Sec. Hilda Solis: Labor Day 2012: Honoring the Great American Worker

On the first Monday of September, we honor the workers who built the world’s strongest economy. This Labor Day, as the U.S. Department of Labor approaches our centennial celebration, I take extra pride in the historic efforts of today’s workers to drive our recovery by learning new skills and adapting to new challenges.

For more than two centuries, the prospect of work has drawn people to our shores to pursue new opportunities and dreams of a better life. The demands on our workers have changed over the generations, but we’ve always risen to the occasion.

During the Industrial Age, factory workers saw their knowledge and paychecks grow as they mastered new processes to mass produce everything from automobiles to armaments. Following the Great Depression, more than 6 million women joined the workforce, clocking in at shipyards, lumber mills and foundries, and their production helped us win the Great War. And the Internet age carried the talents of our workers across the globe, as our ideas and products reached new markets and brought the world closer together.

As I mark my fourth Labor Day as the nation’s secretary of labor, I’m inspired by job seekers from all walks of life in this country going back to school and upgrading their skills to match the demands of a 21st century global economy. I’m impressed by communities coming together and new partnerships being formed among employers, labor unions and community colleges. And I’m reminded that for this federal agency and this administration, Labor Day has been, and will always be, every single day.

This Labor Day, we lift up American workers who are doing what it takes to reinvent themselves to ensure that our future is even brighter than our past.

Hilda L. Solis is the 25th U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Lateef McLeod: Let’s Not Make Home Care Workers Wait Any Longer for Their Rights

Last December President Obama announced a new rule that would guarantee home care workers the right to minimum wage and overtime pay through the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which has excluded them ever since it was passed in 1938. As the president said that day in a White House press release, “The nearly 2 million in-home workers across the country should not have to wait a moment longer for a fair wage. They work hard and play by the rules and they should see that work and responsibility rewarded.”

Public opinion is in his favor. In the public comment period that followed the release of the rule, more than 26,000 comments poured into the U.S. Department of Labor. About 80 percent of them — more than 20,000 — were in favor of the new rule.

Some people with disabilities and their advocates have expressed concern about the overtime requirement in the rule. They say paying time and a half will cost too much, so people who currently rely on just one or two workers for 60, 70, or more hours apiece every week will have to cut back their workers’ hours and hire an additional worker or two, which they may not want to do.

I have cerebral palsy and have employed home attendants for most of my life. I understand the anxiety some people feel at the thought of finding new workers. It takes time for the workers I employ to learn how I like things done, and even longer for us to establish the kind of trust that makes everything go more smoothly. But I’m convinced that granting workers FLSA’s basic labor protections is best for us all in the long run. If I had to rely on just one or two workers who had to work at least 60 hours a week to get by, what would happen to me when to me if one of them got sick, or had a family emergency, or developed a back injury?

Home care workers nationwide average less than $10 an hour. More than a third cannot afford health insurance, and about half are forced to supplement their earnings with food stamps or some other form of public assistance. These conditions contribute to high turnover rates, making it difficult for many people in search of home care to find and keep the workers we need to remain in our own homes and communities, living as independently as possible. That’s another reason why it’s in the best interests of people like me — not just the workers themselves — for home care workers to be paid fairly. Those of us who rely on home attendants need to know we can count on getting consistent, high-quality support and care, and that means making this a job people can commit to for the long term without putting their own health or their family budget in jeopardy.

We’re close to making real progress on this front, but we’re not there yet. The rule announced by the president last December has not yet been finalized. Whatever the cause of that delay, it is playing into the hands of the for-profit national home care franchises that have been pouring their abundant resources into trying to keep the rule from being enacted.

We the people have weighed in, and we overwhelmingly support respect for home care workers. Please join us in supporting President Obama’s commitment to home care workers and asking him to enact the rule soon.

Lateef McLeod is a member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association.

As Isaac fades, sparring over disaster funding

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – The remnants of Hurricane Isaac brought heavy rainfall and the threat of flash flooding to the Mississippi Valley on Friday as Gulf Coast residents cleaned up and energy facilities prepared to grind back into operation.

Romney appeals to voters disillusioned with Obama

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) – Republican Mitt Romney urged voters on Thursday to help him rebuild the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs, asking them to overcome their disappointment in President Barack Obama and join him in restoring the promise of America.

Five LA police officers investigated over death in custody

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Los Angeles police are probing the actions of five officers involved in the rough arrest of a woman who died shortly after being taken into custody, in the latest of a string of high-profile incidents that have raised questions about appropriate use of force.

Drugmaker Apologizes For Medicine That Caused Severe Birth Defects

BERLIN — The German manufacturer of a notorious drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs, or no limbs at all, issued its first ever apology Friday – 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.

