State Strategies to Advance Workers’ Rights: Policy Options for 2011

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States’ Role in Improving the Quality of Work and Life

The key to emerging from the economic recession with a stronger and more stable economy is putting policies in place that promote economic security and opportunity for working- and middle-class families.  While the factors that have undermined wage standards and the middle class are numerous, the basic obstacle to improving the economic security of working families is a political one:  widespread acceptance of the false idea that government regulation is bad for business and costs jobs.  

In recent years, states have demonstrated the ability of strong, values-based messaging on basic workers’ rights issues to counter this message, even during bad economic times.  States’ leadership on, for example, the minimum wage changed the national debate and made it possible for the federal government to enact an increase, even during the most anti-worker administration in decades.

To this end, Progressive States Network is highlighting an agenda of labor policies that have strong public support and present good opportunities to reframe debates over workers’ rights and the economy as issues inherent to our society’s core values.  Progressives must be quick to point out that it is not our basic labor standards that have led to massive unemployment and bankrupted working- and middle-class families, but rather bad business practices and lack of regulation and oversight which have let corporations run amok and redistributed wealth from ordinary, hard-working people to the super-rich.  The following sets of policies are a good start toward modernizing labor policy for today’s workforce and building a more stable foundation for the economy in the years to come:

Work-Family Balance:  Paid Sick Days

No one should have to risk their job because they, or their child, get sick.  But without any laws guaranteeing workers paid sick time, one out of six people has lost a job for exactly that reason.  Even more have been forced to go to work or send their child to school sick, which public health experts agree increases the risk of spreading diseases like H1N1 or foodborne illnesses.  States are leading the way in establishing paid sick days as a new basic labor standard, which will enable working people to better balance work and family responsibilities at minimal cost to businesses.  In 2010 polling, large majorities of people throughout the country and across every demographic support paid sick days, including 86% who believe that there should be a law mandating a minimum of seven days per year.

Preventing Wage Theft:  Wage Law Enforcement

Workers at the low end of the pay scale are vulnerable to wage law violations, such as underpayment of wages, unpaid overtime, and being misclassified as “contractors.”  Research has shown that a large majority (nearly 70%) of low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lose a significant amount of earned income each year to pay-related violations.  Totaling $56.4 million each week in just those three cities, states are beefing up their regulations and capacity to combat wage theft.  Improving wage law enforcement makes sure that working people are paid properly, unscrupulous employers cannot take advantage of the most vulnerable and dodge employment taxes, and helps local businesses by improving low-wage workers’ incomes.

Economic Recovery Done Right:  Restore the Minimum Wage

Since 1970, the value of the minimum wage has declined by nearly 30%, and it continues to do so each year the rate is not increased.  At the same time as low-wage workers have slipped further behind, the middle class has infamously shrunk and income disparity has reached record levels, with the wealthiest 10% accounting for 50% of personal income in 2007.  States have become leaders in raising the minimum wage and shaping the national debate.  In 2011, states will take up the issue again with measures to restore the value of the minimum wage and institute annual increases to keep pace with inflation.  By shoring up our most basic labor standard, we can exit the recession with a stronger, more stable foundation for our economy in the years to come and usher in a new period of prosperity and opportunity for all.