Taking Advantage: Why Doesn’t Metro Pay All Its Interns?

oregon-zoo-entrance

Portland area progressives have been the strongest advocates for fair wages. But the area’s regional government, Metro, isn’t walking the talk.

One result? Low-income Oregonians having to choose between a career enhancing internship with Metro and an afternoon job at a Dairy Queen may have little choice if they want to make any money.

That’s because some Metro internships pay zero. Not one thin dime. Not one red cent.

The Oregon Zoo, for example, is offering unpaid internships in:

It’s a good thing Metro is offering internship opportunities, but it is treading on thin ice by not paying interns.

Federal law is clear that most interns should be paid at least the minimum wage plus overtime after 40 hours a week. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), covered and non-exempt individuals who are “suffered or permitted” to work must be compensated for the services they perform for an employer.

In mid-2016, federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III of New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures broke the law when it didn’t pay production interns working on the movie “Black Swan” because they were essentially regular employees. “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees,” the judge said.

Pauley said unpaid internships should be permitted only in very limited circumstances. He added that whether an intern is receiving college credit for the work matters little in determining whether an intern should be paid.

Pauley’s ruling wasn’t a departure from precedent. There’ve been other cases, too, in which courts have ruled that interns must be paid.

You’d think employers would have learned by now and stopped trying to get free labor from interns, but many persist.

“In some industries, especially media, the unpaid internship is the risk many companies are willing to take,” Ed Reeves, a labor and employment attorney at Stoel Rives LLP, told me. “Less so in other businesses. We counsel against that risk, but not every company asks.”

Some employers that bring on interns without paying them may think it’s enough that they get experience, do some networking and get to hang around the fascinating people who do the “real work.”

But aside from the legal issues, that means students from well-off families can afford to take a career-building unpaid internship, but not the kid from an average family struggling to deal with potentially crippling college loan debt. That perpetuates inequality.

Paid internships tend to pay off more for students too. According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers, graduates who have done paid internships outpace their unpaid peers in job offers and salaries.

Metro says its employees are guided by the shared values of public service, excellence, teamwork, sustainability, innovation and respect.

A little more respect for interns by paying all of them a fair wage would be a good way to prove that.

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The Oregon Convention Center Hotel: paying off the unions

Ask any informed person without a vested interest in the proposed Oregon Convention Center Hotel whether they think it will be a fiasco and you’re likely to get a loud and clear, “Yep!”

But public opinion has little to do with whether the hotel will get built. The fix is in, with Metro, liberal politicians and labor unions joined at the hip.

Metro Council President Tom Hughes, the hotel’s principal cheerleader, was first elected to Metro in 2010 with the strong support of labor organizations; they continued that support in his successful 2014 race.

“I want to build a hotel,” Hughes once told union workers. “I want it to be built by union workers, and I want union workers running it.”

unite here

Portland has just three union-operated hotels, all organized by Unite Here Local 8: the Benson; the Paramount; and the Portland Hilton Hotel and Executive Tower.

The unions got their first break on the Convention Center project when Metro mandated that the hotel be built by union building trades.

Prospective developers were also told to bid the privately-owned and operated project under union-supported prevailing wage guidelines where wages are set artificially high above the market.

Metro stacked the deck in favor of the unions again when the Council required that Hyatt sign a labor peace agreement with Unite Here before Metro would begin negotiating the details of the project. Hyatt, long a non-union hotel chain, subsequently agreed to a national labor peace agreement with Unite Here.

Metro also gave unions an edge in organizing the eventual hotel workers by requiring that they use a voting process despised by employers and many workers called card check. Under card check, instead of holding a federally-supervised secret ballot election, workers get to vote under the watchful eyes of union organizers, Lucky them.

Once a majority of employees have signed cards, the union is immediately recognized.

As the AFL-CIO’s Southeastern Oregon Central Labor Council put it, the hotel workers “…will come into a workplace where their management has promised to leave any decisions to the workers without wasting money on deceiving anti-union campaigns.”

Yep, folks, the fix is in.

Hypocrisy, thy name is Democrats

You can almost smell the Democrat’s hypocrisy.

hypocrisy-meter

On Feb. 20, the Oregon House passed a bill, H.B. 2177, that would automatically register to vote anybody with a driver’s license. Every single one of the 35 yes votes came from Democrats.

