DC Paid Family Leave Law Back on the Drafting Table

February 23, 2017

Last week, workers in the District of Columbia seemingly gained the opportunity to take off time from work for compelling family reasons without forfeiting their entire pay.

This, of course, is especially important for low-wage workers, who are least likely to have any sort of paid family leave benefit and least likely to have enough saved to carry them and their families through times with no wage income.

The bill the Council passed — the Universal Paid Family Leave Amendment Act — has gone over to Congress, which can block it. But the responsible House Committee probably won’t even try before the time limit expires, what with its focus on other interventions and members now back in their homes bases.

The Mayor, who’d never liked the bill, refused to sign it. Wouldn’t veto it either, knowing the required majority of Councilmembers would override. But the law’s still not a finished piece of business.

In fact, the Mayor and heavy-hitters in the business community have succeeded in opening up the whole scheme again — always what opponents of a law aim for, since they have new opportunities to carve out exceptions, preferences and the like.

The Council Chairman, a strong supporter of the original bill, has said he’ll propose an alternative, hoping to quell the adamant opposition expressed by spokespersons for the business community.

But, he adds, the benefits won’t change. Doubtful then that the alternative will satisfy the Mayor, whose letter explaining why she wouldn’t sign the bill doesn’t accurately reflect what she said before.

Specially, she now says she’s gravely concerned because residents who work for the federal government or outside the city won’t get the benefit. She earlier, however, objected instead to coverage of people who worked for non-government employers in the District, but lived outside the city limits.

This, one notes, echoes the DC Chamber of Commerce, which also, of course, strenuously objects to the miniscule 0.62% payroll tax that would create the fund for paying the benefits.

One can surely understand the Chairman’s concern that the Chamber, the local Restaurant Association and other business groups will encourage members to resist what they must do to make the law work well — if not overtly, then by doing as little as they can possibly get away with.

One can also understand the Chairman’s concern about the Mayor’s response to the law — specifically her refusal to do the first necessary thing to make it work.

That would be including funds in her proposed budget to establish and then sustain the administrative apparatus needed to collect the required payroll taxes and then start using the funds to compensate eligible workers for their pay losses.

Lacking funding in the Mayor’s proposed budget, the Council would have to find the money — in other words, to shift funds from other programs, raise more revenues or some combination thereof. The District’s not truly short on money, but it’s already got pressing needs for more.

And as I’ve said, several times now — and as the Mayor said too — it faces likely, though as yet uncertain losses of federal revenues. Yet she’s responsible — or ought to be — for ensuring District laws have funds for administration, including enforcement.

Now here’s the thing that’s most striking to me. She had ample time to propose her own bill or, perhaps more politically savvy, changes in what the Council was crafting. Nada.

And we’ve nothing more now. Just the non-veto objections to what a substantial majority of the Council passed and her virtual charge to “revisit” it. Where’s the leadership here?

In any event, the Chairman seems inclined to consider the vocal business community’s preference for a mandate, rather than a payroll tax.

A bill reportedly just introduced by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh moves in this direction, but without relieving larger businesses and other comparable organizations, e.g. hospitals, universities, of any tax at all.

Specifically, it would reduce the payroll tax to 0.2% for larger employers (those with more than 50 employees) and to 0.4% for small employers. The larger would then have to fund the same paid leave benefits the current law requires however they saw fit.

The payroll tax would, as the current law envisions, create a funding pool to pay the benefits covered workers would receive when taking time off for certain personal and family needs.

Funds would apparently still be collected, managed and distributed by a District agency. But payouts would go only to workers for small businesses and other small-staffed organizations in the District, e.g., nonprofit service providers, research and advocacy organizations.

This, at first glance, would seem like a reasonable compromise. Whether it would satisfy the local Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant Association and other employers that fretted remains to be seen.

Likewise the Mayor, who’s understandably deferred a substantive response until her staff have delved into the bill itself. Worth noting, however, that she wouldn’t say whether she supports the benefits it preserves.

Nor whether it allays any of her other concerns, including the administrative costs District budgets would have to cover.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman — a champion of the original bill and now one of the advocates who’s outspokenly distressed by the move to change it — reportedly views the new bill as problematic because it would require a new agency or the equivalent to ensure that larger employers complied with their payroll tax obligations.

But we’d have needed provisions for enforcement anyway. And only the District can enforce its laws, though it could contract out the routine administrative functions. An earlier report on Councilmembers’ predilections suggested Evans might argue for this.

More to the point, Silverman questions whether the lower payroll taxes will suffice to cover the benefits workers for small employers will still be entitled to. One would hope that the Council would seek a disinterested, reliable projection.

Needless to say, some other ardent backers of the paid leave law are, like Silverman, distressed (to put it mildly) by the Council Chairman’s decision to even tamper with the paid leave law — “delaying and sabotaging” it, says a local union official on behalf of the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign.

I wouldn’t go there at this point. We need, I think, to have a strong paid family leave law that has as many affected and other actively interested forces on board as possible.

A lot of work to do before — and after — covered workers can actually start taking leave without forfeiting all their pay. And it won’t get done effectively unless the Mayor exercises the leadership that only she can.


DC Set to Make Family Caregiving More Affordable

January 2, 2017

Followers may have noticed that I’ve taken a break from blogging. The rapid recovery I was experiencing after my fall in late November took a 180 degree turn such that I could barely sit due to the pain, let alone concentrate on policy issues.

Ultimately, I wound up back in a rehab facility and have only recently returned home. As I lay in bed there and now sit propped up in a pillow-cushioned chair, I find my thoughts riveted on our healthcare system.

One hardly needs fractured bones to worry about the fate of many millions of people who may no longer have affordable health insurance. I’ll have more to say about this.

But, for the time being, an insight that reaches beyond healthcare policy per se.

During both my brief stays in rehab, I raised concerns about how I would cope alone when deemed mobile enough to return home. The therapists, caseworkers and on-the-scene physician invariably responded with “Don’t you have family?”

Yes, as I suppose most patients do. But that doesn’t mean we have family members who can take on responsibilities for helping us with what the professionals call activities of daily living, e.g. bathing, dressing, cooking, housekeeping.

Lots of reasons that family members can’t become our primary caregivers. They may, for example, live so far away that they’d have to temporarily relocate. They may have children who need their daily care. They themselves may have health problems that limit what they can do.

Not much policymakers can do about these. But they can address one common barrier—potential lost wages or even jobs.

As you probably know, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects some workers from the latter. But it covers only about 60% of workers.

Laws in eleven states and the District of Columbia expand eligibility in various ways. But only five states and the District require employers to directly or indirectly compensate workers for any of the wages they lose when they take time off because of illness.

A handful of local governments have more expansive paid sick leave mandates than the state they’re in. But virtually all these laws exclude workers employed by small businesses—in some cases, very small, in others not.

The District also expressly excludes whole categories of workers, including all restaurant wait staff and bartenders who receive the subminimum tip credit wage.

In short, this safety net is a patchwork of protections that force hard, consequential choices between working for pay and caring for sick or disabled family members.

The District, however, is set to join the four states that enable workers to take time off for illness or other compelling reasons without forfeiting the income they need.

The DC Council recently approved a bill that would replace all but 10% of the wages that lower-income workers lose when they take time off to care for family members—not only those who are sick or disabled, but newborns and newly-adopted children.

It would also effectively supersede the paid sick leave exemption for most tip credit workers. And it would cover, at a lower replacement rate, all high-paid workers, as Rachel Sadon at DCist explains.

The bill caps the amount of paid leave workers can claim for each of the specified reasons, allowing up to eight weeks to care for their babies and/or develop a trusting relationship with a newly-adopted child.

Care for the likes of me would be capped at six weeks—a maximum the Council whittled down to add two weeks of personal medical care.

The bill adopts the paid leave model that California pioneered. Instead of requiring employers to pay their workers when they take time off for authorized reasons, it imposes a tiny payroll tax—0.62%.

The funds would go into a pool and then to workers entitled to replacement wages. So all District employers would collectively pay time off for all people who work in the District, except government employees.

The bill is the latest iteration of a proposal Councilmembers have worked on since 2015. It’s proved very controversial—and still is. “This [the final vote] is the battle, not the war, says a member of the DC Chamber of Commerce board.

The Mayor seems inclined to let the bill become law without her signature, thus indicating her disapproval without triggering a vote to override a veto. She clearly views the legislation as unfinished business, predicting the Council will have to revisit it before it becomes effective.

Translating the bill into a viable system would prove challenging, even if the administration wanted to make it work. One can only hope that it sets aside its reservations or comes up with a better solution.

I don’t know enough to know whether there is one. What I do know is that our healthcare system assumes a family caregiving role that our labor laws don’t accommodate.

The lack of paid time off leaves sick and disabled people vulnerable. My summary here indicates other compelling needs that may get short shrift.

But they often don’t because workers (mostly women) quit their jobs or shift to part-time work so they can fulfill family responsibilities.

This puts them at a disadvantage when they’re ready to return to the workforce or full-time employment. And it’s likely to disadvantage them when they’re ready to retire because the years when they earned nothing or very little often become part of the base for calculating Social Security benefits.

In the meantime, families whose breadwinners sacrifice to provide care have to make do with less or no earned income. This is a problem for all working families, but especially those dependent on a low-wage worker.

It’s also a problem for state and local governments because they must make do with less tax revenues and increased needs for safety net benefits.

Ideally, we would have a nationwide paid sick and family leave law. That’s obviously not in the cards during the next four years. So here’s another case where states and the District must do for their residents what Congress and the President won’t do for all Americans.

 


No Secure Three-Legged Stool to Support Seniors

November 17, 2016

My recent post on Social Security left out two related pieces of the story — why retirement benefits don’t cover basic living costs and why the concept underpinning Social Security merits rethinking.

Why Social Security Doesn’t Give Seniors Income Security

If Social Security afforded seniors financial security, we wouldn’t have about 6.5 million of them in poverty — or nearly 13.8 million more constrained to live on incomes less than twice the applicable, very low threshold.

This, as I’ve said, is partly because Social Security retirement benefits are based on past wage income. But it’s also because they’re not supposed to suffice for financial security. And they never were.

Sometime in the late 1940s, financial security for retirees came to be commonly characterized as a three-legged stool, supported by Social Security benefits, pensions and private savings.

We see this assumption baked into the benefits, which now average $1,348 a month. That’s less than 150% of the poverty threshold for a single senior.

And the average, of course, masks the range. At the low end, roughly 30% of retirees and their dependents get less than $1,000.

How Other Legs of the Stool Don’t Support It

“All three legs of the stool have been whittled away,” says economist Jesse Rothstein in a paper that proposes a multi-part expansion.

But for Social Security, the whittling is only prospective, i.e., benefits cuts that will occur if Congress doesn’t do something to shore up the Trust Fund — or if Republican policymakers take a knife to them sooner.

What then about the other two legs? Pensions, as you know, are going the way of the woodbine and twine, especially in the private sector.

Employers that can have replaced them with 401(k) accounts or the equivalent — at least, those that think they’ve got to provide some sort of retirement benefit. Far from all do.

The rest don’t necessarily let all their workers participate. They can legally exclude those who don’t work, on average, close to half time. They may, in some cases, exclude workers supplied by temporary agencies — and in all cases, those they’ve misclassified as independent contractors.

Workers who are eligible don’t all seize this opportunity to save for retirement. About 16% of those nearing retirement age don’t — roughly the same as the percent of workers nearing middle age.

Those who do participate often don’t contribute the maximum they can. Only 10% did shortly before the Great Recession set in. Many of the rest presumably couldn’t afford to. Probably still can’t.

Rothstein flags other problems with the 401(k)-type plans. First off, they generally allow workers to decide how to invest the money they’ve contributed, within limits imposed by the financial plan or plans their employers offer.

These come with fees that look small, but add up over time. And, face it, knowing enough to choose which funds to invest in — stocks, bonds, a variable mix — and knowing when to move money around and when to sit tight require considerable expertise.

This is one, but far from the only reason that long-time workers lost, on average, 25% when the Great Recession set in.

These hazards apply equally to Individual Retirement Accounts, though the much lower limit on contributions necessarily limits losses. Gains also, of course.

Don’t look to the third leg to offset the weaknesses of the others. Seems that a very large number of working-age adults simply don’t have enough money to save — or at the very least, spend all their take-home pay.

Well over a third who earn less than $50,000 a year have no money in a savings account, according to a recent survey. An additional 35% have less than $1,000 — a minimal cushion against any unusual expense or income loss.

Low-income households headed by someone nearing retirement age have less than $10,000 in liquid assets, including money in bank accounts, retirement savings accounts and other sources they could readily tap, e.g., the cash value of a life insurance policy.

For all these reasons, Social Security is the major source of income for most of us older folks — and virtually the only source for 21% of married couples and about 43% who aren’t married, including presumably those whose spouses have died.

