Labor Day: How States Can Protect Workers Rights

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Labor Day: How States Can Protect Workers Rights

Rewarding Work

By Nathan Newman

Labor Day: How States Can Protect Workers Rights

In honor of Labor Day, we thought we would highlight some of our past Dispatches which outline steps states can take to protect workers' rights and raise wage standards. With new Census data showing that the median income for working-age households is still $1,300 below 2001 when the last recession hit bottom, the need for states to act to improve working conditions is greater than ever.

Raising Wages:  While it's wonderful that the federal government has (finally) raised the federal minimum wage, even when it is raised to $7.25 in 2009, it will still be more than $2 an hour lower than the inflation-adjusted minimum wage of $9.27 per hour set back in 1968.  As we detailed in Beyond the Minimum Wage: New Policies to Raise Wages, states are not only raising state minimum wages above the federal level, with many indexing them to inflation, but they are also using other policy tools -- from mandating living wages for work done on government contracts to extending higher wage standards to selected industries -- to raise income levels not just for the lowest-paid workers but for a much broader range of American workers. 

Enforcing Wage Laws:  Requiring higher wages does little if the laws aren't enforced and the unfortunate reality is that in many industries, large numbers of employers, sometimes even a majority, are systematically violating wage and hour laws.  As we highlighted in Cracking Down on Wage Law Violations, state and local governments are working to expand penalties for violations, including applying criminal sanctions to employers stealing employee wages, while expanding funding for agencies enforcing the law, strengthening the ability of employees whose rights have been violated to sue, and cracking down on shady subcontractors and "independent contractor" arrangements where wage violations are rampant.

Protecting Labor Unions:  Since the stagnation of American wages coincides with the decline in the number of workers in labor unions, many states are increasingly acting to protect the freedom to form unions. The simplest area for states to act is to strengthen the union rights of public employees who work for those governments and require government contractors to better respect those rights as well.  States can also directly expand union rights for workers, such as agricultural workers, many home health care and day care workers, and domestic workers lacking protection under federal labor law. And any measure that generally protects the free speech rights of employees in the workplace will help workers who choose to use that speech to advocate for collective bargaining rights.

A day off once a year to honor America's working men and women is a good thing, but we should look forward to a Labor Day in the future when we can celebrate a return to an era when wages are increasing and the American Dream is in reach of more families once again.

More Resources

Strengthening Communities

By J. Mijin Cha

States and Employers Work Together to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

Victims of domestic violence often feel economically trapped and are so isolated that the workplace is their only social outlet.  Unfortunately, incidents of domestic violence can go unnoticed at the workplace, particularly if there are no visible signs of physical abuse. Employers have begun recognizing the important role they can play in saving a victim of domestic violence and have begun adopting policies to address this need.

Harman International, for instance, worked with the Family Violence Prevention Fund to develop a policy to help employees in violent relationships and implement company-wide mandatory training on issues surrounding domestic violence. The training emphasizes recognizing when employees are in danger and referring them to an expert who can help. As the company's executive chairman and former CEO Lynn Harman said, "I cannot for the life of me understand why every corporation in America doesn't do this." Setting up the program costs $125,000, or according to Harman, "peanuts". Harman continues, "The sense of well-being employees have knowing their companies care enough to do this is not something you can buy."

Recent State Action: This past session, Florida and Oregon passed bills requiring employers to allow employees to take unpaid leave to seek protection orders, housing, medical or mental health counseling or legal assistance. The Florida law applies to companies with more than 50 employees, while the Oregon law applies to employers with more than six workers. Only eleven states prohibit employers from penalizing employees for taking unpaid leave to address issues of domestic violence.

Missouri and New Mexico created address confidentiality programs that shields the identities and addresses of domestic violence victims from public records. Both laws allow victim's to use an alternative address on forms and applications. Information is then sent to the Secretary of State's office and forwarded to the victim's real home. 

The cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is estimated at over $727 million with more than 2.9 million paid workdays lost each year. With only eleven states providing employees with time off to address domestic violence issues, there is a urgent need for more state protection for these victims.

More Resources

Valuing Families

By Adam Thompson

Obesity Rates Continue Their Steady Climb

A new report from The Trust for America's Health concerning America's worsening obesity epidemic has received lots of press coverage, and little of the report's news is positive. Even in the leanest state, Colorado, where 17.6% of residents are now considered obese, an increase of just under one percentage point, a majority of residents are either obese or overweight. America's unhealthy weight gain is not slowing.

The new report, which includes extensive information on state legislation and programs to address the obesity epidemic, shows that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Unhealthy weight gain causes strain on health care budgets -- estimates are from $69 billion to $117 billion per year -- and reduces productivity in schools and the workplace. A recent UPenn study found that obese elementary schoolchildren miss more school than normal weight children and that obese adults miss more work and are less likely to go to college. The study found that obesity is a better predictor of absenteeism than any other factor, including socioeconomic status. 