On March 5, the Oregon Senate passed the bill. Every single one of the 17 yes votes came from Democrats.

On March 16, an ebullient Gov. Kate Brown, another Democrat, signed the bill with a flourish.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be signing this into law as the new governor,” Gov. Kate Brown said at the signing ceremony. “Virtually every Oregonian will be able to have their voice be heard.”

Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, echoed that sentiment. “Today our pioneering spirit brings us to a crucial reform that will empower our citizens,” she said. “While other states take steps to limit voter participation and to disenfranchise voters, the Oregon Legislature is bucking that trend. We are leading the nation.”

Yes, indeed, the Democrats patted themselves on the back for their grand support of voter’s rights.

But I guess they’re support of voting rights has its limits.

On March 25, the Senate voted 20 to 10 to approve S.B. 927, a bill that makes it clear Metro can move ahead with construction of an Oregon Convention Center hotel with $78 million of subsidies without having to be bothered by pesky voters. Every yes vote came from a Democrat. Now it’s up to the House.

How ironic that so many of the very people Oregonians have voted for are so quick to approve legislation that would deny others the right to vote.

Smell the aroma of hypocrisy? It stinks.

A public vote on a convention center hotel: is Metro trying to pull a fast one?

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

I wrote recently about the absurdity of building a government-subsidized hotel to support the Oregon Convention Center.

Now it looks like Metro is trying to work an end-run through the Oregon Legislature to prevent voters from having a say on the project.

State law (ORS 268.310 says a district, such as Metro, can’t construct new facilities “unless the electors of the district first approve the financing of the facilities…” Senate Bill 64 would amend the law to allow the construction of new facilities to go forward if ,“The facility is acquired or constructed pursuant to an intergovernmental agreement under ORS 190.003 to 190.130.”

On Feb. 24, 2015, Metro President Tom Hughes told the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue that the bill is no big deal. It relates “strictly to clarifying existing statutory intent regarding Metro’s authority under its home-rule charter,” he said. The bill “merely cleans up awkward word placement in the current statute that has been the basis for serial lawsuits by opponents of the Oregon Convention Center hotel whose goal is to prevent the project from moving forward,” he added.

But John DiLorenzo , a partner at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, took a decidedly different position on the bill. DiLorenzo represents one of a group of hotel owners and managers who have opposed taxpayer subsidies for the proposed Hyatt hotel. He told the committee the bill “is an effort to subvert the judicial process” and “would deprive voters of any opportunity to vote on financing for any new construction projects built by Metro.”

Dilorenzo expressed the view that the courts would ultimately agree that residents had a right to vote on the hotel project . “Please do not deprive the voters of their last chance to avoid what could be another government subsidized albatross,” he said.

Ignoring DiLorenzo’s concerns, the Senate Committee On Finance and Revenue reported out the bill by a 3-2 vote, with Democrats Mark Hass, Chris Edwards and Chuck Riley voting in favor and Republicans Herman Baertschiger Jr. and Brian Boquist voting against. On March 4, 2015, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 20-10, with all the no votes coming from Republicans.

Now it’s up to the House.

If the bill is just minor housekeeping, what’s the hurry? Given the controversy over the Convention Center hotel, and the ongoing lawsuits to require a public vote, the House should stay out of the mess. If, as Hughes insists, S.B. 64 doesn’t really change the law, but just clarifies it, killing the bill should make no difference to Metro. If the bill would deprive voters of the chance to vote on the hotel, as DiLorenzo alleges, it’s an insult to the public and undeserving of passage.

We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy: the Oregon Convention Center hotel

The 990,000 sq. ft. Crystal Palace opened at Britain’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London’s Hyde Park in 1851.

The 990,000 sq. ft. Crystal Palace opened at Britain’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London’s Hyde Park in 1851.

For some reason, politicians are infatuated with building stuff. They’re objectophiles, aroused by, even obsessed with, things rather than people

In Portland, politicians have fallen head over heels in love with the idea of building a Convention Center hotel. The object of their desire is a subsidized $212 million 600-room Hyatt Hotel.

But the fact is, it was a bad idea right out of the gate and it’s an even worse idea now.

