It’s a time-honored tradition to do as little work as possible on Labor Day. So many of us will spend the time off work at the lake, with family cooking out or relaxing on the couch.
Whether or not we pay homage to what Labor Day was created to celebrate – five-day work weeks, a ban on child labor, fair labor laws – the reality is that American workers still face many barriers when it comes to being treated fairly.
Since the end of the Great Recession, stocks have soared, unemployment has dropped and it appears everything is back on the up and up. But for workers, there are many problems that haven’t improved.
One challenge is the quality of jobs coming out of the recession. The single industry in Kentucky with the most job growth since 2009 is called employment services. It’s largely made up of temporary agencies that don’t offer the benefits, wages or stability of permanent jobs. These agencies are responsible for one in five of the net new jobs created.
This growth in temporary jobs reflects a lack of full confidence from employers in sustained economic growth as well as restructuring of the job market that has been happening at workers’ expense.
While job security is a challenge in some parts of the state, finding any jobs at all is still a challenge in others. Though Kentucky’s officially unemployment rate is now low, it overstates how good the job situation is by not counting those who aren’t currently seeking work. Job growth has been concentrated in the urban areas of the state and along interstate corridors and many rural counties including parts of eastern Kentucky hit by the loss of coal jobs are still in far worse shape than before the recession. Efforts like the Power+ Plan proposed by the President and supported by a growing number of local governments in eastern Kentucky are a good way to jumpstart real job growth in those areas.
Another issue workers face is wages. The cost of living has risen since the recovery began but wages have been largely stagnant for the majority of workers. With a $7.25 an hour minimum wage, Kentuckians are having to work long hours and multiple jobs yet still fall short of meeting basic needs. The Economic Policy Institute’s “Family Budget Calculator” shows that a two-parent, two-child household needs at least $58,000 to cover basic needs anywhere in Kentucky, yet two full-time minimum wage workers make only roughly $30,000 a year.
In Kentucky, Louisville is the only city with a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Lexington is also considering a higher minimum wage and workers await the city council’s action. Kentucky should raise the minimum wage statewide to $10.10 an hour, as has been proposed in the legislature the last few years, as well as raise the tipped minimum wage.
Another important issue is the attack on the right of workers to stick together for better job quality and working conditions. So-called “right-to-work” legislation threatens collective bargaining and, as research shows, means lower wages, worse benefits and working conditions. There’s nothing right about that.
Misclassification also harms workers by illegally naming them independent contractors, allowing businesses to be absolved of the many protections and responsibilities they are obliged to provide employees. Construction workers and those in other industries deserve the overtime pay, safe working conditions, medical and family leave benefits as well as worker’s compensation granted to employees. It’s time state lawmakers tightened down on businesses that abuse our laws and misclassify their employees.
There are a couple bright spots on the horizon. For the increasing number of workers hired indirectly as contractors or through temporary agencies and franchises, a recent ruling from the National Labor Relations Board means that the companies these employees work for may be jointly responsible for job quality and conditions.
And for the many workers who have been putting in extra time on their jobs but not getting paid for it because of overtime rules that haven’t been updated in decades, pending changes will bring relief. Under a proposal from the White House, 70,000 more Kentucky workers will be able to receive time and a half pay for working extra hours.
This Labor Day, not only should we honor the progress we’ve made so far, but commit to the work that still needs doing to protect the rights and needs of Kentuckians who work for a living.
This column originally ran in the Grayson County News Gazette on 9/2/2015, in the Courier-Journal on 9/7/2015. and in the Lexington Herald-Leader on 9/6/2015.