Annette Bernhardt

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Annette Bernhardt

  • Raising the Minimum Wage is a Step Toward Economic Freedom

    Feb 20, 2013Annette Bernhardt

    Opponents of a minimum wage increase imagine an economic reality very different from the one millions of American workers experience.

    Opponents of a minimum wage increase imagine an economic reality very different from the one millions of American workers experience.

    The good news from last week is that President Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage – long overdue and desperately needed for low-wage workers who have seen their real earnings decline during the recovery. The bad news is that his announcement set off a flurry of blogging on the economics of the minimum wage, and, predictably, not a small amount of armchair theorizing.

    One particular contribution seems innocuous at first, but in fact frames the issue in an unhelpful and potentially misleading way. In his research round-up last Thursday, Matt Yglesias argued that the best case against raising the minimum wage might be economic freedom:

    You've got a guy who wants to give someone $8 to do something that'll take an hour and another guy who wants $8 and is happy to do the thing in exchange for the money. Now Barack Obama's going to fine them for agreeing to trade $8 for the work? Seems perverse. In the real world, obviously, the perversity of this is greatly mitigated by the existence of formal exemptions and weak enforcement. If you pay a neighbor's son $10 to mow your lawn and it takes him 70 minutes, you're going to be able to get away with it even in a world of a $9 minimum wage. Which is probably as it should be.

    In this theoretical world, the informal economy is a place where teenagers happily mow lawns and babysit for a little extra cash. But in the real America, we are talking about a large and growing sector of unregulated work, where every day, millions of adults work for subminimum wages and no overtime, often in unsafe and hazardous workplaces. Far from peripheral, this sector spans the core industries of our economy, from hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, retail sales workers, domestic workers, and home health aides to janitors, meat processing workers, taxi drivers, warehouse workers, and construction laborers.

    And the violations of employment and labor laws are systemic. A landmark 2008 study of more than 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage in the preceding week, 76 percent had been underpaid for their overtime hours, and 70 percent did not receive any pay at all when they came in early or stayed late after their shift. Also important for this discussion: when workers made a complaint to their employer about wages or working conditions, 43 percent were retaliated against. Not surprisingly, many more never complained in the first place, out of fear that they’d be fired or turned over to the immigration authorities.

    So this is not a world where workers are “happy to do the thing” for subminimum wages. It is not a world where workers and employers come to the wage negotiation with anything even vaguely resembling the equal power one would need to call it economic freedom. (And how low are we willing to go, by the way? Some have called for states to be allowed to experiment with $5 an hour minimum wages – but why stop there? What about $1 an hour? Or abolishing child labor laws, as a 2011 Missouri bill would have done?)

    Moreover, this is not a world where weak enforcement of our laws is a good thing. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of federal wage and hour inspectors declined by 31 percent and the number of enforcement actions fell by 61 percent. By contrast, the civilian labor force grew 52 percent during this same period. And while the U.S. Department of Labor has added more investigators under the Obama administration, the current federal staffing level of 1,006 is still below its 1980 peak. (The picture looks even worse for enforcement of health and safety laws.)

    In the same vein, there is nothing to cheer about when, for example, 2.5 million home care workers are exempted from minimum wage and overtime protections, which has driven down job quality, increased turnover, and caused staffing shortages in this critical industry.

    So let me suggest a different definition of economic freedom. Under this definition, economic freedom means being able to earn a living wage, being able to pay for electricity and rent, being able to afford child care and health care, being able to save for college, and being able to put enough aside for retirement. In short, “freedom from want,” which not coincidentally comes to us from FDR, the father of the minimum wage.

    Back then, the fight was to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that businesses couldn’t compete without child labor and sweatshops. Now the fight is to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that multinational corporations with billions a year in profits can’t afford to raise their wages to the poverty line. In both cases, the stakes remain the same: the strength of our families, our economy, and our respect for the labor of others.

    Annette Bernhardt is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.


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  • The Missing Living Wage Agenda

    Nov 20, 2012Annette BernhardtDorian Warren

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a long-term plan to provide justice on the job for all workers.

    As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a long-term plan to provide justice on the job for all workers.

    Now that the election is over, our hope is that we can finally move beyond the vacuous invocations of an imaginary middle class where everyone is in the same boat. It’s time to get real about the concrete policies needed to take on the multiple inequalities that run deep through the U.S. labor market. And we’re not talking about the “skills mismatch,” another red herring routinely flung into this debate by both sides (including by President Obama as recently as the last week of the campaign).

