Meat Processing Is A Dangerous Job. It’s About to Get A Lot Worse.

About three and a half seconds. That’s how long inspectors currently have to check a pig carcass for lesions, hair, infected organs, or fecal matter before it’s sent whirring to workers, who slice up the roughly 250-pound animals in a freezing room, side by side, for eight to 10 hours a day, churning out more than 1,000 pigs an hour.

If a new pork inspection rule recently highlighted by the Washington Post passes next month, the lines will run even faster and plant employees will have to take responsibility for this visual inspection, putting workers and eaters at risk.

Though this might sound like another Trump-era regulatory rollback, it’s actually the final step in a drawn-out food safety debate that’s spanned four administrations.

The changes are part of a double-acronym mouthful, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-Based Inspection Model Project (HIMP). These new inspection methods have been quietly piloted at a select number of pork and poultry plants for some 20 years, with the basic goal of reducing USDA inspector spot checks and moving more safety testing offsite. Big meatpackers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service claim these “modernizations” will improve safety and address inspector shortages, without harming workers.

But accounts from workers and investigations by government watchdogs and advocacy groups tell the opposite story. By speeding up processing lines and allowing meatpackers to police themselves, HIMP plants pose serious risks for food safety and increase already hazardous working conditions.

While the Trump administration faces blowback for giving plant employees greater oversight of hog slaughter, the Obama administration passed similar food inspection changes in the poultry industry in 2012, known as the New Poultry Inspection System.

These changes shift some duties from federal food safety inspectors to plant employees. Previously, federal inspectors visually checked every chicken or hog carcass for things like infected organs, fecal contamination, and other signs of diseases or defects. The new systems put plant employees in charge of those checks. For pork, large plants currently must have seven USDA inspectors; under the new rules, they would have three. For poultry, the number of required USDA inspectors shrunk from four to one.

USDA and industry groups often say that the HIMP pilot programs in both pork and poultry have proven just as, if not more, safe than the current system. But additional accounts suggest otherwise.

A 2013 inspector general report argued that the USDA “did not provide adequate oversight” of the HIMP pork pilots, and that the agency could not determine whether the pilots improved food safety. In fact, the inspector general said “HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks.”

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch also uncovered that the new salmonella testing program was flawed for all poultry plants prior to a protocol change in July 2016, bringing the HIMP poultry pilot findings into question as well. The group also obtained inspection documents for 14 HIMP pilot poultry plants through a Freedom of Information Act request, and found widespread instances of company employees routinely missing defects.

Politico reported that several poultry plants enrolled in the new poultry processing program have already failed necessary food safety testing to increase their line speeds. Food & Water Watch also revealed that these poultry plants also “fail the agency’s salmonella performance standard at a greater rate than those that have not opted into the new system.” In fact, one of the original poultry pilot locations operating at faster line speeds was forced to suspend operations in May due to food safety violations.

When it comes to pork, there are only five HIMP pilot plants, but of the top 10 pork plants nationwide with the most food safety violations, three participated in HIMP. This includes the worst performing plant, which racked up nearly 50 percent more citations than the next most dangerous plant over the course of three years.

More fundamentally, having plant employees check carcasses amounts to self-regulation and presents a clear conflict of interest. Simply put, plant owners profit more the less they stop the line, making them more reluctant to address quality concerns than federal inspectors. In a public comment, one concerned USDA inspector said, “the bottom line is that a company is out to make money and they can not do that if the line is not running. Even if it means letting something go down the line and ultimately out the back door that is not fit for human consumption.”

“If this proposal goes through and inspectors are cut, I would not feel safe enough to feed [poultry] to my family,” she added.

When a handful of powerful meatpackers ramp up line speeds, the risks extend beyond food safety to the workers who face the physical toll of processing more animals in less time.

As it stands, the USDA only assesses line speed increases for food safety outcomes. The agency is quick to note that it does not have jurisdiction over worker safety, and that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protects workers. But OSHA has been derelict in its duty to prevent workplace injuries directly tied to increased line speeds.

Historically, poultry lines ran at 70 birds per minute. Today they’re up to 175.

While OSHA has set maximum operating speeds in some industries, such as grain processing, it has not done so for meatpacking. In fact, OSHA denied a 2013 petition requesting that the agency set slaughterhouse speed standards on the grounds that it did not have the resources to study the issue.

