U.S. Conference of Mayors committed to food waste resolutions – National Consumers League

ali.jpgIt’s been nearly a year since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a national goal to cut U.S food waste in half by 2030.  Since then, we have seen leaders from across the food supply chain, as well as non-profit, industry and government sectors, make impressive progress towards achieving this goal. NCL has been working hard to identify strategies for consumers who want to be part of this national movement. So, NCL is pleased that the United States Conference of Mayors recently committed to a set of resolutions that will strengthen food waste reduction plans within municipalities. 

Congress has been slow to act on food safety, including enacting federal legislation aiming to reduce our nation’s food waste problem. Regulations on food waste disposal, food recovery and redistribution, and even food date labeling can vary by state or city.

While disjointed state and city policies aren’t the most efficient way to tackle a national issue, some states and cities have developed their own food waste programs in order to push the needle. Take landfill bans for example. Currently, five states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and two cities (New York City and Seattle) have a ban or mandate on the amount of food scraps permitted in landfill. To help retailers and consumers prevent food loss and landfill waste, many states and cities are also providing tax incentives for food donations or have established more robust farm-to-food bank programs.

These leaders are inspiring other municipalities to follow suit. The resolutions presented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors signal the growing concern of food waste. NCL applauds the U.S. Conference of Mayors for making food waste a priority and for presenting solutions that help consumers be part of the solution.

Below are highlighted resolutions from the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ food waste resolutions:

  1. Food Recovery Hierarchy – The U.S. Conference of Mayors has developed a food recovery hierarchy based on the first three tiers of the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy, which are: reduce instance of waste, recover edible food for redistribution, and repurpose food scraps for animal feed.
  2. Financial Incentives Federal and state governments are encouraged to increase access to grants, loans, guarantees, tax incentives, or other financial resources to improve food waste recycling infrastructure.
  3. Collaboration – The private sector and consumer facing businesses are encouraged to strengthen partnerships with government agencies to press for food waste legislation and consumer education campaigns.
  4. Responsibility of Cities – Cities are asked to assess their region’s contribution to food waste and its impact on their communities. Cities are also encouraged to develop innovative programs to reduce waste and provide societal, environmental, and financial benefits. 

NCL joins other consumer groups in strong support of CFPB rule to limit use of forced arbitration clauses against consumers – National Consumers League

August 26, 2016

Contact: NCL Communications, Cindy Hoang, cindyh@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, founded in 1899, joins comments by other consumer groups in support of a rule proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to limit the use of forced arbitration clauses by banks, credit card companies, lenders, and other financial services. Nearly 13,000 comments were filed with the CFPB on this important rule. NCL is a signatory to a letter signed by 281 consumer and labor groups praising the CFPB’s rule.

Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director, stated: “This rule will finally help to even the playing field and work to curb the worst abuses in the financial services marketplace. While we would like to see additional reforms to help restore consumer rights, promote transparency, and improve the market, we see this as a significant step forward in efforts to curb industry practices and make consumer financial markets fairer and safer.”

The Dodd-Frank Act required the CFPB to study the use of arbitration provisions, and the bureau produced a lengthy report in March 2015 to lay out the basis for its curbs. Based on the report, the CFPB unveiled its proposed rule to prohibit companies from putting forced arbitration clauses in new contracts that block consumer participation in class action lawsuits in May.

While the proposed rule does not bar all uses of forced arbitration, as NCL had hoped, the rule will make a meaningful difference in consumer transactions moving forward. NCL has long advocated against companies’ use of arbitration clauses, which are often found hidden deep in the fine print of consumer contracts and user agreements.

Forced arbitration clauses eliminate the rights of consumers to go to court over future disputes that they may have with the company. Instead of having the right to bring cases to a court of law before an impartial judge paid by taxpayers and have a case heard on a public record, consumers have to go before an arbitrator–who is often chosen from a list created by the company. The company can keep choosing that arbitrator for repeat business, so there’s an incentive for the arbitrator to favor the company. This arbitrator is not required to follow established law or procedure. The arbitrator’s decisions cannot be appealed, and are often kept secret.

