Gig worker strike hits Valentine’s Day reunions; Dept of Veterans affairs defends HR pay

In this week's HR news round-up, striking hail-ride workers spoil Valentine's meet-ups; HR pay gets special treatment at The Department of Veterans Affairs, while tech layoffs continue:

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Feb 15, 2024

Gig worker strike spoils Valentine’s Day for some

Lovers hoping to see each other this Valentine’s Day would have been forced to make more circuitous journeys after thousands of ride-hailing workers in the US went on strike, demanding better pay and working conditions. Uber and Lyft drivers staged day-long strikes in Chicago; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Miami; Orlando and Tampa, Florida; Hartford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Austin, Texas; and Providence, Rhode Island. Drivers also held midday demonstrations at airports in those cities. The strikes were being organised by Justice for App Workers, which is pushing for unionization rights amongst other improvements, so that workers can bargain over their compensation, safety measures and benefits. Rachel Gumpert, spokesperson for Justice for App Workers, described ride-hailing as a “mobile sweatshop,” with many workers routinely putting in 60 to 80 hours per week to make ends meet. Justice for App Workers, which says it represents 130,000 ride-hailing and delivery workers, is also seeking higher wages, access to health care and an appeals process so companies can’t deactivate drivers without warning. Uber has retorted, however, saying its US drivers make an average of $33 per hour. The company also said it allows drivers to dispute deactivations.

Department of Veterans Affairs defends large HR pay hikes

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VHA), has defended its 15% ‘Special Salary Rate’ (SSR) increase applied to HR specialists and HR assistant roles, as essential to attract and retain those with business-critical and in-demand skills. David Perry, VHA’s chief officer for workforce management and consulting, said the SSR gives the agency the ability it needs to compete for in-demand experts: “HR has been a mission-critical occupation for the federal government for going on two decades now, and so we’ve been critically understaffed in this occupation for quite a long time,” he said. “Our intention for the SSR is not only as a recruitment tool, but more importantly, as a retention tool, so that once we get HR on board, we can keep them in this profession,” he added. The Office of Personnel Management typically sets government wide Special Salary Rates, which helps agencies narrow the gap between what they and the private sector can offer for in-demand experts. But under the PACT Act — a sweeping 2022 law that expands VA health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service — the VA has the authority to set Special Salary Rates for non-medical Title 5 positions.

New Jersey proposes further parental leave rights for SME workers

Provisions that enable staff in firms with 30 staff or more to take up to 12 weeks of time off to bond with a newborn baby, adopt or foster a child could soon be extended to SME workers. New Jersey’s Assembly has just passed a new measure that expands the law to include smaller companies and establishments. If the measure becomes law, it now will guarantee employment reinstatement for workers taking family leave in companies with 20 or more employees. One year later, the employment reinstatement guarantee would extend to companies with 10 or more workers, and 12 months after that the threshold would be reduced to 5 employees. But business groups are not impressed. “Putting a mandate on them to hold that job open when the person is out on leave makes it just unmanageable,” said Elissa Frank, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. But in response to this, Eric Richard, legislative director for the New Jersey AFL-CIO, said modifying the Family Leave Act to cover employees in smaller companies was about fairness. He said: “Every employee pays for this benefit; there’s a payroll deduction that comes out of every worker’s paycheck that funds the paid family leave program.”

Internal documents reveal Tesla pay awards

Electric carmaker, Tesla, has increased the pay of factory workers from a minimum of $22 to $39 per hour, according to new internal documents published this week by The pay awards data comes after Tesla last month announced it would implement a pay increase in all of its factories in the United States, which took effect on January 8, 2024. According to a statement on its Form 10-K report, Tesla said: “We have created an environment that fosters growth opportunities, and as of this report, nearly two-thirds (65%) of our managers were promoted from an internal, non-manager position, and 43% of our management employees have been with Tesla for more than five years.” It added: “Tesla’s growth of 35% over the past two years has offered internal career development to our employees [and] the ability to make a meaningful contribution to a sustainable future.” Tesla has seven different pay levels, and workers can move between levels every six months based on performance and Tesla’s overall results. Staff can also qualify for a ‘Cyber Wallet’ bonus every six months at the end of performance periods. Performance periods run from January to June and July to December. Tesla’s pay rise comes as the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) is setting its sights on all-electric car manufacturers. Last year, the UAW successfully struck negotiations with the big Detroit 3: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.

Gen Z make their benefits wants clear

More Generation Z employees expect a tailored, year-round, benefits experience compared to other employees, according the latest data to be published in MetLife’s 21st annual US Employee Benefit Trends Study. The research found employees across all age groups present unique challenges that they want their employers to address. But half (50%) of Gen Z workers said that most of the benefits communications they receive doesn’t feel relevant to them, and 63% wished their employers would offer more personalized recommendations. As is typically found, the research confirmed that more needs to be done to communicate the benefits staff actually get. MetLife’s research found 45% of employees ‘do not fully understand’ their benefits package and only 38% of employees are ‘completely confident’ that they know about all the benefits offered to them. It also found 54% of all employees wish they had personalized benefit recommendations, while 65% want their employer to communicate with them about their benefits throughout the year, not just during enrollment. In terms of the communications staff prefer, Gen Z employees cited short-form explanations (akin to social media content), as their top choice, while to older generations said they prefer email and written benefit communications.

Corporations accused of ‘chilling’ monitoring of employee messages

According to CNBC, major US corporations, including Starbucks, Walmart and AstraZeneca, are all using AI to monitor the messages employees send to each other, in what it calls a “chilling” use of surveillance. The companies are accused of doing it through the Aware platform, which allows companies to do real-time monitoring of employee sentiment; spot cases of harassment, noncompliance, and other inappropriate and illegal actions. But Aware CEO, Jeff Schumann has defended his clients, saying customers like Walmart and Starbucks only use its software for governance and compliance purposes, to reduce the risk associated with communication between employees. He said: “If you were a bank using Aware, and the sentiment of the workforce spiked in the last 20 minutes, it’s because they’re talking about something positively, collectively. The technology would be able to tell them whatever it was.” But critics don’t like such systems. Said Amba Kak, executive director, the AI Now Institute at New York University: “It results in a chilling effect on what people are saying in the workplace.” Added Jutta Williams, co-founder, Humane Intelligence, an AI accountability nonprofit organization: “This treating people like inventory in a way I’ve not seen.”

Cisco axes 4,000 jobs in latest tech sector cull

Internet company, Cisco is slashing 4,000 staff – about 5% of its global workforce – as it becomes the latest technology giant to battle with the sweep of AI and it taking over capabilities and services. The layoffs were announced as Cisco delivered its latest quarterly results, where it revealed a reorganization costing around $800 million is needed. Eyebrows will be raised however, as the cutbacks are happening at a time when Cisco, which is based in San Jose, California, still earned $2.6 billion, or 65 cents per share, during its fiscal second quarter covering October-January. This was only a 5% decrease compared to the same time last year. But the cuts are believed to be happening because Cisco is predicting tougher times ahead, with customers exercising what it calls a “greater degree of caution” amid a more uncertain economic outlook. Experts expect AI will eventually be able to do even more work, triggering more layoffs. This current jobs purge follows cutback by Cisco in 2022, where it shed 5,000 workers and ahead of its $28 billion acquisition of Splunk.