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For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work

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By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required minimum in her upstate New York town— currently, $12.50. Lily was living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She hadn’t given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a creeping suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a customer service agent, then as a New York contact tracer — jobs that paid nearly double what she had been making. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m worth more than minimum wage,’” Lily says. (Lily is a pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future employers.) “I didn’t even realize how bummed I was. A plane ticket was 25% of my net worth. I was worrying about putting gas in my car to get to work.” 

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered an extra $2.50 after negotiation, but Lily turned it down—the venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to cover gas. 

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over a month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a job that allows employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. Her goal is a $20 wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a “big, revelatory moment” when she was earning more money, she says: “I started eating healthier. I bought myself workout clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the way you feel about yourself.” 

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like Lily—who ask for a decent wage and marginal flexibility from an employer—are simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for a job or to accept any offer).

But the 26 mostly red states that recently terminated the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work regardless of any “incentives”—one of the top reasons being the exorbitant cost of child care. As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure to Covid-19.

To be fair, there’s evidence that for some people, pandemic relief measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice. A June survey by the jobs website Indeed.com found a fifth of job seekers were not urgently searching for work because of their “financial cushion.” A Morning Consult poll that same month found 13% of people receiving unemployment checks had turned down job offers because of that short-term stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior “lazy,” however, one must be predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how much they work—to decide their own fates. In light of this profound shift, perhaps it’s understandable that workers are unwilling to settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating what role work should have in their lives, whether it’s important to their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise. Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs,” work “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” After such a revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to business as usual?

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S. culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand “our needs and desires beyond their usual objects”—to understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our “highest calling and moral duty … as the necessary center of social life.” It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly “co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,” Weeks tells In These Times. Employers attempted to make work “more participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.”

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

“So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity—for example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,” Weeks says. “The overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they will.”

Without work taking up 40 or more hours each week, those who lost their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their time. Baking bread became such a popular quarantine hobby that it verged on cliché, but many who tried it found it comforting and deeply satisfying. One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for once—they got to eat the bread at the end. Others found themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga, gardening and roller skating.

“I … got really into cooking at home, because I really do love to cook,” Caleb Orth, a 35-year-old in Chicago, told the New York Times’ podcast The Daily in August. “It was a hobby of mine before I lost my job,” he said. But at the restaurant where he’d worked 80 hours a week, he’d tired of making “somebody else’s food, the same thing over and over and over. So during Covid, I’d be making meals at home, and I got really into it.”

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March 2020, she set about creating a small art studio in her home in Kansas City, Mo. She filled a corner of her living room with drawing and book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a friend and assembled a small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan’s boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two collected unemployment—about $325 weekly, each, plus a $600 weekly federal supplement—they fell into a routine. They would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their respective spaces.

“Sometimes I would just mess around and not really do anything,” says McClanahan, 37. “But I got to be like, ‘Oh, do I want to draw a picture? Yes. I’m gonna do that. Do I want to paint? Make a book? Take photographs? I also taught myself how to embroider. It was just a free-for-all for creativity, which I haven’t had in a long time.” She made a leather-bound sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a guestbook for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to friends across the country.

McClanahan, who has a master’s in library science and went to art school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits. When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans. While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn’t on the clock, troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened—but quickly realized she couldn’t return to the lifestyle she had as a manager. “I was really stressed all the time, and I kept saying to myself over and over, ‘I don’t know why I am spending so much time worrying about something that isn’t even mine,’” McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed gave her “freedom and peace of mind.”

“That really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about what I’m willing to tolerate at my job going forward,” McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15, but a growing number of companies have begun offering it (including giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under Armour). In a press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie Pugliese called the move a “strategic decision … to be a competitive employer.”

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out. Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as a bartender.

“After having five different jobs during the pandemic, I’ve come back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I want to be doing if I have to work at all,” McClanahan says. “But my attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has definitely changed.”

About the Author: Marie Solis has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Minimum Wage: Is $15/Hour Enough?

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Minimum wage debates are never-ending and often polarizing. What I can say with certainty is that the stagnation of the minimum wage for the last 12 years is unfortunate when we see the quick uptick in inflation. In the latest report from June 2021, inflation jumped to 5.4% year-on-year, compared to last year’s rate of 0.6%. 

Minimum wages leave even the hardest of workers struggling to make ends meet. The simplest thing that we can do is to advocate for decent, livable wages for all to ensure the opportunity for economic security no matter who you are, where you work or where you live. 

That, however, begs the question: how do we set the new minimum wage? In reality, how can we settle on one number, such as $15/hour,  when each individual city has dramatically different costs of living and each state has a unique tax burden? 

Today’s Wages

Stuck at $7.25, the reality of the federal minimum wage is that in the largest U.S. cities, this kind of wage just won’t cut it. Even $15/hour isn’t enough in most areas.

Some might boast of a news release from the BLS declaring the increase in average hourly earnings rose 3.6% in June 2021, but this is likely not true for every worker and definitely does not keep up with inflation. 