Gruenenthal Group’s chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took the drug during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered congenital birth defects as a result.

“We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Harald Stock said. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

Stock spoke in the west German city of Stolberg, where the company is based, during the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide. The statue is called “the sick child” – a name German victims group object to since all the victims are now adults. In German, the name also implies cure.

The drug is a powerful sedative and was sold under the brand name Contergan in Germany. It was given to pregnant women mostly to combat morning sickness, but led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was yanked from the market in 1961 and was also found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies.

Thalidomide was never approved for use in pregnant women in the United States.

Freddie Astbury, of Liverpool, England, was born without arms or legs after his mother took thalidomide. The 52-year-old said the apology was years long overdue.

“It’s a disgrace that it’s taken them 50 years to apologize,” said Astbury, of the Thalidomide U.K. agency, an advocacy group for survivors. “I’m gobsmacked (astounded),” he said. “For years, (Gruenenthal) have insisted they never did anything wrong and refused to talk to us.”

Astbury said the drug maker should apologize not just to the people affected, but to their families. He also said the company should offer compensation. “It’s time to put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “For me to drive costs about 50,000 pounds ($79,000) for a car with all the adaptations,” he said. “A lot of us depend on specialist care and that runs into the millions.”

Astbury said he and other U.K. survivors have received some money over the years from a trust set up by thalidomide’s British distributor but that Gruenenthal has never agreed to settle.

“We invite them to sit around the table with us to see how far their apology will go,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve ever realized the impact they’ve had on peoples’ lives.”

Gruenenthal settled a lawsuit in Germany in 1972 – 11 years after stopping sales of the drug – and voiced its regret to the victims. But for decades, the company refused to admit liability, saying it had conducted all necessary clinical trial required at the time.

Stock reiterated that position Friday, insisting that “the suffering that occurred with Contergan 50 years ago happened in a world that is completely different from today” and the pharmaceutical industry had learned a valuable lesson from the incident.

“When it developed Contergan Gruenenthal acted on the basis of the available scientific knowledge at the time and met all the industry standards for the testing of new drugs that were known in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

A German victims group rejected the company’s apology as too little, too late.

“The apology as such doesn’t help us deal with our everyday life,” said Ilonka Stebritz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Contergan Victims. “What we need are other things.”

Stebritz said that the 1970 settlement in Germany led to the creation of a (EURO)150 million fund for some 3,000 German victims, but that with a normal life expectancy of 85 years the money wasn’t enough. In many other countries, victims are still waiting for compensation from Gruenenthal or its local distributors.

In July, an Australian woman born without arms and legs after her mother took thalidomide reached a multimillion dollar settlement with the drug’s British distributor. Gruenenthal refused to settle. The lawsuit was part of a class action and more than 100 other survivors expect to have their claims heard in the next year.

Thalidomide is still sold today, but as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer and leprosy. It is also being studied to see if it might be useful for other conditions including AIDS, arthritis and other cancers.

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Maria Cheng reported from London.

Workplace Discrimination Is On The Rise For Caregivers

As more Americans take on the responsibility of caring for elderly loved ones, there has been an increase in workplace discrimination targeting caregivers, according to a new report by AARP.

“Workplace discrimination against family caregivers is growing more commonplace and more problematic as baby boomers age and combine work in the paid labor force and unpaid work as caregivers for their parents,” said Susan Reinhard, AARP senior vice president and director of the AARP Public Policy Institute, in a press release.

The workplace discrimination caregivers can face varies but can include the following, according to AARP: an employee is fired when he or she asks to take leave to care for a chronically ill parent; an employee who asks for leave is told they are not a valuable asset at work and gets fired upon returning from leave; or the employee is denied leave.

These cases have been on the rise for decades. Between 1989 and 2008, although overall complaints of job discrimination was on a decline, instances of “lawsuits for family responsibilities discrimination increased from 444 cases to 2,207,” the report found. When looking at 204 eldercare cases, researchers discovered that only 23 cases were filed before 2000 while the remaining 181 cases were filed between 2000 and 2009.

These instances of discrimination occur despite federal protections such as the Family and Medical Leave Act [LINK?] and guidelines for how employees should treat caregivers; the Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that caregivers faced punitive treatment such as decreased hours and termination.

AARP’s report said that workplace discrimination for caregivers must be addressed as more boomers find themselves taking on the role of caregiver for their aging parents — almost 10 million people over the age of 50 are caring for their parents, according to a MetLife study. In the past five years, 42 percent of U.S. workers have provided unpaid eldercare and 49 percent expect to be caregivers in the next five years, according to AARP.

Oil and gas firms work to restore output after Isaac

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Energy firms worked on Friday to resume oil, gas and refining operations in the U.S. Gulf region following Hurricane Isaac, with most offshore production still shut and several refineries offline.