Category Archives: Labor

SCOOP: Bernie Sanders Raises the Bar for Campaign Employment Practices

“Labor fight roils the Bernie Sanders campaign” began a headline in The Washington Post on Thursday, July 18. In a tweet promoting the story, Post editor Matea Gold wrote: “SCOOP: For years, Bernie Sanders has traveled the country advocating for a $15 per hour minimum wage. His campaign organizers say they aren’t making that much, and they’re using his words to protest for higher wages.”

Refusing to pay your workers less than the $15-an-hour minimum wage you’ve been championing for years would be an unacceptable practice, and anti-Sanders commentators delighted in the Vermont Senator’s alleged hypocrisy. Fortunately for Sanders supporters, however, the headlines were misleading. In fact, both the body of the Post’s original story and subsequent events strongly suggest that the Sanders campaign has the best workplace policies of any presidential campaign in history.

Campaign workers are notoriously underpaid and overworked. Meager salaries, few benefits, long hours, and 7-day work weeks are the norm. Campaign workers also typically have little to no job security. These conditions were the impetus behind the recent formation of the Campaign Workers Guild, which ratified its first-ever contract with Randy Bryce’s congressional campaign in February of 2018. Since then, many other campaigns around the country, both local and national, have unionized as well.

In May of 2019, the Bernie Sanders campaign became the first-ever presidential campaign to sign a union contract. UFCW Local 400, which represents Sanders’s staff, lauded the campaign’s approach to the unionization effort, saying that “Senator Sanders walked the talk on unions,” that the campaign “engaged in good faith bargaining,” and that the overall process “was a model experience in every respect.” According to UFCW Local 400, workplace policies the campaign and union agreed on include:

  • a $15 minimum wage for all campaign staff, including interns
  • fully paid health care benefits for all full-time employees making $36,000 a year or less, with 85% of health care benefits paid for employees making more than that amount
  • four days per month when employees will not need to be on call with “breaks throughout the day, including meal breaks, as well as mandatory time off between particularly long shifts”
  • 20 days of paid vacation for both hourly and salaried employees
  • transparency for both management and consultant compensation with a rule capping management pay at 3 times the amount of the highest salary class in the bargaining unit
  • “robust anti-discrimination provisions as well as comprehensive protections for immigrant and transgender workers,” plus a process for employees to review pay equity
  • “employee-led Labor Committees to address ongoing working conditions and other issues with management”

Soon after negotiations concluded, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir proposed raising field organizer salaries from $36,000 annually to $42,000 annually while extending the expected work week from five days to six days. The union rejected this offer. On July 11, some field organizers raised concerns internally about their hours and their ability to make ends meet. Shakir responded promptly and said changes would need to be negotiated through the union. The union was preparing a proposal and had not yet sent it to the campaign when the Post’s original story broke a week later. A few days after that, on July 22, the campaign and union agreed to the salary and work week Shakir originally proposed while raising the salary threshold for which the campaign would cover the full costs of employee health care premiums (the Post reported that the union rejected the initial offer over concerns about higher-salaried workers paying a portion of their own health care costs).

That’s the entire story. Reporters and pundits gleefully blasting Sanders’s integrity are seizing on how employees made their appeal for higher wages – by saying their salaries come out to less than $15 an hour if you factor in the extra hours they’ve been working and appealing to Sanders’s pro-worker rhetoric – rather than what the union says actually happened: the campaign negotiated a historically labor-friendly contract in partnership with workers and then agreed, per that contract, to renegotiate provisions in response to worker concerns. When originally contacted about the Post’s story, UFCW Local 400 said “the Bernie 2020 campaign staff have access to myriad protections and benefits secured by their one-of-a-kind union contract, including many internal avenues to democratically address any number of ongoing workplace issues, including changes to pay, benefits, and other working conditions.” After the deal, worker representatives reiterated that “the campaign staff and management have engaged in this process in good faith and to achieve a mutually agreed upon outcome…This is what democracy in the workplace looks like.”

The new agreement deserves praise. $42,000 a year is still not that much money, but that salary for a 50-hour work week – when combined with 4 “blackout” days per month, 20 days of paid vacation, and fully paid health care – blows the typical campaign compensation package out of the water. Factor in the contract’s robust anti-discrimination, pay transparency, and pay equity provisions and it’s easy to see why UFCW Local 400 believes Sanders “walk[s] the talk.”

The headline writers and Twitter commentariat, on the other hand, deserve rebuke. As Daniel Marans reported, union members reacted with “a mix of anger and bewilderment” both about the leaked details of negotiations and the way those details were framed. Staff were involved in “seemingly amicable negotiations with management,” not the “labor fight” trumpeted by the Post’s headline.

Perhaps, if there’s one potential positive to it, the misleading reporting on this issue will build on Sanders’s leadership by pressuring other presidential campaigns to be more pro-worker. Besides Sanders, only Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren have unionized staffs and neither campaign has a contract yet. The Post reports that Warren and Pete Buttigieg pay their field organizers the same amount as Sanders and that Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden pay more, but while the Post contends these campaigns “have revealed their compensation structure for field organizers,” the paper did not try or was unable to ascertain at least some key relevant details about hours worked, health care premiums, days off, and/or management-employee pay equity from every single one of these campaigns. What the Post did find out – Biden’s non-union field organizers, for example, pay 20% of their health care premiums and typically work 60-hour weeks – appears to confirm that the Sanders campaign’s compensation package is most generous. Sanders is also the only candidate who currently lists compensation for all job openings on his website, and the Post neglected to report that at least two candidates, Biden and Warren, run what are essentially unpaid internship programs.

To the extent that people are now more aware of and outraged about the conditions campaign workers typically face, that’s also a plus. Unpaid internships need to be a thing of the past, as do 7-day work weeks. Personally, I think you should be excommunicated from the party if you try to run as a Democrat and refuse to recognize a campaign workers union.

