Friday, January 18, 2013

on Unions

Recently Michigan became the latest state to become a "right to work" state.  This means that a worker doesn't have to belong to a union or pay union dues regardless of the job they are doing.

About six decades ago, the Republican platform backed unions because they represented the "Made in America" ideal.  As of late Republican sentiment has shifted dramatically away from unions, who in turn have been major supporters of Democrats.

I have heard, from friends on both sides of the political aisle, the mantra "unions drive up the cost of doing business because union wages are so high".  The next question has to be: how low should the wages be?  Companies that do business in China or the Philippines or third world countries are getting labor at ridiculously low prices.  Should they be able to pay Americans 10 cents/hour too?

Without unions, can we trust the corporations to look after their employees with competitive wages and benefits?  Many people believe that "fair market trade" effectively works, believing a company has to offer good wages and provide benefits in order to entice workers to come work for them and this competition will drive the industry.  Unfortunately we know this is untrue.  Jobs are not so plentiful, nor have they ever been, that all Americans can choose to go to another company if theirs doesn't pay enough or provide the best benefits.  In most areas the competition isn't much better, and if no company in an area provides anything better, then the status-quo rules out and no one gets any benefits.

I'm not going to tout the past accomplishments of unions such as the five day work-week or the abolition of child labor.  Most of the unions of today rarely resemble these same organizations of yesteryear.  We've all heard the jokes about union workers standing around while only one actually does any real work or how a union employee can practically commit murder and still not get fired.  Certainly problems can occur when fairness and equity take a back seat to tenure and unreasonable contracts.

I liked the way Ohio phrased its "anti-union" bill a couple years ago.  It used the term "merit based raises" to replace tenure when it came to teachers and civil employees.  Of course all you have to do is watch an episode of Mad Men to see examples where a circumspect supervisor raises up his buddies while pushing down others, all in the auspices of "merit".  Friends will merit promotions, men over women, whites over ethnicity.   This is precisely what tenure was supposed to be a remedy for.  Sure, there is a Federal law that prohibits some forms of discrimination, but the list is actually quite short and it's difficult to prove.

Some states have enacted merit-based wages on standardized testing.  That's a completely different can of worms I don't even want to waste time going over.

Now in Michigan (once the law takes affect and clears its legal challenges), a police officer can join the police force without joining the union or paying union dues.  Does that officer get paid the same union wages?  Same pay for equal work? Even though it was the union that negotiated the contract which set the pay scale?  Why should the officer get the same benefits if he or she isn't going to pay into the union?

Full disclosure: I have never belonged to a union.  I worked for United Grocers that had a distribution center where union workers were employed, but I've always been a designer and we have never unionized.  I've worked for companies that appreciated my talents and paid me competitively, but I've also worked for companies that mistreated me because they could.  Luckily my skills have allowed me to seek employment elsewhere when a company has gotten all uppity, but then the recent recession hit and it all went to hell.

At one point I was paid $25.00 per logo I designed with endless unpaid revisions.  This worked out to be about 60 cents/hour. It didn't matter how long I worked on the logo or how many changes the client made, I still just got the $25.00.  Strike that, as a matter of fact I only got paid for three of the logos, the fourth is still owed.

Friday, November 9, 2012

On Gay Rights

The recent election has brought up some old bitternesses.

A good friend of mine has posted Facebook messages to his family telling them that if they voted for Romney, then they were disrespecting him because he's gay.  Of course his family members reacted with immediate repudiation and anger.  They feel they have been disrespected, bullied and accused of being bigots.  Let's examine why he posted in the first place:

The Republican party and ergo Romney/Ryan have established they dislike how gay people act.  They feel that gays should stay in the closet, not enroll in the military, and so on. They specifically want to roll back the hospital visitation rights, funeral choices, domestic partnership health benefits.  They want to go back to the days of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Many want to re-criminalize homosexuality altogether.  These are direct attacks against the gay population.  Gay people are therefore rightfully feeling disrespected when someone states that they support this ideology or platform.

Now, during this election many people stated they support only "some" of the platform, or "more" of the platform than what the Democrats provided.  They pointed at the Republican economic policies or foreign affairs, and so on, as concepts better aligned with their own ideology, and they certainly have every right to believe this way.

