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.
Weak enforcement means that tens of millions of Americans are effectively on their own, without our protection, and the data show it. As one measure, a 2008 study of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York found that 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage, 76 percent were underpaid or not paid at all for their overtime hours, and 70 percent worked off the clock before or after their shift. Workers were robbed an average of $2,634, or 15 percent, of their annual earnings.
While enforcement agencies can certainly do smarter enforcement with the resources they have, ultimately we need more boots on the ground. At the same time, labor violation penalties are so low that there's little incentive to comply with them. Until employers face substantial costs to their bottom line (as is true in other bodies of law, such as environmental regulation), practices like wage theft, retaliation against workers trying to organize, and independent contractor misclassification will continue unabated.
(3) Government Paves the Way to Living wage Jobs
Finally, even with a robust floor of labor standards, we still need to create living wage jobs on top of that floor - and government can help here too.