What Could Give Low-Wage Workers More Stability?

My last post recapped the story LaJuana Clark, a formerly homeless, still struggling woman because it’s unique only in the particulars. What I heard — and not only from her — drove home how unstable the lives of so many low-wage workers are.

Public policies can, to some extent, remedy this. They already do, as the post suggests — some much more than others. But those that do most form an irregular patchwork that does nothing for millions of others.

Only Congress can ensure that all low-wage workers nationwide have some modicum of financial stability and opportunities to gain more. Here, as promised, are some examples, along with some pieces of the patchwork, mostly from LaJuana’s and my hometown.

Higher Minimum Wages

I’ve already noted the District of Columbia’s soon-to-be minimum wage increases. These could give not only minimum wage workers, but many who earn more enough income to avert evictions, utility shut-offs and other such destabilizing and demoralizing experiences.

They’ll still face formidable challenges without other public policies to help them because it costs a lot to live in the District — an estimated $3,510 a month for a single person with no children, like LaJuana.

A step toward stability nonetheless. Workers in nearly half the states are legally entitled to no more than the federal minimum wage — still $7.25 an hour and worth about 9% less than when it became the minimum.

So it’s up to Congress to set a higher base. Democrats have tried since 2007. Some now aim for $15 an hour by 2020 — and boosts thereafter to keep the wage growing at the same rate as the median for all workers.

It’s just a plank in campaign platforms now, of course. But even if the next Congress passes the bill and the President signs it, low-wage workers still won’t have anything close to such stability as a living wage is supposed to provide.

Paid Leave for Health and Urgent Family Needs

Most low-wage workers have even less to live on if they take time off for compelling reasons. About 80% with the lowest wages lose pay when they’re too sick to work. And only 12% of all private-sector workers can get paid for any time off to care for a child or other family member.

The District and four states require paid sick leave, though not for all workers. The District also, like three states, requires employers to provide some paid family leave. But most, including the District do little or nothing for a goodly number of workers who can least afford pay losses.

Here again, we have a remedy in Congress. Bills introduced last year would cover all workers and provide all but the highest paid about two-thirds of their wage for up to twelve weeks of time off to deal with their health, including pregnancy and childbirth, and/or care for family members.

These are the latest in a series of stalled paid leave proposals dating back to 2009. Understandably then, we see more prospective state-level action — among them, a bill in the DC Council that would create the most expansive paid leave program in the country.

So more stability for some low-wage workers, as well as others, but not for the vast majority.

More Predictable, Suitable Work Schedules

Meanwhile, low-wage workers, especially those in service-sector jobs would still lack a critical kind of stability — predictable work schedules.

Without them, workers can’t budget because they’ve no idea how much they’ll earn. They can’t take second jobs, much as they need the money, or enroll in classes that would increase their earning power. They’ve no end of difficulties with child care too, of course — when to schedule it, whether they can afford it, etc.

Bills in Congress would give certain low-wage workers more predictable schedules and require employers to at least consider requests for changes. They’d have to have a good business reason for denying them in certain cases too — mostly those I’ve flagged as problems now.

Some workers would also get paid more unless employers changed their practices. If they didn’t, they’d have to compensate workers for time between shifts on any given day.

Unpredictable work schedules would also, in some cases, require more pay. For example, workers would have to get paid for at least an hour if they had to call in to learn if they were needed for the upcoming day and weren’t.

They would also get an extra hours’ pay if their employer changed their schedule with less than a day’s notice, unless they had to fill in for someone unexpectedly absent. Not the same thing as mandating predictable schedules, but “a first step,” as the bills say.

These bills aren’t going anywhere soon. So again, we see some state and local policymakers putting curbs on irregular schedules — another variegated piece in the patchwork.

Eight states and the District require employers to pay workers when they show up, as scheduled, and are sent home because they’re not needed. Not all must get paid at their regular rate or for all their scheduled hours, however.

San Francisco has something akin to what the federal bills would require, though only for a subset of workers — mainly those employed by retail chains. Several other cities are reportedly under pressure to pass similar laws.

A bill awaiting action by the DC Council would provide workers employed by both retail and restaurant chains basically the same protections against egregiously unstable schedules. It would also give them an opportunity to work more hours.

Here too it borrows from San Francisco, which requires covered employers to offer part-time workers more hours before hiring other workers for basically the same tasks. So their workers could earn more, gaining some stability that way.

We thus see progress in a few solidly progressive communities — and could see more. But no hope for most of the 6.4 million or so involuntarily part-time workers nationwide until we’ve got progressive majorities in Congress.

There’s another chapter in this (in)stability story — job losses and what happens to workers then. This deserves more than I can even summarize here — partly because, once again, how they fare depends on where they live.

So I’ll leave unemployment insurance for another post.



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