However, these people simply need to be honest with themselves.  They can like the platform for its economics, and even detest the domestic issues, but by supporting one they are supporting the other.  By supporting the economics, they have placed a higher value on their finances than the rights of their family members or friends.  It's simple math.  It doesn't mean they were trying to overtly hurt their friends and family, they simply have different priorities.  This is America and everyone has a right to their own beliefs and vote.  They have the right to free speech.  However, can they really be offended by their Uncle calling them out?  Do they have that right?  Sure, they can be offended, but only if they are not honest.  An honest person would own up to their actions and beliefs.  Yes, they may love their Uncle, but his way of life just doesn't trump their financial stability.

Does this make them bigots?  Only if they support the negative platform because they really think gays should be restricted and discriminated against.  They're not bigots if they only support the financial side of a party's platform.  But they're not off the hook either.  The support in any way is still a choice they have made that their Uncle's rights are not as important to them as something else.

The fact they got so angry makes one wonder though.  Could it be, as Hamlet said, "I think the Lady doth protest too much"?

We are all responsible for our actions.  Their Uncle is responsible for calling them out on their decisions.  Do they take any responsibility, or do they just get angry?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Labor Laws

In many of the jobs I've had the question has arisen: "what's the difference between salary exempt and salary non-exempt?"

It's quite easy.  Salary non-exempt is for someone who earns a salary but if they work over 40 hours in a week they must be paid overtime.  The following rules apply:
1.  They must never be asked to stay at their desk or area of work during "off hours" such as lunch time.  By asking them to remain at a certain location the employer is thereby asking them to work or be ready to work, and must then pay them for that time.  This goes for those employers who think having lunchtime or after work meetings, seminars, classes, etc. but without pay, just pizza is actually a legitimate request.  The employer should ask this question: would the employee be at that location, class, meeting, etc. if they weren't actually at work?  If not, then why do you think you shouldn't be paying them to be there?  The same goes for things like making the employee be "on call", stay near a phone or answer emails during their off time.
2.  The employer absolutely cannot ask the employee to work more than 40 hours in a week, not pay them overtime, but give them "comp" time the following week.  Whatever time is worked in one week must be paid appropriately.  There is no such thing as comp time unless it occurs within the work week.
3.  The employer CAN ask the employee to keep track of their time via time sheets, etc.  They can also ask the employee to work between certain hours.  They do not have to pay for breaks.

Salary exempt is for someone who earns a salary but cannot earn any overtime.  Very strict rules apply for this status since it can so easily be abused:
1.  The employer cannot keep track of the employee's time worked except in the case where the employer must bill time to clients (such as lawyers or architects).  Keeping time sheets, making the employee punch a time clock, etc. treats the employee like a non-exempt employee and therefore nullifies the exempt status.
2.  The employer can set regular work hours, but the employee can be expected to work during "off hours".  Therefore the regular work hours cannot be strictly enforced since the employee is considered to be "always on the job".  This is especially true if the employee is on-call, takes work home with them, is expected to answer email, etc. all outside of the regular work hours.
3.  The employer cannot demand that an employee work exactly 45, 50, 55, etc. hour work weeks.  Again, the employee is pretty much always at work so the hours are meaningless.  Instead the employee should be expected to get their tasks completed within a certain time not fill up a set amount of hours with tasks.
4.  Not just anyone can be put into exempt status.  Only those employees that are in management, supervisory, or professional positions can be exempt from overtime.  During the George W. Bush administration this list was added to:  now those employees who are considered "skilled" can also be exempt from earning overtime.
5.  An employer cannot switch employees from exempt to non-exempt without changing the job description. Some scandalous employers try to switch employees to exempt during busy projects so they won't have to pay overtime, but then switch them back again after the project is completed.  This is highly illegal.
6.  An employer cannot have an employee working as exempt while another employee doing essentially the same job is non-exempt.  This is why job descriptions are important.

What does it mean to be an "employment at will" company or state?  It simply means the employer doesn't need to prove grounds for firing an employee under most circumstances.  They can simply say "it just didn't work out".  However, this doesn't mean they can discriminate against the employee or fire them unjustly.  Legal cases can still be brought against the employer regardless of the "at will" statement.

Now, if an employee (or a representative Union) has signed a contract which contradicts any of the above rules, the employee is out of luck.  Contracts supersede most employment laws.

For more information one can refer to the book "Ohio Employment Practices Law" by Bradd N. Siegel and John M. Stephen.

