FemCatholic: Church can do better on paid family leave

Of all employment benefits, you would think that the Church would be leading the way on family leave. After all, what’s more pro-life and pro-family than giving paid time off to workers to bond with a newborn child or care for a sick family member? And in fact some are. In 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago drew national attention when it announced 3 months of paid parental leave for employees with a newborn. But website FemCatholic investigated nationwide and found that the situation in the Church nationwide was decidedly mixed.

FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to confirm their family leave policies. Through telephone interviews with current and former diocesan employees, FemCatholic ascertained that 31 dioceses offer fully paid maternity leave policies, 32 provide some percentage of employee salaries through either short-term disability or state paid leave laws, and 44 do not offer any paid leave.

Catholic institutions in the United States – Churches, schools, hospitals, and other organizations – employ upwards of one million workers. We have a wonderful opportunity to evangelize the world through our labor relations and employment policies. When Church institutions implement policies like paid parental leave, they send an important signal to lay Catholics in business leadership. The FemCatholic report should be a wake-up call for Catholic institutions across the United States.

Save the Date! Honoring the Memory of Msgr. George Higgins, May 1 & 2

Twenty years ago this May 1, legendary “labor priest” and onetime Social Action Director for the bishops’ conference Msgr. George Higgins died. The Catholic Labor Network has teamed up with the Archdiocese of Washington and the AFL-CIO to memorialize the occasion with two events.

Sunday, May 1 at 11am at St. Matthew’s Cathedral Cardinal Wilton Gregory will celebrate a special Mass. A young labor priest, Fr. Evelio Menjivar of St. Mary’s in Landover, will offer the homily and some thoughts on Msgr. Higgins’ legacy.

Monday, May 2 at 3pm at the AFL-CIO headquarters (815 16th St NW, Washington DC), AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler will introduce a panel discussion on Msgr. Higgins’ legacy. Panelists will include Fr. Menjivar, theologian Meghan Clark, Ingrid Delgado of the USCCB office of Justice, Peace and Human Development, and union organizer Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE and the Catholic Labor Network.

All are invited to both these important events! (And both will be livestreamed for those who can’t be there in person.)

Oxfam Report Details Living Wage Crisis in United States

Oxfam – an organization more widely known for its famine relief work – recently released an alarming report detailing the extent of the low-wage economy in the United States. The headline finding: approximately one third of US workers earn less than $15 per hour. The numbers for women and minorities were even more concerning – for instance, nearly half of Black workers earn less than $15. For a full-time worker, a $15 per hour wage amounts to $30,000 per year; it’s hard to imagine supporting a family on less than this anywhere in the United States. It’s a sign of deep structural problems in our economy that we have learned to depend on low wage labor to perform much essential service work. CLICK HERE for the Oxfam report.

Farmworker Awareness Week: March 25-31

March 25-31 marks Farmworker Awareness Week – a week that culminates on March 31, Cesar Chavez Day. The backbreaking work of planting and harvesting our food is largely performed by immigrants from Latin America for low pay under difficult working conditions.

Like domestic workers, during the New Deal reforms farmworkers were excluded from the protection of critical labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (which protects workers who want to form a union) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which sets the federal minimum wage and dictates that other workers earn overtime when working more than 40 hours per week). This means that farmworkers have had to work state by state to secure these rights, a process that remains largely incomplete. Only a few states such as California and New York have passed laws protecting farmworkers’ right to organize and form labor unions. And this year Oregon joined a handful of states that have passed overtime pay laws covering farmworkers.

The Catholic Church played a critical role in the great farmworker organizing campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in California, where Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized grape harvesters. The UFW sought leverage through a national boycott of table grapes. Chavez, himself deeply committed to his Catholic faith, relied on allies in the Church and the wider community to promote the boycott and secure basic rights for workers in the fields.

