it treat recruits like children?
Other than religious avocations, it’s impossible to think of another major employer that asks as much of prospective workers as the Pentagon, yet offers so little. Salaries are lower than for comparable private-sector jobs. The skills one acquires don’t translate easily to other fields. The risks couldn’t be higher. But most baffling, for a force supposedly dedicated to defending our freedom, is that they get little freedom of their own.
You’ve heard the drill sergeant line in movie boot-camp scenes: “You are now the property of the United States of America.” That’s true. Once signed up, soldiers and sailors can be assigned anywhere, to any job, completely at their commanders’ discretion. Sometimes they take your skills, desires or ambitions into consideration. Not always.
Active duty, recruiters tell young men and women, lasts two to five years — after which they’re supposed to wind up in the reserves, free to go home unless there’s a national emergency. But the President can invoke the “stop-loss” provision, which means you can get stuck as long as eight.
It’s time for the military to catch up to the modern workplace.
American workers are getting more of a raw deal in many ways: lower wages and benefits, companies that ignore the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, no more pensions. Yet the fraying of the postwar labor-management social contract has also provided employees with greater flexibility. You may have to work three crappy jobs to make ends meet, but crappy jobs are easy to replace. You can move to another city and probably find three crappy jobs there. You certainly don’t have to worry about one of your crappy employers shipping you off to Afghanistan, much less coming home in a coffin.
The military’s insistence on treating its workers like property to be disposed of at whim is obsolete, making it increasingly difficult — even in a high-unemployment economy — to compete for recruits.
One example making recent headlines is the Air Force’s increasingly severe shortfall of fighter pilots. A new signing bonus totaling nearly a quarter million bucks (albeit spread over nine years), isn’t enough to compensate for starting salaries ($34,500 to $97,400) — not when the airlines are paying a median salary of $103,210 to commercial jet pilots. Nor are benefits like lower taxes and on-base housing.
“The military is difficult on the family with all the moving around,” Rob Streble, a former Top Gun and an official of the union that represents US Airways pilots, told The Los Angeles Times. “I added more stability by joining the airline.”
“People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time,” admits John Wigle, a former F-15 pilot who is now a program analyst in the USAF’s operations, plans and requirements directorate.
Freedom was a determining factor for me.
The recruiter manning the desk at the Army Recruiting Office in Kettering, Ohio was way into me when I walked through the door at age 18. I had what they’re looking for: I was human, sentient, and ambulatory. I was also a catch: a straight-A engineering student who’d gone to an Ivy League school on full scholarship. When Reagan slashed financial aid for me and millions of other college students, I considered other options.
I aced the Army aptitude test. This didn’t surprise me, considering the lugs sitting in the test center next to me. Anyway, I test great. I drew the attention of a big über recruiter for the entire Midwest who wouldn’t stop calling. He made a lot of promises. We’ll fast-track you for officer! When you get out, we’ll pay your college tuition! What’s that, you want to draw cartoons for Stars and Stripes, just like Bill Mauldin during World War II? Sure, why not?
As a child of divorce, I’d learned to get promises in writing. Which, of course, military recruiters can’t and won’t do. (At the time, the Army paid “up to” $5,000 a year for college. Columbia was $13,000.) Sure, despite Reagan’s efforts, we weren’t at war. So getting killed was unlikely. But they could send me anywhere in the world, assign me to any job they wanted (from a military website today: “The Military will make every effort to match your interests and aptitudes with its needs. However, job assignments are ultimately made based on Service needs, as well as individual skills and test scores”), and the bottom line was, there’d be nothing I could do but salute and say yessir. That was the end of my flirtation with a military career. I wanted the basic freedom to choose where I lived and what I did for work.
I’m not alone. 89% of young Americans say they’d never consider a military career.
It will be a bummer for military officers, by temperament the biggest control freaks ever, but sooner or later they’re going to have to face reality: slavery is over. If you want to find quality sailors and soldiers, you have to treat them like adults. Let recruits choose their positions and where they live. Act like they’re workers. Which they are. For example, why can’t soldiers put in for vacation as opposed to applying for leave? If their chosen job is no longer needed, fine — they should be free to go. Yes, even during wartime — at least during the optional wars of choice the United States has fought since 1945.
During an invasion or serious attack against the U.S. by another nation, obviously, all bets are off. But don’t worry — that hasn’t happened since 1812.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL