Too Many Bad Jobs and Plenty of Blame to Go Around

December 17, 2012

“We’re better at pulling people out of the stream than walking up to see who’s throwing them in.”

Bishop Gene Robinson, who said this, was speaking about the faith community at the launch of the Half in Ten campaign’s new shared prosperity report.

But I think his twist on the oft-quoted precept of another Christian social justice advocate applies more generally.

Look at public policies, for example. The safety net surely isn’t all it should be, but it does protect a large majority from utter destitution.

On the other hand, we see a high tolerance for employment practices that effectively throw people into the safety net.

Our federal policies, for example, allow employers to pay workers as little as $7.25 an hour — even less if they’re home care workers, who’ve got no minimum wage or overtime rights at all.

Companies can duck not only the minimum wage and related overtime requirements, but their obligations for the payroll taxes that will ultimately provide workers with Social Security and Medicare benefits.

They can shift jobs overseas — either directly or by contracting out work formerly performed by employees here in the U.S. Our tax code gives them incentives for the former.

When offshoring isn’t possible, companies can still contract out essential parts of their operations to other companies or to agencies that employ workers on a short-term basis — again ducking whatever payroll tax obligations they’d otherwise have.

Contracting out, whether here or abroad, can also relieve them of legal obligations for workers’ health and safety — and for maintaining insurance to compensate those who suffer on-the-job insurances or workplace-related illnesses.

And for the legal obligations they’d otherwise have under nondiscrimination laws.

In theory, temporary workers have the same basic protections they’d have as regular company employees — though none of the optional benefits, of course.

In reality, they’ve got to put up with whatever the agency and its client firms dish out because they’ll get fired if they complain. And they can have a lot to complain about, as this report from a former “warehouse slave” shows.

Unions used to provide a strong counterweight to such practices. Now they don’t because they represent only a small fraction of the private-sector workforce.

We can attribute some of the decline in union strength to changes in the economy, including the shift to temporary contract labor. But public policies have played a role too.

Twenty-four states, for example, have “right to work” laws that allow employees to benefit from the wages, benefits and other terms of employment unions negotiate without paying the dues unions need to effectively represent the workforce as a whole.

At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Board arguably doesn’t have the authority to keep companies from crippling union organizing campaigns or from making them effectively meaningless by refusing to bargain in good faith.

It’s easy to blame our policymakers for staying safely downstream. But that’s too simple, I think.

We’re collectively responsible for choosing them — and to some extent, for the policies they pursue.

But we also make other choices that give companies incentives to keep throwing people into the stream — or at the very least, no compelling reason to stop.

We may have joined the Black Friday boycott of Walmart, but how many of us don’t bargain-hunt, even when we know that our choice of rock-bottom prices puts companies that try to do the right things at a competitive disadvantage.

How many of us buy clothing, electronics, toys and other goods even when we know — or could know — that the companies they’re made for tolerate dreadful conditions in their suppliers’ factories?

Yet we sometimes do keep companies from behaving badly. Look at what’s just happened at Darden Restaurants — the company that owns some popular sit-down chains, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Capital Grille.

Word go out that Darden planned to exploit a deliberately-created loophole in the Affordable Care Act by cutting its workers hours just enough to put them under the threshold for mandatory employer-sponsored health insurance.

Next thing you know, a flood of negative feedback from customers, lower satisfaction scores at restaurants where Darden was testing its strategy and (horrors!) lower sales projections, leading analysts to drop their target prices for buying its stock.

The company does an about-face. Says it has no intention of converting full-time workers to part-time — or of cutting back on the health insurance coverage full-timers can get.

I don’t want to sound like a cock-eyed optimist. Darden has merely pushed the pause button on its workforce changes. Some other companies reportedly are moving ahead to convert full-time to part-time jobs. Still others are planning to do so.

And targeted consumer pressures alone aren’t going to transform working conditions in the lower layers of our growing service sector anyway.

But the Darden episode suggests that we’ve got some leverage if we care to use it.


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