The Catholic Labor Network is part of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), an interfaith coalition standing in solidarity with farmworker organizations such as the UFW, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Today the UFW is seeking reforms in California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act to make it easier for farmworkers to form unions; the FLOC is campaigning for RJ Reynolds to clean up abuses in its tobacco supply chain; and the CIW is calling on Wendy’s to source its tomatoes from growers committed to fair labor practices. The CLN and the NFWM continue to support farmworkers in all of these initiatives.

Catholic Nursing Home Employees Strike for a Living Wage

While employees at nearby secular competitors earn a living wage, food service employees at Our Lady of Peace Nursing Home in Lewiston New York earn the legal minimum in their community and CNAs earn scarcely more. That’s the main reason employees of the nursing home held a one-day strike in March.

The workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), walked off the job for a single day on March 9. They have now resumed bargaining with nursing home, owned by the St. Louis-based Ascension Health Care.

Catholic Social Teaching calls for every worker to receive a living wage. The legal minimum wage in upstate New York is set at $13.20 per hour, or approximately $26,400 per year for a full-time employee.

Theresa Tomlin, an 11-year CNA at Our Lady of Peace, said “I have to pick up double shifts to survive. Other aides are on public assistance or have taken second jobs. People are fighting to make ends meet.”

“I’ve thought about leaving but what keeps me there are the residents. They are like family to me.”

The low wages at the facility aren’t only a problem because of Catholic Social Teaching. Employees at the facility say that staffing shortages have become severe. With nearby competitors offering wages that are $1-5/hour higher than at Our Lady of Peace, they say, it’s impossible to recruit workers.

“We all used to love it here. Not so much anymore – we are unable to give residents the care they deserve because of understaffing,” said Tresa Torcasio, a 12-year nurse at the facility and parishioner at nearby St. John’s. “You can’t get people in if they can make more money someplace else.”

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Proposed in DC

Few workers are at greater risk of exploitation than domestic workers. Nannies, au pairs, house cleaners, home health aides – all too often these workers work alone under the supervision of their employer, and under informal and precarious work arrangements. Sexual harassment and wage theft are frequent occurrences. To make matters worse, they have historically been excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws.

That may be about to change in Washington DC. On Tuesday, March 15, DC Councilmember Elissa Silverman announced release of the DC Domestic Workers Employment Rights Amendment Act. Read more

Will Tennessee Voters Choose Right to Work?

A guest contribution from CLN member Frank Maurizio

Voters in Tennessee have a crucial decision coming up this fall as we are being asked whether or not the state’s long-tenured “right to work” law should be enshrined in the Tennessee constitution. The timing of this vote – in fact, its necessity at all – is odd; this deep-red state is hardly headed toward becoming a bastion of organized labor.

But Tennessee lawmakers – overwhelmingly Republican – are nervous. Tennessee, which in 2020 was the third least unionized state in the U.S., led the nation in union gains in 2021. Meanwhile, neighboring Georgia ranked seventh in an increase in union jobs.

Clearly, something is happening in the South as union activism – still far from where the Catholic Labor Network and other pro-worker groups would like to see it – is gaining strength. In my neck of the woods (I moved to Chattanooga from labor-friendly New York two years ago), we are excited by Ford’s recent announcement that it is bringing new electric vehicle and battery plants to Tennessee, and the automaker is reportedly open to a unionized workforce.

This has given the right-to-work champions more impetus to get the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. It has also resulted in a GOP-led effort to ban organizing through card check at companies that receive state incentives to move here.

The fate of that effort remains uncertain but the legislative majority and its allies in the business community are putting their full weight behind the right-to-work constitutional amendment. That means, of course, that those of us who support the right to organize have a responsibility – and an opportunity – to remind voters that right-to-work laws are nothing more than a continued effort to take advantage of workers and thwart their chance to earn a fair wage.

And we might just have an opening: A Gallup Poll last year showed union support at its highest level in more than 50 years at 68 percent of those polled (Labor Unions | Gallup Historical Trends). Another study found that 60 million Americans would join a union if they could. Promising trends, indeed.