But if you’ve read an anti-Sanders headline or tweet and wondered if Sanders is a hypocrite, wonder no more: he’s not. Sanders, who for years was one of the only congresspeople to pay his interns, is every bit the champion of economic justice he purports to be.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Labor, Media

Boycott the Anti-Worker Surcharge

Workers in the Fight For $15 movement have sparked dozens of minimum wage increases over the past six-and-a-half years. Workers have also won the battle of public opinion: even the majority of Republican voters now support their efforts. But businesses who profit off low wages, particularly those in the food industry, aren’t ready to concede defeat. When they’re not hoodwinking media outlets with an astroturf group that pretends to represent workers’ interests, restaurants are campaigning hard against higher wages at the point of service.

Adding a small surcharge to your bill is one aspect of restaurants’ anti-worker campaign. Those that employ this practice should be boycotted.

What is the surcharge and where might you see it?

The surcharge is an added cost that a business links to pro-worker legislation. It is presented differently in different establishments. Customers who look closely may just see a line item that says “living wage surcharge” or “mandates surcharge” when they get their checks. Some restaurants may put a note about the charge in small font at the bottom of their menus. Others may put up a sign explaining the added costs.

Signs and menu notes often assert the organization’s support for the benefits that ostensibly led to the surcharge. Don’t be fooled. The note, and the charge, are designed to prejudice customers against living wage policies.

How do we know the surcharge is anti-worker?

Consumers don’t like surprising add-ons; when you go somewhere expecting to pay menu price and then end up needing to pay more, you’re usually annoyed. Business owners who put a surcharge on their menus know that and want you to tie your annoyance to legislation that makes them compensate their employees more fairly.

Note that the labor involved in making, selling, and/or serving a product is only one of many factors that influence a product’s price. The cost of purchasing the ingredients or materials needed to make a product matters, as do rent, utilities costs, advertising spending, and a variety of other business expenses. Have you ever seen a “rent increase surcharge” on a menu? How about an “advertising fee?” Since a business owner’s desired profit may be the biggest factor in the prices that business owner sets, the most honest note on a menu would probably be something along the lines of: “The price of this hamburger is $15 because of the lifestyle of Mr. Smith, the owner of this restaurant and four other restaurants in the city, who lives in a $1.5 million house, drives a Porsche, and is looking forward to his three-week stay at a Hawaiian resort this summer.”

That’s not to say it’s necessarily unethical for businesses to raise prices after a minimum wage increase. While minimum wage increases don’t tend to influence prices very much – in part because they can lead to a higher volume of sales (due to increased demand for businesses’ products), efficiency gains (e.g., lower turnover), and/or more equal distributions of wealth within companies (by shifting profits from owners to workers) – it’s reasonable for prices to be one channel through which businesses with small profit margins absorb added costs. But it is both unreasonable and unethical for a business to itemize labor costs and nothing else. When you see a wage surcharge or note tying price increases to wage increases on a menu, what the business is really saying is that, if it weren’t for the law, they’d be paying their workers a more exploitative wage. And that they’re hoping your annoyance about the surprise charge they’ve added will convince you they should be able to do so.

How can you challenge the surcharge?

The next time you see a business embracing this practice, ask to speak to the owner. Explain why their policy is unacceptable and ask them to change it. If they refuse, let them know that you’ll be boycotting their business until they change their mind. Then leave a note in the comments of this post or send a direct message to @BenSpielberg on Twitter to get the business added to the list below.

Update (8/1/19): Effective 7/23/19, Ike’s Love and Sandwiches became the first business to respond to the boycott by removing their surcharge. They have been removed from the list below. Email aizleforhr@loveandsandwiches.com or call 510-309-9909 to let them know that you appreciate them making the right decision and can now resume eating their sandwiches.

CALIFORNIA RESTAURANTS TO BOYCOTT

San José

Enoteca La Storia
408-618-5455
infosj@enotecalastoria.com, Mike@enotecalastoria.com, miyuki@enotecalastoria.com, joe@joecannistraci.com
Submitted by: Emily Burton

Notes: Emily emailed them and they wrote a long response attempting to justify the policy, saying (among other things) that they felt it was a better solution to their increased labor costs than raising menu prices and that many other restaurants also have this practice. Emily conveyed that the policy attempts to pit customers against workers and that she would be encouraging others not to go there until they changed the practice.

Luna Mexican Kitchen
408-320-2654
lunamexicankitchen@gmail.com
Submitted by: Paul Nyhof

Luna

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

Village California Bistro
408-248-9091
john@thevillagebistro.net
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Village Bistro

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

Zona Rosa
408-275-1411
dine@zonarosasj.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Zona Rosa

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

San Francisco

Greens Restaurant
415-771-6222
info@greensrestaurant.com, min@greensrestaurant.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Greens

Notes: I had a nice email exchange with Min Kim, their general manager. Min said they support all the pro-worker legislation in San Francisco and said “I do understand your push to include costs in the menu. But, I also do believe you and I would not be having this conversation if it wasn’t separated.” Min indicated interest in discussing the issue further but has not responded to my follow-up emails.

Palo Alto

Local Union 271
650-322-7509
hello@localunion271.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Local Union 271

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

Mayfield Bakery and Café
650-823-9200
info@mayfieldbakery.com, karey@bacchusmanagement.com, tim@bacchusmanagement.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Mayfield.png

Notes: Founding Partner Tim Stannard wrote to me that “The issue of labor surcharges is a difficult and thorny issue for us…It’s probably too complex to go into in an email, but if you send me your phone number I’d be happy to give you a call to try to explain.” Tim left me a message and said he was interested in chatting about the issue but then stopped returning my emails and follow-up calls.

WASHINGTON RESTAURANTS TO BOYCOTT

Check out this comprehensive list from Working Washington.

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Filed under Business, Labor

Dear Councilman Grosso: Please Be Our Ally and Support 77

Dear Councilman Grosso,

We’ve met before. I worked at a bar in Chinatown that you used to frequent. We only spoke a few times, but I remember feeling proud to have you as our guest because you had a reputation for being an ally – an advocate for women and for the LGBTQ community. I’m writing to you today to ask you to be an ally to vulnerable workers in Washington, D.C. by supporting Initiative 77, which will raise the wages of tipped employees and help stabilize a flawed system.

