New Year Labor Notes: The good, the bad and the ugly


Photo from Kopplin’s Coffee Facebook page

I’m writing this post at Kopplin’s Coffee, a local (St. Paul), family-owned business where the new year brought good news for workers:

“As of January 1, 2015, we will begin paying our employees not just a living but a livable wage. … As the owners, we are an integral part of Kopplin’s, but so too are our talented employees. … As we seek to create this alternative to standard ‘service industry’ chains, we choose to provide fair compensation (exceeding the “living wage” of $9.69 in Ramsey County). This validates the good work of our employees and creates a more stable and equitable pay environment for these people who bring beauty into our lives with the creation of their hands.”

Apart from Kopplin’s, where the coffee and the company are always good, here’s a round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly in labor-related news as 2015 begins.

The Good — Best New Year’s news: minimum wage increases. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia raised their minimum wages on January 1. According to NPR, that means a raise for more than three million workers.

Minnesota raised its minimum wage back in August, to $8 an hour for large employers. The small employer minimum wage — for companies with less than half a million in annual revenue — went up to $6.50 an hour, which is also the minimum “youth wage” and 90-day “training wage.” The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour still applies to most MN employers.

Some cities also set their own minimum wages — kudos to Seattle, with a $15 minimum wage being phased in by 2017. And President Obama set the minimum wage for federal contract workers at $10.10 by executive order.

Heart-warming news — Kentucky State University President Raymond Burse gave up $90,000 of his salary to increase 24 low-paid campus workers’ pay rates to $10.25 an hour. The youngest of 13 children, Burse grew up working class and working low-wage jobs. Now, he told CNN, “I did it as an individual thing and I can afford to do it.”

Somewhat less-than-good but still hopeful news — the Labor Department continues to study raising the threshold for overtime payment. Right now, salaried employees who make less than $455 a week or $23,660 a year must be paid overtime for work beyond 40 hours a week. Way back in March 2014, President Obama ordered DOL to study how to increase that threshold. Ross Eisenbrey explained some of the proposals for the Economic Policy Institute:

“The lowest proposal, for a threshold of $807 per week or $42,000 a year, is rumored to be under consideration at the Department of Labor (DOL). Jared Bernstein and I recommended a simple inflation adjustment of the 1975 threshold: $984 per week or $51,168 a year. In a paper for EPI, Heidi Shierholz suggested that $1,122 per week, or $58,344 a year, was appropriate because it would guarantee that the same share of salaried workers receive overtime protection as were protected in 1975—after adjusting for the different educational composition of the workforce today. The highest figure, proposed by Nick Hanauer, is $1,327 per week, or $69,004 a year. It represents the salary level that would cover the same share of salaried workers as in 1975, but without adjustments for changed demographics.”

The Bad — Across the country, low-skill and middle-skill jobs continue to be disappear, leaving millions of workers to piece together part-time, low-pay, unprotected jobs just to get by.

More bad news: Unemployment for Black American college grads between 22 and 27 remains higher than before the recession, and higher than the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts.

And more: the Supreme Court ruled that workers can be required to stay after work for security checks, without being paid for their time.

The Ugly — Unfortunately, lots of stories to choose from in this category. How about Delta firing 26-year employee Kip Hedges for his off-the-job advocacy of a $15 minimum wage?

Uber and Lyft also provide plenty of ugly stories, from gouging customers to unrealistic claims about how much drivers will make.

Then there’s the non-compete clause that adds insult to injury: even low-wage Jimmy Johns requires workers to sign a non-compete clause, banning them from leaving Jimmy Johns and working at any other sandwich shop within a three-mile radius for two years after leaving Jimmy Johns. And they’re not alone. AP reports:

“A house-cleaning service in Chicago, Super Maid LLC, required its maids to sign non-competes, according to a U.S. Department of Labor complaint. The government said the maids scrubbed floors on their hands and knees, got chided for eating lunch and received less than minimum wage.”

Forecast for 2015: Look for more worker organizing, and demands to share in the growing profits of companies.

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