It’s a complicated issue but there are many places in America where people aren’t making enough to buy necessities or even pay rent. They opt out of health insurance or simply going to the doctor for fear of what they may owe when all is said and done. 

Sure, many states and cities have mandated higher local minimum wages. Unfortunately, those increases often aren’t enough. 

For example, New York City’s minimum wage is set at $15-an-hour. According to this data study, factoring in local taxes, utilities, food, rental costs and transit as part of the core budget, a single New Yorker would be left with around $70 for hobbies, insurance, student loan payments, emergency expenses or simply to save. (Case in point: this homeless Amazon worker making $19.30 an hour.)

Inflation and City-Adjusted Wages

One minimum wage movement that has made the most waves across the nation is the Fight for $15. An estimated 26 million workers have been positively impacted by changes made in response to this demand for more livable wages. 

This movement was launched 12 years ago. If we used the current rates of inflation that would mean that this movement should now be pushing for $17.75 an hour.  

I’m no economist or financial expert, but it seems reasonable to me that taking inflation and each city’s cost-of-living into account, a minimum wage formula could be devised and additional wages could be adjusted according to some city-specific metrics such as the local price parity.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Kristen Klepac is a writer and content specialist who really misses music festivals. She currently resides in France where she often works on creating data-focused content that reveals unexpected trends on everything from crypto to city-based demographic reports. 


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Fight for $15 Movement Has Won $150B in Wage Raises for 26M Workers in Less Than a Decade

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Home - National Employment Law Project

New York, NY—The worker-of-color-led Fight for $15 and a union movement has won $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers to date, according to a new report from National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Twelve million of the 26 million impacted workers (46 percent) are Black, Latinx, or Asian American; and of the $150 billion in total raises that workers have secured, $76 billion has gone to workers of color and $70 billion to women workers.

New York City fast-food workers first walked off their jobs in November 2012, demanding a $15 minimum wage and union rights. Since then, the movement for higher wages has become one of the most successful workers’ movements in recent memory, leading to higher wages in dozens of states, cities, and counties; putting pressure on some of the world’s largest corporations to raise their pay scales; and transforming public opinion.

“Since 2012, the Fight for $15 movement has brought together thousands of workers across the country, who organized and called for higher wages and union rights. Our report quantifies the impact of this movement in terms of the number of workers who have benefitted, and the higher earnings they have won,” says NELP Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Yannet Lathrop, who co-authored the study along with San Jose State University Professor T. William Lester and University of North Carolina doctoral candidate Matthew Wilson.

Lathrop continues: “What’s most impressive is that workers have won these wage increases despite every imaginable obstacle­—from a system increasingly stacked against workers and labor unions, to interference from some of the most nefarious corporations, who deployed well-paid lobbyists to fight tooth and nail against higher minimum wages. But workers won in the end. That should tell us that when workers organize, they win.”

These massive wins—amounting to $5,700 in additional annual income per worker—have made a real material difference in the lives of the nation’s millions of underpaid workers and their families. The impact is particularly significant for workers of color—for example, the report finds that state minimum wage increases boosted the earnings of Black workers by $5,100 annually on average; and that local minimum wage increases raised their earnings by $7,300.

While the Fight for $15 movement has been successful, many members of Congress have refused to heed the demands of their constituents and raise the federal minimum wage. July 24 marks 12 years since the federal minimum wage last went up, leaving the millions of workers in the 20 states with wages at the federal minimum—or with no state minimum wage—with income that has not been livable for a very long time. This is structurally racist in design and effect, as most Black workers in the U.S. live in these states.

Congress must listen to the demands of the workers and communities of color leading the movement for higher wages and immediately pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and youth workers.

“The Black and brown workers leading the Fight for $15 and a union have heroically transformed public discourse on wages, worker power, and workplace democracy—while achieving major policy wins and taking on exploitive corporations,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon. “Longstanding racist policy choices have created labor market inequities, segregating workers of color and women—most of all Black women—into jobs with low pay, stagnating those wages. Now Congress must deliver on the demands of this movement, which would advance racial and gender equity in the U.S. and improve the lives of all workers, their families, and communities.

Along with the campaign to pass the federal Raise the Wage Act, workers in the Fight for $15 are organizing to win just-cause employment protections across the country, protections from sexual harassment and violence on the job, living wages above $15, and crucially, the union rights that will help secure all of these demands.

Members of Congress must urgently follow workers’ lead as a matter of civil rights and racial and gender justice.

Read the full report here.

This post originally appeared at NELP on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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Child care is a crisis screaming out for investment. Can Manchin and Sinema hear that?

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Affordable, available child care was a major problem for many U.S. families even before the coronavirus pandemic—and now it’s a crisis. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have plans to fix that if Senate Republicans will get out of the way, or Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will get on board with a budget reconciliation package that includes child care. But even if funding was passed into law tomorrow (which it won’t be), the child care crisis would persist, at least for a while. 

The U.S. child care system has so many problems that simply scaling it up would take time as well as money. Scaling up requires adding both facilities and workers, and both of those are challenging. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, child care providers told local news station KOIN about their difficulties setting up new facilities, from finding appropriate spaces to zoning and permitting to finding the funding to pay for renovations. 

“It gets costly to borrow, you know, and childcare—there’s a fine line in what you can charge and what makes you competitive in the marketplace for families who do need childcare and how much you can ultimately profit to pay off a loan,” said one provider who had already spent $200,000, with the help of grants, renovating a space to set up a new facility.

Then there are child care workers. This was already a high-turnover industry, thanks in part to low wages. A Biden administration fact sheet on the American Families Plan lays out the gruesome situation for these workers: “More investment is needed to support early childhood care providers and educators, more than nine in ten of whom are women and more than four in ten of whom are women of color. They are  among the most underpaid workers in the country and nearly half receive public income support programs. The typical child care worker earned $12.24 per hour in 2020—while receiving few, if any, benefits, leading to high turnover and lower quality of care.”

The Biden plan would pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour for child care workers, as well as supporting professional development and training. At the same time, subsidies to families would ensure that “families earning 1.5 times their state median income will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for all children under age five,” while care would be free for the lowest-income families. 

But, again, such a dramatic increase in capacity would take time to put into place, and we’ve been seeing how slowly funds can make their way to the people who need them: Emergency rental assistance, for example, has gone out at a glacial pace in many states, even with an eviction crisis looming.

”We estimate hundreds of thousands of new children will benefit … in the first year, and even more children will start to immediately benefit from increased quality and access,” a White House official told Politico, “by providing funds to states to build on their existing child care systems in a way that is tailored to the needs of communities in the state and provides parents with options to send children to the setting of their choice.”

Hundreds of thousands is good—but millions of children were without affordable, accessible child care prior to the pandemic, and the situation has only gotten worse.

The fact that Congress can’t just snap its fingers and create a whole new, wonderful U.S. child care infrastructure isn’t the reason to start working on it, though. It’s a reason to start working on it now, with major funding directed at the problem that’s become a crisis. The pandemic has showed us how critical child care is to the ability of parents to do their jobs. Too many women have dropped out of the paid workforce or scaled back their paid work to take care of their children, and if we want to reverse that rather than let women’s progress be set back by decades, this is a massively important intervention. Raising wages for workers—overwhelmingly women and very often women of color—doing an important job should also be a priority, and it’s one that would benefit children by reducing turnover of their caregivers. Funding child care is a key economic, educational, and moral intervention. Manchin and Sinema need to embrace it.

This post originally appeared at DailyKos on August 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Quantifying the Impact of the Fight for $15: $150 Billion in Raises for 26 Million Workers, with $76 Billion Going to Workers of Color

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Introduction

In late November 2012, a small group of fast-food workers in New York City walked out of their jobs in response to low wages[1] and the challenges of organizing a union in a high-turnover and high-exploitation industry.[2] These workers—many of them Black and brown—would launch one of the most successful worker movements of the 21st century, as their demands echoed across the country, spreading the call for a $15 minimum wage and a union.

The Fight for $15, as the movement inspired by these walkouts would be called, sparked waves of action to raise the minimum wage in the ensuing years, leading dozens of states, cities, and counties to raise their wages; putting pressure on some of the world’s largest corporations to raise their pay scales; and informing the national conversation on living wages, workplace democracy, and equity.

This report quantifies the wage impact of the Fight for $15. Using U.S. Census data, we estimate that 26 million workers have been boosted by higher minimum wage policies passed by all levels of government since 2012—winning over $150 billion in additional annual income.[i] We also find that the Fight for $15 has helped raise the earnings of nearly 12 million workers of color and 18 million women—likely helping narrow the racial and gender wage gaps (though a wage gap analysis is beyond the scope of this report).

Crucially, this worker-led movement delivered these additional earnings despite the racist, sexist, and anti-worker system of laws and political climate in the United States—with laws in place around the country that permit forced arbitration,[3] wage preemption,[4] misclassification,[5] wage theft,[6] and ongoing attacks on the few parts of our system that actually aid working people.[7]

THE ECONOMIC CONTEXT

Since the end of the Great Depression, U.S. productivity has grown rapidly—an indication that workers are producing more goods and services and creating more wealth. Yet, worker pay has barely budged, while CEO pay has soared. In the four decades between 1978 and 2018, inflation-adjusted CEO compensation (base salary and realized stock options) grew by 940 percent, while median worker pay grew just 12 percent.[8] According to an analysis commissioned by the New York Times, in 2020 alone CEO pay grew by 14 percent, while median worker pay grew by less than 2 percent.[9]

Between 1948 and 1973, real hourly wages increased in proportion to the overall growth in productivity. As the U.S. economy grew, the gains were shared with workers on a roughly proportional basis.  However, since 1973, wages for the most underpaid workers have not kept pace with growth of our economy and total labor productivity.[10] In essence, corporations have not equitably shared the returns of our formidable growth in national productivity with the underpaid workers who made those gains possible.

By 2017, productivity was growing more than twice as fast as the growth in real median wages.[11] Many economists have interpreted this trend as an example of the diminishing power of workers relative to employers.[12] Increased globalization and the declining power of unions have contributed to the loss of bargaining power. But another factor is the declining value of the federal minimum wage, which places a floor on wages in the labor market.

The federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25 per hour in 2009. In 2021, it remains at that level.

The federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25 per hour in 2009. In 2021, it remains at that level, making this twelve-year period the longest in which the federal minimum wage has remained unchanged since the U.S. first enacted a federal minimum wage in 1938. The real value of the federal minimum wage is now only 59 percent of its peak value in 1968.[13]

Thirty states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wage levels that currently exceed $7.25 per hour—however, twenty other states follow the federal rate or do not have a state minimum wage at all. Of the states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum, eleven states[ii] and Washington D.C. have legislated additional increases to $15 over the next few years.

The Fight for $15 has highlighted the disconnect between state and U.S. legislators who refuse to raise wages—most of whom represent states with $7.25 minimum wages—and their constituents, many of whom support a $15 minimum wage. As worker-activists in states stuck at $7.25 have made clear, zip codes should not determine whether workers are able to earn a baseline living wage.

Main Findings

In this report, we find:

  • General Impact: From 2012 to January 2021, an estimated 26 million workers have won over $150 billion[iii] in additional income through a combination of state and local minimum wage increases[iv] and an executive order for federal contractors. The affected workers comprise nearly 16 percent of the U.S. labor force. To put the $150 billion in perspective, this figure is more than 94 times the impact ($1.6 billion) of the last federal minimum wage increase to $7.25, which took effect in 2009.[14]
  • Impact on Workers of Color: Of the 26 million workers, nearly 12 million (46 percent) are Black, Latinx, or Asian American. Their additional annual income totals $76 billion—approximately 50 percent of the total for all workers.
  • Impact on Women: Women comprise approximately 13 million (50 percent) of all impacted workers. Their share of the additional annual earnings is nearly $70 billion—46 percent of the total.
  • Impact of $15 Minimum Wage Laws: Of the $150 billion in additional income for affected workers, the overwhelming share (73 percent, or nearly $111 billion) is the result of minimum wage increases in states and localities that are either on a path to $15 or have already reached a $15 or higher minimum wage. Workers affected by these laws make up 69 percent of the total.

WORKERS OF COLOR HAVE SEEN STRONG GAINS FROM FIGHT FOR $15 MINIMUM WAGE WINS

Workers of color and their economic and political demands played a significant role in shaping the movement for higher wages. [xvi] These workers have been among the most impacted by the Fight for $15, as our analysis shows.

Higher wages benefit all workers, but they can have a greater impact in communities that have been historically underpaid due to structural racism, sexism, and the enduring occupational segregation that pushes workers of color into the most underpaid jobs in the economy. This means that changes to minimum wage policies can have a profound effect in reducing racial inequity, as the workers of color leading the Fight for $15 and a union have emphasized.

A recent study by University of California economists estimates that minimum wage increases from 1990 to 2019 reduced the Black-white wage gap by 12 percent.[xvii] A separate study estimates that the 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act—which expanded minimum wage protections to previously excluded occupations in which workers of color were overrepresented—explains more than 20 percent of the reduction in the racial earnings and income gaps between 1967 and 1980.[xviii]

In addition to narrowing the racial wage, earnings and income gaps, higher minimum wages can also substantially increase the earnings of workers of color. Table 2, above, shows that workers of color represent 46 percent of all workers impacted by minimum wage increases between 2012 and 2021. Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to workers of color was nearly $76 billion (50 percent).

Tables 5 and 6 provide further details of the impact of the Fight for $15 for workers of color. They show that state minimum wage increases boosted the earnings of Black workers by $5,100 annually on average; and that local minimum wage increases raised their earnings by $7,300. The incomes of Latinx and Asian American workers rose faster: State-level minimum wage policies boosted their annual earnings by $6,300; and local increases raised their annual earnings by $8,300 and $8,200, respectively. By comparison, state and local minimum wage increases raised the earnings of white workers by $4,900 and $7,200, respectively—below the averages for workers of color and for all workers.

Black and brown worker-leaders in the Fight for $15 have not only advocated for higher wages, but have also pointed to worker power and workplace democracy as essential to increasing racial equity. These workers are now fighting to strengthen other workplace protections, such as just-cause job protections, union recognition, stronger health and safety standards, and wage theft protections.

THE FIGHT FOR $15 HAS BOOSTED WOMEN’S EARNINGS BY $70 BILLION

Since the 1970s, women’s educational attainment has increased substantially[xix], which typically correlates to higher earnings. Yet, women continue to earn less than men,[xx] and continue to be overrepresented among the underpaid workforce.

According to a 2018 analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women comprise nearly two-thirds of workers earning at or under $11.50 per hour.[xxi] In a separate analysis, NWLC finds that women make up 60 percent or more of the workforce in four of the five fastest-growing occupations. Of these, three occupations—personal care aides, home health aides, and combined food preparation and serving workers (including fast food)—pay low wages.[xxii] Women’s overrepresentation in underpaid occupations is one of the factors that drive the gender wage gap. Yet, research shows that higher minimum wages can help narrow this gap.[xxiii]

Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to women was nearly $70 billion (46 percent).