In absence of worker-safety informed limits, line speeds continue to increase. Historically, poultry lines ran at 70 birds per minute. Today they’re up to 175, after the poultry industry petitioned the Trump administration to revoke an Obama-era decision to keep the speeds at 140. The new pork rules would lift processing speed limits entirely, and the Post reports that line speeds could increase from 18 hogs per minute to 20. In four independently conducted surveys by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, Nebraska Appleseed, and Human Rights Watch, workers cited increased line speeds as the top or most notable complaint in regard to workplace safety.

According to the Department of Labor, meat processors get injured five times more frequently than other workers, and are nearly 20 times more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. True injury rates are likely even higher: Another study by the Government Accountability Office found that federal data likely does not capture all meat processing injuries, especially because immigrants and refugees, who comprise 28 percent of meatpacking workers, are less likely to report injury or workplace misconduct due to fear of retaliation or deportation. OSHA also admits that workers with limited English proficiency “often do not get the necessary safety training on the job and do not know their rights under the OSHA law.”

No matter how you slice it, faster line speeds line meat processors’ pockets at everyone else’s expense. Their costs per animal go down the faster lines run, churning out more product per worker and per plant. The one leg meat corporations have left to stand on is the argument that they’ll pass their savings onto consumers, but recent price fixing cases prove those talking points are hogwash. The only real winners are corporate packers and their shareholders, while workers and eaters pay the price.



Fining Poor People for Walking Won’t Stop Pedestrian Fatalities

In March, three Michigan cities began cracking down on pedestrian violations. The stated goal of the week-long effort was to reduce the significantly high pedestrian traffic casualties in those municipalities by getting pedestrians to obey traffic laws. In at least two of the targeted Michigan cities, jaywalking tickets run more than $100 apiece.

But targeting walkers doesn’t do anything to address the actual problem: that roads and sidewalks aren’t safe and accessible for all users. Instead, what this enforcement does is punish vulnerable people, contribute to an already-existing social mentality that blames pedestrians for their own demises, and send a clear message that safe streets are only a priority for people who drive.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Kalamazoo, Detroit, and Warren, the Michigan cities that participated in the pedestrian enforcement campaign, targeted jaywalkers — in particular, those who failed to cross streets at an intersection, who failed to follow traffic signals, who didn’t walk on the sidewalk, who didn’t walk facing traffic when on a roadway, and who didn’t yield to vehicle traffic with the right of way.

In order for traffic to flow smoothly and for people to stay safe, it is reasonable to expect everyone to follow the rules of the road. But when the road isn’t made for you, those rules can be tricky to follow, and in fact, even when they are followed to a T, walkers and bikers are no match for a two-ton vehicle whose driver is unaware of how to share the road with pedestrians — or simply doesn’t care.

From 2008-2017, according to a report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths increased by 35 percent. In 2018, the report estimated that there were 6,227 pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. —  the highest number since 1990.

When bicyclists are included, those figures are even higher. And unlike motor vehicle fatalities, which are declining, pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are increasing.

The report cites things such as population growth and the shift in vehicle-buying from passenger cars to SUV’s as major factors that contribute to pedestrian fatalities. As city populations grow and as pedestrian commuters increase, car-centric street designs are increasingly dangerous.

Enforcing fines on pedestrians doesn’t fix these issues, it just sends an overt message that streets aren’t for pedestrians; they’re solely for people who drive. Meanwhile, it’s low-income people who are least likely to own a car and to have to walk on unsafe roads.

In addition, in communities that have targeted pedestrians with citations, trends have shown that marginalized people are the most impacted. For instance, in December of 2017, ProPublica reported that in Jacksonville, Florida, black pedestrians were disproportionately targeted with pedestrian tickets. Not only did black pedestrians there receive more tickets (55 percent of tickets went to black people even though they make up only 29 percent of the city’s population), they also were most affected by driver’s license suspension for failure to pay those tickets. A similar trend was noted in Seattle.

But there are alternatives, such as developing Complete Streets policies, which are designed to make streets safe for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, car drivers, and transit riders of all abilities. The model focuses on reducing pedestrian risk by placing physical barriers between cars and pedestrians, redesigning intersections and sidewalks, and modifying traffic flow. More than 1,400 Complete Streets policies have been passed in the United States. That figure includes 33 states that have adopted some form of a statewide policy.

However, that doesn’t mean those communities and states have full and adequate protections for pedestrians and bicyclists. A Complete Streets Atlas shows large swaths of the U.S. without any Complete Streets model at all, and of those that have adopted some policies, most do not have full bike and walking path protections.