    What we’re talking about is a broad, multi-year agenda to give America’s workers a living wage and voice on the job and to take on the continuing exclusion of workers of color, immigrants, and women from good jobs. The media may have discovered inequality last year with the surprise emergence of Occupy Wall Street, but in truth, there is a 30-year backlog of policies to fix the extreme maldistribution of wages and opportunity in the labor market.

    First, we have to make our core workplace standards much stronger – whether it’s in terms of wages, health and safety, or voice on the job. That means raising the minimum wage so that it’s a meaningful floor again (some good news: voters in Albuquerque, San Jose, and Long Beach raised theirs last week). It means updating health and safety regulations written in the 1970s. And it means restoring the right to organize, because at this point, virulent employer opposition and retaliation has rendered U.S. labor law obsolete. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. workers say they would like to be represented by a union, but only 11.8 percent actually are. This is what happens when one out of four workers is fired illegally for attempting to organize a union while employers face minimal penalties.

    Second, we have to take on the profound reorganization of the American workplace. The poster child for precarious work is temp jobs – but subcontracting has had a much broader impact, as janitors, laundry workers, warehouse workers, security guards, food service workers, and millions of others have been outsourced to low-wage firms. A good model for a solution is California’s recent law making companies liable for minimum wage and overtime violations by their subcontractors, recognizing that end-user firms such as Walmart exert considerable control over working conditions down their supply chains.   

    Third, we have to double down on enforcement. A 2008 study of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York found that 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage and 76 percent were underpaid or not paid at all for their overtime hours. Yet the number of federal wage and hour inspectors is still below 1980 levels, and it would take 131 years for OSHA investigators to inspect each workplace just once. Until employers face substantial costs to their bottom line (as is true in other bodies of law, such as environmental regulation and employment discrimination law), practices like wage theft, retaliation against workers trying to organize a union, and independent contractor misclassification will continue unabated.

    Fourth, we have to do a better job of leveraging the government’s capital. Public money touches millions of private-sector jobs, whether by purchasing goods and services for the government or by funding everything from schools and bridges to health care and social services. There are plenty of innovative models to ensure that this money results in good jobs, whether it’s responsible contracting policies (in California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Illinois), living wage laws (in more than 140 cities and counties), or accountable economic development policies (in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and New York City, among others).

    Fifth, we have to explicitly break down systemic labor market exclusions of people of color, immigrants, women, the unemployed, and people with criminal records. For example, advocates are pushing the U.S. Department of Labor to finally end the exemption of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protection, and cities across the country are passing “ban the box” policies to reduce hiring barriers for people with arrest or conviction records.  

    But we also have to challenge de facto exclusions. A good example is targeted hiring and training programs on publicly funded projects, which in our mind will be crucial to solving the escalating (and chronically under-reported) economic crisis in communities of color. A great example is Portland’s 2009 residential retrofitting program, which mandated living wages and local hiring from designated training programs. As of last year, the program’s workers earned median wages of $18 per hour; fully 84 percent were local residents, nearly half of them people of color. While unemployment is still at Depression-era levels in many black communities, we know what works to employ those still excluded from access to the labor market.

    A final word on why we think these policies (and many others; see the long-form version here) are politically viable. In communities across the country, there is an undeniable thirst for justice on the job and investment in local communities. This is true not just for raising the minimum wage, which consistently polls in the 70-80 percent range, but also policies such as paid sick days, increased funding for elder care and child care, cracking down on wage theft, using taxpayer money to create living wage jobs, and restoring the right to organize.

    (If you doubt support for organizing, consider the recent wave of strikes by Walmart workers, or New York’s taxi workers organizing for better pay even though they are independent contractors, or Palermo’s pizza workers in Wisconsin staying out on strike for three months and now pressuring Costco to boycott their employer.)

    The real question is whether President Obama and Democrats in Congress understand that raising taxes on the top 2 percent is only the first step on a long road toward building a sustainable living wage economy in the U.S. Our hope lies in the growing recognition among progressives that it will take the pressure and power of social movements to convince him to walk that road with us.

    Annette Bernhardt and Dorian Warren are Fellows at the Roosevelt Institute.

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