“These clauses are found in nearly every conceivable consumer contract, including those for credit cards, bank accounts, mobile homes, nursing homes, wireless cell phone carriers, physicians’ offices, and many others,” said Greenberg.

The Federal Arbitration Act, a statute enacted in 1925, was designed so that businesses could elect to settle their own disputes out of court if they wished to do so. “It was never intended to be used to deprive consumers of their rights. Unfortunately, a conservative Supreme Court, often decided by a close 5-4 vote, has approved business’ use of these clauses in consumer contracts,” said Greenberg. “The law has been converted into a weapon against consumers to force them to ‘agree’ to give up their rights.”


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

From patient To consumer: Reimagining health care from a consumer perspective – National Consumers League

family-on-bikes.jpgThe following Huffington Post op-ed was published August 18, co-authored by NCL’s Sally Greenberg and Marilyn Tavenner, the President and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Navigating our health care system is no easy task. For decades, consumers have been forced to contend with a fragmented health system that makes decision making an all-consuming challenge. Whether it’s choosing a provider, knowing where to get information about cost or quality of doctors, or understanding a dictionary of complex health care terms, many consumers often feel left to fend for themselves in a system that is working against them.

For many individuals, it’s hard to know where to start. A recent state analysis by Rice University in Texas found that 42 percent of consumers who bought their own insurance felt like they lacked a clear understanding of their health insurance plans. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed who had employer-sponsored coverage still struggled with understanding their benefits.

We need to find a way to change this. While we all recognize the seismic shift underway as the age of consumerism in health care finally takes hold, we have to ask ourselves if we are truly practicing what we preach. We all have a responsibility to provide consumers with the transparent, actionable information they need to make smart choices about their care.

The good news is that online and mobile apps are making it increasingly easy for consumers to access information on their own time and with relative simplicity. Health plans have rolled out provider cost and quality calculators, and websites like FAIR Health make it possible for patients to see what a typical doctor’s visit or MRI will cost before they even walk into a provider’s office.

But even with this push towards more available data, we know that individuals and families still struggle when it comes to understanding and using their insurance benefits. Commonly searched online terms around insurance include, “what are deductibles?”, “finding a doctor,” and “how much will I pay in premiums?” Consumers are clearly telegraphing the need for simple, easy-to-understand information about their coverage.

Recently, our two organizations came together to compare notes on how we could collaborate to improve consumers’ health care experience. As a first step, we agreed that while there is a wealth of information in the market available for consumers, it is often poorly organized, out-of-date, or like the health care system itself, requires consumers to search multiple places for the information they need. Our first joint project will bring critical information together and present it in ways that are useful for consumers. We will rely on AHIP’s considerable knowledge of health insurance and NCL’s more than 100 years of consumer education to make information accessible, understandable, and actionable.

Our work builds upon what we have learned over the past several years on the frontlines of this health care transformation. A recent report from McKinsey found that although consumers are beginning to research their health plan choices, many of them are not yet aware of key factors they should consider before selecting coverage, such as the type of health plan and provider network, level of coverage, premiums, cost-sharing, covered services, drug formularies and tiers, and health status and anticipated utilization. Even once they have their insurance plan, many consumers may not be aware of all the benefits that are included, including free preventive services, disease management programs, fitness plans – and equally important, the tools they have available to get the best value for their health care dollars.

As consumers prepare for the upcoming open enrollment periods for Medicare and the Exchanges, AHIP and NCL will share new consumer resources and information answering some of the important questions about insurance coverage and health care ranging from how to choose a health plan to how to choose a doctor, as well as consumers’ rights if they feel they’ve been inappropriately denied a product or service that should be covered by their plan.

