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“Demand A Higher Wage, People!”: The Status Quo Of Wage Injustice And Greed-Driven Inequality Relies On Our Complicity

Chasten Florence was on his lunch break when he decided to join a protest outside a McDonald’s in New York City on Wednesday. To be honest, Florence wasn’t really sure what he was helping protest. But as he lay his body down on the sidewalk at a die-in of low-wage workers demanding a $15 wage and a union, Florence simply explained, “These are my people.”

Didn’t Florence need to eat lunch? Sure, but he could spare five minutes. Working concrete on construction jobs, Florence earns more than $15 an hour and thinks everyone else should, too. “I don’t know how you can raise a household on less,” said Florence. And he’s right. You can’t.

On April 15, workers from McDonald’s, Walmart and other low-wage employers were joined by college students and adjunct faculty, domestic workers and leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement. In all, tens of thousands participated in protests in 200 cities across the United States to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union. The #FightFor15 is unconventional in that, instead of focusing on Congress to raise wages, workers and advocates are pressuring employers and also the general public—trying to foster awareness about dismal wages and working conditions and create a groundswell of support for change.

The nationwide protests were organized on Tax Day, April 15, because 4/15 is a short-hand for the campaign’s wage demands. But it was also meant to highlight the fact that the poverty wages paid by fast food restaurants and employers are so low that many low-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance benefits to get by. In fact, almost three-quarters of Americans who depend on public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid are members of a family headed by someone who has a job.

In other words, in America today, many people are poor not because they don’t have a job but because they have a job that pays poverty wages. If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as overall productivity since 1968, then the minimum wage would now be $18.50 an hour—instead of $7.25, the current federal minimum wage. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage has actually dropped. In 2014 dollars, the 1968 minimum wage was equal to $9.54 an hour.

The stagnation of working class wages cannot be explained by a lack of hard work or skills. Low-wage workers have more education than their 1968 counterparts—and yet are still being paid less. And as this graph from Mother Jones shows, while worker productivity has steadily risen over the past several decades, overall wages have not grown at the same pace—even though the income of the top 1% has spiked dramatically.

As taxpayers, we foot the bill for greedy employers who pay poverty wages. For instance, because McDonald’s won’t pay its workers a living wage, taxpayers are paying $1.2 billion per year in food stamp costs and other public assistance just for McDonald’s workers alone. That’s like our tax dollars subsidizing McDonald’s profit—and greed.

Recently McDonald’s announced it would raise wages by $1.00 an hour for workers in its corporate-owned stores, which since most McDonald’s are franchise operations, means the raise will affect less than 10 percent of McDonald’s workers. Beth Schaffer, who works at a McDonald’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to New York for the protests, shrugged her shoulders about the raise. After all, every single McDonald’s in South Carolina is a franchise not covered by the $1.00-an-hour increase. “My customers show me more respect than my employer,” said Schaffer. As her tone made clear, that’s not saying much.

As I left the Fight for $15 protest, one of several staged throughout New York on Wednesday, Chasten Florence walked one way back to his construction site and I walked the other way. I passed the tony restaurants of New York’s Upper West Side, on what seemed like one of the first real days of spring, men and women in business suits sitting at tables on the sidewalk, taking in the sun. Most were probably spending more on lunch than the workers at the protest earn in a week. Myself included.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, with wealth and success and enjoying what comes with it. The question is, are we paying enough attention to the costs? I wondered whether the people eating their expensive lunches knew that the bussers taking their plates can barely afford to feed their own families, that the workers at their children’s daycares don’t have health insurance, that the cheap stuff they order conveniently on Amazon.com is definitely comes at a high cost to the workers who make and ship those goods.

The construction worker who joined the Fight for $15 protest didn’t know that much about the issues or the protest demands, either. But he was going out of his way to learn, and to be supportive. “These are my people,” he said. Yes, they’re all of our people. It’s time we all wake up, pay attention, be angry and stand with our fellow human beings to do something about it. The status quo of wage injustice and greed-driven inequality relies on our complicity, whether by silence or ignorance. But it cannot survive if we all stand up together and fight.