Following each pedestrian accident, the comment stream centers blame on the victim. “Why were they crossing there?” “Were they wearing bright vests?”

Redesigning streets to accommodate all users requires traffic studies, planning, and redesigning, all of which come at a cost. But when cities are grappling with high rates of pedestrian casualties, they should invest time and money in that crisis. The Michigan cities that participated in the week-long enforcement period targeting pedestrians were each awarded grants to cover overtime for their police officers. Instead of investing in addressing the structures that lead to pedestrian casualties, they took the short-term, punitive approach — an investment that could never produce the kinds of benefits that structural changes to road design could.

In the mid-1980s, Florida adopted a statute requiring that roadway design accommodate walkers and bicyclists from the beginning. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that in the three decades following, more than 3,500 lives were saved as a result, with pedestrian lives among the most likely to be saved.

Other cities have not only implemented ordinances that protect pedestrians; they center their enforcement of those ordinances on drivers. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, an ordinance requires drivers to stop for a pedestrian approaching a crosswalk. This is more stringent than the state requirement that a driver stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The city did targeted enforcement of the ordinance between 2017 and 2018, and during that time police issued more than 800 tickets to motorists who violated the city’s pedestrian law.

As much as our culture loves to blame the victims, pedestrians aren’t responsible for their own demise. Still, following each pedestrian accident, the comment stream centers blame on the victim. “Why were they crossing there?” “Were they wearing bright vests?” Instead of focusing on the structural problem of roads with increasingly heavy and fast-moving traffic or the lack of safe pedestrian paths, the culture at large points fingers at the road users who are most in danger. Ticketing pedestrians reinforces this norm.

But punishing pedestrians won’t change the stark reality that walkers, wheelchair users, and bikers must navigate spaces that weren’t designed for them to maneuver safely. Municipalities must grapple with this safety crisis and recognize that punishing those who are most in danger while using the road isn’t the answer; safer streets are.



When Americans Get Their Tax Refunds, They Go to the Dentist

Megan, who currently lives in Pittsburgh, was hospitalized in September for pneumonia. It was just a one-day stay, and she had health insurance, but even so, the bills piled up, eventually totaling $6,500.

The only thing that made paying them realistic, she said, was that she received a $4,200 tax refund this year.

“I would have put off my medical payments [without the refund],” she told me via email. “Between rent and day to day expenses, I don’t have the income to pay both. … Even with insurance the numbers seemed insurmountable until I got my refund. If it wasn’t for that I would have had to reapply for payment plans with the risk of being sent to collections.”

Tax returns were officially due this week, which means that the roughly 80 percent of filers who receive refunds will soon have their money, if they don’t have it already. The average tax refund so far this year is $2,995, which is roughly in line with last year. For the average family that receives a refund, the amount is equal to nearly six weeks’ income. And a big proportion of the money Americans receive during refund season, like Megan’s, goes to pay for health care.

According to a report from the JP Morgan Chase and Co. Institute, families who receive a tax refund increase their out of pocket health care spending by 60 percent the following week. Spending on health care remains higher than normal for 75 days post-refund.

“The cash infusion represented by a tax refund payment allowed more people to make more purchases of healthcare goods and services, but, even more consequentially, it facilitated larger payments,” the report said. “This implies that the cash infusion generated by a tax refund payment triggered additional spending on large healthcare ticket items that consumers could have least afforded out of their pre-refund cash flow.”

“100 percent of ours is going to pay for prenatal care and the birth of our second child, due in June,” said Molly, who received a refund of around $2,000 for her family’s state and local taxes. “Our first child’s 2017 birth was uncomplicated and routine, and while I don’t remember what we paid out of pocket versus what insurance covered, the birth, the epidural anesthesiologist, the recovery, and a one-day stay in pediatrics (due to jaundice, probably the most common newborn treatment there is) was a little over $20,000. So we’re counting on the 2019 refunds going to paying off this birth as well, as we will easily hit our deductible.”

62 percent of the additional health care spending triggered by refunds went to in-person payments to health care service providers. That indicates that the higher spending isn’t limited to paying bills for past services, but that tax refunds actually led families to seek care that they had put off until they received a cash infusion. Dentists receive a disproportionate share of the additional spending: One in four adults with incomes below the poverty line skip needed dental work because of costs, and dental-related issues are responsible for about $1 billion per year in emergency room spending.

