Monday, September 1, 2014

What Are Workers Worth?

 “Don’t muzzle an ox when you are using it to grind grain.”

 “Workers are worth their pay.” (I Timothy 5:18)

Happy Labor Day!
Today I’m starting a series of posts about issues of importance in the upcoming state and local elections.

And today, in honor of Labor Day, the topic is labor law, wages, and our growing class of working poor.

It's a heavy, complicated topic, and I'm only scratching the surface. 

Even so, it's a topic worth struggling with.

For American workers, state elections are far more important than most of us realize.

Minimum wage, laws regulating overtime and sick leave, protections against wage theft, the role of unions: these are all heavily influenced by state legislators, many facing election on November 4.

Non-presidential elections often slip by with little attention, but for workers, state elections carry heavy consequences, and are often decided by just a handful of votes. A candidate for my own state senate race, canvassing door to door, reminded me that some area elections have been decided by single digit numbers; a look at Wikipedia’s list of “close elections” shows that some state elections have been decided by just one vote.

I may have said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m a registered Independent. There are aspects of every party platform that I can’t support, and I’m looking for candidates whose positions are shaped by wisdom, concern for justice,  personal courage and conviction, rather than dictated by the prevailing party machine.

So – in what way is my own vote shaped by my understanding of work and concern for the rights of workers?

I posted about work, and workers, several years ago, and still affirm my conclusions: 
Of all people, Christ’s followers should be first to advocate for fair pay, fair conditions, equal benefits for workers.
In the three years since posting that I've seen up close, through the lives of friends, the challenges of low-income workers. Aheadline just last week threw those challenges into sharp relief: a woman working four part-time jobs died while napping in her car between shifts.

An analysis by the non-profit, non-partisan Center forBudget and Policy Priorities describes the accumulating forces that have undermined earning power and put workers in jeopardy:

The federal minimum wage ($7.25) and minimum for tipped employees ($2.13) have not kept pace with worker productivity or cost of living:
It seems fair that the minimum wage should maintain some rough parity with productivity (a measure of how much the average worker produces each hour), because productivity increases determine the nation’s capacity to raise its income. By that measure, since productivity has increased by 80 percent since 1973, the minimum wage should be about 80 percent higher in real terms than it was in 1973; instead of $7.25, it
would be $15.15. . . .
Another indexing option is to set the minimum wage high enough to keep a full-time worker with a family out of poverty. In 2013, that would require $11.30 an hour. (Pathway to Full Employment, 2)
Waiting for Change:
The $2.13 Federal Subminimum Wage
While federal minimum wage discussions remain stalled in partisan gridlock, 21 states have passed legislation setting higher minimums wages. PA Senate Bill 1300, raising the minimum wage to $8.20, then to $9.15 on January 1, 2015, $10.10 on January 1, 2016, and tied to a cost-of-living adjustment in the years beyond that, appears to be lost in committee.

PA House Bill 1896, with a similar graduated increase to $10.10 and an increase in the tipping wage income from Pennsylvania's current minimum of $2.83 to $5.05, or 50% of the minimum wage, was dismissed by the Labor and Industry Committee, despite 70 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle.

Living wage ordinances tie public spending to a higher minimum, often termed a "living wage," an amount needed to keep a family from poverty in a particular area. A recent Philadelphia ordinance requires any contractor or subcontractor employed by the city to pay $10.86 an hour, increasing to $12.00 an hour in 2015, enough to put a family of four just above the poverty line.

Unrealistic salary tests for exempt employees allow employers to overwork and underpay a significant percentage of the US workforce:

“Exempt employees” don’t punch a clock and are not held to minimum wage standards or overtime regulation. From 1938 to the mid seventies, the “exempt employee” salary test was adjusted regularly to reflect inflation and increases in the cost of living. From 1975 to the present, that level has been adjusted only once, in 2004, to  $455 a week, or $23,660 a year, a poverty income, just under the poverty level for a family of four.

That unrealistic level allows employers to bypass both minimum wage and overtime regulation. 
“The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 reported that an increasing number of American workers — between 19 and 26 million (20 to 27 percent of the full-time workforce) in 1998 — were subject to the exemptions.” (Pathway 3-4)
Legislation weakening worker protections and bargaining rights mean less full-time jobs, erratic work schedules, less safe workplaces, less training, less job security, and lower wages: 
Burt P. Flickinger III, a consultant for the retail industry, says that, “Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full time to at least 70 percent part time across the industry.”  David Ossip, a workforce scheduling software maker, says, “Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts.” (Pathway 6) 
Business Insider, Labor Share of Corporate Profits 2012
I’ve seen the havoc on family life when workers’ schedules change from week to week, with shifts are
posted Sunday for the week ahead. I’ve also seen the financial hardship when employees can send workers home if work is slow, with no recourse on the part of the worker, and compensation for time and money spent in travel, or wages lost because of shortened shifts.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 provided workers avenues for weighing employee needs against employer profits: 
In the past, unions would protect workers from the abuse of erratic work schedules, but with the decline of unions in general and the weakness of union density in the service sector in particular, union protection is, at present, a limited solution. (Pathway 7)
Opinion about unions is sharply divided, in part due to poor behavior on the part of some union leaders in the past, in part due to apparent union inflexibility in the present. Yet, I go back to my conclusions of three years ago: 
Historically, churches, and people of faith, have stood with unions on behalf of workers. Whatever their failings, for the past century and a half unions have been the strongest advocates for fair pay, safe workplaces, reasonable hours. Without unions, workers in mills, mines, factories would still be pushed to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Unions helped win workmen’s compensation, workplace safety standards, child labor laws. . . . No unions have been perfect, and power and money always leave the door open to abuse, but all of us, union workers or not, owe a great debt to the work of unions. 
As I look at the November elections, I’ll be looking for candidates who affirm an increase in minimum wage, and for candidates who have creative solutions to the needs of workers.

Two League of Women Voter tools can help voters find out more about local candidates. In many states, Vote 411, and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates own websites. 

This is the first is a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.