 

By: Sally Kohn,

April 19, 2015 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty, Wage Stagnation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Power And Paychecks”: There’s No Excuse For Wage Fatalism; We Can Give American Workers A Raise If We Want To

On Wednesday, McDonald’s — which has been facing demonstrations denouncing its low wages — announced that it would give workers a raise. The pay increase won’t, in itself, be a very big deal: the new wage floor is just $1 above the local minimum wage, and even that policy only applies to outlets McDonald’s owns directly, not the many outlets owned by people who bought franchises. But it’s at least possible that this latest announcement, like Walmart’s much bigger pay-raise announcement a couple of months ago, is a harbinger of an important change in U.S. labor relations.

Maybe it’s not that hard to give American workers a raise, after all.

Most people would surely agree that stagnant wages, and more broadly the shrinking number of jobs that can support middle-class status, are big problems for this country. But the general attitude to the decline in good jobs is fatalistic. Isn’t it just supply and demand? Haven’t labor-saving technology and global competition made it impossible to pay decent wages to workers unless they have a lot of education?

Strange to say, however, the more you know about labor economics the less likely you are to share this fatalism. For one thing, global competition is overrated as a factor in labor markets; yes, manufacturing faces a lot more competition than it did in the past, but the great majority of American workers are employed in service industries that aren’t exposed to international trade. And the evidence that technology is pushing down wages is a lot less clear than all the harrumphing about a “skills gap” might suggest.

Even more important is the fact that the market for labor isn’t like the markets for soybeans or pork bellies. Workers are people; relations between employers and employees are more complicated than simple supply and demand. And this complexity means that there’s a lot more wiggle room in wage determination than conventional wisdom would have you believe. We can, in fact, raise wages significantly if we want to.

How do we know that labor markets are different? Start with the effects of minimum wages. There’s a lot of evidence on those effects: Every time a state raises its minimum wage while neighboring states don’t, it, in effect, performs a controlled experiment. And the overwhelming conclusion from all that evidence is that the effect you might expect to see — higher minimum wages leading to fewer jobs — is weak to nonexistent. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs better; it doesn’t seem to make them scarcer.

How is that possible? At least part of the answer is that workers are not, in fact, commodities. A bushel of soybeans doesn’t care how much you paid for it; but decently paid workers tend to do a better job, not to mention being less likely to quit and require replacement, than workers paid the absolute minimum an employer can get away with. As a result, raising the minimum wage, while it makes labor more expensive, has offsetting benefits that tend to lower costs, limiting any adverse effect on jobs.

Similar factors explain another puzzle about labor markets: the way different firms in what looks like the same business can pay very different wages. The classic comparison is between Walmart (with its low wages, low morale, and very high turnover) and Costco (which offers higher wages and better benefits, and makes up the difference with better productivity and worker loyalty). True, the two retailers serve different markets; Costco’s merchandise is higher-end and its customers more affluent. But the comparison nonetheless suggests that paying higher wages costs employers a lot less than you might think.

And this, in turn, suggests that it shouldn’t be all that hard to raise wages across the board. Suppose that we were to give workers some bargaining power by raising minimum wages, making it easier for them to organize, and, crucially, aiming for full employment rather than finding reasons to choke off recovery despite low inflation. Given what we now know about labor markets, the results might be surprisingly big — because a moderate push might be all it takes to persuade much of American business to turn away from the low-wage strategy that has dominated our society for so many years.

There’s historical precedent for this kind of wage push. The middle-class society now dwindling in our rearview mirrors didn’t emerge spontaneously; it was largely created by the “great compression” of wages that took place during World War II, with effects that lasted for more than a generation.

So can we repeat this achievement? The pay raises at Walmart and McDonald’s — brought on by a tightening job market plus activist pressure — offer a small taste of what could happen on a vastly larger scale. There’s no excuse for wage fatalism. We can give American workers a raise if we want to.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 3, 2015

April 5, 2015 Posted by | Businesses, Labor, Wages | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Nickel And Dimed”: The Very Real Scourge Of Wage Theft

Last week, the owner of a chain of Papa John’s was ordered to pay $800,000 in back pay to workers he’d shortchanged by rounding down to the nearest hour on their time cards and failing to pay overtime properly. “I didn’t realize if you work 10 hours per day, you are supposed to pay overtime for two hours,” the owner, Emmanuel Onuaguluchi, told the New York Post.

A couple hours of overtime there may not seem like a lot of money, but those amounts could mean everything to workers struggling to get by on minimum wage and, as the judgment shows, it all adds up over the years. This latest judgment is part of a big push by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who has also sued local McDonald’s and Domino’s franchises.

