Griping about Albany is always in style: pundits denounce late budgets, lax ethics rules, and special interest shenanigans. And they’ve got a point. But in the end-of-session frenzy, state legislators are also taking far more positive action: raising workplace standards for some of the state’s most exploited workers, many of whom (no surprise) live and work in New York City. By lifting pay and strengthening protections for low-wage workers, the new legislation will also promote economic recovery.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights gets the most ink, and for good reason: once it’s signed by the governor, this landmark law will be the first in the nation to set basic labor standards for household employees like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers. As I noted in an earlier post about the measure, the bill
guarantees basic workplace protections like overtime pay, the chance to take at least a day off every week, coverage under employment discrimination laws, advance notice if a domestic employee is about to be fired, and minimal paid sick time and vacation. It would apply to 200,000 domestic workers in New York currently subject to the whims of their employers when it comes to these fundamental rights.
But a law doesn’t need to be the first in the nation to be effective at protecting New Yorkers on the job. The Wage Theft Prevention Act, passed in slightly different versions by the State Senate and Assembly and awaiting reconciliation, follows the footsteps of successful legislation in Miami-Dade County and in states from Washington to Wisconsin. The bill strengthens incentives for employers to comply with the wage and hour regulations already on the books by stiffening penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encouraging workers to come forward, and providing new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases – and ensuring violators will pay up. The need for this legislation is vividly highlighted by research revealing that in New York City alone, an estimated 586,000 low-wage workers a year see a portion of their pay stolen by employers, losing an aggregate $18.4 million every week as a result.
Finally, Albany is acting to make good on the promise that the state government shouldn’t undermine the pay of private sector employees. By clarifying standards that require service workers employed at public agencies to be paid the prevailing wage for their job category, janitorial staff and security guards at massive utilities like Con Edison will see their wages and benefits rise to match the standard paid to other local workers in their industries. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.
Together, these three bills will increase workplace protections for nearly 800,000 working New Yorkers, adding to the security of their families. And while the legislation includes critical safeguards on issues like employment discrimination and adequate time off, the bills also provide an increase in pay for some the lowest paid workers in New York. By putting money in the pockets of working people, they will boost local businesses and contribute to the state’s economic recovery.
While critics carp that the bills will be “burdensome” to business and could harm job creation as a result, the facts are against them. Business is on its way to recovery: corporate profits jumped 44% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to a year earlier. Yet growing profits have not prompted a comparable increase in hiring. Small businesses, meanwhile, continue to report that the biggest factor harming their profitability is weak sales and a lack of customers. Putting more money into the hands of people who will spend it, as these bills do, will encourage the consumer demand that spurs companies to hire.
Columnist Errol Louis at the Daily News notes that the state legislature “racked up a number of solid achievements that will increase opportunity and fairness for working people.” He’s right. And all of New York stands to benefit. Governor Paterson should sign the three pro-worker, pro-economy bills as soon as they hit his desk.
About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.