In the face of the Trump administration’s predictably antagonistic stance on pro-worker policies, coupled with the escalating onslaught against worker power in Republican-controlled states, progressives are racing ahead to enact innovative labor laws to help working people in the places where they can.
Over the past eight years, Democrats’ control of government has receded to 1920s-levels, severely hindering progressives’ ability to advance pro-worker labor policy in Washington, D.C., or in the states. As of now, the Democratic Party controls the governorship and legislature in just six states, while progressive power is most concentrated in a few dozen municipalities.
It’s in those places in recent weeks that lawmakers have pushed forward a number of innovative labor laws that present a clear contrast to the Chamber of Commerce-influenced, deregulation-driven labor agenda in the White House.
Improving Home Care
Last week, Hawaii passed a law establishing a cash assistance program for people who are struggling to take care of a sick or elderly family member while maintaining a full-time job. The policy, the first of its kind in the country, takes aim at the increasingly urgent elder care crisis as the massive boomer generation ages and their children struggle to care for them.
“Every eight seconds, somebody turns 65 in America,” Ai-jen Poo, co-director of Caring Across Generations, a group that advocates for policies that improve home care, said on a call with reporters Monday. “It’s a great thing; we’ve extended longevity. And we are wholly unprepared for what the implications are in terms of care.”
Fully half of the workforce will be called on to provide care for an elder within the next five years, the group says. And that’s not a small commitment. Of the 45 million people who currently provide some level of unpaid home care to a relative, more than half are spending about 20 hours a week while also holding down a full-time job.
The Kapuna (the Hawaiian word for elder) Caregiver program would establish a fund to provide full-time workers who are providing care to a dependent elder $70 a day to help offset the burden. A recipient could use that money to help pay for health care, a caregiver, or transportation to a doctor’s appointment.
There are more than 150,000 unpaid caregivers in Hawaii currently, according to estimates by the AARP. And while in-home care or assisted living is expensive, costing between $5,000 and $10,000 a month in the state, the $70-a-day benefit is a small step to helping caregivers balance their lives.
The legislature has provided an initial $600,000 for the program and advocates say they will return to the statehouse next year to bolster funding.
Poo says the new Hawaii law could soon serve as a model for other states that are considering their own type of caregiver assistance program. “It’s incredibly powerful that Hawaii has taken this step forward,” she says. “It’s an important reminder that we can still achieve breakthroughs in this moment.”
Stabilizing the Service Sector
In late June, Oregon passed the first statewide “Fair Workweek” law in the country, requiring employers to provide two weeks notice when scheduling employees’ hours, a good-faith estimate of weekly hours, compensation for last-minute shift changes, and protections against requiring workers to work closing shifts followed by opening shifts the next day.
The move comes as labor advocates increasingly focus on raising standards for often tumultuous and unpredictable service-sector jobs. A recent poll found that 67 percent of workers experience some type of scheduling problem, whether its inadequate access to hours or inconsistent hours week to week.
“Most working Americans are struggling with their workweek. Most Americans are working in hourly jobs, and that means when your hours change, your income changes,” says Carrie Gleason, who heads the Fair Workweek Initiative at the community-organizing group Center for Popular Democracy, which commissioned the poll. “For those making the lowest wages, that can mean whether or not the lights stay on or whether or not you can get to work. The insecurity that people feel from one day to the next is profound.”
Seattle, New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, San Jose, and Emeryville in California have passed similar laws in the past couple of years, but until Oregon acted, no state had. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Rosa DeLauro recently introduced federal fair-scheduling legislation, though there’s little hope for its passing in the GOP-controlled Congress.
“The rapid progress is almost unprecedented on such a new policy issue,” Gleason says. “This win in Oregon is absolutely a breakthrough for the movement. We’re going to see more states step up and update standards for today’s workweek.”
Bold Paid Leave
One state north, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a guaranteed paid leave law last week, ten years after the legislature first considered such a measure. Since then, five other states have instituted guaranteed paid leave. As Christina Cauterucci explains for Slate, Washington’s is set to be one of the strongest in the country. The law will guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid leave beginning in 2020 for workers who need to take time off to care for a newborn or an ailing parent, or care for a personal health crisis. The measure would cap paid leave time at 16 weeks, though new mothers with pregnancy-related complications could qualify for 18 weeks. Both employees and employers will pay into the fund.
Employees will receive 50 percent of their wages above the weekly average pay in the state ($1,082) and 90 percent of weekly wages for those below that threshold, Cauterucci explains. The 90 percent figure is higher than other states’ paid leave policies, which makes the plan far more accessible to low-income workers.
"This is not just a promise—it's a program with meat on the bones. It has what real families need, and real laws, to give them real time when they need it with their families," Governor Inslee said as he signed the measure into law.
President Trump has voiced ostensible support for a federal paid leave program, which his daughter Ivanka Trump made a key policy plank during his campaign. However, the plan as proposed is woefully inadequate, as it only mandates six weeks, hardly enough time to recover from a pregnancy, and excludes fathers and adoptive parents—thus putting increased pressure on working women. It also doesn’t extend to employees who need to take time off for their own health crisis or to care for a family member, which, according to one study, accounts for 75 percent of people who typically use leave.
The fight for higher minimum wages continues to surge at the state and local level, too, despite almost all hope for a federal increase being stalled by Republican control in Washington.
In June, House legislators in Democratic-controlled Rhode Island voted to hike the state’s minimum wage up from $9.50 to $10.50 an hour by 2019 in order to better compete with neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts. The Democratic state legislature in Illinois also voted to incrementally increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, though Republican Governor Bruce Rauner staunchly opposes the bill.
The Minneapolis city council voted earlier this month to institute a $15 minimum wage, making it the first city in the Midwest to follow the example of coastal cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York City. Meanwhile, both Atlanta and Cleveland recently decided to increase minimum pay for city employees up to $15 an hour, as well.
In the face of an adversarial Trump presidency, progressives are, state by state and city by city, assembling a framework for a national agenda. Should they gain control again in Washington anytime soon, Democrats should have no shortage of state and local policy on which to model their programs.