Yes, We Can Fight Inequality: 3 Ways Washington Can Create Living-Wage Jobs

Some say Washington has run out of ways to help the low-income. Those people should consider the impact from raising the national minimum wage or paying more to government contractors.

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Since the first Occupy protests a year ago, the debate over inequality has largely focused on ways to rectify the capture of money and political power by the 1 percent. It's an urgently needed discussion, given the spectacle of bank bailouts, sky-rocketing CEO pay and blatant malfeasance by Wall Street and Congress. But much less attention has been given to the flip side of inequality, namely the collapse of the labor market for the 99 percent.

The root of the problem is America's good jobs deficit, which has been building for three decades and has only worsened as low-wage jobs like retail, food preparation and home health care dominate the recovery. Compounding the trend is the stalling of upward mobility, the persistence of race and gender inequality, and the emergence of wage theft as routine business practice. Some of this has been driven by globalization, but a lot has taken place in domestic industries where employers are increasingly focused on cutting labor costs, Gaining flexibility with contingent and subcontracted work, and maximizing shareholder value - all facilitated by the withdrawal of government's hand in the labor market.

To fight inequality, that hand must become visible again. The days when business hewed to a social contract are long gone, and unions, struggling just to maintain their share of the work force, cannot deliver strong labor standards on their own. Community and immigrant worker organizing has surged in recent years, but not yet with enough heft to significantly drive job quality.

As a country, what we need is more scale and power to raise standards in the labor market, and government has both. This is not to sideline the vital importance of tax and health care reform, mortgage relief and quality education - but those policies won't be enough to rectify the multiple inequalities that have been building for decades. In the deregulated, gloves-off economy that the U.S. has become, we have to directly take on the profound redistribution of wages that has occurred within the workplace itself. To be clear, a renewed commitment to labor market regulation does not mean onerous anti-business meddling. It just means a basic focus on strengthening, enforcing, and updating the core job standards that all Americans agree on: decent pay, safe workplaces, equal access to good jobs, and the idea the taxpayer money shouldn't be used to create poverty wages. These are basic principles of fairness, and here are three ways government can help restore them.

(1) Raising the Floor of Labor Standards

Many of the laws that set core standards in our labor market - the minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and the right to organize chief among them - have either stagnated or weakened over the past three decades.

At $7.25 an hour (or $15,000 a year), the federal minimum wage is a poverty wage - and it's even lower for tipped workers, stuck at an abysmal $2.13 an hour. In workplace health and safety, outdated standards (for hazards like silica) and lagging regulation (for emerging hazards like infectious diseases) result in millions of occupational injuries and illnesses every year that can and should be prevented. The increasing failure of the National Labor Relations Act to protect the right to organize has resulted in an enormous representation gap (58 percent of U.S. workers say they would like to be represented by a union, but only 11.8 percent actually are). Nearly 40 million Americans are working without a single paid sick day, forcing them to risk their paycheck or their health (and the public's) every time they or their children get the flu.

At the same time, key occupations are excluded from legal protection altogether. Roughly 2.5 million home care workers are exempted from federal minimum wage and overtime coverage, leaving many immigrants and women of color in poverty. Legions of subcontracted workers, independent contractors, day laborers and other contingent workers are stuck in ambiguous legal status in some of the worst working conditions.

The good news is that the fixes to many of these problems are straightforward and supported by the public. Proposed bills in Congress would raise the federal minimum wage to $9.80 by 2014, index it to inflation (as ten states already do) so that its value doesn't erode every year, and also raise the tipped worker wage. There is legislation to make paid sick days a national standard, and agendas for overhauling the NLRA and OSHA are in development. The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed regulatory action to end the exemption of home care workers, and at the state level, a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights was recently passed in New York State and is awaiting the Governor's signature in California.

More difficult will be updating our laws for the profound reorganization of the American workplace, and finding ways to hold employers responsible for the workplace standards that they control at arm's length. A good model is California's proposed law making firms liable for minimum wage and overtime violations by their subcontractors, recognizing that end-user firms such as Walmart exert considerable economic control over working conditions down their supply chains.

(2) Enforcing the Law

It's not enough just to have strong laws on the books. They also need to be enforced, and right now the U.S. enforcement and penalty regime is widely regarded as very weak. For example, the number of federal wage and hour inspectors is still below 1980 levels, even with recent hiring under the Obama administration. It would take 131 years for OSHA investigators to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once, given current staffing levels.

Presented by

Annette Bernhardt, PhD, is Policy Co-Director of the National Employment Law Project

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