That so many Americans need a refund windfall in order to access medical care, sadly, makes sense. About one in four adults – 65 million people – reported skipping a medical treatment due to costs in the last 12 months, according to a recent West Health-Gallup survey. Last year, Americans borrowed a collective $88 billion for medical treatments, which doesn’t include the totals from the now ubiquitous medical crowdfunding campaigns that have proliferated on social media.

So tax season injects cash for those households to get the care they either would have had to delay or go into debt to obtain.

It’s worth noting that receiving a big refund means a taxpayer overpaid her taxes during the year, whether via automatic withholdings from paychecks or by paying quarterly estimated taxes (which is a requirement for the self-employed and independent contractors), thus giving the government an interest-free loan. A refund is just that overpaid amount being paid back.

However, the public doesn’t really view it that way: According to a recent New York Times poll, 77 percent of people would prefer to overpay and receive a refund come tax time, which makes sense. 40 percent of people don’t have $400 to cover an emergency cost, and the average savings amongst the poorest 20 percent of households is zero dollars, so an unexpected tax payment can deal a real blow.

One in four adults reported skipping a medical treatment due to costs.

But people also use their refund as a way to enforce savings: Paying their money to the government and then getting it back means they can’t spend it in the interim. Recent reports have shown that the Trump administration, in an attempt to inject money from its 2017 tax bill into the economy sooner, decreased withholdings so that people had less taken out of each paycheck for taxes throughout the year, meaning they were less likely to overpay their taxes and require a refund. But that ploy has backfired spectacularly. Many taxpayers were reportedly upset at getting smaller refunds than they expected come Tax Day, even if their overall bill was in many instances lower than the year before.

“We actually aren’t those types who try to have a big refund each year. We’d rather not allow the government to keep an interest-free loan all year. My husband has tweaked his withholdings so we do get more in the paycheck each week because we need it for all the copays, gas, etc,” said Lindsey Cox of Thomasville, North Carolina. Both she and her husband carry a gene for a rare disease called Van Maldergem Syndrome, which two of her three children have, while the third has severe nervous system issues. Their health care bills total hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. This year, their tax refund of $2,940 went to an array of household needs.

“Our tax return went to catch up on the house payment, electric bill, other small miscellaneous bills, and some car maintenance we had been putting off, like inspections, tire rotations, oil changes, etc.,” Cox said. “We’ve become experts at gaming our system and know for instance, we can be 60 days behind on electric before we face it being cut off. We’ve learned very well how to rob Peter to pay Paul and stay afloat in the process.”

That so many Americans need a quick injection of money in order to see a doctor or access other necessities is a problem that can be addressed by policy: Think universal health care, or the proposals to both expand the pool of those eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and allow low-income households to receive some of their refund early. As Bryce Covert explained, “as powerful as the EITC is, there are plenty of people who receive barely any money from it or miss out entirely.”

Tax Day should be a celebration of America’s commitment to civic responsibility and collective welfare, not a grim reminder that far too many people can’t access things that should be basic human rights. However, for too many, a tax refund isn’t just the difference between staying afloat and not, but between seeing a doctor and not, which can literally be the difference between life and death.

Editor’s note: When requested, last names have been withheld to allow people to talk freely about their finances.






Congressional Dems Are Backing A Tax Plan That Would Actually Help Poor People

Diane Sullivan has bounced between more and less extreme bouts of poverty all her adult life, even though she’s worked since she was 14 years old. She has six children, and while two are no longer in her home, there were times when she was trying to keep them all warm and fed while earning as little as $25,000 a year; at most, she’s earned $39,000 a year.

But she’s had a constant lifeline: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

When working parents who make less than $55,000 file their taxes, they can expect a credit back that averages a little more than $3,000 every year. Very poor working people without children can also claim a much smaller credit of $295. In 2016, nearly 26 million households received the money, and it lifted 5.8 million people out of poverty. It’s been linked to better health and educational outcomes for kids and their parents.

When Sullivan became a parent for the first time at the age of 18, she got the credit back when she filed her taxes. She’s now 45 and has received it nearly every year since.

“It has literally fed my family” when wages and food stamps didn’t stretch far enough, Sullivan recalled. “I’ve been able to catch up on rent. It’s kept the lights and the heat on.”

Sullivan lives in Medford, Massachusetts, a couple miles north of Boston, and utility costs can skyrocket in the harsh winters even though she carefully keeps dials turned as low as possible. While the electric company can’t cut her off during the worst of it, as soon as that moratorium lifts she’s often been plunged deep into debt — sometimes hundreds of dollars, even during a mild season.