What If We Do Nothing

Rothstein is far from the only expert to seize on problems with our current system for financial security in our “golden years.” A team of economists predicts that the number of poor and near-poor retirees will increase 146% by 2022 if nothing’s done about Social Security and retirement savings accounts.

The increase could actually be larger because they don’t project for seniors over 74 years old. Even so, nearly 24% of all but the top-earning workers who were nearing retirement age in 2012 will be poor or near-poor only four years from now.

And if they’re struggling then, they sure won’t be better off if they manage to survive to a ripe old age, despite the hardships they’ll have suffered.

 


What’s in Store for Social Security?

November 14, 2016

Trying to figure out how to keep blogging on progressive solutions to social and economic problems that affect low-income people. Seems kind of hopeless, unless I focus solely on what’s going on in the District of Columbia. Not ready to do that, however.

So here’s a national issue that should mean a lot to the white, blue-collar working class whose votes, we’re told, largely account for Trump’s victory — the future of Social Security retirement benefits.

For somewhat over a year now, we’ve had promises and proposals to expand Social Security. Doubt we’ll see anything like them reach the President’s desk. Probably wouldn’t have, even if Clinton were sitting there.

But the problems they sought to address will continue to make old age insecure for millions of former workers and their families. In fact, without one form of expansion, they’ll be in worse shape than they already are.

Why Social Security Needs Fixes

As everyone, I think, knows, the Trust Fund that helps pay for Social Security retirement benefits will run out of money long about 2034. Ongoing payroll taxes won’t fully cover them. So unless the Trust Fund gets more, retirees will receive only about three-quarters of what they’re entitled to.

Social Security is, by far and away, the most effective anti-poverty program we have. Last year, the benefits it paid out lifted 22 million people over the applicable poverty threshold, including about 15 million seniors. But they fall far short of living costs for many.

So far short that about 6.5 million seniors lived in poverty last year, according to the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure, which factors in the cash value of major safety net benefits like food stamps and subsidized housing.

Most received Social Security benefits. But those who lived alone had less than $11,370 to pay for all their living expenses. Nearly 43% of all seniors were either poor or nearly so, i.e., had incomes below twice that threshold or one that’s only about $3,000 higher for couples.

The main reason they’re far from financially secure with Social Security is that the formula used to calculate benefits is based on the per-year average of what people earned during their highest-paid 35 years.

This keeps benefits low not only for retired low-wage workers, but others who didn’t work consistently or chose to work part-time for awhile — to care for children or an aging parent, for example.

It also depresses benefits for surviving spouses, who may receive only a portion of what the breadwinner was entitled to, and for other dependents, who always do.

How to Prevent the Shortfall

Basically, we’ve got two types of solutions to the impending shortfall — increase the funds Social Security receives through payroll taxes or preemptively cut benefits.

The Democratic party platform embraced the former, staunchly promising to “fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security.” Clinton did likewise, of course.

Both pledged to collect more in payroll taxes from high-income Americans. The platform defined them as those with annual incomes over $250,000. Clinton presumably meant the same, since she’d promised not to raise taxes on anyone who had less.

She mentioned two options, perhaps not mutually exclusive — tax some form or forms of income not subject to payroll taxes now and/or lift the cap on wage income. That’s now $118,500 and will get bumped up a tad each year that Social Security’s average wage index rises.

Lifting the cap — or scrapping it altogether — is hardly a new solution to the shortfall. Nor one supported only by left-leaning experts and politicians.

A majority of President Obama’s bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility recommended a phased-in lifting of the cap until payroll taxes covered 90% of wage income, as they did in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, the Republican party platform says that all options to preserve and “modernize” Social Security should be considered, then swiftly reiterates the party’s opposition to tax increases.

House Speaker Paul Ryan refers vaguely — and ominously — to reforming Social Security. This, in the past, meant large benefits cuts, albeit postponed, and a further, perhaps ongoing increase in the eligibility age, which also translates into cuts.

His budget plan also included an option that would have allowed workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes from the Trust Fund into private retirement accounts. The structure of the accounts would have benefited only high earners, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said.

And the additional payroll taxes the plan provided for wouldn’t have kept Social Security solvent over the long term because the Trust Fund would have insured against any losses, including merely from inflation.

Ryan has since withheld such specifics. But I see no reason to believe that the House will move on a plan to preserve Social Security benefits for the long term — let alone expand them for seniors who can’t significantly supplement them from their own retirement accounts and other savings.