The tables below provide further details of the impact of the Fight for $15 on women. Table 7 shows that state minimum wage increases boosted the annual earnings of affected female workers by $5,100 per worker on average, and by over $58 billion in the aggregate. Table 8—which reflects the impact of minimum wage increases in nine cities and counties for which we have data—shows that local minimum wage increases raised women’s earnings by $7,400 per worker, and by more than $11 billion in the aggregate. (More detailed figures can be found in Appendix Tables E-1 to F-2).Table 3, above, shows that women represent 50 percent of all workers impacted by minimum wage increases between 2012 and 2021. Of the more than $150 billion in annual additional income resulting from Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, the share going to women was nearly $70 billion (46 percent). (The slightly lower income gains for women, compared with men, are likely the result of women’s overrepresentation among part-time workers[xxiv]—a reflection of gender roles that are slow to change, which have been shown to impact women’s career decisions).[xxv]

The benefit of higher wages for women and their dependents cannot be understated. With existing conditions and a government and corporate response rooted in systemic racism and sexism, the COVID-19 pandemic harmed women—particularly women of color—more than men. In the first ten months of the pandemic, women lost 1 million more jobs than men, and in the month of December 2020, alone, all of the job losses were borne by women of color.[xxvi] According to research by the National Women’s Law Center and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, women are more likely than men to experience poverty during their working years, particularly, if they are raising children as single mothers.[xxvii] Children raised by single mothers are also more likely (33 percent) to experience poverty than children raised by single fathers (21 percent).[xxviii] Higher incomes resulting from minimum wage increases are likely to have some mitigating impact on poverty for women and families.[xxix]

MOST OF THE GAINS STEM FROM STATE AND LOCAL MINIMUM WAGE INCREASES TO $15 OR MORE

Since 2012, eleven states[6] and 45 localities have adopted laws that put them on a path to $15. As Table 4, above, shows, these laws account for the bulk of the impacts on workers: 18 million workers (69 percent of the total) and nearly $111 billion in additional income (73 percent of total). Appendix Tables G and H list state and local jurisdictions on a path to $15.

Although state-level $15 minimum wage laws have had the most impact—accounting for 56 percent of all worker impacts, and 55 percent of all income increases—local jurisdictions have led the way in raising wages to $15 or more. The Fight for $15 was initially a local effort—a fast-food worker strike in New York City. However, it quickly spread, winning the first of many victories in SeaTac, Washington in 2013, followed by Seattle and San Francisco in 2014.

From there, the movement was able to scale up to states, with California and New York adopting gradual increases to $15 in 2015, around the same time as additional local jurisdictions were considering their own $15 minimum wage laws. The leadership of cities and counties in raising wages—pushed by local workers and communities—has been one of the main forces behind state action for higher wages to $15;[xxx] and now they are leading the way for even higher wages beyond $15.

Conclusion

Since 2012, the Fight for $15—a worker- and people of color-led movement—has achieved what our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. could not: Raise wages in dozens of states, cities, and counties, winning $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers. The impact of these raises is 94 times that of the last federal minimum wage increase, which took effect in 2009. These are real, material gains for millions of people—affecting workers’ ability to buy groceries, pay rent, attend school, and care for their families.

Despite this incredible achievement, the need for higher wages remains. Twenty states follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25 or do not have a minimum wage law of their own.[xxxi] Many of these states are located in the South, where a majority of African Americans live and work.[xxxii] These 20 states have not only failed to raise wages, but most also prohibit cities and counties within their borders from adopting their own minimum wage laws.[xxxiii]

It is crucial that the U.S. Congress finally pass a federal baseline wage of $15 an hour or higher, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, young workers, and workers with disabilities.

That is why it is so crucial for the U.S. Congress to finally pass a federal baseline wage of $15 an hour or higher, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, young workers, and workers with disabilities. With the Raise the Wage Act, Congress has an opportunity to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.00 over five years,[xxxiv] a proposal that enjoys wide support from voters.[xxxv] Without congressional action, underpaid workers in states that follow the federal minimum wage will continue to be guaranteed only a poverty wage of $7.25. These workers, who are disproportionately workers of color, will fall further and further behind other workers around the country.

The success of the movement for higher wages—demonstrated so clearly by the impact numbers highlighted in this report—only reaffirms how far out of step lawmakers in Congress are from their constituents, as they continue to refuse to raise the federal minimum wage. But just as the Fight for $15 and a union movement has won raises in cities, counties, and states nationwide, it is only a matter of time before workers win a $15 minimum wage on the federal level, and other labor protections at all levels of government—including just cause, union rights, and even wages above $15, which are increasingly necessary around the country.

Crucially, all of these policies are also essential to increasing racial equity. Structural anti-Black racism is at the core of why workers are so underpaid nationwide.[xxxvi] Illustrative of anti-Black racism are the segregation of the labor market that pushes many workers of color into underpaid jobs;[xxxvii] the original exclusion of whole categories of workers from minimum wage protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act;[xxxviii] and voting discrimination[xxxix] and wage preemption laws[xl] that prevent Black workers in these states from having a fair say in the policies that determine their lives.