Please note, I am not a lawyer and this blog does not intend to give legal advice.  If you feel you have been wrongfully terminated, treated unjustly by an employee or employer, you must seek professional legal aid.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

On the warrant out for my arrest!

Yes, there was a warrant out for my arrest.  Allow me to 'splain:

In June of 2010 I was driving down W.44th when I came upon the "intersection" for a high school that was being newly constructed.  There was a stop sign and I came to a very near stop and then continued on.  On the West coast this is called a "California stop".  The operator of blue and red flashing lights called it a traffic violation.

My court date was set for July 7th.  Since I was working from home back then I had plenty of time to go down to the courthouse, so on the 28th of June I ran down there and paid my fine.  I could have waited all day in court on my stated trial date in hopes of reducing the fine, but I've never had good luck with that.  The one and only other time I got a ticket (for turning left just before 6pm at a stop that clearly read "no left turn between 7am and 6pm), I was forced by the judge to apologize, loudly and in a long repeated refrain, to the entire court.  I decided to avoid court in Cleveland.  Well, the fine was paid and forgotten.

Flash forward to just a couple weeks ago.  In the mail I received a letter from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles saying I was now blocked from getting my license renewed or any vehicle registered in the state due to the warrant that had been issued for my arrest.

You must know I was immediately panicked.  I consider myself a "goody-two-shoes".  I don't do drugs, I very rarely drink alcohol, and so on.  I believe in abiding by the law, with the exception of only a few tickets (I've gotten five in my life and one was from one of those cameras).

I got on the inter-webs and tracked down the case number listed on the paperwork.  Sure enough my case popped up claiming I had not showed up for my court date, and never paid the fines.  With two years of fees stacked up on the original fine I was now looking at quite a large sum, not to mention the fees from the BMV for reinstatement.  I was on pins and needles.

Luckily I had only regularly used one solitary credit card back in 2010.  A quick call to the card company and I was being sent (via agonizing snail mail) a copy of June 2010's statement showing the paid fine.

A few days later I was driving to work in the morning when I was suddenly pulled over.  Apparently, according to the police officer, I was doing 35 in a 25 zone.  Since the zone was a "Hospital Zone" it wouldn't count as a speeding ticket.  In fact, it would now count as "reckless driving" and I would be thrown in jail and my car towed.  I decided not to inform the officer that there was a warrant out for my arrest.  I crossed my fingers he was not going to run my license and I put on my best "doe eyed" ignoramus act.  He handed me back my license and I was free to go with a verbal warning.  Close call.

So tonight I finally had my paperwork in hand.  I went down to the courthouse and displayed my credit card statement proudly.  The nice woman looked up my case number and discovered that the case had somehow been logged twice.  One showed the fine paid, the other showed a warrant for my arrest.

She assured me it would be taken care of, gave me a signed and sealed paper proving the file was incorrect and sent me on my way.

Thus ends a tale of one of America's most wanted men: Bud Perry, alias Bud "the Rascal" Perry.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

on the "Pee Shiver"

Most readers will understand the term "pee shiver", and yet a portion will not.  There is a nervous response to the urge to urinate which causes a kind of muscular tremor to occur.  Mine have always been very strong and violent.  Robert can always tell when we're in the car and I suddenly have to pee because my whole body shudders and I involuntarily make a short moan sound.  However, he rarely gets these shivers and thinks it's funny when I do.

He's not alone.  I was a party years ago when the topic came up and over half of the crowd was baffled; they had never experienced such a thing in their lives and really couldn't understand what it was.

It must be an evolutionary thing.  Did our ancestors get it, or is it a more recent development?  What purpose does it serve?  Without my pee shiver, would I not know that my bladder was getting full?  Many times I get the shiver after I have already urinated.  George Carlin must have had this occur since he made it part of his stand up routine.  He joked that the pee shiver must be an innate condition to help us "shake" off any left over drips.  Evidently he only got the shiver after he was finished.

I know this is a strange topic, but it really does make you think: how many little stupid things is built into our genes and what purpose does it or did it serve?  Did our prehistoric ancestors get a little shiver to alert them they needed to begin a search for adequate bathroom facilities?

Do other animals get this shiver?  I have seen my cat finish using her litter box and begin to exit.  Just at the last moment she will pause, her eyes narrow and her tail quickly spasms, sending her into a leap out of the box.  Maybe this is her pee shiver.