So far as our incoming President is concerned, we’ve no idea what he intends for Social Security. He’s said he wouldn’t cut benefits. But one of the advisors close to him implied he might — as, in fact, did his running mate.

He’s also said that the yuge economic growth his other initiatives will fuel is the key to preserving Social Security. Economists, not all left-leaning, beg to differ. And he himself hinted that future generations might face “changes.”

Well, the program does need changing — and not only to ensure that future retirees don’t have to try living on less than the benefits they’d receive if the shortfall’s averted.

To be continued.


Just Hours Not Just Yet, DC Council Decides

October 20, 2016

A DC Council majority recently decided to table a bill that would have given some low-wage workers more predictable schedules — and, in some cases, more wage income too.*

The nay-saying Councilmembers could have let a newly-formed subcommittee try to fix what troubled them, as its chair urged them to. They instead killed the proposal for the rest of this Council session — and, of course, opened the door to further efforts to block it.

We’ll surely see them, since they succeeded so well this time. We might also, I suppose, expect efforts to further scale back the worker protections that the tabled bill provided — just in case the Council won’t altogether cave again.

I’d thought to dive right into the debate, but realized it wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t know what the parties were arguing about. So I’ll deal here with the bill itself and why supporters (self included) say it’s needed. Look for the arguments that apparently won the day in a followup.

Which Workers Would Have Benefited

Only some workers in the District would have gained schedules they could rely on for even a couple of weeks — or the chance to gain more hours, also more predictable.

The bill set requirements only for retail businesses, including restaurants that were part of chains — at least five nationwide for businesses that sell goods and at least twenty for restaurants.

The report that inspired the bill focused mainly on workers employed by retailers, restaurants and other food services businesses, e.g., grocery stores, but the survey it reflected also included others — people who work for cleaning services, for example, and for parking lots and garages.

So the bill could have gone much further than it did — and, in fact, went further when introduced. The committee that narrowly approved the bill revised it to exclude hotels, healthcare facilities and six other types of enterprises.

Why Workers Need Predictable Hours and Schedules

The aforementioned report cites several major problems that irregular schedules cause, though the survey also picked up problems all low-wage workers face, i.e. simply not enough money and the consequences thereof.

Erratic schedules specifically make it very difficult for workers and their families to budget, since pay is inevitably erratic too. The workers can’t take second jobs to ease the financial stress because they may have to show up at the first.

They can’t improve their prospects in the labor market by getting more education or training — again, because they don’t know which hours they’ll be free.

They struggle with childcare arrangements, not knowing when they’ll need someone to look after the kids. Nor, one guesses, whether they can pay the fees when due. Further problems, including extra fees when they can’t pick their kids up on time.

And still other problems when they or their kids need medical or dental care, when they need to talk with a teacher, etc.

National research and advocacy organizations have flagged problems of another sort — threats to the safety net benefits many of the workers and their families need.

Some must work a certain number of hours regularly to get them — those in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, and those without children or other dependents who rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Those in any of our major safety net programs can lose some or all of their benefits when their incomes rise. But then their incomes will probably fall again. And getting those benefits back takes time — especially, as CLASP notes, when a sudden schedule change forces them to miss an appointment.

What the Bill Would Have Done

The proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have done three major things. First, it would have required the covered businesses to give part-time workers more hours, if they wanted them, before hiring more part-timers.

Second, it would have required them to pay part-time workers as much as full-time workers with roughly equivalent jobs. An exception here, however, for pay differentials based on seniority systems like those built into some union contracts.

Third, the bill would have required the covered businesses to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance. No day-by-day — or even hour-by-hour — scheduling according to expected customer traffic.

The businesses could have changed schedules with a day’s advance notice, but they’d have owed an extra hour’s pay for that. More extra hours of pay if less warning.

This only if workers agreed to the scheduling change — in writing, as all the scheduling communications would have had to be. Workers could refuse and wouldn’t have to find someone else to fill in.

District law already requires employers to pay workers when they show up as scheduled and are told they’re not needed — or were scheduled for more than four hours and sent home sooner or told to sit around for awhile.

The bill would have extended a somewhat similar pay protection to workers told they should call in and be available to come in if needed.

It did, however, recognize that businesses sometimes need no workers because they can’t operate. They’ve no electricity, for example. A big snowstorm has shut down public transit. They been told to close because of a terrorist threat.

No pay owed in these or some other specified cases. Nor if a restaurant scheduled additional staff expecting a nearby event that got cancelled, thus reducing expected customer traffic.