The restaurant industry in Washington has afforded me many opportunities as both a bartender and manager. I have a deep respect for my service industry peers, and when my colleagues came out against 77, I voted “no” alongside them. In retrospect, the pressure in the industry was substantial to oppose, and then to repeal. Yet when the voters of D.C. popularly supported 77, I began to realize that our conversation about the initiative had been imbalanced. We had not heard from bartenders who supported 77 and, perhaps most importantly, we had not heard from many of the most vulnerable members of our industry.

In support of these vulnerable workers, I testified against the repeal of 77 after most of the Council had left for the night, dashing from work after last call at 1:00 a.m. and returning to close the bar after my testimony. While I waited my turn, I heard the fears of my colleagues who work in some of the city’s most renowned restaurants. They testified that 77 would catalyze the decline of our vibrant restaurant industry. Many fears reminded me of those I heard when other voices lobbied against paid sick days. Meanwhile, so many whose fears are realized on a daily basis went unheard that night. Once more, I will try to speak for them, as one of them.

I have felt the volatility of subsisting on tips. At that Chinatown bar, our staff sometimes missed a week’s income when bad weather drove everyone away. More recently, while pursuing my graduate degree, I worked daylight hours, which cut my income to a fraction of what it had been. While I earned meager tips off a handful of guests, I meticulously cleaned and prepped the bar for the busy night ahead. The system allowed my hard work to go unpaid.

I believe that Initiative 77 is a step toward professionalizing this industry and giving all tipped workers the stability and respect that they deserve. This is a bill meant to help the most vulnerable in our industry. It is for women who smile through degrading treatment because we need a tip. It is for underpaid immigrants who toil tirelessly to keep things running, often doing double the work for half the pay. It is for the welfare of our residents who are not chosen to work in the city’s highest-grossing restaurants.

I have seen enormous, unjustified disparities in pay. As a manager, I’ve seen the books. I’ve seen what restaurants spend on turnover, and I’ve witnessed the revenue lost from an undervalued and sometimes uninspired workforce. I also know that rising expenses are absorbed through small increases in food and beverage prices. The industry will shift to accommodate a higher base wage.

The Council has repeatedly asked these vulnerable workers to show themselves. It has asked why they have not spoken more loudly. Councilman Grosso, as an ally, I believe you know better. These groups are more dependent on good relationships with management and staff than they are on any city law. And they already voted once. I am asking you to stand for them. I am asking you do what’s right.

Supporting 77 is a way for you to stand for the rights of all tipped workers across our city. With your support of 77, you’re not choosing between restaurants and workers; you’re choosing to create a more just and equitable system for all.

Aubrey DeBoer

Aubrey DeBoer is a bartender and restaurant manager in Washington, DC with nearly 10 years of industry experience. She has been a Ward 5 resident for the past eight years.

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Filed under Business, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Listen to Tipped Workers

Minimum wage expert Dave Cooper said on a recent podcast episode that the DC Council’s September 17 hearing on DC’s Initiative 77 was “probably the craziest city council hearing/state-level policy hearing I’ve ever been to, and I’ve testified in a bunch of different places.” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was, as Cooper noted, hostile to anyone speaking in favor of upholding the initiative and raising wages for tipped workers. Observe Mendelson interrogate Sophia Miyoshi, for example, a five-year veteran of DC’s tipped-wage workforce who helped run the “Yes on 77” campaign. As the video below shows, Mendelson looked her up on social media and used the fact that she had recently moved and hadn’t updated her Facebook and LinkedIn pages to try to discredit her testimony.

Miyoshi’s voice is an important one, especially given the “No on 77” campaign’s constant refrain that we should #ListenToTippedWorkers. It is true that a number of servers and bartenders have spoken out against receiving a raise. But in addition to their arguments’ inconsistency with the facts, these workers comprise an unrepresentative subset of employees in DC’s tipped industries. For one thing, a full 27 percent of DC’s tipped workforce labors outside of the restaurant industry. Nathan Luecking, a high school social worker in Ward 8, testified that the tipped jobs most commonly available to the parents of students he works with are not in “the higher-end restaurants uptown,” but as “hairdressers, nail technicians, parking lot attendants, and food delivery drivers.” He noted how one student’s parent, who works as a hairdresser, “does well on tips when folks have money to spend, like back to school or after tax refund season. However, for the rest of the year, she struggles to make predictable income, and some months she can’t pay her rent or utilities on time.”

For another, most of the servers and bartenders who comprise 40 percent of DC’s tipped workforce have different experiences than the people wearing “No on 77” pins. “Many of those who oppose Initiative 77 have been in the restaurant industry for 15 to 20 years and have been treated well by their bosses,” former DC tipped worker David Sexton, who also testified on September 17, pointed out to me after the hearing. “It’s great that the system has worked out for them, but for the majority of tipped workers it has not.”

Because of fears of employer retaliation, the voices of this lower-wage majority of tipped workers have been underrepresented in DC’s debate. Even when employees and bosses have a strong relationship, employees rightfully worry about taking public political stances their bosses might not like. Will it affect their shift schedule or their next request for time off? Will they be less likely to get a raise or a promotion? The safer route, if you’re struggling to make ends meet and don’t want to rock the boat, is to stay quiet. When bosses invite campaigns into their workplaces to spread misinformation and employees feel overt pressure to take certain stances – as multiple witnesses testified they did – is it any wonder more haven’t spoken out? Thea Bryan, one of the brave tipped workers who has been vocal in her support of Initiative 77, was fired shortly after giving a speech on the issue.

For those interested in hearing them, however, we now have ample documentation of these workers’ voices. Well over a dozen people who have spent time working in tipped jobs in DC courageously stepped up and testified publicly at the hearing.

“Many former tipped workers might have stayed in the restaurant industry if not for the hostility, wage theft, and abuse they faced, which is in no small part a result of the failed subminimum wage model,” Sexton told me. These are some of their and current tipped workers’ stories, in their own words.

Eric Harris Bernstein

“I have been a bartender most of my adult life. I have bartended in five cities, including for two years right here in DC, where I made a base wage of around $3 per hour. Now that I am pursuing my graduate education in the Bay Area, I have returned to bartending in order to support myself. In my current position, like all tipped workers in California, I make the full minimum wage – in my case, $13.23 per hour. I make that in addition to tips, which hover between 17 and 22 percent of sales.

