WHEN WILL WORKERS GET A BREAK?
Now that the impeachment trial of the 45th President is over, perhaps our legislators can turn their attention to working people, or more accurately, those who used to work and are not now working. There were 18 million unemployment insurance claims now than a year ago, and nearly 10 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. The first Friday report that the unemployment rate has dropped is misleading when the number of people fleeing the labor market is alarming. Most disturbing, of course, is the departure of women from the labor force. Last month alone, more than 250,000 women left the labor market, compared to 71,000 men.
Further, many of those working, especially in meat-packing, manufacturing, and most service occupations, don't have the luxury to physically distance at work. Some of these folk earn appallingly low wages, in some cases hovering near the $7.25 minimum, the same rate it has been for more than a decade. To be sure, minimum wages are higher in some cities and states, with the District of Columbia, San Francisco, and Seattle establishing a $15 minimum. Other jurisdictions have passed legislation gradually moving the wage to $15.
President Biden promised to support new minimum wage legislation, and Senator Bernie Sanders is pushing hard. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 was introduced on January 26, and House Speaker Pelosi has said a version of the bill will be sent to the Senate for approval. There is likely to be pushback, especially from states that have not raised their wage above the federal level. It is useful to note that in Florida, where the former President enjoys popularity, a ballot measure supporting a $15 minimum wage passed. Even conservatives have to eat!
Senate Bill 53, the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 level to $15 by June of 2025. The first increase would happen this year, raising the wage to $9.25 this year. In subsequent years the wage would rise to $11.00 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14.00 in 2024, and $15 by June of 2025. The most significant bump is 31 percent, from the current $290 per week (for a full-time week) to $380 per week. Even with that increase, though, a family of four is living below the poverty line of $26,500. The minimum wage for a family with one worker won't exceed the poverty line until 2024 when the wage is $14 an hour.
Some households with minimum wage workers have more than one person contributing to household expenses. But many minimum wage workers work part-time, not full time, and don't work part-time by choice. Many employers offer less than a 40-hour workweek to avoid paying benefits.
Raising the minimum wage gives at least 27 million workers a raise. Most of them are women. A third are Latino, and 40 percent are African American. Raising the wage would reduce inequality and poverty. Senator Sanders is prepared to push this legislation through by reconciliation if he can't get Republican support. If Republican Senators value their constituents' voices, they will support legislation that brings relief to some of them.
There may also be some assistance coming to working people via the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act. This legislation protects workers' rights to form unions, limits employers' right to interfere with union activities, and strengthens other workers' rights. With several dozen new provisions, the PRO Act represents the first attempt to overhaul the National Labor Relations Act in more than seventy years. The legislation passed the House in 2020, passing mostly along party lines, but the Republican-controlled Senate declined to deliberate. This time, Democrats control the schedule, and the legislation will receive some review and deliberation. But Chambers of Commerce and other business groups are likely to oppose it. Research shows that the presence of unions in the workplace increases wages. Equally importantly, it protects workers from unsafe working conditions.
Perhaps legislation will provide workers with some relief this year. It is also possible, though, that working people, especially those near the bottom, will get caught up in partisan squabbling.
Workers need a break, need a raise, need safe working conditions. Can Washington deliver?
Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author. She can be reached at juliannemalveaux.com