We know that health care isn’t always simple, but if we are to be successful in moving towards a patient-centered health system, we have to start by making health care information more accessible and usable for consumers. While this partnership is a first step, our hope is that our combined efforts will encourage and support the important work underway to improve consumers’ experience with the health system and the wellbeing of the country as a whole.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

NCL to submit comments to FDA on Prescription Drug User Fee Act VI – National Consumers League

August 15, 2016

Contact: Cindy Hoang, National Consumers League, cindyh@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832 

Washington, DC–Today the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization, the National Consumers League (NCL), will submit comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the reauthorization of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act for fiscal years 2018 through 2022 (PDUFA VI). Founded in 1899, the National Consumers League has long been concerned with ensuring the safety of foods and drugs. Among NCL’s top priorities are ensuring the safety, effectiveness, and appropriate use of both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and medication adherence, which NCL has helped to advance through its Script Your Future Campaign.

“As PDUFA VI goes through the reauthorization process, NCL urges the FDA to remain mindful of the concerns expressed by some that because industry pays user fees, industry thereby controls the FDA’s agenda and process. It is critical for the agency to act independently of industry influence and to uphold its high standards for safety, efficacy, and quality of prescription drug products,” said Karin Bolte, NCL director of health policy, who will deliver a statement and submit comments on behalf of NCL today. 

“NCL wants to be sure that in the quest to reduce barriers to new drug approvals, FDA does not lose sight of the importance of the agency’s mission of protecting and promoting the health of consumers and patients. The FDA must balance the needs of consumers who are concerned about serious side effects with the concerns of patients who may be facing a life-threatening illness where time is of the essence. However, even patients in great need may be harmed rather than helped by drugs that have been approved too quickly without adequate consideration of safety and effectiveness or toxic side effects.”

NCL’s full comments are available here.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.


Proposed CFPB rules will protect consumers from predatory payday loans – National Consumers League

payday_loan_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is taking action against payday loans through a series of new regulations that will limit certain lending and fee practices. The proposal aims to protect borrowers from falling into endless cycles of debt by making predatory lenders liable for their excessively high interest rates.Payday loans are short term loans that are usually paid off on one’s next payday. Such loans are targeted towards borrowers with low credit scores and unreliable incomes who may live from paycheck to paycheck.

According to the CFPB, the average annual rate for a payday loan is approximately 390 percent. In contrast, most credit cards have APRs between 12 and 30 percent. Payday loans with APRs in the triple digits can be crippling for borrowers who are using them to cover basic living expenses such as rent or utilities. NCL supports CFPB’s proposal for more stringent regulation in the payday loan market.

CFPB’s proposal includes the following regulations:

1. A “full payment test” would require lenders, before handing out a loan, to determine whether the borrower can afford to pay the loan back while still being able to cover basic living expenses.

2.  The number of times a borrower can roll over a loan would be limited to two. According to the CFPB, more than 80 percent of payday loans are rolled over within two weeks and more than 50 percent are rolled over as many as 10 times. The cap on roll over loans is an effort to end what CFPB calls “debt traps.” In addition, lenders would have to adhere to a 60-day wait period to refinance a loan.

3. Penalty fees would be regulated to reduce overdraft fees that come from unsuccessful withdrawals from an account. Borrowers usually provide lenders with their checking account information so that payment can be automatically collected within two weeks. However, insufficient funds in an account can lead to hefty fees from both the borrower’s bank and the lender. Under the new proposal, lenders must provide written notice three days prior to withdrawing from an account.

According to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, “Too many short-term and longer-term loans are made based on a lender’s ability to collect and not on a borrower’s ability to repay. The proposals we are considering would require lenders to take steps to make sure consumers can pay back their loans.”

The proposed regulations could save consumers from taking on burdensome debt. Some argue, however, that they are not strict enough. Nick Bourke, director of small dollar loans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggests that the amount that can be lent should be limited. The proposal set forth by CFPB is currently open to public comment.

