Sunday, September 4, 2016

Workers and their Wages

Happy Labor Day!

Summer is over, schools are back in session and working parents across the country are breathing a sigh of relief.

For many, it’s not so much that their kids are back into a productive routine. It’s that they’ve been struggling all summer to find money for food and a few fun things to do, losing sleep over how to juggle child care and unpredictable work schedules, wondering how they’ll buy school clothes for their growing kids and loned supply lists the underfunded schools send home.

It should be possible, in the wealthiest country in the world, for working parents to provide for their families.

But 48 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. One in five American children lives in poverty.

US Census bureau data in 2013 showed that 10.6 million out of 32.6 million US working families had incomes under 200 percent of the official poverty level. That means almost one third of working families don’t have enough to live on. (Why 200 percent? What’s the dollar amount? Who is impacted most? Here’s a good summary.) 

National Alliance to End Homelessness:
Why Minimum Wage Isn't Enough
It’s easy to get lost in discussion about causes of poverty. I just read an excellent interview with J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, about our conflicting visions of poverty and its causes. Yes, there’s systemic injustice that makes it almost impossible for the generational poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And yes, without a sense of human agency, a strong work ethic and vision of the future, even the best social supports will fall short.  

My concern, today, is the working poor, the many living on the edge who DO want to build a better life, are committed to work and willing to show up, punch the clock, follow the rules, struggle to balance the checkbook.

It should be possible, in a nation as wealthy as ours, for everyone willing to work full time to survive and support a family. Yet, according to the National Low Income Housing Alliance:  “In no state can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent, working a standard 40-hour work week.” In Pennsylvania, a minimum wage worker would need to work 78 hours a week to afford a two bedroom apartment.

I’ve written before about taxes, income inequality, and the idea of “makers and takers.” 

I’ve written about welfare, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), SNAP (sometimes called “food stamps” – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

I’ve written about unions and their role in ensuring fair treatment and a living wage. 

And I’ve written about injustices in the food industry and the challenge of ensuring fair wages for farm workers.  

I see all these issue refracted through the lens of a summer spent in conversation with young working mothers who despite heroic effort and long, difficult days can’t find a toehold toward a more secure future.
Some are married. Some not.

Some have good educations. Some don’t.

Some have made careful choices all along the way.

Some have made mistakes, acknowledge them and are looking for ways to make sure their kids have better chances.

All look around and wonder: what will happen if someone gets sick? Or the old car dies? What do I tell my kid when he wants to go on the next school trip and there’s no way we can afford it?

It shouldn’t be so hard.

One piece of this is a living wage. How is it that Walmart executives, earning millions a year, can say, with a straight face, they can’t afford higher wages for employees? According to a Bloomberg report: 
 The CEOs of 350 Standard & Poor’s 500 companies made 373 times more than their employees in 2014, up from a ratio of 46-to-1 in 1983, according to the AFL-CIO. That’s more than twice the gap in Switzerland and Germany, and about 10 times bigger than in Austria. . . . A global Harvard Business School survey found that most people think pay gaps are far smaller than they are. That was particularly true in the U.S., where survey respondents thought the ratio of CEO to average worker pay was 30 to 1; they put the ideal ratio at 7 to 1. In June 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission narrowly approved a rule requiring companies to reveal the pay gap between their CEO and their typical employee. At McDonald’s, that ratio was 644 to 1 in 2014, according to a Bloomberg analysis. 
The public picks up the tab for McDonald’s and Walmart workers who can’t make it on their low-wage jobs: an estimate 1.2 billion for health care and food assistance for McDonald’s workers;  $6.2 billion (in 2014) for Walmart employees.

Take away unions and government oversight and the powerful take from the weak, every time. 

Or – almost every time. There are noteworthy companies like Costco that believe caring well for employees is both morally right and economically wise. (Bloomberg explainshow that works.

What do our major candidates have to say on this?

Donald Trump has said the following: the minimum wage should stay where it is; it should go up; there should be no federal minimum wage; the federal minimum should be set at $10.00; states should decide. (Confused? So is he: the Washington Post and Politifact, among others, have done their best to explain. or more on this check  
Hillary believes we are long overdue in raising the minimum wage. She has supported raising the federal minimum wage to $12, and believes that we should go further than the federal minimum through state and local efforts, and workers organizing and bargaining for higher wages, such as the Fight for $15 and recent efforts in Los Angeles and New York to raise their minimum wage to $15. 
She’s been accused of having a confusing stance on minimum wage, In reality, it’s more complex than confusing: she supports an approach like one passed this year in New York State, providing for a gradual rise in minimum wage in a way that acknowledges differences between urban and rural economies and large and small employers. 