I told this to a friend who bartends in the Penn Quarter and he was shocked. He had assumed, based on the National Restaurant Association’s talking points, that tipping had disappeared in California. That is the degree to which NRA scare tactics have defined and misdirected this debate. I am here to correct the record.

I am here to tell you that this additional base pay will make an enormous difference in the lives of your constituents, as it has in my own. It will lift families out of poverty, as it has in other fair wage cities and states. And it will improve the restaurant industry, as it has in booming fair wage restaurant towns like Seattle and Portland.

I’d also like to correct the record on another matter. A number of councilmembers have stated that current law guarantees DC’s tipped workers the full hourly minimum wage. It does not. Under current law, if a DC restaurant worker earns $300 in tips on Friday, but earns no tips on Monday, they are earning just $3.89 for each hour they worked that day. The balance between the tipped minimum wage and the full minimum wage is not made up by the restaurant but is pulled out of the $300 already in that worker’s pockets.

In other words, the current system pulls tipped workers down towards the minimum instead of building them up beyond it…Restaurant workers have a right to a reasonable base pay that does not eat into their tips. No other industry is exempt from this obligation.”

Thea Bryan

I have been bartending on and off for many years…Most recently I have been working at a well-established restaurant in Ward 3 called Arucola. On a recent Saturday night when it was pouring down rain I made S27. Not because no one was tipping but because it was dead due to the torrential downpour outside. Tell me, do any of you get paid less because the weather is bad? $3.89 is not a fair wage and it doesn’t make up for times when business is slow, like January, February, August, when it’s raining, when it’s snowing. Workers deserve a fair hourly wage to help offset the slow times…

There has been a lot of conversation as to why more tipped workers aren’t speaking out in favor of this initiative. I can give you my personal experience, which is the endless harassment I have received. There has been a concerted effort to find out where I work. Per the threats people want to come in and not tip me or get me fired. I have felt the wrath of other coworkers, with whom I generally have had great working relationships, only to hear them make false claims about Initiative 77 being a push to stop tipping. This is untrue. The misinformation on this has been ubiquitous and unyielding. Interesting that the same coworkers fighting against this were just weeks later complaining about not being able to make ends meet with their tips. Fearmongering of the loss of livelihood has caused many to engage in vitriolic rhetoric against anyone who is perceived as a threat.”

Woong Chang

“I’ve been living here in DC since 2009 and I’m a current tipped worker in Ward 5. I’m here today not only as a restaurant worker but also as a deeply concerned citizen, to urge the city council to respect the will of the voters and vote no on this preposterous bill named “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018”…

Quite frankly, I could sit here and tell you all the stories, statistics, and data, both anecdotal and scientific, but…you’ve heard them all, we’ve been having this conversation since 2012. This personally is my third time testifying on behalf of raising the tipped minimum wage here in DC.

So instead, here’s something you haven’t heard much. In fact, this is why I’m fighting for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage. My dream, ever since I started in the restaurant industry, has been to see the day that my industry is ‘professionalized’…This is what I love to do and this is what I am passionate about.

Chantal Coudoux

“I am a DC native who grew up in Ward 6, moved to Ward 4 and then returned to Ward 6…I have been a part of the restaurant industry here and in California for over a decade…

As the daughter of a refugee, I prioritize the folks who work support staff roles…and do not make 60k or 80k a year in this industry; the folks who came to DC not because of the trendy restaurant scene but because of other global forces; the folks who if they lose their jobs, cannot just bounce to the next one; the folks who make restaurants run but who aren’t up front and center; the folk who might not speak English as their first language; the folk who like my father cannot vote in the U.S. because of immigration status or incarceration. These are the folks who are overwhelmingly victims of wage theft, who will not bring up to an employer that they did not receive minimum wage because this would cost them shifts or their job entirely.

To be clear, I am not one of those people. I was born with skin color privilege, the “right” nationality and the “correct” native language. But these folks are my blood and chosen family. I say all this not because they need me to “save them” or their tips or to speak for them, but in solidarity with workers whose voices were never heard in the conversation. I talked with these folks; I listened when they told me it did not matter if they spoke up or they were too scared to given the racist administration we are facing or they did not trust in the council to not overturn the initiative. Yes, industry people were split but the electorate heard these lost voices. You apparently did not, just as you are choosing to ignore voices of the electorate.”

Aubrey DeBoer

“I voted ‘No’ on Initiative 77. However, I am here today to defend it. Since the election, I have come to read and understand both sides of the issue, and I believe that many of the arguments against it were false. Furthermore, I believe the fundamental duty of a modern democracy is to respect the voice of the people. Implementing 77 is an opportunity for us Washingtonians to do just that.

For 8 years, I have worked as a professional in the service industry…

Often, our livelihoods as service workers are jeopardized by the uncertainty of what we might make that night. The minimum wage wouldn’t erase this uncertainty, which restaurant workers broadly acknowledge, but it would be a step in the right direction. Now, our tenuous tips put us in precarious situations. We are at the mercy of unpredictable generosity of guests, which subjects us to toleration of all kinds of bad behavior.

When the #metoo movement began to swell online, I laughed away the thought of posting my own experiences. Why would I? Harassment is nearly a daily issue. Tipsy guests misread my friendliness as an invitation for advances. But I just need their money. Men take advantage of a crowded room to grab me. And I just need their money. People yell insults about my intelligence or my body. And I still need their money. This is my income. Guaranteeing a stable base wage would be a step towards professionaIizing this industry and giving restaurant workers Iike me the respect that we deserve.”

Ann Eveleth

“I live in Petworth and I am a registered voter in Ward 4. I am also currently employed as a restaurant server, and I have worked in the industry for more than 15 years spread across my working life, including nearly 6 years here in the District. The proposal to overturn the will of the majority of voters who supported Initiative 77 not only threatens the benefits I expected to gain as a restaurant worker by having my industry (finally!) upgraded to 21st century labour standards, but also directly threatens to flush my own vote in favour of the initiative down the toilet, along with those of the other 47,229 voters who will be retroactively disenfranchised by such a move, especially in wards whose demographics are most representative of the most vulnerable workers in the District…

I began my first restaurant job as a high school student in downriver Detroit in the 1980s. The so-called ‘tipped minimum wage’ then , in the 1980s, was about $1.85/hr federally. Today, in 2018, more than 30 years later, it still sits at $2.13 an hour. That’s basically an increase of one penny a year over three decades – it’s practically a world record in wage suppression and it’s only been sustained due to the unbending resistance by the powerful lobbying group known as the ‘other NRA,’ the National Restaurant Association…

I have a great deal of sympathy for the genuine fears of some of my coworkers in the industry, but I submit that these fears are based on projections based on NRA propaganda in this post-truth climate, and not based on facts.”

Abdul Fofana

“I’ve been working in the hospitality/service industry for 11 years…I’m currently the lead server-slash-banquet captain at Dirty Habit DC…

I am a strong supporter of Initiative 77. I support the initiative for several reasons, but most importantly because restaurants must now make staffing decisions that both benefit the restaurant as well as its employees. Washington DC’s restaurant market is highly competitive with new restaurants constantly opening. Business owners often find themselves scrambling to fully staff their restaurant with qualified and talented individuals. Due to the oversaturation of restaurants, managers and owners are instead hiring less-experienced staff. This results in overstaffing in order to accommodate the lack of experience. Restaurants do not currently take into consideration overstaffing because of how low the wages are for their front-of-the-house staff…

With Initiative 77, the wage increases will be a benefit to guests, employees, and business. Managers can now construct hiring and floor plans with the goal of hiring talented, experienced employees…With the greater talent, less tipped employees can cover the floor…With greater talent, guests enjoy the dining experience without preventable hiccups in service. With greater talent, employees are happy with their wages, empowered to push farther in their hospitality careers, and refer others to work in such a beautiful field. Initiative 77 is a win for everybody involved in the hospitality industry.”

Matthew Hanson

“I am a Ward 7 resident, a former tipped worker, and the Director of DC Working Families. I am here today to testify in support of one fair minimum wage and against the proposed legislation to repeal it.

When voters go to the polls, we expect our decisions at the ballot box to be respected. When Republicans in Congress have attempted to interfere in our local decisions, we have stood up against their efforts, regardless of where we stood on the issue, because we understand it’s important to respect the democratic process.

For many of us, this isn’t just about defending a fair and equitable raise for tipped workers, it’s about defending our decision at the ballot box. One that voters took very seriously.”

Pearl Rose Hood

“I have worked as a tipped worker for nine years at a variety of establishments…From my very first job, and through the years, I have been distraught by the income instability and by employers’ lack of empathy in following regulations put in place to protect workers’ well-being. I experienced wage theft at Woodberry Kitchen, owned and operated by Spike Gjerde, where we tipped out a portion back into the house, so back into the pockets of its millionaire owners…

I have worked as a bartender, server and as support staff; as a busser and food-runner. I can say that support staff, who also depend primarily on tips, are typically paid much less. Support staff are often immigrants, people working more than one job, supporting many others. I don’t believe they are being fairly represented today.

I have been pressured to vote no on 77. My most recent employer required us to hand out “vote no” cards with every customer’s check. I received numerous emails detailing how to email my councilmembers and testify against Prop 77. I know of an industry colleague who was fired from her position in southwest [DC] because she would not solicit customers to vote no.

I believe there is misinformation and fearmongering from the part of employers and restaurateurs. Tipped workers, especially the lowest-earning ones, are scared for their livelihoods to a degree that keeps them from feeling able to speak up.”

Dia King

“I have been a valet driver for 4-and-a-half years. I’ve lived and worked in DC most of my life and I currently live in Ward 7.

When I first started working as a valet, I was paid $7 an hour plus tips. Now, 4-and-a-half years later, I still have not gotten a raise. Even though I have asked many times, they typically make up excuses like saying it’s not in the budget, and even one time they simply refused. Yet at the same time I have witnessed multiple increases in valet rates, and as I also noticed, when the valet rates went up, my tips went down.

I enjoy working at the hotel and all of the relationships that I have built. I have met so many amazing people, guests, co-workers and even celebrities. I have stayed at my job because I like it, but as a professional, I feel undervalued.

When working, I am required to “post up,” which means stand up straight, don’t lean for hours, have a smile on my face, greet every guest who comes to the hotel, and I’ll get 100% on my shop score if I add ‘I’ll be happy to.’

How can I be happy to make our guests happy if my company won’t take care of me? I live in a city where the cost of living is constantly going up. Rent, food and transportation continues to increase while my wage stays the same. If our guests can afford $50+ for parking then my company can afford a livable wage for me.”

Sophia Miyoshi

“I have worked in the restaurant industry primarily as a tipped worker for seven years, and throughout this time I learned that working in this industry is hard work that requires physical, mental, and emotional labor. I also learned that it is one in which abuses, biases, and harassment can run rampant. On top of the intensity of the work we also have to endure sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and even bosses, racial discrimination in hiring and promotional practices, immigration threats, wage theft, and general daily abuses.

Because of what I experienced and witnessed working in restaurants, and all that was tolerated and normalized, I wanted to do what I could to improve the industry that I hold so close to me. I became a member at the Restaurant Opportunities Center and eventually left the industry to be brought on as a community and worker organizer, which is my role today.

I am here in support of Initiative 77…

Restaurant work is a profession, and therefore, in the restaurant industry, we should be treated as professionals. Working in the restaurant industry has been highly devalued and many people do not see or treat these jobs as a career. It is not possible for our industry to be truly professionalized when we are being paid $3 to $5 an hour. Professionalism starts with professional wages.”

Nteboheng Maya Mokuena

I am a Ward 5 resident and I am here to testify in support of Initiative 77.

Not only am I climate and racial justice organizer, but I am a former tipped employee. While some bartenders and waitresses may earn more than $15/hour with tips, that is not the case for many tipped workers in DC. I know specifically when I worked in different cafes that there would be nights when I would take home $2 in cash after splitting it with my fellow employees. My income insecurity as a tipped employee meant not only living paycheck to paycheck, but that in order to earn more tips, I did need to endure more sexual harassment, I needed to wear more makeup, and I needed to take on more shifts while maintaining my status as a full-time student at American University…

It’s important for workers to not have to depend upon the graciousness or harassment of customers to receive living wages — that is the responsibility of the government and our employers.”

