Our progressive vision: Our economy remains unsteady because government policies are rigged to favor the rich and powerful over the middle class and working families. All levels of government need to encourage or require that the lowest-level jobs provide at least a living wage and that middle-class jobs support a middle-class standard of living. Four policies are fundamental, laws that: (1) set a floor on wages for different types of work; (2) guarantee a minimum set of job benefits; (3) ensure that hiring and retention processes are fair; and (4) protect the right to collective bargaining in order to secure for employees a fair share of the profits.
Between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Reagan Administration, the wages of average American workers rose at the same rate as nationwide productivity. But since then, wages have stagnated and nearly all new wealth has been captured by the rich. Recently, over a dozen states and localities have responded by raising the minimum wage. Seven states have the same minimum wage for tipped workers as everyone else, which is a matter of simple justice. State and local jurisdictions have also implemented a living wage for government employees and contractors. Although it’s not yet been attempted, it is entirely possible to dissuade employers from paying a poverty-level wage through a surtax on large businesses like Walmart that pay workers so little that they have to rely on public-assistance programs.
American workers used to take for granted that their jobs would include fair benefits like health insurance, sick days and paid vacation. Today, progressives have to fight for every benefit. Recently, states and cities have mandated paid sick leave, while others have set up family leave systems or required overtime pay. California also created a program that helps workers set up retirement accounts.
Fair rules for hiring and retention
Because of the unsteady economy and the lack of union representation, employers are using more and more arbitrary and unfair tactics against both job applicants and existing employees. Some employers have demanded that job applicants or employees give them their social network usernames and passwords, or “friend” the employer, or submit to credit checks, or disclose arrest or criminal histories when those are irrelevant to the job, and progressive governments have stepped in to stop these practices.
Although public policy can require a series of minimum wages and benefits, that is no substitute for collective bargaining. Only labor unions can insist that workers receive a fair share of a company’s profits that their hard work creates. While this is mostly a federal issue, states and localities can ensure that their own employees have the right to bargain collectively, expand collective bargaining rights for specific types of jobs, and prohibit public funds from being used to influence union organizing.
Wage theft is an epidemic among low-wage workers. One study found that more than two-thirds experienced at least one pay-related violation in their previous work week, including some workers who were paid less than the minimum wage and others who were not paid overtime wages owed to them. Wage theft leads to poverty and homelessness for both workers and their families. Although it’s usually already illegal, low-wage workers are the least able to enforce their rights. They often don’t have the knowledge or resources to obtain legal help, and they fear retaliation if they try to demand what they deserve. These workers need new legislation with tougher penalties and realistic enforcement mechanisms so they will have both the incentive to report wage theft and the confidence that the system will protect them.
Ban credit checks by employers
Nearly half of employers now require job applicants to consent to a credit check. Sometimes current employees are asked to do the same. And yet, credit checks are not designed as an employment screening tool and there is no research that suggests people with poor credit reports become poor employees. There are many reasons why Americans might have bad credit scores. Often it’s because of an injury or illness where treatment caused a lot of bills. In recent years, many small business owners racked up bad credit scores because of the effects of the financial downturn. And sometimes bad credit was caused by identity theft or simple reporting mistakes that remain in the records of one of the credit bureaus. In addition, the practice discriminates against individuals who don’t have affluent families who can bail them out of debt. That’s why several states and cities have enacted laws to forbid employers from conducting credit checks on workers or job applicants.
Ban the Box
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an increasing number of federal, state and local governments required employees and contractors to submit to criminal background checks. In recent years, private employers have also demanded criminal history checks of both job applicants and existing employees. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimated that 65 million Americans—or one in four adults—have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check. Because people of color are disproportionately affected, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends that employers not ask about convictions on job applications. A number of jurisdictions have passed legislation to remove conviction history questions from job applications—a measure commonly known as “ban the box.” Generally, “ban the box” laws allow employers to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history some time after the job application or initial interview.