Minimum Wage Gaps Growing

New Orleans      There are twenty-one states where workers are still frozen at something equivalent to the federal minimum wage at $7.25.  Those states are disproportionately better “red than fed” in the South and West with a smattering in the Midwest and even the Northeast.

I’m not saying there are any surprises here, but the line-up is a rogues list of woe for workers:  In the South, count Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia for nine of the twenty-two.  In the West, we have Idaho, Oklahoma, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming adding another six.  The Midwest is sadly also very well represented with Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin for their four while the East adds two with Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  The gap between these twenty-one states, along with several others that are hovering right near them like Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and even Illinois, is widening the inequality gap not only between the rich and the rest of us, but even between low-and-moderate income families and their counterparts in other states.

Even with a Democratic governor, it’s not an easy road.  In Louisiana, John Bel Edwards has been turned back by the Republican-dominated legislature three times that he has tried to raise the state minimum wage.  It’s gotten so bad that a state constitutional amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour, if approved by the voters, has even picked up support from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  There were recent efforts to allow cities to set their own rates apart from the state level by vacating a law passed after an ACORN and Local 100 effort won an increase twenty years ago at the ballot box.

These issues were  highlighted in an analysis in the New York Times that talked about the effective rate across the country is now wildly different than the federal standard as other, very populated states, like New York and California, along with major cities like Seattle have raised their wages.

Averaging across all of these federal, state and local minimum wage laws, the effective minimum wage in the United States — the average minimum wage binding each hour of minimum wage work — will be $11.80 an hour in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, this is probably the highest minimum wage in American history.  In 21 states where the minimum wage is still frozen, workers have lost 16% of their buying power.

Furthermore, as their analysis also indicated the main business boogeyman held up as the rationale for keeping wages abysmally low has also continued to erode:

a huge study released in April analyzed 138 different state-level minimum wage increases since 1979. The authors found largely no net negative employment effects, though they did find some in sectors exposed to international trade. And University of Washington economists revised an initial study of Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase that had showed significant negative effects on earnings for some workers. The new study found that the downsides were more muted.

Wrap your mind around this inequity.  If the “effective” national rate is $11.80 per hour now, then workers in these twenty-one states at $7.25 are almost hopelessly underpaid.  A national worker at fulltime hours would be making $24,544 annually, while workers in the left-behind states would make $15,080 fulltime, which is $9464 per year or almost 63% less that the theoretical national worker.  Of course, left-behind state workers actually are farther behind, because the national effective rate was an average after the rest of us pulled the really higher paid hourly workers down closer to our level, making their premium look and spend even more.  Furthermore, since the rate has changed, minimum wage workers are losing purchasing power even as others are gaining.

This kind of inequity at the bottom is as unjust as the gap between all workers now in America and the rich, and should be the easiest part of the inequality gap to eliminate, especially if Congress would act for everyone rather than mainly the rich as well.

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By the Way, Workers Are Still Dying on the Job Daily!

Little Rock       On Wade’s World, I visited recently with Jonathan Karmel about safety on the job for workers.  Karmel is 35-year, Chicago-based, labor side lawyer who after years in the legal trenches for unions, had an epiphany when he realized the continuing dangers faced by workers trying to make a living and sometimes dying while trying.  Karmel has written a book, Dying to Work:  Death and Injury in the American Workplace, that he was hoping would be a wakeup call once again to bring this issue to the forefront.

Karmel is right to take up this cause.  He notes in the introduction, “One hundred and fifty workers die each day because of their work.”  He comes to this figure by adding the daily death numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics of 4836 workers killed annually based on the most recent statistics before he published the book in 2015, adding up to 13 per day, with the federal Center for Disease Control report that estimates that “annually 50,000 deaths attributed to work-related illnesses – an average of 137 each day.”  Add the two figures together, and the tragic math totals 150 per day.  It’s safer to be a soldier.

It’s not getting better either.  It’s getting worse.  President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) almost fifty years ago, but the agency is still underfunded, understaffed, and decidedly unloved by business and their backers in both parties.   For example, Karmel points out there is one inspection officer for every 59,000 workers.  What?  Should we worry?

Of course, Karmel advocates updating the regulations, but that’s not happening under the current administration, so let’s look at some of his other suggestions.  Two areas would seem to offer some hope.  One is more accurate reporting to reduce the under-counting that allows policy makers and business executives to pretend that the “safety first” signs on numerous trucks and industrial gates actually means something.  The other is focusing on the state level.

There might be some opportunities in some places.  Of course, not Texas which allows companies to not bother with workers’ compensation since 1913 and more recently Oklahoma since 2013, so we’re talking about the other forty-eight states.

Karmel argues for reform in several areas.  First, he questions why after accidents workers are given unreliable marijuana tests, even when not driving and in cases where they were clearly not at fault.  Secondly, referral doctors should not be under the employ or contract to the company, giving them a conflict of interest.  Thirdly, workman’s compensation benefits need to be integrated into the rest of the health system, especially if we had single-payer.  Fourthly, the dispute resolution system should be streamlined.  Finally, to make sure there is some other enforcement of fairness, attorney’s fees should be allowed fairly.

These moves wouldn’t necessarily be lifesavers, but they would incentivize companies to act more aggressively to protect their workers if the costs they paid, even for deaths on the job, were not so miserly.  The rationale of employers, including their argument that there is a “risk premium” in pay that allows workers to accept the risk of injury and death for another buck or two an hour, have to be exposed for the falsehoods they are. Employers, insurers, and governments need to finally value protecting workers’ lives, as if their own lives were at stake without seeing their injuries and deaths as just another cost of doing business.

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