WORKING HARD, GAINING LITTLE

FULL POST: We recently celebrated the Labor Day holiday and workers in the US do have some things to celebrate, but in general the outlook is bleak. First, the bad news, and then in my next post the good news.

Wages (adjusted for inflation) fell 4% between 2009 (when the recovery officially started) and 2014. The fall was the greatest for low income workers – even in industries where hiring was strong – such as restaurant cooks (down 8.9%), home health aides (down 6.2%), and retail workers. Many workers are worse off than they were 20 years ago. [1]

Hourly wages for the typical worker have been basically stagnant since 1970, despite significant increases in worker productivity. From 2000 to 2014, for example, productivity grew by 21.6% while hourly compensation grew by just 1.8%. The value of the increased productivity has primarily gone to highly paid managers, business owners, and shareholders. Workers are not getting the fruits of their increased productivity because the rules of our economy have changed over the last 40 years to the benefit of employers. Workers’ power, through collective bargaining and other means, has been intentionally eroded by policy decisions by federal and state governments at the behest of powerful corporations. [2]

An important factor in these stagnant and falling wages is the growth of the number of workers who are not full-time employees; those who are temporary, part-time, or contract workers. This reflects the growth of what is called the gig economy. Roughly 40% of US workers were contingent or gig workers in 2010, up from 35% in 2006. [3] Roughly 27 million Americans are working as independent contractors or temporary workers, while another 24 million work at a mix of traditional and freelance work. These workers not only suffer from low wages, they also typically do not receive benefits and are not protected by labor laws covering health, safety, and working conditions, such as minimum wage and overtime pay laws. Furthermore, much of the safety net for workers in the US depends on being a regular, full-time employee: health insurance, retirement benefits, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation and disability insurance (for being unable to work due to an injury or a health issue). [4]

Our current employee-focused policies provide perverse incentives for employers because costs and administrative burdens are lower with non-employees than employees. As a result, employers actively work to maximize the use of contingent workers and minimize the number of full-time employees. They also misclassify workers as contractors to avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes.

The gig economy means less economic security for workers now and in the future. Their jobs can disappear at any moment with no unemployment benefits to tide them over to the next job. Their weekly hours and income fluctuate. And typically they have no retirement benefits and no health insurance. If they buy health insurance on their own, they may have caps and high deductibles that could leave them in a financial crisis if a serious accident or illness were to occur. The risk of economic changes and recessions now falls primarily on employees, with little support from employers or our public safety net.

My next post will review good news for workers, including policy changes that would recapture workers’ bargaining power and better serve workers in the gig economy.

[1]       Schwartz, N.D., 9/3/15, “Pay has fallen for many, study says,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]       Economic Policy Institute, 9/2/15, “Gap between productivity and typical workers’ pay continues to widen,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/press/gap-between-productivity-and-typical-workers-pay-continues-to-widen/)

[3]       Johnston, K., 9/6/15, “Work’s dark future,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Ramos, D., 9/6/15, “The sharing revolution and the uncertain future of work,” The Boston Globe

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