2011 Report on Project Work - Workers' Rights
- Stopped attacks on unemployment insurance benefits for North Carolina workers facing long-term joblessness. State legislators blocked an extension of unemployment benefits (even though those benefits were to be fully paid with federal funds), effectively holding long-term unemployed workers hostage in a battle to gain political advantage in the state budgeting process. We documented the struggles of North Carolinians who lost benefits, creating public sympathy for workers and public frustration with legislators. This widespread outrage enabled the governor to take unilateral action to extend the unemployment benefits.
- Recovered thousands of dollars for immigrant workers who were victims of discrimination and unlawful withholdings. We successfully resolved class-action lawsuits against seafood companies that brought workers from Mexico on H2-B visas but did not pay them fairly. We obtained back pay for approximately 200 workers and required one employer who had discriminated against female workers to adopt a non-discrimination policy with mandatory reporting requirements.
- Changed public policies that prevented people with criminal convictions from working and reintegrating into society. Thanks in large part to our advocacy and the help of our partners in the NC Second Chance Alliance, North Carolina now has three new laws facilitating re-entry into society by individuals with criminal convictions who have completed their sentences. One law lets a person convicted of a low-level felony or misdemeanor petition the court for relief from “collateral consequences" of that conviction, such as being barred from certain jobs. Another law improves the state’s probation and post-release supervision system by increasing supervision and adding funding for substance abuse services. The third allows an individual convicted of a non-violent crime when under age 18 to have the conviction expunged.
- Improving conditions for and the well-being of migrant farmworkers. We worked with the Farmworker Advocacy Network on a “Harvest of Dignity” campaign to reform the working and housing conditions of farmworkers in North Carolina. That campaign continues into 2012, as do our regular visits to migrant worker camps. We visited 70 migrant camps and advised more than 700 workers of their rights. In addition, we provided legal representation to dozens of migrant workers whose rights had been violated.
- Creating new “Ban the Box” policies in communities throughout North Carolina. Most employment applications require workers to check a box if they have ever been convicted of a felony, and many former offenders find it almost impossible to get a job because of that box. In coordination with our partners in the Second Chance Alliance, we convinced Durham County to stop using the box on its job applications. The county will still perform background checks of potential employees, but removal of the box gives a former offender the chance to get a foot in the door. We continue to support “Ban the Box” campaigns across the state.
- Empowering workers with information about their rights in the workplace. We developed materials for and conducted Know Your Rights trainings for workers around the state. These trainings provide an overview of employment and wage laws and inform workers about the rights they do not yet have – like the right to paid sick leave, paid maternity/paternity leave, or protections from caregiver discrimination. We invite participants to become engaged in the campaign to secure paid sick days and family leave insurance for all North Carolina workers.
- Securing policies and programs that help workers balance the demands of work and family. Paid sick leave, family leave insurance, flexible work schedules, and protections against caregiver discrimination all provide essential job protection for workers while they care for their own health and the health of their loved ones. To build support for these policies, we published a comprehensive report on the importance of policies that promote work-family balance, especially for low-income workers. We organized a coalition of more than 30 organizations, NC Families Care, that will continue to advocate for family supportive work policies in the coming year.
- Fighting wage theft. Our research found that in fiscal year 2011, North Carolina workers lost nearly $5 million through documented wage theft, which occurs when an employer does not pay a worker for hours worked. We are partnering with the University of North Carolina School of Law’s Human Rights Policy Clinic to conduct and publish research on the impact of wage theft on workers, their families, and their communities.