NCL statement on Delta Airline’s mass cancellations – National Consumers League

August 11, 2016

Contact: Cindy Hoang, National Consumers League, cindyh@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832 

Washington, DC—In light of this week’s system-wide failure at Delta Airlines and subsequent cancellations of thousands of flights, the National Consumers League (NCL) today calls on Congress to investigate the lack of consumer protections when airlines suffer from widespread outages. The following statement is attributable to Sally Greenberg, executive director of NCL:

“It is outrageous that while airlines are enjoying record profits, they remain unable to provide the most basic level of customer service. Delta’s system failure that resulted in flight cancellations was compounded by ineffective interlining agreements between carriers, which left consumers stranded and without alternative transportation options. This failure is yet another example of how the lack of competition is harming consumers. It is up to leaders in Congress to hold the airlines accountable and to demand stronger consumer protections from industry and the Department of Transportation to not only ensure that this never happens again, but to also ensure that consumers receive the refunds they deserve for their canceled flights.”


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Wall Street CEO pay is outrageous, needs stricter regulations – National Consumers League

money_hands_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

According to Fortune, the combined CEO salaries of America’s six biggest banks totaled a whopping $123 million in 2015. With an average pay of $20.5 million per executive, that is estimated to be 455 times the salary of the average American worker. While millions of Americans are still struggling to overcome the financial crisis, Wall Street CEOs have continued to stockpile greater wealth over time. The average pay for Wall Street CEOs rose nearly 10 percent last year in contrast to the meager 1.6 percent increase in wages for the average American worker.As a counterweight to this phenomenon, Wall Street regulators released a proposal to limit how top executives are paid at major financial institutions. The new restrictions would postpone bonuses for the highest paid executives from three years to four years. If the regulations go into effect, banks would have to rescind bonuses to those bankers who have caused vast financial losses as a result of their risky behavior.

In 2010, President Obama signed the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” in response to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when government funds were used to bail out major American banks. The new regulations are an extension of the Act, and with the upcoming presidential election, the public is alarmed once again at the lack of stringent Wall Street regulations.

As an organization committed to consumer protection, NCL supports these stronger regulations. The public should not be forced to bail out Wall Street for irresponsible and risky behavior.  According to Rick Metsger, vice chairman at the National Credit Union Administration, “Congress, and the American people, want senior executives at large financial institutions held accountable if their desire for personal enrichment leads to decision-making that results in material losses.”

The way in which executive pay packages were designed before the financial crisis unfortunately incentivized bankers to take unnecessary risks. Bankers were easily drawn to short term gains despite the overarching losses in the long term. By lengthening the time that banking industry executives can get bonuses, the new regulations will ensure that top executives would be responsible for the longer term outcomes. Bankers would also be susceptible to revocation of their bonuses for seven years should they be found guilty of improprieties that lead to major losses.

Enforcing Wall Street pay regulations is necessary to prevent another financial crisis and it is one step further towards fighting the economic inequality that faces our nation today.

Happy 5th Anniversary to the CFPB – National Consumers League

Since its inception five years ago, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has worked tirelessly to protect consumers from deceptive and abusive financial practices through its implementation of rules, programs, and new protective financial tools. For the past three years, under the direction of Richard Cordray, former Attorney General of Ohio, the CFPB has handled over 900,000 consumer complaints with 97 percent of those complaints receiving timely replies.  Over 25 million consumers will receive over $11.4 billion in relief from CFPB enforcements.  

The CFPB is originally the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who first proposed the agency in 2007 during her time as a Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Law author and professor, in order to protect consumers from, in her words, the “tricks and traps” of financial products and practices. When Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in July 2010, it created the CFPB. President Obama then appointed Warren as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Richard Cordray was later appointed director and confirmed in July 2013.