Okay, discuss.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

on Books

A dream from my childhood has always been to own a personal library like those great English manors depicted in mystery movies.  You know, the ones with a brass rail and ladder contraption, with a second level of book shelves.  Rows and columns of beautiful leather bound volumes.

When we first moved into our home, the little hexagonal room off the master bedroom became my small version of this fantasy.  We lined it with bookshelves and I filled them with my book collection, amassed over the course of my life.  Many of the shelves also featured interesting book ends and tiny knick-knacks.  Then we started our design business and all those books were replaced with catalogs and material sample binders.  The books were packed into boxes and stored in the attic or the spare bedroom closet, never to be seen again.

As the world quickly begins to embrace the electronic-book, or e-book, I lament the decline of the hard bound volume.  I'm realistic though; I recently reread Treasure Island because it came pre-loaded on my Android phone.  A recent Kindle commercial depicted a woman who likes her e-books and a man, stuck in the past, refusing to let go of his antiquated printed medium.  He complains that he likes his traditional books because he can dog-ear a page. The woman shows she has that same ability in virtual space.

I miss the smell and fell of the pages, but I must admit it can sometimes be very difficult to read a book in bed, the one place I have always read.  Perhaps I will begin reading e-novels instead.  Does nostalgia trump the ease of technology?

Amazon seems to think it does.  The online giant has quickly cut into the profits of brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders.  The new generation doesn't find hanging out in a book store all day as satisfying as the older generations.  However, as the big book stores continue to decline, Amazon has made a rather strange announcement.  They are going to begin building Amazon stores, real brick-and-mortar locations to sell their wares.  Of course Amazon has branched out to sell all sorts of merchandise, not just books, but they are still their mainstay items.

Is this move counter-intuitive?  Amazon claims 'more of the company's products would benefit from hands-on interaction with shoppers'.  Sounds like a bookstore to me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

on Pattern Recognition

I recently heard a story on NPR about the testing of words with baboons.  The scientists weren't testing the animals to see if they could understand the words, but to see if they could comprehend whether something was a real word or not.  They placed a touch screen in a room which if the baboon selected correctly the baboon would get a treat.  The baboons were allowed to go into the room freely, whenever they wanted.

To the scientists' surprise, after some practice, the baboons were able to discern the difference between English words and nonsense words.  For instance there could have been the word PERSON and the non-word POUEIRSEIKN.  The baboons were able to figure out the non-word used too many vowels and had awkward consonant placement.  Most of the baboons were able to figure out over 4,000 English words and one special baboon was able to correctly select over 11,000.

The results of this experiment indicate once the rules of English letter placement are learned, real words can be separated from unreal words.  This has nothing to do with actually understanding the meaning of the words, but everything to do with pattern recognition.  The baboons weren't learning English, they were simply learning how some symbols do not get placed next to other symbols in certain series.

This also means young children are probably doing the same thing.  Pattern recognition and solving is in a very different area of the brain from language learning.  Understanding this may lead to different approaches in teaching English in schools.

Recently 60 Minutes had a story on a very specialized form of Aphasia in which people cannot recognize faces at all.  A young boy cannot pick his own mother out of a line up of faces.  He must rely on other clues to guide him to her such as her voice, mannerisms, hair, dress, and of course other people pointing to her and declaring the face belongs to his mother.  Conversely the episode also highlighted some people who are called "super recognizers", who can recognize every face they've ever seen.  A woman from NYC could readily pick out faces from people she may have only seen once, ten years ago.  She could also easily pick out faces of famous people when they were just children because age doesn't seem to affect her ability.

These two stories seem to share a link.  It makes me wonder if the young boy who could not discern faces, may not be able to readily pick out certain patterns.  Humans have an innate ability to see faces where faces are not, such as the face on Mars, or in the Moon, or Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich.  Growing up we had a bathroom flooring material that was made up of "broken" shapes.  I could pretty much find a human face in every one of the little shapes if I looked long enough.  This is just pattern recognition.  Could the young boy pick out faces in our bathroom flooring too, or would he by stymied?

We tend to think of our brains as immensely complex.  We have historically tried to keep ourselves elevated far above our animal brethren with our special computational abilities.  However, experiments like the one above only go to show how many of our special functions are actually common.  We now have computer programs that can recognize faces.  Is it simply a combination of all these separate talents that truly makes human beings exceptional?