Trupti Patel

I happen to be a bartender…Last week my “sister” suffered an emotional breakdown at work. She was at her breaking point to be at work on a day/shift where all of us (2 bartenders and 6 servers) were on the floor for at least 3 hours with no patrons due to bad weather. The indifference displayed by the management to all staff that was in clear economic anxiety was the straw that broke the camel’s back. To hear ‘it’s just one bad day, it’ll pick up later on in the week’ is not a comforting response when you’re living on an economically precarious shift to shift pay cycle…I’d learn later on that she had become homeless due to the economic instability of being a tipped service industry worker and that all of her belongings were to be auctioned off that day. She was counting on coming to work and being able to earn an income that day, but when your income potential is put at the mercy of unpredictable factors such as weather, unfair scheduling, and whims of generosity from strangers it’s in reality economic roulette each shift.”

David Sexton

“I am a Ward 4 Resident. I was a tipped worker in D.C. for 2 years. I left last fall in part because of the unsustainability of the work.

I am here to testify in support of the full implementation of Initiative 77. As a former tipped employee in the District of Columbia, I found that the current wage system is volatile and hostile to workers. The subminimum wage of $3.89 per hour is little more than a tax buffer, meaning tips are the only way for servers to make ends meet. When the cost of labor is subsidized by customers, pay becomes unpredictable and can change every period. Anything from weather, illness, or a customer’s mood could impact my tips. A bad night or week meant working more shifts the next, leading to irregular schedules and unpredictable results. This lack of a safety net often led to difficult decisions. Without a fair wage, I felt compelled to go to work sick because I was afraid to lose the money. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I often worked through episodes of high and low blood sugar when I should have taken a break or gone home because I knew that I could not miss that opportunity to make money.

Under a tipped wage system, many workers also make less than minimum wage whenever they work outside of a service period. For example, at one tipped job that I held last year, up to a quarter of my shifts were spent opening and closing the restaurant before and after service. Because there were no customers during this period, my colleagues and I earned less than $4 an hour for our hard work. This drags down the average wage, forcing us to borrow from our ‘good shifts’ to offset paltry earnings. It’s an unequal system that requires workers to maintain the owner’s property and get little in return. It’s an unfair, two-tiered wage system that no white-collar employee would accept. Tipped workers deserve the same…

The movement to repeal Initiative 77 has been bankrolled by the National Restaurant Association, management consultants, and is backed by people like Mark Meadows in the House Freedom Caucus. When powerful interests publicly claim the initiative is unaffordable and spend hundreds of thousands dollars pitching to progressive voters, I have to wonder if they care about the many or the few.”

Chandrasekaran Shanmugam

I live in Maryland and work in DC. I [have been] working in [the] hospitality industry for 15 years in various positions.

I would like to bring the following to your attention in support of Initiative 77…

People voted for Initiative 77 in the same ballot that many of you were selected to represent us.

Your victory and the Initiative 77 victory are each side of the same coin. You cannot take one and ignore the other…

It is simple math that $15 per hour with tips will give more earnings than $3.89 with tips. In the states where one fair wage is implemented workers get tips in addition to the one fair wage.”

Griffin Tanner

“I’ve lived in DC for 6 years and I am a Ward 1 resident. I worked in the restaurant industry in DC for 3 years first as a runner and later as a bartender. However, this past June, after the election, I transitioned out of the industry. I believe this is significant. I am speaking here today because I am no longer at risk from unfavorable treatment from an employer and there’s several people still in the industry who support 77 but don’t feel comfortable speaking out against it in the face of “Save Our Tips” posters. So I’m here today to uplift those voices…

My own experiences working in the service industry show why initiative 77 would be a positive change for service workers.

When initially hired as a bartender, I earned $7 an hour plus tips, but about half a year into the job, our employer suddenly lowered the base wage to $3 an hour. That’s over a 50% decrease in base wage because our tips were quote unquote “high enough.” This dramatically lowered my expected earnings and affected my financial planning and security. About half of our staff quit. I considered leaving but was in in the middle of pursuing a degree and not in a position to search for a new job, so I had to rearrange my finances and cut back on spending to deal with the decrease in earnings.

Now, the company was not wrong for doing this because it was completely within their legal right. However, workers should not be subjected to this kind of unpredictability in earnings, whether it’s from changes to their base wage or from other characteristics in the industry such as inconsistencies in tippings throughout the year. With I-77, a stable base wage would prevent such unpredictability.”

Venorica Tucker

I am a 70-year-old African-American woman who has raised my children by myself (I have three sons). I was born and raised in Washington, DC and have worked in DC as a tipped worker all my life. I now live in Prince George’s County. I work very near here, at two very prominent places, providing food service and receiving a tip…

I discovered ROC and I supported many of the programs that they initiated, programs like ban the box, paid sick days, and their advocacy against sexual harassment in the workplace. I have been working to help them realize one fair wage and Initiative 77. So I was very happy on election night when I saw that we in fact had won when we were told we probably wouldn’t.

And when I hear you, Mr. Chairman, make the comment that you’ve heard the people, you’ve heard the workers, and the workers are all opposed to this – I’m a worker, 70 years old, working in this industry…For you to say that we’re saying ‘we don’t want this,’ that’s not the truth…

You’ve met with these people, not with us, the people who are for Initiative 77, but you’ve met with the people opposed to Initiative 77, and you’ve coached them, you’ve told them what to come here and say, and I am so disappointed in this kind of action.”

(Tucker’s allegations are accurate and confirmed by reporting in The Washington Post.)

If Phil Mendelson and his colleagues on the DC Council (particularly Kenyan McDuffie, Trayon White, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Vince Gray, and Brandon Todd) were truly interested in listening to tipped workers, these stories would give them pause. If they were truly interested in the facts, they’d take a closer look at the evidence a plethora of researchers, clergy, businesspeople, women’s rights advocates, civil rights lawyers, worker advocates, public officials, and other DC residents also presented to them at the hearing, and on many other occasions. And if they were truly interested in representing the people of DC – rather than the wealthy business executives who have donated to their campaigns – they wouldn’t be trying to repeal what their constituents voted for.