The National Consumers League (NCL) applauds the CFPB on its very successful five years of protecting consumers in financial markets and will continue to support the CFPB in its efforts to crack down on the abuse and deception of consumers. NCL would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the great work that the CFPB has accomplished thus far, specifically:

  • The CFPB created the Consumer Complaint Database that allows the CFPB to send complaints about financial products and services to companies for response on the consumer’s behalf. The complaints received by the CFPB are published on the agency website after the company responds, or after 15 days. The CFPB thus allows consumers to be heard–by other consumers, banks, debt collectors, and others under the agency’s jurisdiction. This process gives consumers a voice which helps to improve the marketplace. 
  • The CFPB has proposed restrictions on the use of forced arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts.  It aims to prohibit financial companies from using these clauses to block class-action lawsuits; forced arbitration clauses take away the right of consumers to seek relief and hold companies accountable when they have engaged in corporate wrongdoing. The CFPB proposal will help even the playing field for consumers in their interactions with financial institutions. 
  • The CFPB proposed a rule to end payday debt traps that would require lenders to determine whether consumers have the ability to repay payday, auto title, and certain other high-cost loans. The CFPB is concerned that consumers are being set up to fail with loan payments that they are unable to repay. This proposed rule would protect consumers from falling into the trap of paying off payday loans by taking out another loan they cannot afford, thus creating piling debt upon debt and creating a vicious cycle of impossible-to-pay-back predatory loans.
  • The CFPB is considering a proposal to overhaul the debt collection market where new protections would limit collector contact and help ensure the correct debt is collected.  Debt collection companies would be required to have more and better information about the debt before they collect. Companies would be required to limit communications, clearly disclose debt details, and make it easier to dispute the debt they purport to collect.  Debt collection generates more complaints to the CFPB than any other financial product or service. The proposal would increase consumer protections.
  • The “Know Before You Owe” program is a mortgage initiative designed by the CFPB to help consumers understand their loan options, shop for the mortgage that’s best for them, and avoid costly surprises at closing. The Know Before You Owe disclosure rule replaces four disclosure forms with two new, less complicated ones. The CFPB also provides consumers with tips and checklists to help avoid foreclosure and understand mortgage statements. Additionally, the CFPB recently proposed a rule that expands foreclosure protection by providing surviving family members and other homeowners with the same protections as original borrowers.

NCL thinks this is a very impressive track record of accomplishments over a mere five years. Hats off to the excellent staff at the CFPB, which includes many devoted civil servants looking to make the marketplace fairer and more equitable for consumers. And most of all, thank you to Richard Cordray for enduring the slings and arrows of some members of the corporate community, who have had little positive things to say about the work of the CFPB. Consumers owe the professionals at this federal agency a debt of gratitude for carrying out their mission–protecting consumers from unfair and abusive financial practices–with determination, purpose and effectiveness. Happy 5th Anniversary to the CFPB. 

Borrower Defense to Repayment rule to protect students from fraudulent schools – National Consumers League

grads_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

Countless colleges offer enticing promises such as remarkably high job-placement rates, yet, too often new graduates fail to see these promises being fulfilled. Higher education institutions are now being held accountable for what may amount to fraudulent behavior by the “Borrower Defense to Repayment” law.After the collapse of the for-profit chain of Corinthian Colleges, more and more students are turning their attention to this regulation. Under the law, students who were found to have been defrauded by their schools are eligible for a discharge of their federal direct loans. Over 25,000 claims have been filed with the Department of Education since then, and most of them are from former Corinthian College students.

The current regulation is based on the renewal of the Higher Education Act by Congress, originally created in the early 1990s, which allowed student-loan borrowers to make a claim for “acts or omissions of an institution.” The process of reviewing the growing number of claims has made it obvious that the current rule is too ambiguous. In an effort to update and strengthen the rule, the Department of Education has proposed new regulations to better protect students and taxpayers from fraudulent behavior by colleges found to be making fraudulent claims.

The draft proposal includes a process that would consolidate debt relief for groups of students who were defrauded. Institutions with poor loan outcomes would be required to warn prospective and current students by using clear, direct language. To prevent financially risky schools from escaping responsibility, the new proposal would deny schools the use of pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waivers.

