How States Can Counter Trump’s War on Workers

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaks about overtime expansion at a news conference at in Philadelphia

In November, voters went to the polls demanding action to address a system that seems rigged against working families. As governors and state legislators begin their work this month, they face the reality that while the economy is growing on paper, paychecks have barely budged for most working families. The Trump administration has only worsened this problem by rolling back key protections for workers—especially those adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama years.

Governors and legislatures can and should protect workers in their states from these attacks, and promote good jobs with fair pay and safe workplaces for their constituents. The Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project have teamed up to publish a blueprint with 18 recommendations for how state governments can use their authority to make an immediate positive impact for working people and create conditions that make their state economies work for everyone.

 

Rebuild State Labor Departments

Job number one for all new governors should be rebuilding their state labor departments and transforming them into dynamic advocates for workers. In both blue states and red, many state labor departments have become backwaters. Their budgets and staffing levels have been slashed or gradually starved to the point that today, most have just a handful of enforcement staff—far too few to defend and advance the states’ workers—for instance, by monitoring compliance with minimum wage laws. This comes at a time when the need for strong public enforcement is more urgent than ever—made worse by employers’ growing use of forced arbitration, which forecloses their workers’ ability to go to court to enforce worker protections.

 

Leverage State Spending to Promote Good Jobs

Next, governors should leverage state spending to promote good jobs by guaranteeing all state workers a $15 minimum wage and paid sick days, and by prioritizing companies that do the same when the states select contractors. Governors should also discourage state agencies from contracting with companies that exploit their workers by violating wage laws, health and safety regulations, and workers’ rights to form unions, or that attempt to cover up abuses by requiring their workforces to submit to forced arbitration.

The Obama administration’s Labor Department offered a playbook for how to get this done with a trio of executive orders ensuring that government contractors pay a higher minimum wage and provide paid sick days, and by discouraging contracting with companies that cheat their workers. State labor departments should issue similar orders. 

 

Expand Overtime Pay

With paychecks stagnant despite a strong economy, states should deliver a middle class raise by expanding overtime pay. The Obama administration accomplished this by raising the threshold for eligibility from an annual income of $23,660 to a more real-world threshold of $47,476. The Trump administration is now backtracking and has announced plans to propose a watered down replacement soon—likely in the low $30,000’s. Governors in many states have the authority to expand overtime pay through action by state labor departments, as Pennsylvania and Washington state are already doing. Other governors should follow their lead and raise the overtime salary threshold to at least $55,234 by 2022—which is the Obama overtime standard updated to reflect the rate of inflation in the ensuing years. In states where governors don’t have this authority, they should work with their legislatures to deliver this long-overdue raise.

 

Protect Workers’ Rights on the Job

Restoring workers’ freedom to join together in a union is essential if we’re to generate more jobs that pay a living wage and rebuild the nation’s middle class. Unions raise pay and improve workplace standards—not just for their members, but across the economy. But decades of corporate-funded attacks culminated in the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus v. AFSCME decision in 2018. And the Trump administration and hostile legislatures will continue their attacks on unions and workers until state governments begin to stand with working people. 

State leaders can fight back in many ways. State and local public employee bargaining rights are controlled by the states, so newly elected progressive state leaders can roll-back past attacks and extend bargaining rights for public sector workers in states that have never had them. Activists in the states are also launching the first efforts in decades to secure organizing rights for farmworkers, and advancing innovative legislation to facilitate bargaining by “gig economy” workers like Uber drivers and domestic workers—all sectors where the federal government has never claimed jurisdiction, thus enabling states to write the rules themselves. 

And though federal law regulates bargaining for private sector workers, there’s still much states can do. Responding to the new wave of strikes and labor activism, states can help workers by guaranteeing that unemployment insurance is available when employees are locked out. And in growth sectors like airport, homecare and childcare jobs—all areas that are substantially regulated or funded by the states—state leaders can support organizing by setting high job quality standards like high minimum or prevailing wages, requirements that workers be able to keep their jobs when contracts change hands, and other protections.

 

Defend Immigrants, Communities of Color

President Trump’s attacks on immigrants and championing of racial division are compounding economic insecurity among workers of color. Governors and legislatures can fight back by protecting immigrant workers and by prioritizing action to expand job access and fair pay for Black workers and other workers of color. States can reinvigorate civil rights enforcement, promote targeted hiring of workers from high-unemployment communities on state-funded development projects, and expand job opportunities for workers with arrest or conviction records by banning discrimination against them. They can also repeal the licensing rules that shut such workers out of many high growth occupations.

Voters and working people across the country are hungry for the kind of change that will make a difference in their daily lives. For them, our economy is not strong until they see a difference in their paychecks, until workers are safe on the job and compensated fairly for the time they work. By acting swiftly on the best practices we outline, state leaders can protect working families in their states and promote the type of real growth our nation needs.

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