Congressional lawmakers can either put their weight behind the worker activism and the racial and gender justice imperative of raising wages now, or they can bury their heads further into the sand, as workers win in spite of them.

Methodology

Our methodological approach follows one originally created by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley,[xli] who first forecasted the impact of the proposed $15-per-hour Los Angeles citywide minimum wage.[xlii]

This approach relies upon estimating what would have happened to wages if no minimum wage increases were ever passed. Specifically, we estimate the wage distribution in each state and selected localities for each year from 2012—when the Fight for $15 began—up to 2021 to establish a baseline scenario. This is referred to as a “counterfactual” wage distribution. To do this, we reconstructed what the minimum wage was in each state in 2011 and assume that minimum wages were kept at this level (i.e., without the Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases). The starting point for the counterfactual wage projection was the observed total wage income from the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) public use microdata.  Reported wages were then inflated by the average rate of inflation as measured by the CPI-U in the period from 2012 to 2020.

To capture the impacts of Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases, we constructed the actual minimum wage stepped increases by states and localities. We define an affected worker as an individual respondent with a projected baseline wage below the mandated minimum wage in 2021. Since the ACS does not report wage income on an hourly basis, we estimate the hourly wage for each worker by dividing total annual wage income by the product of usual hours worked per week and number of weeks worked per year.

To determine the number of affected workers, we first calculated the hourly wage for each employed respondent in the baseline scenario (as described above). Then we estimate the total number of employed workers with baseline wages below the mandated minimum wage in 2021 by state and locality. To calculate the income increases for workers, we first calculate the earnings difference per hour between the baseline wage and the mandated minimum wage for affected workers. Then, we convert the hourly earnings difference to a 2021 annual figure by multiplying the difference by the usual hours worked per week and the usual weeks worked per year (from the ACS).  The 2021 figures for workers affected and income increases for workers were adjusted based on the total population change in states and localities to reflect change in the population bases that have been impacted by Fight for $15-influenced minimum wage increases.

Cities and counties included as local areas in this analysis were determined by data availability in the 2011 ACS public use microdata sample (PUMS). The 1-Year ACS sample does identify smaller cities and/or larger cities in cases where disclosure rules would be violated. (The U.S. Census maintains disclosure controls to protect the privacy of survey respondents).[xliii] Therefore, in order to comply with disclosure rules, our analysis using the methods described above were only applicable to nine local areas. To estimate the number of workers affected in the other 43 local jurisdictions we used a quasi-elasticity for the share of total population affected relative to the average minimum wage increase between 2012 and 2021 for the nine (larger) cities available in the ACS. For example, across the nine cities available in the ACS, the average share of the 2011 population affected was 17 percent, while the average change in minimum wage was 80.5 percent. We then applied this ratio for the remaining cities using their actual percent change in minimum wage and 2011 population based on either the 3-year (2010-2012) or 5-year (2009-2013) ACS summary data. To calculate the estimate annual increase, we applied the average increase per-worker in the observed sample of nine cities ($7,816) to the estimate number of workers calculated for each city. We refer to the estimate from the set of cities that lack identification in the 1-year ACS PUMS sample as “imputed” figures and are intended to be approximations. The figures presented in this report are rounded.

Race and ethnicity categories are constructed using the ACS’s classifications for race and ethnicity. For this analysis, white represents individuals that identified as white alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), Black represents Black or African-American alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), Asian represents Asian alone (non-Hispanic or Latino), and Latinx represents Hispanic or Latino of any race. Because of the possibility of inflating possible errors, we do not report breakouts by race/ethnicity and gender for the set of cities where imputations were used for estimating the total number of workers affected.

A Note on Disemployment Effects                                 

Scholarly debates on the empirical and theoretical impact of raising the minimum wage on job losses have been raging for decades. For the purposes of the analysis presented here, we do not separately account for the so-called disemployment effect of raising the minimum wage. Historically, older studies found a consensus that raising the minimum wage had a negative impact on employment levels (a negative elasticity between 10 and 20 percent). However, more recent empirical research , using a more geographically detailed methodology, has shown convincingly that minimum wage increases do not lead to significant disemployment effects.[xliv]  This finding has held up to numerous replications and methodological changes and newer studies have confirmed the overall finding of no significant job losses.[xlv]

While these large-scale national studies of minimum wage impacts, which pool together many modest (ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent) state-level increases in minimum wage over a long time period, have consistently found employment effects close to zero, it is still possible that very large and rapid increases in the minimum wage would cause negative effects. However, the experience of Seattle, which was the first major city to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, shows evidence that largely confirms the finding of no significant employment losses.

This report originally appeared at NELP on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Yannet Lathrop is a passionate advocate for economic and social policies that advance the common good. She joined NELP in 2014, after completing a public policy fellowship under the sponsorship of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


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Rent is out of reach for minimum-wage workers in every state. New study shows how far out of reach

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Opponents of raising the minimum wage to $15 like to say that sure, $15 might be a reasonable wage in New York City or Los Angeles, but it’s just too high in the heartland. Guess what, guys? There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, but only 218 in which a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual Out of Reach report. There is not one city or state in which a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. And there’s only one state in which full-time work at $15 an hour is currently enough for a two-bedroom market rate rental home. It’s not enough in Alabama or Mississippi, Iowa or Nebraska. It’s for damn sure not Texas or Utah. Congratulations, Sen. Joe Manchin: It’s West Virginia, sliding in 17 cent an hour under $15. But West Virginia’s current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour doesn’t come close.

