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Henry Cuellar

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) speak at a news conference in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 2011. (Photo: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Propelled to Victory by Dem Leaders, Cuellar Says $7.25 Too Much for Millions of Workers

"If corporate interests were actually serious about workplace flexibility, you'd see them supporting the rights of their employees to have a say in what goes on in the workplace."

Julia Conley

Labor experts and advocates on Wednesday expressed disbelief and outrage as the details of an "unconscionable" new bill purporting to expand "flexibility and choice" in workplaces came to light, condemning Democratic co-sponsor Rep. Henry Cuellar for proposing the gutting of minimum wage protections.

"This bill would allow employers to trample on the rights of an untold numbers of workers."

The Worker Flexibility and Choice Act (WFCA) was originally announced by Cuellar (Texas) and his Republican co-sponsors, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Michelle Steel (R-Calif.), on July 20, but it wasn't until Wednesday that law professor Veena Dubal shared the text of the bill on social media, describing the proposal as "terrifying."

Aiming to create a new classification for people working in the gig economy for companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, the bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 by establishing "worker flexibility agreements" in which a worker "will not be treated as an employee for federal tax purposes" and "is not subject to the minimum wage and overtime protections."

The proposal would not only affect gig workers, said Dubal, who is a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law, but would "carve workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections" whenever an employer sets work schedules "using algorithms and incentives instead of providing secure hours."

In other words, said former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, "it seems to empower any employer—not just gig companies—to tell any worker: if you want to work for me, you must agree we won't follow minimum wage or overtime rules."

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), noted that the bill is being backed by "the corporate lobby group the Coalition for Workforce Innovation (CWI), which was established to fight against growing workers' movements."

The proposal is an attempt to capitalize on the notion that "flexible" working hours benefit workers, Dixon said, but "because the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is already compatible with worker flexibility, it would be a fatal mistake for Congress to create a carveout for companies that demand 'worker flexibility agreements' of their workforce."

Instead of actually providing flexibility, said Dubal, "as Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart have already done to their workforce, it would empower employers to force workers to work long and hard to eke out a living."

Progressive critics of Cuellar were hardly surprised by his sponsorship of the bill, with Usamah Andrabi of the Justice Democrats noting that the anti-choice, anti-climate, pro-NRA lawmaker voted against the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act twice.

The bill intensified outrage over the support Cuellar garnered from Democratic leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) earlier this year when he faced progressive immigrant rights advocate Jessica Cisneros in the Democratic primary for a second time, winning by just 289 votes.

Cuellar's bill could particularly harm Texans, Cisneros noted, considering the state's minimum wage is among the lowest in the nation.

"Texas still has a $7.25 minimum wage and Cuellar thinks working people in our district don't even deserve that," said Cisneros. "How are Democrats supposed to energize South Texans for the midterms with this?"

The proposal amounts to a "boldfaced lie," said the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU).

"If corporate interests were actually serious about workplace flexibility, you'd see them supporting the rights of their employees to have a say in what goes on in the workplace; paying people wages that keep up with the rising costs of living; and encouraging working parents to take time off to care for sick children," said John Samuelson, international president of the union.

"Instead, this dangerous piece of legislation seeks to deny all of these rights to working Americans AND forbid states and cities from taking any action to hold criminal corporations accountable," he added. "This bill would allow employers to trample on the rights of an untold numbers of workers."

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