An historic wave of attacks on workers that defined 2011 state legislative sessions largely continued this year. But just as significantly, widespread efforts to advance basic labor standards — especially the minimum wage — gained momentum this year by harnessing the country’s concerns about economic security and inequality. 2012 opened with another weeks-long standoff in the Midwest, which threatened to steal the limelight as the Super Bowl took place just a mile away from the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, and ended in a major loss for workers in the state. Significant rollbacks occurred in several more states, as did high-profile attacks that are expected to return in 2013. The recall election victory of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was also a major disappointment for labor, though a labor-backed candidate did win another state Senate recall, flipping control of that chamber in the Wisconsin legislature. However, compared to Indiana, other major efforts to roll back labor standards in the states saw more successful resistance, and the ferocity with which conservatives pressed them was turned down a bit after the battle in the Hoosier state. In addition, as Congress and many statehouses proved increasingly difficult venues for addressing workplace abuses, 2012 saw more and more advocates turning to local governments to advance policies like paid sick leave and wage theft prevention. This has in turn opened up another front for statehouse attacks, with some states seeing bills introduced that would strip municipal governments of their power to protect workers. State legislatures seem likely to remain the critical arenas for advancing and protecting workers’ rights in the near future, with state policy fights set to both influence national trends and control the pace of change workers can achieve at the local level for years to come.
In this week’s Research Roundup: Recent reports from the Food Chain Workers Alliance on workers in the food production and food services industries, the Center for American Progress on the facts on minimum wage hikes and how austerity is hammering state economies, National Employment Law Project on Walmart’s domestic outsourcing, the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute on working parents’ lack of access to paid sick leave, Make the Road New York on small business support for a paid sick leave standard, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on some basic facts around state and local government workers, Immigration Policy Center on the Obama Administration’s new “deferred action” deportation policy, and a report from researchers at Occidental College and the University of Northern Iowa on the lack of support for most “job killer” allegations in the media.
A ranking by the Progressive States Network found that “Florida has exactly zero laws on the books that would incentivize employers to stay honest.” And when it comes to holding employees accountable to their employees with such measures as notice of wages and paydays and pay stubs with each pay period, “Florida held the shameful honor of scoring 0, a score that only Alabama and Mississippi — two states that have never had wage and hour laws — can also share.”
On the heels of a report stating that Florida is the 15th worst state in the nation for workers trying to recover stolen wages, the Broward County Commission directed the county attorney to draft a wage theft ordinance, following the examples of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. The report issued by the Progressive States Network graded states based on how well they protect workers ability to receive their earned wages. According to the report, if this were school, Florida would have flunked out by now.
“By our estimation New York has the strongest law in the country,” says Tim Judson, workers' rights policy specialist with the Progressive States Network, and co-author (with Cristina Francisco-McGuire) of a new study, Cracking Down on Wage Theft: State Strategies for Protecting Workers and Recovering Revenues. “But wage theft laws are almost universally poor. In recent years a few states took strong steps, but even those laws have a ways to go before they are a model standard that could really be effective in cracking down on a problem this huge.”
This 50-state survey of states’ wage theft laws reveals the majority of state laws to be grossly inadequate, contributing to a rising trend in workplace violations that affects millions of people throughout the country. The growth of this and other forms of the “underground economy” also have a serious impact on state revenues, amounting to billions of dollars per year in tax and payroll fraud. Several states are acting to address these problems by strengthening their laws against unscrupulous employers.
Wage theft, or the systemic non-payment of wages by unethical employers, is a growing problem affecting millions of workers across the country and costing states billions of dollars in lost tax revenue. Yet, only a few states are starting to address the problem in earnest through legislation – and the vast majority have laws that are grossly inadequate. Those are the conclusions of an extensive, first-of-its-kind evaluation of state laws, Where Theft is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States, released by Progressive States Network. The report grades individual states across the broad body of state laws needed to comprehensively address this growing national crime wave, and concludes that 44 of the 50 states (plus Washington D.C.) deserve failing grades.
A state that asks everyone, including the luckiest few, to pay their fair share during a time of historic inequality. A state with a minimum wage above the federal floor that helps boost consumer spending and power the economy. A state that has been able to avoid economically devastating budget cuts and public sector job losses by seeking responsible budget solutions.
What one word might describe a state that has adopted policies like the above to rebuild their economy? The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has one in mind: “poor.”
Progressive States Network Board Member and former Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree was a guest on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes on Sunday May 13, 2012 (Mother's Day) discussing how state and federal policy affects moms — with her mom, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME).