GOOD NEWS FOR US WORKERS

ABSTRACT: This Labor Day workers were able to celebrate falling unemployment, increased hiring, improved access to health insurance, and increases in the minimum wage. Expanded eligibility for overtime pay is also in the works. And the US Labor Department has proposed a new regulation that would cover home care workers under minimum wage and overtime rules. (They are currently exempted.) Policies could also be changed that would require more contingent or gig workers to be treated as employees under some or all of our labor laws and/or to require part-time employees to get pro-rated benefits.

Laws that support the right to unionize and bargain collectively could be strengthened, as could the enforcement of existing laws. Higher unionization correlates with lower inequality and a greater portion of national income going to the middle class.

Our public policies need to change, both to reinstitute workers’ bargaining power and to better serve workers in the gig economy. Workers in the US have been getting the short end of the stick for 40 years. Changes in public policies to address these issues are long overdue.

FULL POST: This Labor Day workers were able to celebrate falling unemployment and increased hiring. They could also celebrate improved access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care). Increases in the minimum wage in a number of states and cities are more good news, along with the growing momentum behind the Fight for 15, which is pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Grassroots activism in support of workers specifically, and the middle and working class in general, is on the rise. [1] A number of political leaders have taken on this fight as well, including Senators Bernie Sanders (who is running for President), Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Al Franken, Tammy Baldwin, Brian Schatz, Mazie Hirono, and Sherrod Brown. Pope Francis is also advocating for fairer treatment of workers and a reduction in economic inequality.

The momentum for increases in the minimum wage is supported by examples like San Jose, CA, which are refuting the scare-tactic claims of the business community and its political supporters in opposing any increases in the minimum wage. In San Jose, the minimum wage has gone from $8.00 per hour to $10.15. As a result, 70,000 of the city’s 370,000 workers directly or indirectly got a raise. But rather than costing jobs as opponents always assert minimum wage increases will do, unemployment has fallen to 5.4% from 7.4% in March 2013. The hardest hit industry – the restaurant business – has seen a 20% increase in the number of restaurants in the last 18 months. Although restaurants raised prices by an average of 1.75%, business is good and most customers don’t seem to notice that prices went up by a bit. [2]

Expanded eligibility for overtime pay is also in the works. Currently, most hourly workers are required to be paid time and a half for overtime work, i.e., work beyond 40 hours per week. However, employers are not required to pay overtime to salaried workers who are classified as managers or supervisors and are paid over $23,660 per year. (This is below the federal poverty line for a family of 4 people.) This $23,660 cutoff was established in 1975 and has not been updated since. In 1975, 60% of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay; today, less than 10% do. The US Department of Labor is proposing to raise the cutoff to $50,440, which is roughly adjusting it for the inflation of the last 40 years. If implemented, this change in regulations would mean that over 10 million additional US workers would qualify for overtime pay when they work over 40 hours per week. [3]

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, it excluded domestic services workers and farm labor from its standards, such as the minimum wage and overtime pay. Many believe this happened because these workers were largely black and/or female. Amazingly, this exclusion remains in place today. Partly because of sub-minimum wages for their domestic services workers, the publicly-traded, national home-care corporations are very profitable – gross profits range from 30% to 40%. Furthermore, their CEOs’ compensation has risen 150% since 2004 (after adjusting for inflation), while their workers’ pay has declined 6%. [4]

In 2013, the US Labor Department proposed a new regulation that would cover home care workers under minimum wage and overtime rules. The coverage was supposed to take effect in January 2015, however the home care industry has been vehement in its opposition and has delayed the change by challenging the new regulation in court.

Policies could also be changed that would require more contingent or gig workers to be treated as employees under some or all of our labor laws, such as minimum wage, overtime pay, Social Security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance laws. Rules could be changed to require part-time employees to get pro-rated benefits under many of these laws. Or employers could be required to make contributions to “individual security accounts” for gig workers to help them pay for benefits. [5] [6] Workers would also benefit from laws that regulate their schedules so they have more predictable hours and incomes. (See my post Supporting families is an investment in human capital Part 2 for more detail.)

Laws that support the right to unionize and bargain collectively could be strengthened, as could the enforcement of existing laws. For example, laws could be changed to make it easier for workers in franchised businesses and gig work to form unions and bargain collectively. [7] Enhanced workers’ bargaining power and workplace precedents based on union contracts would benefit all workers and support the revitalization of the middle class. Data over the last 100 years document a strong correlation between higher unionization and lower income inequality. Data from the last 50 years show a strong correlation between higher union membership and a greater portion of national income going to the middle class. [8]

Our public policies need to change, both to reinstitute workers’ bargaining power and to better serve workers in the gig economy. Our policies need to reflect the change from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. Many current labor market standards, regulations, and economic security provisions were put in place around the Great Depression and responded to the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. They need to be updated and adjusted to better align with current economic realities. [9]

Workers in the US have been getting the short end of the stick for 40 years. The results are stagnant wages, growing economic insecurity for most workers and families, a dramatic increase in economic inequality, and a declining middle class that lacks the purchasing power to keep our consumer-based economy humming. Changes in public policies to address these issues are long overdue.

[1]       Hightower, J., Sept. 2015, “The rebellious spirit of Matthew Maguire’s first Labor Day is spreading again across our country. Join the parade,” The Hightower Lowdown

[2]       Clawson, L., 6/16/14, “In San Jose, a minimum wage increase and falling unemployment,” Daily Kos (https://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/06/16/1307351/-In-San-Jose-a-minimum-wage-increase-and-falling-unemployment?detail=emailclassic)

[3]       Wise, K., 9/3/15, “Labor Day 2015: Important gains, many challenges for MA workers,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (http://www.massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=Labor_Day_2015.html)

[4]       Rogers, H., Summer 2015, “A decent living for home caregivers – and their clients,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/decent-living-home-caregivers%E2%80%94and-their-clients)

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

[6]       Chen, M., 9/14/15, “This is how bad the sharing economy is for workers,” The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-how-bad-the-sharing-economy-is-for-workers/)

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

[8]       Clawson, L., 5/26/14, “The tight link between unions, the middle class and inequality in two charts,” Daily Kos (https://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/27/1301209/-The-tight-link-between-unions-the-middle-class-and-inequality-in-two-charts?detail=emailclassic)

[9]       Goodman, M.D., 9/6/15, “Public policies fail to keep pace with changing economy,” The Boston Globe

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