On the one hand, given Portland’s vigorous emergence from the Great Recession and a skyline brimming with construction cranes, the assumption that government-mandated subsidies are critical to building a convention center hotel is outdated if Metro believes the hotel’s success is a slam dunk. On the other hand, if the growing competition in the convention market will make adding a subsidized hotel a foolish gamble, then why do it at all?

“Faced with convention centers that are routinely failing to deliver on the promises of their proponents and the forecasts of their feasibility study consultants, many cities wind up, as they say, “throwing good money after bad,” said a Brookings report. “Indeed, weak performance—an underutilized center, falling attendance, an absence of promised private investment nearby—is often the justification for further public investment. A new center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel…”

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

So here we are.

The Portland project would be funded with $60 million in Metro-issued revenue bonds, backed by taxes the hotel would generate, plus $18 million in grants and loans from Metro, the Portland Development Commission and the state lottery.

But there are problems with Portland’s hotel proposal, as well as with the arms race of convention center-related construction going on around the country. According to CityLab, there simply aren’t enough big conventions to justify all the convention center expansions. Since 1995, convention space in the United States has increased by 50 percent, but convention growth hasn’t kept pace. “So many were saying, ‘all you have to do is get one percent of the national market and you’ll do just fine,'” he says. “Three hundred cities bought the same logic.”

In fact, the number of conventions in the United States has fallen over the past decade, as has attendance at the largest conventions.

The optimistic predictions for the Oregon Convention Center and an associated hotel neglect to consider that lots of other cities are expanding, too.

Boston is considering a $1 billion expansion of its convention center with a massive 1,200 room $800 million hotel. A Marriott Marquis Hotel is expected to open in 2016 across from the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Hotel operators Omni, Hyatt, Starwood, Peabody and Marcus have shown interest in a request issued by Oklahoma City to develop a 500- to 800-room downtown convention hotel to go with a $287 million convention center scheduled to open in 2019.

Even Des Moines, Iowa is in the game. In Feb. 2015, city and county officials approved a $101 million 10-story 330-room convention hotel project attached to the Iowa Events Center. Officials said they expected the project would draw many more national events to Des Moines and add considerable revenue to the property tax base.

And the list goes on and on.

But not to worry. Portland has advantages because it’s a happening city – food, culture, livability, young professionals – enthused the Oregon Convention Center’s ebullient 2013-2014 Annual Report. That year, the Center hosted 343 events attended by 549,762 people, many of them first time visitors to Portland, the report proclaimed.

But dig deeper into the dry numbers at the end of the report and you’ll find a less glowing story.

The number of events at the Oregon Convention Center actually shrank from 469 in FY2011 to 392 in FY2012, 377 in FY2013 and 343 in FY2014. Meanwhile, net operating results showed losses growing from $10 million in FY2011 to $11.6 million in FY2014.

Despite these numbers, and continuing controversy over the planned subsidized hotel, Metro president Tom Hughes calls critics “short-sighted and selfish” for wanting a public vote on the hotel project.

The hotel plan “promises generous returns for many years to come,” Hughes has said.

So we slog along.

Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a

Tall man’ll be over his head, we’re

Waist deep in the Big Muddy!

 

The Oregon Convention Center Hotel: Let the people decide

It’s a classic government argument to justify dumping dollars into a construction project. “It will mean JOBS.” How can you be against jobs?

In the case of the proposed government subsidies for a convention center hotel in Portland, Metro President Tom Hughes has gone even further, arguing at a 2013 Labor Day picnic sponsored by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council that hotel critics are engaging in “class warfare” to “keep families from putting food on their table.”
Good grief! What’s next, accusing critics of  “taking food out of the mouths of babies.”

Actually, what was next was a devious ruling from the Multnomah County elections department that critics can’t go to the county’s voters to seek to overturn the Multnomah County Commission’s approval of taxes to go towards the hotel’s construction.

“The initiative and referendum process is reserved to the people of the county relative to the legislative acts of the Board of County Commissioners,” said Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott. “The subject of the Petition filed… relates to the exercise of the Board of County Commissioner’s Executive and Administrative powers.”

“I want to build a hotel,” Hughes said at the union Labor Day picnic. “I want it to be built by union workers, and I want union workers running it.”