The financial need among EITC recipients is often urgent: Recipients are more likely to file early in order to get the money as quickly as possible, often at the end of January or early February. And like Sullivan, most use the money to pay down bills and debt or to cover their basic needs; in 2015, 80 percent reported using the money to pay rent, mortgages, utility bills, or credit card debt.

“When I receive the EITC credit … I can pay the bill and get caught up, or at least be able to use that to negotiate with a down payment plan,” she said. “It creates such a relief to know that I can rest my head at night knowing that when I wake up tomorrow there’s not somebody creeping outside my door looking for my electric meter to cut it off.”

“Even at times when I haven’t been in crisis, I’ve been able to use my EITC to supplement my income over the next several months,” she added. It’s during those times that the credit has allowed her to send her children on field trips or participate in sports programs. “It can really enhance the quality of life.” One year, after going without a car for a decade, she spent $2,000 to buy one that allowed her to drive to the grocery store, rather than walking home holding groceries with freezing fingers.

But as powerful as the EITC is, there are plenty of people who receive barely any money from it or miss out entirely. In fact, a childless person living right at the poverty line who gets the credit will still owe federal taxes, pushing him deeper into poverty.

A childless person living right at the poverty line who gets the credit will still owe federal taxes.

The EITC is also tied directly to work; it doesn’t start phasing in until a family earns its first dollar. That means anyone who is destitute enough to be getting by without any official pay — either earning under the table or not at all — can’t qualify. The share of people who survive with no job and no government cash assistance has been since the mid-90s, reaching one in five single mothers by 2008.

Some politicians want to fix these problems and go even further. Last week, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Richard Durbin (D-IL), introduced legislation to expand the EITC for parents and significantly boost it for the childless — increasing the maximum amount a childless worker could get from $529 to over $2,000. It also allows recipients to access up to $500 ahead of tax time, which would hopefully provide families relief throughout the year, not just in one lump at tax time, so they don’t have to turn to payday lenders or go into debt when emergencies arise. The bill has garnered support from nearly every Democrat in the Senate.

In 2017, Brown and then-freshman Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) put forward a plan that would have expanded the EITC even more for a poor family with two children, increasing it from the current maximum of about $5,700 to more than $10,000, while childless workers would see their credit grow six-fold. The two lawmakers, along with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), resurfaced the idea in February and extended it to students and people caring for young children, aging parents, and other relatives — none of whom are currently eligible.

The EITC is “the most effective tool we have to put more money in the pockets of ordinary Americans,” Brown, Khanna, and Watson Coleman wrote in an op-ed in March. “We’ve seen a lot of ideas floated to make our economy fairer and fight income inequality. Expanding the EITC…needs to be at the center of those conversations.”

Diane Sullivan is luckier than some: Beyond the federal EITC credit she can expect every April, she can also count on a supplemental state version that adds another 30 percent of its worth because she lives in Massachusetts. But 19 states don’t have such a program. In addition to a federal expansion, the rest could start their own and ensure that their credits are refundable so that families can get the money whether or not they owe taxes.

“We should acknowledge that theses tax credits are a critical lifeline for families,” Sullivan said.



The Trump Administration Is Making It Harder for Workers to Hold Big Corporations Accountable

The government wants to make it much harder for workers to hold employers accountable for wage theft, hours violations, and unionbusting by complicating the answer to a simple question: Who do you work for?

Historically, if two entities oversee aspects of someone’s work experience — such as wages, hours, and policies — either separately or together, they could be considered “joint employers,” which means they are both liable for labor violations. While this standard isn’t used very often, it can be a powerful tool for holding large corporations accountable.

Think contractors who work alongside direct employees, doing the same work at a site where the parent company controls hours and policies, the staffing company handles payroll and employee screening, and both have hiring and firing rights. If workers filed a complaint, a judge might determine that the worksite and staffing company are joint employers, depending on the specific facts of the case.

Now, after a failed attempt at narrowing the definition of a joint employer in Congress in 2017, the Trump administration is turning to the regulatory process to make it harder for workers to file claims that rely on this standard.

When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1937, it explicitly acknowledged that some workers, in disputes over wages, hours, and child labor practices, might be in a joint employer position. The question has been a subject of back and forth litigation and rulemaking because of the high stakes. The landmark Browning-Ferris case in 2015, which briefly established more protections for people making joint employer claims, allowed workers to leverage bigger wins and push for a larger culture of change. (Currently, a combination of litigation and rulemaking have the ruling’s status in flux.)