As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond said at a recent convention in Nashville: “Workers are fed up and America is taking notice of our collective action. … Working people are waking up and understanding the value of labor unions.”

As the vote on the constitutional amendment gets closer in Tennessee, let’s hope that Brother Redmond is right.

Justice Too Long Delayed is Justice Denied

An update on farmworker overtime from CLN Member Laurie Konwinski

New York State farmworkers are still not covered by the overtime laws that apply to other hourly workers.  As reported in a recent CLN blog post, New York State established a Wage Board to consider lowering the threshold are which farmworkers are eligible for overtime.  After hearing many hours of testimony, the three-person panel called for overtime for agricultural laborers to remain at the 60-hour per week threshold until January 1, 2024.  At that point, they recommended that the threshold be reduced to 56-hour work week, and continue to be reduced by four hours every two years.  This means it will take until January 1, 2032 for farmworkers to reach parity in overtime protection and be eligible for overtime after 40 hours of work.  Even this decade-long delay in equity is not guaranteed.  The recommendation by the Wage Board is not binding.  It must be approved by the New York State Commissioner of Labor, whose decision has not yet been announced.

Catholic Labor Network “Listening Session” with DC Domestic Workers

Few workers are at greater risk of exploitation than domestic workers. Nannies, au pairs, house cleaners, home health aides – all too often these workers work alone under the supervision of their employer, and under informal and precarious work arrangements. Sexual harassment and wage theft are frequent occurrences. To make matters worse, they have historically been excluded from coverage under labor and employment laws. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network recently teamed up with Washington DC’s Festival Center to host a “listening session” with DC domestic worker Antonia Surco for the area’s faith-inspired activists.

Like most domestic workers today, Surco is an immigrant – in her case from Peru. Sucro spoke about her career caring for both young children and disabled elders in prosperous DC homes, caring work that she loves to perform. However, it is risky – she was dismissed suddenly at the start of the pandemic, facing total loss of income. As a domestic worker without a written contract she was ineligible for unemployment and unable to access key elements of coronavirus relief. A parishioner at nearby St. Catherine Laboure in Maryland, Surco was cheered by the presence of representatives of several DC parishes and of the Archdiocese of Washington.  She urged participants to support passage of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would include, among other things, a requirement that those hiring a domestic worker sign a written contract.

Surco is one of the leaders of the DC Chapter of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. The group formed to fill a void in American labor and employment law – protection for domestic workers. During the New Deal of the 1930s, when the federal government passed the Social Security Act (unemployment insurance and old age pensions), the National Labor Relations Act (the right to organize in unions) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (the minimum wage), domestic workers were conspicuously excluded from coverage. These exclusions set a pattern, and domestic workers were often left unprotected by subsequent employment laws. It is unlikely a coincidence that this work, then and now, has largely been performed by people of color.

Surco and her colleagues are asking the Washington DC City Council to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Such legislation would ensure that in the future domestic workers were covered by the DC Human Rights law (which guards against both discrimination and sexual harassment) and by the District’s workplace safety and health ordinance. It would also guarantee domestic workers a written contract.

As Catholics, we believe that every worker is a child of God possessing human dignity. Every worker has rights. The time is now for a DC Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. To view the listening session on video, click play below.

Workers Win Right to Recall in Howard County

Recently in this space you read how Maryland Catholic Labor Network members joined hotel workers and community organizations testifying in support of “right to recall” for hospitality workers in Howard County, Maryland. Right to recall laws offer hope to hotel workers laid off during the pandemic, directing employers who are ready to reopen for business to offer employment to their idled career employees before seeking replacement workers. We are pleased to report that the Howard County Council voted 4-1 in support of right to recall, giving workers in that community the same rights that hospitality workers in Baltimore, DC and cities and states across the country had already secured. Unfortunately, an amendment excluding contracted workers was included in the final bill. Let’s pray that the owners of the Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel, whose stubborn resistance to this commonsense personnel policy inspired the county initiative, comply with the law in good faith.