In short, some carve-outs, but generally provisions that aim to make just-in-time scheduling and similar practices less profitable to some businesses that use them.

Or at least, seem less profitable. Relatively stable schedules can reduce turnover — and with it, the costs of hiring and training. They can also increase productivity because workers feel better, physically and emotionally — and do more to help the businesses do better because they feel better about them.

Trader Joe’s reportedly gives its workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance. And it’s doing just fine.

*  I’m linking to the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee’s report, rather than the online version of the bill because the committee’s version reflects what the Council considered.


Income Growth Did a Lot to Push Poverty Rates Down

September 14, 2016

I think my quick-off-the-dime post on the new official poverty rates didn’t give enough credit to household income increases as a reason they virtually all declined. Progressive analysts quickly heralded the significant income growth the new report shows.

The “typical family’s income,” i.e., the median for all households, increased by a record amount, whether you look at the dollars or the year-over-year percent, said Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein.

The one-year real-dollar growth was greatest for the bottom fifth of the income scale, the Economic Policy Institute reported, while stressing that all but the top five percent still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.

So here’s a brief look at the income side of the ledger — and a few policy-related remarks.

The “typical family” gained a bit over $2,800, making for an estimated 5.2% increase. All the major types of households the Census Bureau reports on, e.g., married couples, single-mother families, gained in varying amounts.

Likewise all the major race/ethnicity groups. Most of those that had suffered the worst losses during the Great Recession gained the most, EPI later noted. But the percent gains didn’t vary much. So the gaps remain very large.

The median income for black households, for example, was roughly $26,000 less than the median for white non-Hispanic households — and the median for Hispanic households $17,800 less.

But the median for Asian households topped them all at $77,166. This confirms the underlying disparities I noted in reporting the Asian poverty rate.

We also see continuing marked disparities between married couples with children and single-parent families — single-mother families especially.

Their median income was about $37,800, as compared to $84,626 for the married couples. The estimated increase for both was about the same. So at least single-mother families seem not to be losing ground, though a far higher percent still lived in poverty.

Some Republicans predictably accentuated the negative. “Billions of dollars” invested each year, “but more than 43 million people continue to live in poverty,” said the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman.

But public policies do help account for the income gains — and thus the lower poverty rates. Greenstein cites several.

First off, the labor market is getting tighter — a factor economist/blogger Jared Bernstein stresses. Employers have generally found they have to pay more to get (and keep) the workers they need.

The Federal Reserve has done its share by keeping interest rates very low, rather than raising them, as it often has when the unemployment rate drops to a level that could trigger more than a miniscule inflation increase.

Second, employers in 23 states and the District of Columbia had to raise wages for their lowest-paid workers due to minimum wage increases. More local governments set their minimum wages above their state’s level — or had earlier passed laws requiring increases.

Minimum wage increases generally have what economists call “spillover effects,” i.e., raises employers put in place to preserve differences between their lowest-paid and somewhat better-paid workers.

So the recent increases almost surely help explain the higher median household incomes, perhaps especially the boost for the bottom fifth.

Yet “there is more to be done,” as the Coalition on Human Needs headlined its executive director’s response to the Census Bureau’s official and supplemental poverty measure reports. Even more to be done than the measures she singles out, as she would be the first to say.

I’ll follow her lead because once one really gets into what policymakers could do to raise incomes enough — and for enough people — to make poverty a rare, brief experience a post (or statement) turns into a treatise.

She does, however, make two points I’ll borrow because they speak to how I’ve gone at the new Census figures. One addresses the disparities in both poverty rates and incomes.

Steps like a federal minimum wage increase, funding to expand affordable child care and reforms in the Earned Income Tax Credit “wouldn’t just have the effect of lifting all boats.” They’d address income inequalities — not only between non-Hispanic whites and racial and ethnic minorities, but between men and women.

The other point is that we need to do all we can to ensure that our policymakers do no harm. Those grumblings about the billions foretell further efforts to cut federal anti-poverty programs until they can be drowned in a bathtub.

 

 


Everyone Needs Time Off From Work, But Millions Can’t Take It

August 1, 2016

I’m preoccupied with time off from work — why I need it, why we all do, why so many can’t take it and what policymakers can do about that.

One of the privileges of retirement is that you can take time off from whatever you’ve chosen to fill your days with and still have as much income as if you’d taken no break.