The Department of Labor recently announced a proposed rule to narrow the standards of who counts as a “joint employer” under the FLSA. It is extremely restrictive, requiring companies to meet a highly specific four-point test and disallowing consideration of other factors. For example, if a contract includes hiring and firing rights for the parent company but they aren’t exercised, the court couldn’t consider that, and the parties would fail the joint employer test; the parent company would not be liable for damages.

Much news coverage on the administration’s attempt has focused on what it means for fast food workers, who often work in franchises with a parent company and local owner. But the implications are even bigger, affecting millions of workers across the economy in the garment, agricultural, construction, hospitality, and building services industries, among others. It’s an especially important distinction for people caught in the dramatic increase in “contingent labor” in recent years.

It also affects third-party logistics (3PL) employees who handle outsourced elements of the supply chain such as packaging, delivery, warehouse maintenance, and more. Think forklift operators at factory warehouses and delivery drivers. 3PL is one of the biggest areas of growth, according to Tia Koonse, Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center. 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies are using third-party logistics agencies, outsourcing labor along with liabilities to increase profits. Nearly half of Google’s workforce, for example, is not directly employed by Google.

“I think that this [proposed rule] is aimed at workers who have spoken up, and the workers are not going to back down,” commented Jonnee Bentley, associate general counsel at SEIU. Fight for $15 worker-organizers have achieved significant victories across the U.S. in recent years; for example, there was a 2014 NLRB ruling in favor of McDonald’s workers who complained about retaliation for labor organizing.

As part of its proposed rule, the Department of Labor provided a handy breakdown of hypothetical examples for people wondering how different scenarios might be interpreted under the new rule, which reads more like a how-to on avoiding a joint employer determination. It’s also heavily stacked with examples from fast food franchises, although according to Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project, franchises haven’t been involved in joint employer disputes under the FLSA.

Curiously, though the rule touts cost savings for business, the only costs calculated in the current draft available for comment are $420 million in expenses associated with implementation. Under the Obama administration, franchise growth consistently outperformed the private sector, suggesting that increasing joint employer protections did not harm business growth.

I think that this is aimed at workers who have spoken up, and the workers are not going to back down.
– Jonnee Bentley

Undermining the way employers and courts interpret the FLSA isn’t the only way the Trump administration is using the rulemaking process to make it harder to bring joint employer claims. Last year, the NLRB announced a proposed rule, not yet finalized, to redefine the interpretation of the joint employer standard in the National Labor Relations Act, the legislation that surrounds worker organizing and labor disputes: If workers want to start a union, complain about unionbusting activity, or get support with the fight for a fair contract, they need the NLRB.

The NLRB wants to shift the joint employer definition to one that requires direct and immediate control of working conditions, moving away from broader Obama-era guidance that also accounted for “indirect control,” such as exerting guidance over business practices or providing software used to run a business.

The change would be good news for companies such as McDonald’s, as it would make it more likely that the corporation would not be considered a joint employer of franchise employees for the purpose of trying to unionize, and would have no obligation to come to the table to bargain. The franchise operator, meanwhile, would have limited options for meeting worker demands, because of price setting and other dictates set by the corporation. It should be noted that even in a case where franchise employees did manage to prove joint employer status and win a union contract, it wouldn’t automatically apply to other franchises — but the win could help workers organizing at other locations.

That these two proposals are similar is not a coincidence, Bentley said. “They’re trying to make it easier for big corporations to avoid liability by using contractors or franchisers.” The Obama-era guidance has enabled workers to hold franchises accountable for violations in the past.

“It’s part of the systematic dismantling of gains made in the previous administration,” said Koonse. “I feel the [Department of Labor] rule does not hold joint employers accountable in the way Congress intended,” she added, noting that the definition as proposed is so narrow that it may not withstand legal scrutiny.

The push through multiple venues to make it harder for workers to hold joint employers accountable is part of a larger pattern of attacks on labor rights, such as undermining overtime rules, cutting numbers of OSHA inspectors, and cutting billions of dollars in funding from the Black Lung Disability Trust, which supports coal miners living with black lung disease. One of Trump’s earliest cabinet appointments was to name fast-food giant Andrew Puzder secretary of labor — Puzder ended up withdrawing after outcry, but the initial nomination signaled a much more business-friendly approach to worker rights and protections. Working to unwind rulemaking from prior administrations and develop more restrictive interpretations of the law fulfills the president’s deregulation mandate, at a high cost to workers.