While we can't legislate healthy lifestyles, states can ensure children have access to healthy foods and drinks in schools, families have access to nutritional information at restaurants and easy access to outdoor recreation, and that community development be pedestrian friendly. For instance, according to The Trust for America's Health and its report, 17 states set nutritional standards for school lunches, breakfasts, and snacks that are stricter than federal requirements. 22 states have strict nutritional standards for foods sold in vending machines in schools and school stores. 26 states restrict students' access to traditional vending machine products, in some cases removing them from school grounds. 

Mississippi, which has the highest obesity rate in the country at just over 30%, is also trying to address its obesity epidemic through the schools. A new law requires at least 150 minutes of physical activity instruction and 45 minutes of health education each week for kindergarten through 8th grade. The state has imposed new restrictions on soft drinks and snacks and next year, elementary and middle schools will stock only water, juice and milk. The State Dept of Ed is requiring school vending machines to sell snacks approved for their nutritional content, including yogurt, sliced fruit, and granola bars. Illinois, which finds itself ranked 25th with an obesity rate of 24.4%, has taken similar steps and is one of two states, along with California, that screens students for their risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Obesity has far-reaching implications for America and states are stepping up to encourage healthier habits and ensure Americans have the tools they need to make healthy choices.

More Resources

Research Roundup

Research Roundup

The Center for Economic & Policy Research (CEPR) & Inclusion released "Unions and Upward Mobility for Low-Wage Workers, a report which analyzed 15 of the lowest-paying occupations in the United States. It showed that unionized workers earn about 16% more (or $1.75 per hour) than their non-union counterparts and were also about 25 percentage points more likely to have health insurance or a pension plan.

Looking at the new Census numbers, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows in new policy briefs that not only are incomes lower for working families, but more Americans, including children, now lack health insurance.

Two years after the Katrina disaster, a new report by the Campaign for America's Future details how conservative policies enacted in its wake have failed to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Instead of rebuilding needed infrastructure and helping working class families, too much of the money allocated by the government went to private contractors and developers, often going to luxury condominiums and football stadiums rather than into rebuilding peoples' homes.

To promote a new direction for post-Katraina rebuilding, the Institute for Southern Studies, in collaboration with Oxfam America and the Jewish Funds for Justice, published Blueprint for Gulf Renewal: The Katrina Crisis and a Community Agenda for Action, which argues for a new direction in tackling critical needs like housing, jobs and coastal protection.  It also features Where did the Katrina money go?, a tabulation of federal spending that shows that less than 30% of the $116 billion in federal funds went to long-term rebuilding.

General Growth Properties, the country's second largest mall owner, not only has a reputation for undermining union rights and racial discrimination, but according to a new report by Good Jobs First, it has managed to rake in over $200 million in taxpayer subsidies across the country.

Please email us leads on good research at


Labor Day: How States Can Protect Workers Rights

Progressive States Network, Beyond the Minimum Wage: New Policies to Raise Wages

Progressive States Network, Cracking Down on Wage Law Violations

Progressive States Network, Protecting the Freedom to Form Unions

States and Employers Work Together to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

Allowing Employees Leave to address issues of domestic violence laws: Florida, Oregon

Address Confidentiality laws: Missouri, New Mexico

Family Violence Prevention Fund

Legal Momentum: Employment and Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic Violence- State Law Guides

Department of Health and Human Services: Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States

Obesity Rates Continue Their Steady Climb

The Trust for America's Health - F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are failing in America

Associated Press - State-by-state breakdown of obesity rates and rankings

The Oregonian - Study links kids' obesity to gestational diabetes

Kaiser Daily - US Obesity Rates Continue to Rise, Study Finds

NCSL - Childhood Obesity: 2006 Update and Overview of Policy Options

Eye on the Right

People for the American Way has an interesting piece on the shakeups going on in the Right in the wake the the 2006 election. They mention that the apparent decline of James Dobson is, whether through planning or accident, renewing the energy of Focus on the Family’s state efforts. Since the late ”Ëœ80s, Focus on the Family affiliates have formed in dozens of states to lobby for the codification of conservative Christian values.

They’re mobilizing people at the local level and building a “state-of-the-art database of values voters”? that already has 50,000 names. In all our excitement about the 2006 midterms and the 2008 Presidential, it’s important to remember that we still have 30 years of catching up to do in state organizing.

Got a lead for Eye on the Right? Sent it to

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
John Bacino, Communications Associate


Please shoot me an email at if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

John Bacino
Editor, Stateside Dispatch

Progressive States Network

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