Nationally, on average, a full-time worker would need to be paid $24.90 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental without paying more than 30% of their income. By contrast, the average renter in the U.S. earns $18.78 per hour. Nearly 60% of all wage and salary workers earn less than the $24.90 needed to make the average two-bedroom rental affordable.

Today’s minimum wage? Ha. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Thirty states, the District of Columbia, and some counties and cities have higher minimum wages, but even so, “the average minimum wage worker must work nearly 97 hours per week (more than 2 full-time jobs) to afford a two bedroom rental home or 79 hours per week (almost 2 full-time jobs) to afford a one bedroom rental home at the fair market rent.”

In five states—Hawai’i, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland—the average renter’s wage falls more than $10 short of the wage needed to afford a two-bedroom rental.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought billions in federal rental assistance, though it’s being paid out too slowly, with the expiration of a federal eviction moratorium looming on July 31. But as the comparison between the cost of modest rental housing and the wages people are actually being paid shows—and as past years of this report show—even before the pandemic, housing was a crisis that demanded policy solutions. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is calling on Congress to expand rental assistance to every eligible household that needs it—current programs fall far short of the need—as well as to invest in affordable housing and bolster public housing. Another key policy would prevent landlords from refusing to rent to people with housing vouchers, since many people with vouchers struggle to find housing they can use the vouchers for.

Republicans will never, ever allow these policies—or a minimum wage increase—to pass if they have the power to block them. Democrats need to find a way to get Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board with doing something, because the situation is dire.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week in the war on workers

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

If a worker steals from their employer, they can be fired or even face criminal charges. If an employer steals their workers’ wages, they … usually get to keep the money with no penalties. Wage theft is outrageously common, and it’s rarely treated as a serious civil violation, let alone a criminal one, despite taking money from people who desperately need it to get by. Minimum wage violations, for instance, are one common form of wage theft, and wage theft doesn’t hit all workers equally. According to the National Employment Law Project, “Black workers experience wage theft at three times the rate of white workers. Foreign-born workers experience wage theft at twice the rate of their U.S.-born counterparts. And women experience wage theft at a rate of 30 percent, compared to 20 percent for male workers.”

In 2017, an Economic Policy Institute analysis found that minimum wage violations stole $8 billion a year from workers—in just the 10 most populous states. In 2019, forced arbitration agreements denying workers the chance to make their case in court let employers steal $40 million from Maine workers, NELP reports.

NELP has an answer: retaliation funds. Retaliation funds should be set up by a labor enforcement agency, and workers could draw on them if, after they filed a wage theft complaint with the labor enforcement agency, their pay was reduced or they were fired. At that point, they’d get a one-time payment, and “If the enforcement agency eventually finds that the employer unlawfully retaliated, the employer should replenish the fund with a payment equal to three times the amount the worker received.” That would protect workers from retaliation, which would reduce their fears about reporting wage theft to begin with, and it would act as a disincentive to employers tempted to steal from their workers. Is there a blue state that will consider trying this out?

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 22, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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‘The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,’ Labor Sec. Marty Walsh says. He should be

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The Senate voted against including a minimum wage increase in the American Rescue Plan in March, and as long as Republicans have the option of filibustering it, they will block any meaningful increase in what’s now a poverty-level federal minimum wage. But because $7.25 an hour is a poverty-level wage—and because raising it is proven popular with voters—Democrats need to find a way to make it happen, and happen in a form that isn’t an insult to the workers such a policy should be helping.

“When you think about raising the minimum wage, it’s really about raising the opportunity for families to earn a living,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Saturday. “Most families can’t live on $7 an hour—no family can live on $7 an hour. It’s pretty hard to live on $15 an hour.”

“The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,” Walsh continued. “I’m committed to raising the minimum wage, there are members of Congress committed to raising the minimum wage.”

What a minimum wage increase looks like is the big question. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would raise it in steps, going from $7.25 to $9.50 later in 2021, then $11 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024, and $15 in 2025. After that, the minimum wage would be indexed to median wage growth, so that we wouldn’t again have a minimum wage that hadn’t changed in more than a decade thanks to Republican obstruction. Importantly, the Raise the Wage Act would also raise the tipped subminimum wage from $2.13 an hour, where it has been since 1991, bringing it equal with the full minimum wage in 2027; the much less frequently used youth wage would also match the minimum wage in 2027.

One alternative you’ll hear mentioned a lot is a regional minimum wage, with lower-cost states having a lower minimum wage than higher-cost ones. There are a lot of problems with this. First of all, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the only state in the country in which a living wage for one adult with no children is currently below $13 an hour is South Dakota. $15 an hour in 2025 is likely to be the equivalent of $13.79 in today’s dollars. So when people tell you that $15 in 2025 is too much, too fast … they’re sure not talking about what’s fair or right.