This assumes you don’t need to earn more because you got paid enough, steadily enough to live on Social Security benefits, plus your savings when you choose not to work anymore — or, as in my case, when the rewards of the work you choose don’t pay bills.

I’ve needed more time off, if you can call it that, since my husband died, partly to deal with basic life maintenance tasks he used to handle and partly to manage more consequential matters.

But the need for time off is hardly restricted to people who’ve experienced a life-changing event. My late sister Marjorie used to take what she called well days — paid time off to tackle personal business so that the mounting pressures didn’t trigger anxieties, sleeplessness and the like that would sap her resistance to illness.

Very few workers have such accommodating bosses, of course. Many can’t even take time off and still get their regular paychecks if they’re actually sick.

About 36% of private-sector workers have no paid sick leave benefit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported. And nearly 60% with service-related jobs don’t. (Remember this next time a wait server hovers over your shoulder.)

Workers, as a whole, fare worse when they need time off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or themselves when they’re expecting. Only 11% of those in the private sector can rely on formal employer policies, though another 28% say they could take it. Not that they tried, mind you.

Needless to say, I hope, fewer low-wage workers have access to any paid leave than others. And they, of course, can least afford to forfeit pay.

Perhaps not needless to say, even now, is that only about 60% of all workers can take unpaid leave for medical or compelling family reasons with any assurance they’ll have jobs to come back to.

They’re workers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Similar laws in some states may push the percent up a bit. No data to tell us, so far as I know. But we can, I think, assume that at least a quarter of private-sector workers have no legal right to time off when they’re sick, pregnant or must care for a family member.

The rest don’t qualify because their employer doesn’t have enough other workers on the payroll or because they haven’t worked for the employer long enough. Others because they haven’t recently put in as many hours as the laws require.

FMLA itself is singularly restrictive on workforce size, letting even large employers do as they wish if they have fewer than 50 workers at a given site or within 75 miles of it.

Even workers at sites that meet this standard have no legal right to the unpaid leave unless they’ve worked for the employer for at least a year and for at least 1,250 hours, i.e., more than half time.

We see similar, though not identical restrictions in states’ laws. A lot of variation, but no state requires all employers to let all their workers take time off for an urgent personal health or family-related reason.

Workers entitled to the leave time often can’t take it because they can’t afford to lose pay. But sometimes they’ve no choice. They’ve broken a leg and can’t even hobble to the bus stop, for example.

Reverting to my own experience, illness or other physical incapacity is only one reason people can’t put in the hours they’re scheduled for. They may need to be home, as I recently did, to deal with technicians so as to get the air conditioner chilling again — and (coincidentally) the refrigerator chilling the food.

Paid vacation leave would, in theory, prevent wage loss in such cases. But workers whose employers provide it must often schedule it in advance. And most of the lowest-paid in the private sector have none. This has nothing to do with restrictions in existing laws.

No law requires private-sector employers in America to provide any worker with vacation leave — liberally understood as leave for any reason not covered by FMLA or its state equivalents.

The realities of the labor market generally constrain employers to include a paid vacation leave benefit in the package they offer workers with high-level, in-demand skills. Not, however, those they can hire — and feel they can readily replace — by offering only a low wage.

Bernie Sanders introduced a paid vacation bill when he was campaigning for the Presidential nomination. An idea whose time hasn’t come yet. Paid medical and family leave is a whole other story.

Worker and family advocates have long pressed for it at both federal and state levels. Clinton has embraced it, though not apparently the way pending House and Senate bills would pay for it. It’s a plank in the Democratic party platform, of course.

Columnists left and right understood Ivanka Trump to say her dad would support paid leave when she introduced him at the Republican convention. Not explicitly. Just as well, since he’s suggested it would make our country less competitive.

Regardless of who moves into the White House, a paid sick and family leave bill will have a tough time getting through the next Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could have supported an earlier version of the pending paid leave bill. He instead signed on to one that would let (or force) workers to substitute time off for overtime pay — an old, bad tradeoff.

It’s also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “family friendly” alternative to a paid leave guarantee. Democrats would need to gain 14 Senate seats to pass a paid leave bill there. They surely won’t have enough in the House anyway.

So we may see more states decide they shouldn’t wait for a federal law, just as we’ve seen them do with other worker and family friendly measures, e.g., minimum wage increases, controls on constantly shifting schedules.

Best hope for now, I think, though I’d like to be wrong.