It makes sense but takes time to understand.

Another issue of importance to poor workers also takes time to understand and receives far too little attention: wage theft.

In a Labor Day speech last year, Clinton promised: "We’re going to go back to enforcing labor laws. I’m going to make sure that some employers go to jail for wage theft and all the other abuses that they engage in."

Her remarks were greeted by some observers with jeers, cries of “fascist!” and mocking questions, as in the Federalist Papers Project: "What is she talking about when she mentions ‘wage theft’ and how is she going to jail employers because of it? How will this help the economy? The only ‘wage theft’ that happens in the United States is by the government in the form of taxes."

What is she talking about?

Survey evidence suggests that wage theft is widespread and costs workers billions of dollars a year, a transfer from low-income employees to business owners that worsens income inequality, hurts workers and their families, and damages the sense of fairness and justice that a democracy needs to survive. . . 
No one knows precisely how many instances of wage theft occurred in the U.S. during 2012, nor do we know what the victims suffered in total dollars earned but not paid. But we do know that the total amount of money recovered for the victims of wage theft who retained private lawyers or complained to federal or state agencies was at least $933 million—almost three times greater than all the money stolen in robberies that year. . . .
 Obviously, the nearly $1 billion collected is only the tip of the wage-theft iceberg, since most victims never sue and never complain to the government. 
While Clinton has offered to prosecute and incarcerate white collar criminals responsible for stealing wages from employees, her opponent prides himself on bending the law to maximize profits, at great harm to those he employs.

As early as 1980 Trump was withholding wages from undocumented workers – detailed in an unresolved lawsuit Trump’s lawyers managed to delay for years 

Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and others have reported the more than 200 liens filed against Trump and his companies by employees and contractors still waiting to be paid.  Reuters examined questionable practices of withholding money from contracted work. And a USA Today investigation found hundreds of individuals – carpenters, dishwashers, painters, even his own lawyers – who say he didn’t pay them for their work. 
At least 60 lawsuits, along with hundreds of liens, judgments, and other government filings reviewed by the USA TODAY NETWORK, document people who have accused Trump and his businesses of failing to pay them for their work. Among them: a dishwasher in Florida. A glass company in New Jersey. A carpet company. A plumber. Painters. Forty-eight waiters. Dozens of bartenders and other hourly workers at his resorts and clubs, coast to coast. Real estate brokers who sold his properties. And, ironically, several law firms that once represented him in these suits and others. 
Trump’s companies have also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. That includes 21 citations against the defunct Trump Plaza in Atlantic City and three against the also out-of-business Trump Mortgage LLC in New York. Both cases were resolved by the companies agreeing to pay back wages.
In addition to the lawsuits, the review found more than 200 mechanic’s liens — filed by contractors and employees against Trump, his companies or his properties claiming they were owed money for their work — since the 1980s. The liens range from a $75,000 claim by a Plainview, N.Y., air conditioning and heating company to a $1 million claim from the president of a New York City real estate banking firm. On just one project, Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, records released by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1990 show that at least 253 subcontractors weren’t paid in full or on time, including workers who installed walls, chandeliers and plumbing. The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether. 
Old Testament laws place a high priority on fair treatment of workers:
Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. "(Leviticus 19:13) 
Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 4:240 
The prophet Malachi warned of punishment for mistreatment of workers:
“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)
Jeremiah said this:
 “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.  (Jeremiah 22:13)
I’ve been in several of Trump’s palaces.

All built by injustice.

To quote Jeremiah: Woe to him.

And woe to those who excuse or ignore his treatment of the working poor.

This post is part of a series on What's Your Platform
Beyond the Party Platform July 24, 2016
A Different Way July 31, 2016 
Election Fraud and Rigged Elections, August 10, 2016 
How Long Will the Land Lie Parched? August 21, 2016 
Walls, Welcome, Mercy, Law August 28, 2016

Other Labor Day Posts:
Solidarity Forever: Love, Labor, Unions Sep 6, 2015 
What Are Workers Worth? Sep 1, 2014
How Much Does Justice Cost? Sep 1, 2013
Work Sep 5, 2011