Second, consider how many states have already raised their minimum wages—and that it’s not just deep blue and expensive states like California, New York, or Massachusetts. In 2018, voters in Arkansas and Missouri raised their states’ minimum wages to $11 in 2021 and $12 in 2023, respectively. In 2020, more than 60% of Florida voters passed an amendment raising their state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. The Democratic senators most likely to stand in the way of a meaningful minimum wage increase are West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Arizona voters in 2016 passed increases to $12 in 2020, with the minimum wage indexed to the cost of living after that. West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.

But third, the history of proposals for a regional minimum wage is instructive.

“When the first federal minimum wage was being debated in the 1930s, Southern congressmen strongly opposed the federal standard, concerned that it would upset the white supremacist plantation system that dominated the South’s economy,” David Cooper and Lawrence Mishel write at the Economic Policy Institute. “In fact, Southern lawmakers insisted that the federal wage standard should be adjusted by region to account for differences in costs of living. What ultimately led to the minimum wage law’s passage as a single national wage floor was a “compromise” with Southern Democrats to exempt agriculture, restaurants, and a host of other service-sector industries that disproportionately employed Black workers. Even after it was amended in 1967 to cover more of these industries, the law still exempted most farmworkers—who today are majority Latinx—and allowed employers to pay a subminimum wage to tipped workers—who today are overwhelmingly women.”

Huh. What do you know. The early attempts for a regional minimum wage were about keeping wages low for specific people—as evidenced by the fact that the acceptable compromise was the one that wrote Black workers and Latino workers and women workers out of the policy. And once again we’re seeing efforts to keep wages low in ways that would, according to a 2019 analysis, disproportionately hurt Black workers and women of color. More than one in three of the workers who would lose out from a regional proposal similar to one suggested by Third Way would be women of color. Black workers would, on average, get half the raise they would get from the Raise the Wage Act.

Raising the minimum wage would lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. The best available economic research, drawing on actual real-life minimum wage increases that have already happened, tells us that it would not cost jobs. It’s a matter of basic fairness, allowing workers to get a small share of increased productivity. By raising wages disproportionately for women and people of color, it would promote equity. It’s popular. This should be a no-brainer as an issue even for the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and a sledgehammer for Democrats to use against Republicans, not an issue to muddle with talk of a regional increase or other insulting compromises.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Amazon touts high pay for warehouse workers, but $15 isn’t all that, this week in the war on workers

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As its workers in Bessemer, Alabama, seek to unionize, Amazon keeps touting its $15 an hour pay—more than double the federal minimum wage, which applies in Alabama. But it turns out that’s not such a great thing to brag about in that area.

“The most recent figure for the median wage in greater Birmingham, a metropolitan area of roughly one million people that includes Bessemer, was nearly $3 above Amazon’s pay there, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” The New York Times reports. Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker who earned more in a previous job, pointed to Amazon’s support for a $15 federal minimum wage, saying: “It looks to me like Amazon is admitting it’s only paying a minimum wage, and this is not a minimum-wage job.”

But “high” pay isn’t the only way Amazon tries to keep unions out. The company has a history of surveilling, threatening, and retaliating against worker activists.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Working Life Episode 217: It’s All North Carolina – The Fight For 15 and the Campaign for a Progressive U.S. Senator

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It’s all about North Carolina today—the fight for better wages and the campaign to get a progressive person in the U.S. Senate, all of which is connected to my two guests today who represent the theme of the just-marked International Womens Day.

The sad outcome of the push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour tells us two things. First, there is a big house cleaning needed to make way for politicians who actually care about workers. Second, no matter what happens in elections, we need to keep up the street heat to mobilize millions of people to stop the immorality of people working full-time but getting paid poverty wages while billionaires get even richer.

First up, then, is Precious Cole. Precious lives in Durham, North Carolina and works at Wendy’s. She has been working minimum wage jobs for half her life and, like millions of other workers, has, year after year, not been able to meet her monthly bills earning what is a poverty wage. Which is one reason Precious has become a key activist and leader in North Carolina Raise Up, the state branch of the national Fight for 15 and a Union network. She chats with me about her life and her activism.

Then, you may remember state Senator Erica Smith—she was a progressive who jumped into the 2020 North Carolina race for the U.S. Senate to challenge incumbent Republican Thom Tillis. But, the D.C. insiders shoved her aside, handpicking the most uninspired, dumb-as-a-brick candidate Cal Cunningham who, with piles of corporate and party-directed money, won the primary—and, then, proceeded to crash and burn, handing Tillis his re-election.

The 2022 election is a barometer for whether lessons have been learned. As the results of the Florida minimum wage ballot initiative showed—it passed overwhelmingly even as Joe Biden was losing the state—people are saying pretty clearly: give me a policy that puts money in my pocket and isn’t about supporting the rich over regular people, and I’ll vote for it whether you call it “progressive” or “a loaf of bread.” Erica is back for another Senate race, competing for the party primary nod for the seat that is opening up in 2022 with the retirement of Richard Burr. I talk with her about her campaign and the mood in North Carolina.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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