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Hold Up, Bernie! Stopping BEZOS Requires a Different Approach.

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos may be the wealthiest person in the history of the world: as of September 6, his net worth is $168 billion. At the same time, his company’s employment practices are terrible. At Amazon fulfillment centers (the warehouses in which they prepare orders for delivery), wages are low, conditions are grueling, and attempts to unionize are squelched at every turn. If Bezos made, say, $10 billion over the past year instead of the $84 billion he actually made during that 12-month time period – if he was unbelievably, ridiculously rich rather than record-breakingly rich – he could have given each of his employees worldwide (not just the warehouse employees) a $130,000 bonus.

That’s the backdrop for the Stop BEZOS Act, a bill Bernie Sanders just introduced in the Senate. Like a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Ro Khanna last summer, the Stop BEZOS Act (which stands for “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act”) would make large employers – defined as those with 500 or more employees – pay taxes equivalent to the amount of federal money spent on their workers’ public benefits. That is, the Sanders and Khanna bills would penalize employers whose employees’ incomes are low enough to qualify for SNAP (food stamps), free or reduced-price school meals, rental assistance, and health coverage through Medicaid.

Unfortunately, these bills reinforce dangerous stereotypes about public assistance, are likely to do more harm than good, and should be opposed. There are much better ways to fight back against the corporate greed and low wages Sanders and Khanna rightly condemn.

To understand why the approach in and messaging around these bills is so damaging, consider the tweet and embedded video clip below from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

On the one hand, it’s great to see a Fox News host calling out the underpayment of workers by insanely rich people. But note the way Carlson talks about this problem. Amazon “employees are so poor, you’re paying their welfare benefits.” Bezos is “offloading his payroll costs onto taxpayers.” This language is designed not just to get people angry about Bezos – it’s set up to pit “taxpayers” and “you” – Carlson’s viewers – against people who struggle to make ends meet and receive public assistance. One possible response to this message is “you’re right – Bezos should be paying his workers more!” Another, especially given the programming typical from Fox, could very well be “Why the hell am I, a taxpayer, paying for welfare benefits for other people? Let’s cut them!”

Though Sanders and Khanna are two of the most reliably power-balancing members of Congress and mean well, their language is alarmingly similar to Carlson’s. Sanders pitched his bill with the promise that “the taxpayers of this country would no longer be subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country who are paying their workers inadequate wages.” Khanna said “taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for paying the expenses of workers employed by multibillion-dollar companies.” Sanders and Khanna are clearly blaming rich people, not people who are struggling to get by, but they’re still creating a distinction between “taxpayers” and the workers who receive public assistance.

This distinction is a false one. Workers receiving public assistance are themselves taxpayers. Their overall taxes are lower than those of richer people, largely because we have a moderately progressive federal income tax. But when it comes to federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes, such as sales taxes, they actually pay a higher percentage of their incomes than rich people do.

Another problem with Sanders’s and Khanna’s framing is that public benefit payments that help struggling workers make ends meet are not “subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country,” as Sanders claims they are. Amazon pays workers poorly because they can, not because food stamps, rental assistance, and Medicaid are working overtime to keep working families and vulnerable adults afloat. Does anyone really think that, were these programs to be cut, Amazon would start paying their workers enough to live on? The company’s concern is their profits, not keeping their workers out of poverty.

Moreover, the level of public assistance in this country is far too low. According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, for instance, the average household in the second income quintile (the 20th to 40th percentile) made $30,600 a year in market income in 2014, which isn’t too far off the median income of an Amazon worker today. This average household receives $6,200 in “means-tested transfers,” which include the programs the Sanders and Khanna bills deal with, and after Social Security, Medicare, a few other programs, and taxes are factored in, this average household takes home $44,500 annually. That’s still $6,500 lower than the budget a one-parent, one-child household would need to “attain a modest yet adequate standard of living” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a city with a lower cost of living than most other places in the country. In a more expensive area and/or for a bigger family, it’s not even close to what the household would need. This bill erroneously suggests that Amazon’s workers would be fine without public assistance if Amazon were to raise wages, but the reality is that higher wages would be unlikely to obviate the need for families to have additional support.

Public benefits are an excellent use of our tax dollars. Not only do they help people meet their basic needs in the short run, they carry long-run benefits for kids as well. And since a lot of people living in poverty are unable or not expected to work, public assistance would be needed even in an economy in which all companies treated their workers fairly. We should be expanding public benefits – as both Sanders and Khanna surely agree – not lending credence to the arguments of people who seek to demonize them.

Beyond the bad messaging, the Sanders and Khanna bills, if enacted, would likely cause immediate problems. As my former colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Bob Greenstein, Sharon Parrott, and Chye-Ching Huang explain:

The bill would create powerful incentives for employers to minimize the number of workers they hire who likely qualify for Medicaid, SNAP, and the like — that is, workers in low-income families — and instead hire or retain people less likely to qualify for these benefits…

The bill includes a provision barring an employer from asking job applicants about their benefit receipt. But an employer does not need information about whether a job applicant is receiving benefits to take steps that limit the hiring of workers likely to receive benefits…That’s because information about a worker’s family and health often emerges in job interviews and even more so after an individual is employed. Some employers also get information about dependents for the purpose of administering various benefits or withholding the proper amount of taxes from paychecks…

Moreover, prospective employers that couldn’t secure such family-related information directly could look for other indicators of whether an individual’s household income is likely low and whether the worker and his or her family likely qualify for benefits — including, in particular, a worker’s race, gender, and neighborhood

Finally, some employers may pressure employees not to sign up for programs for which they qualify to reduce the tax penalty on the employer. Even without such pressure, some workers may decide that receiving benefits that their families need has become too risky…[T]he bill’s tax penalties would likely influence employer decisions on which employees to let go when they trim their workforces to cut costs, such as during recessions…The chilling effect could be substantial…

In addition, the legislation would likely lead to substantial corporate lobbying efforts to restrict eligibility and cut benefit levels for core low-income assistance programs, because doing so would reduce companies’ tax bills — effectively making a cut in Medicaid, SNAP, school meals, or rental subsidies akin to a direct corporate tax cut.