A total of 58 advocacy organizations, including NCL, signed a letter to Education Secretary John King, expressing their support for stronger regulations. The following action items were suggested in the letter:

1)    Full loan relief for defrauded borrowers,
2)    Automatic loan relief when there is sufficient evidence of school wrongdoing,
3)    The federal standard for relief as a floor and not a ceiling; the latter process eliminates current borrower eligibility for relief.

In addition, the letter recommends tightening loopholes regarding the use of class action waivers to bar students in court, improving warnings to students regarding concerns about their school, and eliminating new time limits on borrower relief. The letter also recommends that decision-makers involved in borrower relief determinations remain independent.

NCL joined with colleagues in supporting this series of steps because we believe that stronger regulations are imperative to protect students from fraudulent activities and from claims rampant in the for-profit college world. We also want the process to be simpler and more transparent for eligible students seeking relief from fraudulent claims so that they can receive the loan discharges that they deserve.

McDonald’s employees fight for fair wages – National Consumers League

gavel_icon.jpgBy Hannah Rudder, NCL Intern

We were preparing a blog on the issue of McDonald’s workers forming a class to sue McDonald’s when we came across the fact that the fast food chain reported an increase in net income from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016 and attributed this increase to the minimum wage raise. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook cites lower employee turnover and higher customer satisfaction as a result of the higher wages. While raising the minimum wage has not helped every company increase profits, and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce argue it will lead to higher unemployment and a decrease in profits, McDonald’s shows that it has not hurt the company’s bottom line. Based on the experience of McDonald’s, it appears that paying a living wage is good for the company, the economy, and the worker-and other large chains should follow suit.In relation to McDonald’s wage news, three weeks ago, a District Court in California certified a class of past and present McDonald’s employees to bring certain wage-related claims against the fast food giant. This is the first time a judge has ruled that McDonald’s employees can band together and bring claims against the corporation, rather than just the individual franchisee. We loudly applaud the ruling. Historically, McDonald’s workers have never been granted the right to unionize, and this recent court decision gives workers the ability to petition one controlling body as a group.

Similarly, this decision parts with McDonald’s long-held stance that it is not responsible for franchise workers because it is not a joint employer; McDonald’s argues the franchisee is the sole employer. McDonald’s asserts that it is not fair to hold the franchiser accountable for franchisee’s employment practices. The court did not hold that McDonald’s was a joint employer, but instead agreed with the employees’ ostensible agency theory that posits that the employees are agents of McDonald’s.

The class of current and former employees initially brought 13 causes of action against McDonald’s and its franchisee. These claims included a large negligence claim, failure to pay overtime, failure to pay minimum wage, failure to give appropriate meal or rest breaks, and failure to reimburse employees for time required to maintain uniforms. The court ruled, however, that this class can only bring the claims of unpaid overtime, maintenance of uniforms, and miscalculated wages against McDonald’s; the other claims, including the negligence claim, were dismissed.

The group of employees settled with the franchisee for $700,000. This settlement means that if the class of employees proves McDonald’s violated the California labor laws, then McDonald’s will be liable for all of the damages under those claims.

The implications of this District Court decision certifying former and current employees as a class has far reaching implications, not only for McDonald’s, but for the whole fast food industry. This decision opens the door for fast food employees to introduce labor lawsuits against chains like McDonald’s, rather than just against a single franchisee. As the New York Times reported: “The district judge in California has now given lawyers for the McDonald’s employees the chance to prove in court what should be evident: that McDonald’s is responsible for ensuring that pay is fair and adequate and, as such, must be accountable when workers in its restaurants are stiffed.” If McDonald’s is found responsible for the wage violations, the fast food company will have to change its ways, and be far more aggressive in ensuring that its franchisees are paying workers fairly and adequately, and that the company is abiding by the laws related to all employee wages, hours, and benefits.