Is 2016 the year of the worker?
A shift in thought
Rising wages. A slate of worker protections on overtime, paid sick days, and fair scheduling. A GOP presidential nominee with a maternity leave plan. None of it seemed possible a few years ago. How did we get here, and what’s next?
Federal contractors just received a rare perk among the US workforce: seven paid sick days a year.
As far as improving access to paid sick time goes, it’s a drop in the bucket: The White House estimates that the new rule will affect up to 1 million workers, out of approximately 40 million without sick time. But it’s emblematic of the direction things have been moving for workers recently. The paid sick days rule is one of several small brushstrokes that, taken together, have painted a much brighter picture for middle and lower income Americans over the past year and a half or so.
- Median household income rose 5.2 percent in 2015 – its first increase since 2007 and the largest boost in 17 years – and the poverty rate is on the decline.
- On the regulatory side, the Labor Department has introduced new worker protections for overtime and is looking to state legislation on things like solving the gender pay gap (Massachusetts) and fair scheduling practices (New York, Seattle) as a model for more.
- Paid maternity and family leave have become bipartisan causes and a growing number of states are making it law.
- Federal workers were granted access to six weeks of paid sick time a year ago, and cities including New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore; and Oakland, Calif., have expanded access.
Additionally, a slew of cities, states, and private employers have taken steps to raise their minimum pay rates. A $15 minimum wage, which seemed outrageous to many when Fight for $15 demonstrations began few years ago, is or will soon be a reality in many parts of the country.
“With Fight for $15, I was saying, ‘This is obviously ridiculous, this isn’t going to happen,’ and four years later it is happening,” says Eve Weinbaum, a professor of labor and sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “What’s politically possible has completely changed.”
There’s still a long way to go before the country enters a new golden age for the working class, economists say. Earnings and wages are still climbing back to where they were at the turn of the century, and the US still lacks many of what are considered basic worker rights in most industrial nations. But recently, political and economic forces have converged to make real progress on those fronts more feasible, experts say.
Not just ‘my problem’
Inequality, in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively new political buzzword. Phrases like “the rich getting richer” and “the 99 percent,” were hardly in the popular lexicon in 2010. That started to change with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, which railed against the lack of consequences for the financial industry in the wake of the Great Recession and popularized the framing of a privileged few (the one percent) capitalizing on the struggles of a vast, stuck majority.
While the Occupy protests themselves soon petered out, they laid the groundwork for subsequent social movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’s run for the Democratic nomination for president.
“It’s really entered the debate in terms of economics,” says Elise Gould, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “There’s much more awareness than a decade ago, even though [income inequality] has been growing for three decades.”
Additionally, she says, those movements have helped foment political action around what have been traditionally viewed as personal or family matters, like the high cost of childcare and untenable work schedules. “Families with children have been struggling for years,” Ms. Gould says. “It’s not a new problem, but they think ‘Oh, that’s just my problem.’ Public discourse now tells them it’s not just them, this affects millions of people. So that looks different, and it starts to seem ripe for a government solution.”
Some of that started to bear fruit during the 2012 election cycle, Ms. Weinbaum says. “States that had ballot initiatives on paid leave, minimum wage, sick leave – mostly those passed, including in red states with very conservative elected officials. It was the first time a lot of people realized there was this broad base of support for these workplace rights.”
Indeed, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns have unveiled plans for the government to pay for family or maternity leave and help subsidize childcare. The issue was once considered toxic on the right, but Senate conservatives, including Marco Rubio, have embraced the cause. In August, the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, released a proposal for paid parental leave as a form of social insurance to benefit the poorest Americans – a departure from previous conservative proposals, which largely consisted of offering tax credits to employers that offered the benefit.
“The private sector workers least likely to receive paid family leave are the ones who earn low wages and work for small employers,” AAF’s report reads. “A more sensible approach may be to use taxpayer dollars to design a government program that administers the benefit.”
The role of states, cities
On the federal level, worker-focused reforms have come largely through executive action. In addition to Thursday’s paid sick leave mandate, Obama’s Labor Department in May expanded overtime pay to millions of Americans by raising the threshold under which salaried employees qualify for extra wages. Last year, it released guidance on which workers qualify as independent contractors and which ones qualify as employees, arguing that the former was being used too liberally and keeping qualified workers from benefits and protections to which they were entitled.
But much of the action has been at the state and city level. This is vital, Weinbaum says, because local legislation can serve as a model for federal laws. When Massachusetts passed a law aimed at tackling the gender pay gap this August that forbids employers from asking new hires about their previous salary history, the Labor Department praised it as a possible national blueprint.
That “trickle up” method has become more prominent in the past 30 years, she says, as the power of unions has declined. With their national prominence faded in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, they homed in on state and local activism in union-friendly areas. Now they’ve again refocused their efforts, backing low-wage workers who have had low rates of unionization in the past. Fight for $15 has been backed financially by the Service Employees International Union. “They can’t organize Walmart by Walmart or McDonald’s by McDonald’s, but they can focus on national campaigns that really capture the imagination,” Weinbaum says.
In part because of such activism, local reforms have come fast and frequent. On a broader scale, that has the potential to accomplish two things. First, successful implementation of a state or city law can bolster the case that it won’t be an economic disaster when implemented more broadly. Rhode Island, for example, faced spirited opposition when it implemented a parental leave law in 2014, but state employers have reported little in the way of financial consequences.
Second, when reforms become widespread enough, they can put pressure on other states to act. “The fight for gay marriage was a perfect example,” Weinbaum says. “Once it happened in a few states, and nothing terrible happened, it becomes acceptable. A few years ago it was unthinkable. Do you really want to be the only state that doesn’t have sick leave for your employees?”
Gould argues there are still a lot of problems that need solving, and that even in the face of such reforms, many workers are falling behind. “The racial wage gap has honestly gotten worse,” she says. According to EPI’s research, the pay disparity between blacks and whites is the largest since 1979. “The gender gap is improving, but a lot of that is because men’s growth has been low.”
On the federal level, a paid family leave plan, the FAMILY Act, has been stalled in Congress; the US is still the only industrial nation on earth without a national paid parental leave law. And the Obama administration’s executive actions could be undone by a new incoming administration.
What’s more, the economy is in relatively good shape, and any setbacks could help knock lower- and middle-income workers off their newly found footing. Still, Weinbaum contends that recent progress has had less to do with the economy’s current strength and more with raised awareness of issues that affect a critical mass of Americans.
“Yes, things are better overall, and it’s hard to ask for these things when jobs are disappearing,” she says. “There have always been huge levels of inequality and low levels of mobility. I don’t think there’s been a huge change there, but how people perceive the possibilities of doing better is what changes.”