Worker Rights and the Minimum Wage
by Paul Wolf, Esq.
Living Paycheck to Paycheck and Hour to Hour
Working a minimum wage retail job is not easy. Through my two children working minimum wage jobs I have learned how poorly many managers treat their employees. Last minute schedule changes with demands to show up for work on short notice were a common occurrence. The constantly changing schedule and the fluctuation in the amount of hours one needed to work make planning any part of your life very difficult. If you are a parent with children to care for, appointments to make etc., living paycheck to paycheck and hour to hour is stressful and difficult.
A recent survey of 200 retail workers in New York City by the Retail Action Project found that nearly 40 percent of retail workers don’t get a set minimum of hours that they will work each week, and a quarter are scheduled for on-call shifts, often finding out just two hours in advance that they’ll be needed. A study by the University of Chicago utilizing Bureau of Labor Statistics data determined that 47 percent of part-time hourly workers ages 26 to 32 receive a week or less of advance notice for their schedule. The study also found that employers dictated the work schedules for about half of young adults, without their input and for part-time workers, schedules on average fluctuated from 17 to 28 hours a week.
San Francisco Passes Retail Workers Bill of Rights
The City of San Francisco Board of Supervisors on November 25, 2014, passed the first Retail Workers Bill of Rights in the nation. The legislation will apply to retail chains with 11 or more locations nationally or worldwide and that have at least 20 employees in San Francisco under one management system. The new law will apply to companies such as Target, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart but not to small businesses. The Ordinance requires:
• Businesses to post workers’ schedules at least two weeks in advance.
• Workers will receive compensation for last-minute schedule changes, “on-call” hours, and instances in which they’re sent home before completing their assigned shifts.
• Businesses must also offer existing part-time workers additional hours before hiring new employees, and they are required to give part-timers and full-timers equal access to scheduling and time-off requests.
Federal Legislation Introduced As Well
Legislation similar to San Francisco’s new Ordinance has also been introduced in Congress. The Schedules That Work Act is sponsored by Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in the House of Representatives with 27 cosponsors. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are the sponsors of the Senate’s companion legislation.
The Schedules That Work Act would provide relief to workers facing irregular and unpredictable schedules by:
• Protecting all employees from retaliation for requesting a more flexible, predictable or stable schedule.
• Creating a process for employers to consider requests that is responsive to the needs of both employees and employers. Employees who make requests because they have caregiving duties, are dealing with a health condition, are pursuing education or training courses, or need to meet the demands of a second job must be granted the schedule change, unless the employer has a bona fide business reason for denying it.
• Compensating retail, food service, and cleaning workers for at least four hours of work if an employee reports to work when scheduled for at least four hours but is sent home early.
• Providing that retail, food service, and cleaning employees receive work schedules at least two weeks in advance. Though schedules may later be changed, one hour’s worth of extra pay is required for schedules changed with less than 24 hours’ notice.
• Providing workers an extra hour of pay if scheduled to work split shifts, or non-consecutive shifts within a single day.
Who Works Minimum Wage Jobs?
A recent New York Times article provides some interesting information as to the demographics of minimum wage workers.
Minimum-wage workers are older than they used to be. Their average age is 35, and 88 percent are at least 20 years old. Half are older than 30, and about a third are at least 40.
In 1979, 27 percent of low-wage workers (those making $10.10 per hour or less in today’s dollars) were teenagers, compared with 12 percent in 2013.
They’re split fairly evenly between full-timers and part-timers. Most—54 percent—work full-time schedules (at least 35 hours per week), and another 32 percent work at least half time (20-34 hours per week).
Many have kids. About one-quarter (27 percent) of these low-wage workers are parents, compared with 34 percent of all workers. In all, 19 percent of children in the United States have a parent who would benefit from a minimum wage increase.
Most are women. Women make up 48 percent of the work force yet 55 percent of the would-be beneficiaries of the increase in the minimum wage.
Their earnings are a big part of their family budgets. The average worker in this group brings home half of his or her household’s earnings; 19 percent of those who would get the raise are sole earners. Parents who would benefit from the increase bring home an even larger share of their families’ earnings: 60 percent.
Today, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year provides an annual income of only $15,080, which is below the federal poverty line for families of two or more. According to the Social Security Administration, 40 percent of all workers make less than $20,000 a year in America today.
Poverty Increasing In America
A US Census Bureau report released in September 2013, entitled “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012” points out the crisis occurring in America today. Poverty is at a near-generation high of 15 percent, close to the high point since the 1965 War on Poverty. According to Census report, 46.5 million Americans, including 9.5 million families, live in poverty. Some 20.4 million people live on an income less than 50 percent of the official poverty line, 7.1 million of these being children under 18.
In another report the Economic Policy Institute found that if the minimum wage were raised from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $10.10, as proposed by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2014, more than 1.7 million Americans would no longer have to rely on public assistance programs. This would produce $7.6 billion per year or more in savings for the federal government, according to the study.
So What Do We Do?
Raising the minimum wage to at least $10.10 as proposed in Congress makes sense as outlined above. The Green Party and other advocates support increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Seattle and San Francisco have raised their minimum wage to $15. Treating workers with decency and respect by providing them with 2 weeks advance notice of their work schedule should not be a heavy lift for large corporations. The other items contained in the Retail Workers Bill of Rights passed in San Francisco are not unreasonable requests.
Members of the Erie County Legislature and the Buffalo Common Council have the power to introduce resolutions and local laws that address the minimum wage and worker rights, just like other communities have. In 2015, every seat in the Erie County Legislature and the Buffalo Common Council is up for election. As Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs are among the poorest communities in the nation, addressing the minimum wage and worker rights should be one of the important issues discussed in the upcoming local elections. If incumbent politicians are unwilling to address this issue then challengers should make it part of their campaigns.
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