As families in Iowa struggle to make ends meet, they are justified in feeling threatened when they see what were once good jobs turned into low-wage, sweatshop labor.
In industries across the country, workers are not receiving the wages owed them under minimum-wage and overtime laws. Earlier this decade, a U.S. Department of Labor report found that 60 percent of U.S. nursing homes routinely violated overtime, minimum-wage or child-labor laws. Other studies have found similar levels of violations in the garment and restaurant industries.
In Iowa, the minimum-wage and overtime laws have some of the weakest enforcement provisions of any state in the country. Penalties usually amount to no more than telling employers to pay what they originally owed their workers. Because legal action is so expensive and so likely to produce meager returns, few employees can afford to pursue claims. Because civil fines are so low, the state doesn't collect enough for strong, ongoing enforcement.
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.
The good news is that over thirty states and the federal government raised the minimum wage in recent years. The bad news is that many employers, even most employers in some industries, ignore existing wage and workplace regulations, so the real challenge now is to stop the systematic violation of these laws.
This week, Maryland became the first state to enact a "living wage" law, HB 430, requiring government contractors to pay their employees a decent wage, in the bill ranging from $8.50 an hour in rural areas to $11.30 an hour in areas of the state with higher costs of living. Maryland follows the 120 local governments around the country that have required that public money go to companies that pay their workers above the poverty line.
This week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa approved a new city law
requiring hotels near the LAX airport to pay the same living wage as
those companies receiving government contracts: $9.39 an hour if the
hotels provide health insurance or $10.64 an hour without benefits.
For years, the delivery company FedEx has claimed that its ground
drivers are not employees but independent contractors-- meaning the
company didn't have to pay for workers compensation, unemployment
insurance or extend a range of other worker protections.
By a vote of 35 to 14, the Chicago city council yesterday approved a new ordinance
requiring large retailers in the city to phase in a living wage for
their employees of $10 per hour plus $3 per hour in benefits-- the
highest minimum wage established for any industry sector in the
country. If signed by the mayor, the law would raise pay for tens of
thousands of workers in retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us,
Lowe's and Home Depot. A broad coalition of organizations including
ACORN, labor unions and church groups worked together for its passage.
Following Chicago's lead, DC Councilman Phill Mendelson has introduced a bill to require
large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco to pay employees a living
wage of $11 an hour plus health benefits worth at least $3 a hour. The
bill also would give labor groups and the public access to public areas
of a firm to communicate with employees about their rights. As we
detailed in last week's Dispatch, a major committee and a majority of Chicago City Council members have endorsed a similar bill for that city.