Cases of wage theft—or, at least, the cases officials are pursuing—have been up in California and across the country, too, according to The New York Times. Business interests told the Times that politicians like Schneider are just pursuing these cases to curry favor with unions, but the unions aren’t really behind the legal actions.

If restaurants and other companies in the service industry—where workers are paid by the hour, have hours that change from week-to-week, and are especially vulnerable to wage theft—are complaining that the wage theft cases are coming from people who, in general, want to be paid more, they’re right. The fight for higher minimum wages across the country has highlighted the problems low-wage workers face in their workplaces, and wage theft is one of the most common ways they’re denied even the measly current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Wage theft is old, but before now workers might have been too scared to complain or go to an attorney on their own. “I think one reason why it’s coming up more now is that it’s tied to a real organizing campaign where fast food workers are demanding and protesting,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which is not directly involved in any of these cases.

By law, companies have to pay their employees minimum wage, and overtime pay should kick in once an employee works past an eight-hour shift in a day. Five years ago, in a survey funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and conducted by researchers from the National Employment Law Project, UCLA, Cornell University, and the University of Illinois, Chicago, a quarter of low-wage employees reported they hadn’t been paid the minimum wage in the prior week, and three-quarters said they were denied overtime.

As someone who has spent the past three years reporting from low-income communities across the country and grew up in working-class family in a poor part of Arkansas, I hear stories of wage theft all the time. Onuaguluchi’s view about overtime is common—I’ve known people who have worked in fast-food restaurants and routinely pulled several double shifts in a week, but as long as their hours did not total more than 80 in a two-week pay period their bosses did not pay overtime.

I’ve also heard of bosses who don’t pay correctly, and paychecks come with hours missing. Those mistakes are harder for workers to figure out than you would think because they need to keep records on exactly when they worked and how many hours it was, and compare it to what their paychecks say when they arrive a week or two later. But at the end of the day, these cases are relatively easy to prove because records of time sheets will show how many hours each employee worked and whether they were paid properly. Rounding down, as Onuaguluchi did, would be evident.

Many stories about wage theft, though, offer more insidious examples that are harder to fight. I know of people who’ve had to run errands on behalf of their workplaces before they even show up for work, and are expected to arrive every morning with said errand completed. I know people who’ve had to clock out for breaks they can’t take. Sometimes, workers are expected to have a certain amount of work done before they clock in at the official start of their shifts, or are asked to or expected to finish a task once they’re already gone, according to their time sheets. It would be harder to tackle cases like that in court because these practices might not be codified or routine, but the basic idea is that bosses at companies like this don’t rank their employees’ time as valuable.

In fairness, the direct bosses like Onuaguluchi are often squeezed themselves. While three-quarters of these kinds of stores are owned by franchisees who own multiple units and are often making quite a profit, their profits rely on running their operations as cheaply as possible. The small-business man or woman who owns one or two might struggle to pay their employees properly, although I have little sympathy for those who break the law. That’s because franchise fees are expensive: even a franchise fee considered relatively affordable, like 7/11, takes $31,000 to start up. McDonald’s requires $45,000 and that the owners have $300,000 in cash or other funds available to them.

Companies like these also require other licensing fees to be paid, and sometimes franchisees even pay rent because the parent company owns the physical location of the store.

So, people like Schneiderman have promised to go after Papa John’s, and other big companies that franchise stores as well. What Papa John’s and their ilk say is that they’re not responsible for the ways their franchisees pay people. Yet they intensely manage their brands, which often includes monitoring time sheets that franchisees send in, quality control tests that could influence hiring and firing decisions, and other fine-grained aspects of their operations. Even more directly, attorneys could argue that these companies charge their franchisees so much in fees that they know, or should know, that the only way for them to make a profit is to shortchange their employees.

In July, the National Labor Relations Board ruled McDonald’s was a joint employer in a similar case, and that pay complaints could be made against them. If suits against the parent companies succeed, it might actually start to end the practice of robbing low-income workers of the little money they have. “At the end of the day, you want to recover the unpaid wages, but you also want to correct the behavior,” Gebreselassie says. “One of the best ways to do that is to reach to the corporate parent.”

 

By: Monica Potts, The Daily Beast, February 15, 2015

February 16, 2015 Posted by | Corporations, Economic Inequality, Wage Theft | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Mislearned Lesson”: McDonald’s Indigestible Excuse For Low Pay

When Henry Ford realized it was good business to pay employees enough to buy the products they built, it was a breakthrough, not only because the idea challenged the reflex to pay as little as possible, but because the product was a car. He was talking real bucks.

McDonald’s has mislearned the lesson.

In response to escalating protests by McDonald’s employees calling for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation, McDonald’s chief executive, Don Thompson, defended the company at the annual meeting on Thursday, saying that McDonald’s pays a competitive wage.

But what constitutes “competitive” in the fast-food industry is precisely the problem. Hourly pay averages about $9. The low pay is possible in part because employers rely on taxpayers to subsidize it through public assistance and on non-unionized workforces to swallow it. The competitive fast food wage, in short, is not enough to live on.

Mr. Thompson presumably knows that. But he is paid not to understand what the protestors are demanding because his own pay is based on profits that are derived in part by keeping worker pay low.

Of course, if the political economy were functioning as it is supposed to – with Congress imposing reasonable boundaries on businesses, markets and the economy – workers wouldn’t have to get their bosses to understand what it’s like to live on $9 an hour, because Congress would make sure that no one had to.

The McDonald’s workers are asking for $15 an hour. That sounds like a lot compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and compared to the Democratic proposal to raise the minimum to $10.10. But it’s actually closer to where the minimum wage would be today if it had kept pace over the years with growth in labor productivity.

McDonald’s workers are not asking for too much. Democrats are asking for too little and Republicans won’t even go along with that.

 

By: Teresa Tritch, Taking Note, The Editors Blog, The New York Times, May 23, 2014

May 24, 2014 Posted by | Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Need To Be More Ambitious”: Why The Minimum Wage Should Really Be Raised To $15 An Hour

Momentum is building to raise the minimum wage. Several states have already taken action  — Connecticut has boosted it to $10.10 by 2017, the Maryland legislature just approved a similar measure, Minnesota lawmakers just reached a deal to hike it to $9.50. A few cities have been more ambitious — Washington, D.C. and its surrounding counties raised it to $11.50, Seattle is considering $15.00

Senate Democrats will soon introduce legislation raising it nationally to $10.10, from the current $7.25 an hour.

All this is fine as far as it goes. But we need to be more ambitious. We should be raising the federal minimum to $15 an hour.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. Had the minimum wage of 1968 simply stayed even with inflation, it would be more than $10 an hour today. But the typical worker is also about twice as productive as then. Some of those productivity gains should go to workers at the bottom.

2. $10.10 isn’t enough to lift all workers and their families out of poverty. Most low-wage workers aren’t young teenagers; they’re major breadwinners for their families, and many are women. And they and their families need a higher minimum.

3. For this reason, a $10.10 minimum would also still require the rest of us to pay Medicaid, food-stamps, and other programs necessary to get poor families out of poverty — thereby indirectly subsidizing employers who refuse to pay more. Bloomberg View describes McDonalds and Walmart as “America’s biggest welfare queens” because their employees receive so much public assistance. (Some, like McDonalds, even advise their employees to use public programs because their pay is so low.)

4. A $15/hour minimum won’t result in major job losses because it would put money in the pockets of millions of low-wage workers who will spend it — thereby giving working families and the overall economy a boost, and creating jobs. (When I was Labor Secretary in 1996 and we raised the minimum wage, business predicted millions of job losses; in fact, we had more job gains over the next four years than in any comparable period in American history.)

5. A $15/hour minimum is unlikely to result in higher prices because most businesses directly affected by it are in intense competition for consumers, and will take the raise out of profits rather than raise their prices. But because the higher minimum will also attract more workers into the job market, employers will have more choice of whom to hire, and thereby have more reliable employees — resulting in lower turnover costs and higher productivity.

6. Since Republicans will push Democrats to go even lower than $10.10, it’s doubly important to be clear about what’s right in the first place. Democrats should be going for a higher minimum rather than listening to Republican demands for a smaller one.

7. At a time in our history when 95 percent of all economic gains are going to the top 1 percent, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour isn’t just smart economics and good politics. It’s also the morally right thing to do.

Call your senators and members of congress today to tell them $15 an hour is the least American workers deserve. You can reach them at 202-224-3121.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 9, 2014

April 10, 2014 Posted by | Minimum Wage, Poverty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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