The good news, as Greenstein, Parrott, and Huang note, is that there are much better ways to achieve what Sanders and Khanna are trying to achieve. Some of the most direct ways to raise worker wages are to mandate higher minimum wages, break up huge companies like Amazon through antitrust legislation, and, perhaps most importantly, strengthen labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions. We should also raise the corporate tax rate and actually “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies,” which would mean closing federal corporate tax loopholes and pressuring cities and states to stop giving away huge “economic development incentives” (read: tax breaks) to large corporations like Amazon, which has thus far received over $1 billion in state and local subsidies and paid a whopping total of zero dollars – that’s right: zero – in federal taxes in 2017.

Sanders and Khanna already support these alternative ideas, and I applaud them for the way they’ve consistently championed worker rights and sought to hold large corporations accountable. I encourage them to double down on those efforts while reconsidering both this bill and their rhetoric about public assistance. That would probably lead to less enthusiasm from Tucker Carlson, but it would help people living paycheck to paycheck a whole lot more.

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Filed under Business, Labor

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.

twu-local-234-1

Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by Philly.com.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Labor

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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Filed under Education, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

The Sound Reasoning Behind a $15 Minimum Wage

The New York Times Editorial Board recently endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage.  A proposal at the federal level would phase in $15 an hour in small increments over a period of several years and would still, as the Times mentions, set a wage floor in 2020 below what most low-wage workers need to provide for their families.  Yet Slate’s Jordan Weissmann believes that “the argument in favor of a $15 federal minimum is…extremely weak,” and that the endorsement is “emblematic of a progressive movement that has fixated on a much higher minimum as the answer to the problem of low-wage work while refusing to grapple with the potential downsides.”

Weissmann supports a federal minimum wage above $10 an hour and possibly in the $12 an hour range; like Alan Krueger, one of the economists who authored some of the landmark research on the minimum wage, his argument against $15 surely comes from a good place.  His assertions are substantively wrong, however; proponents of a $15 federal minimum have grappled with the points he makes and have decided that the case for a $15 federal minimum is actually much stronger than Weissmann’s.

The crux of Weissmann’s argument is that, “if the government forces wages too high, businesses will eventually cut back on hiring.”  $15 would be “too high,” he argues, because it is higher than “historical and international norms.”

Weissmann is correct to note that a $15 minimum wage would affect a larger share of low-wage workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in Seattle, Washington, where a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour is already being phased in.  He is also correct to note that the research literature on the minimum wage largely speaks to moderate increases in the minimum wage, not to what might happen if it were increased to $15 an hour.  Proponents of a $15 minimum wage know these facts; they just don’t agree that they’re disqualifying.

The thing is, opponents of the minimum wage have been claiming for years, based on flawed but standard economic theory, that the mere existence of a minimum wage will kill jobs.  A huge body of research over the past twenty years has shown that these arguments are wrong: most studies suggest that the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment, and while there are credible studies that find small negative employment effects, there are also alternative theories out there, and a few findings to back them up, about why a higher minimum wage could, in some cases, actually lead to more employment.  Not having research about what would happen at $15 does not mean that it would cost jobs – it just means that, if we go to that level, we can’t be certain that the minimum wage’s opponents will continue to be so wrong about its effects on the job market.

Whether you think $15 will pose an employment problem is thus a matter of conjecture.  Weissmann is entitled to his beliefs, but it’s worth highlighting that a) the proposed increase is phased in in increments, giving businesses time to adjust, b) corporate profits are near all-time highs (as is executive compensation), suggesting that most businesses that employ low-wage workers can easily absorb the labor costs (one recent analysis of the fast food industry even suggests that firms could absorb a $15 minimum wage without a reduction in profits), c) Weissmann’s arguments mirror those of the minimum-wage-increase naysayers who have repeatedly been wrong, d) Weissmann’s summary of the evidence from Puerto Rico is woefully incomplete; a more thorough look does not actually support his case, and e) even economists, who typically lean towards embracing standard but flawed supply-and-demand theory, have split opinions on what might happen under a gradually phased-in $15 federal minimum wage.*

The fact that a $15 federal minimum wage would affect more workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in higher-wage states can also be viewed as an argument in favor of larger increases in the minimum wage – they provide more help to a larger number of low-wage workers who are struggling to get by!  As Weissmann himself acknowledges, it takes around $20 an hour for a single parent to raise a child even in states with the lowest costs of living.  He gives surprisingly short shrift to the huge risk in not raising the minimum wage high enough: that it will lock in insufficient income support for millions of low-wage workers who desperately need additional money.  The fact that the nationwide movement for $15 has been driven by the very workers who would be affected by the policy change suggests strongly that they view the definite downside posed by a lower minimum wage – less compensation for their hard work – as a whole lot scarier than the indefinite possibility that $15 might cause some reductions in employment.  The argument against $15 could theoretically be used to reject every bold new policy proposal that helps people; it’s really hard to make progress if you don’t push past historical and international norms every so often.

In addition, while I applaud Weissmann for his concern about low-wage workers being able to find jobs, advocating against higher wages for millions of people is an odd way to address this concern.  The minimum wage does not exist in a vacuum; it is one policy among many that can be used to help low-wage workers.  While Weissmann correctly notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit and minimum wage are complementary, he fails to consider whether direct job-creation programs and/or policy that addresses firms’ decision-making in response to minimum wage increases could complement the minimum wage as well.

So while Weissmann thinks the New York Times underweights the potential and unknowable risk of heretofore unseen levels of job loss, I believe (along with hundreds of economists) that he underweights the immediate, definite risk of keeping the minimum wage too low.  I encourage him to, at the very least, consider policy tools that can mitigate his concerns without depriving low-wage workers of much-needed income.

*Update (1/5/16): It’s also worth noting, as minimum wage expert Dave Cooper has reminded me, that “the fear of a negative impact on jobs is a bit too simplistic. The concern is that the higher minimum wage could reduce the total aggregate work hours among low-wage workers, but even if that occurred, those workers would still be better off if, even while working fewer hours, the higher hourly wage caused their annual earnings to rise.”

Correction (1/25/16): The original version of this post misspelled Weissmann’s name.

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Filed under Business, Labor