And he wants it so bad that he doesn’t want citizens voting on it, calling the decision of critics to seek a public vote “short-sighted and selfish”. A public official is opposing the public having a say.

That reminded me of a statement made by Iroquois Indians to the English in the mid-1700s when they felt the English were not listening to their deep concerns: “You ask us…to have faith in you…But how can we have faith in you and believe in you when by the very actions you have taken you have plugged up our ears and thrown sand in our eyes and sewn our lips together?”

Hughes even fell back again on the jobs mantra, this time upping the ante by throwing in a taunt that the critics didn’t care about minorities. Failure to go ahead with the hotel deal would harm “members of the minority and historically underserved communities of North and Northeast Portland,” he wailed.

The validity of Scott’s decision is now being considered by the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Hopefully, it will do the right thing and let voters have a say.

 

Redefining “reporting” – the erosion of journalistic integrity by Metro

Metro is misusing the term "reporter"

Metro is misusing the term “reporter”

Traditional journalists have long been defined by their independence and integrity, beholden to no one but the public, producing the news without fear or favor.

But lately, with trust of American media already at an all-time low, media are being complicit in their own decline, undermining their authenticity and trustworthiness by allowing publicists to pose as reporters and blurring the line between editorial content and paid advertising.

One of the more egregious abuses of the journalism standard is at Metro, the Portland area’s regional elected government, where a former Hillsboro Argus news writer pretends to be a “reporter” providing “objective, written news coverage” of Metro. Metro created the position in 2010, insisting that the new hire would provide “objective, written news coverage” of the agency. The “reporter” would get style, spelling and other editorial support, but could decide what topics to pursue and would not have his or her work edited for content.

The eventual hire, Nick Christensen, came from the Hillsboro Argus, where he had covered Metro and western Washington County. Pror to that he served as managing editor of the Summerlin Home News near Las Vegas and as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.
Now reporting to Metro’s Communications Director, Jim Middaugh, Christensen is referred to as “Metro News editor” and as a “news reporter” for Metro on the agency’s website.

Access by a true reporter to the inner corridors of power can translate into aggressive, groundbreaking, fiery media stories, but it’s not likely that Metro’s in-house “reporter” will produce such stories. It’s clear from a review of his prosaic, process-oriented writing to date reveals that he’s not going to be a Woodward or Bernstein exposing seamy government practices or, for that matter, an investigative reporter in the tradition of the journalists at Willamette Week who exposed Neil Goldschmidt’s rape of a 14-year-old babysitter.

Instead, Christensen’s stories are carefully crafted press releases masquerading as independent news reporting. Metro even asks, “In the interest of disclosure to readers”, that media attribute content from Christensen‘s (stories) to him and identify him as a news reporter for Metro.
Making things worse, local media, including the Portland Business Journal, Willamette Week and the Portland Tribune have bought into Metro’s ruse, frequently citing Christensen’s comments as those of a reporter. This even though Middaugh has admitted that Christensen’s work is “definitely public relations”. Middaugh has justified Christensen’s identification as a “reporter” on the basis that government has a responsibility to keep people informed in the face of public cynicism, apparently unaware that misleading the public feeds that cynicism.

Christensen’s stories are, let’s be honest, the equivalent of advertising disguised as news. In that respect, he fits right in with the deliberate blurring of the divide between advertising and editorial content that’s going on across the media landscape, eroding public trust in journalism.

In case you haven’t noticed, digital and print media are increasingly featuring sponsored content, or “native advertising” created or developed by a business or special interest seeking to influence viewers.

In a prominent case, The Atlantic magazine found itself in the middle of a reputation debacle in January 2013 when it featured a native advertisement package submitted by the Church of Scientology which, though identified as “sponsor content,” looked otherwise like a regular story.

The Internet exploded with negative comments, some criticizing The Atlantic for promoting the controversial Church of Scientology, but more for allowing paid advertising to be subtly disguised as editorial content.

To put it simply, the news business is slowly being corrupted by practices like native advertising and media’s willingness to go along with things like Metro’s attempt to pass Christensen off as a reporter. If it isn’t controlled, readers’ trust will be lost.

So, let’s all get on the same page here and call a P.R. guy a P.R. guy. For Metro, that would be good P.R.