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Dems to yank bill to raise congressional pay after backlash

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Sarah FerrisHeather CaygleLaura Barron-Lopez House Democratic leaders are postponing consideration of a bill that would include a pay raise for members of Congress, after facing a major backlash from the party’s most vulnerable members.

Top Democrats agreed in a closed-door meeting Monday night to pull a key section of this week’s massive funding bill to avoid escalating a clash within their caucus over whether to hike salaries for lawmakers and staff for the first time in a decade, multiple lawmakers confirmed.

At least 15 Democrats — mostly freshmen in competitive districts — had pushed to freeze pay after some Democratic and Republican leaders quietly agreed to the slight pay increase earlier this month.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confirmed to POLITICO after the meeting that he “thinks” they would pull the bill so that Democrats can resolve the issue of congressional pay raises.

The issue flared up in the Democratic leadership meeting on Monday, where there was an intense discussions of whether to force members to go on the record about a pay raise, which some battleground Democrats believed would create a target on their back in 2020.

“Nobody wants to vote to give themselves a raise. There’s nothing good about that,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who attended Monday’s meeting.

But Hill said she also believed the issue deserved more discussion to ensure that stagnant pay wasn’t deterring average Americans from running for office — particularly if they already live in districts with high costs of living.

The potential vote set off Democratic political consultants who warned that if members were on the record supporting a pay raise for themselves it could be seen as tone deaf. One strategist called it “political suicide” for freshman Democrats in swing districts if they were made to take the vote.

During a monthly Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held Monday with staffers who handle communications for the Frontline program, which protects members in battleground seats, a Democratic pollster who was invited to brief staffers on different issues, raised concerns about the pay increase.

Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, told staffers and DCCC in the meeting that a vote to raise lawmaker’s pay was “problematic.”

“It feels like a potential ready-made attack ad,” Pollock told POLITICO Monday evening.

Several Democrats in battleground seats have scrambled behind the scenes to convince Democratic leaders, including Hoyer, to backtrack on the decision. Several have personally approached Hoyer to protest the move after he and other party leaders agreed to the cost-of-living-increase. It would amount to an extra $4,500 for members, who currently make $174,000.

Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) — who sits in a district that Trump carried by more than six points — warned Hoyer on the floor last week that the move would be bad politics and bad policy, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the discussions.

Cunningham later authored his own amendment to halt the pay increase. Similar amendments were also drafted by freshman Democrats like Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) — whose district leans Republican by 12 points, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) — whose district favors Republicans by six points.

And even if Congress does approve the pay hike, several vulnerable Democrats, including Cunningham and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), have vowed to send any additional cash back to the Treasury or donate it to charity.

The House still plans to begin voting on the massive spending package to fund several agencies but will hold off on the section of the bill that sets funding levels for both branches of Congress — creating an unexpected scramble for congressional appropriators.

Without action on the floor, the pay increase would automatically go into effect under current law. Democratic leaders would need to allow a specific vote to block the cost of living increase, which members have done every year for a decade.

Democratic spending leaders have said the pay raise has bipartisan support. But it carries huge political risk for both parties. Congress hasn’t given itself a pay hike since the depths of Great Recession in January 2009.

Several battleground Democrats were infuriated by their leadership’s decision to move forward, which they saw as inviting attacks from Republicans back home.

The National Republican Campaign Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm, seized on the issue last week and blasted House Democrats as “socialist elitists” for considering a cost of living raise in the upcoming spending package.

But it was later revealed that top Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had already backed the measure, and even agreed not to attack the other party over it in a private meeting last week. The NRCC then removed its release denouncing Democrats.

Democrats in Monday’s leadership meeting first blamed Republicans for the blow up, complaining that McCarthy and the GOP campaign arm were trying to capitalize on the issue to score political points after previously agreeing not to do so. But then Hoyer said not only would McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise support the increase but the NRCC executive director was also on board, according to sources familiar.

Leaders in both parties have blamed the stagnant pay for turning away qualified congressional candidates and staff. When adjusted for inflation, lawmakers’ salaries have decreased 15 percent since 2009, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Melanie Zanona contributed to this story.

This article was originally published by the Politico on June 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Ferris covers budget and appropriations for POLITICO Pro. She was previously the lead healthcare and budget reporter for The Hill newspaper.

A graduate of the George Washington University, Ferris spent most of her time writing for The GW Hatchet. Her bylines have also appeared at The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Raised on a dairy farm in Newtown, Conn., Ferris boasts a strong affinity for homemade ice cream, Dunkin Donuts coffee and the Boston Red Sox.

About the Author: Heather Caygle is a Congress reporter for POLITICO. Before coming to POLITICO, Caygle was a congressional reporter for Bloomberg BNA, primarily covering transportation but also dabbling in Hill action on tax reform, agriculture, appropriations and the Postal Service. Her work has also been featured on the WashingtonPost.com and WAMU.

Caygle, an Alabama native, is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and received her master’s from American University in Washington. She loves rooting on the Alabama football team — Roll Tide — and spending time with her corgi/chihuahua mix named Biggie Smalls.

About the Author: Laura Barrón-López is a national political reporter for POLITICO, covering House campaigns and the 2020 presidential race.

Barrón-López previously led 2018 coverage of Democrats for the Washington Examiner. At the Examiner, Barrón-López covered the DNC’s efforts to reform the power of superdelegates and traveled to competitive districts that propelled Democrats into the House majority. Before that, Barrón-López covered Congress for HuffPost for two and half years, focusing on fights over fast-track authorization, criminal justice reform, and coal miner pensions, among other policy topics in the Senate.

Early in her career, she covered energy and environment policy for The Hill. Her work has been published in the Oregonian, OC Register, E&E Publishing, and Roll Call. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from California State University, Fullerton.

House Democrats plan to grill Labor Department officials about tip and child labor policies

Monday, November 12th, 2018

After winning back the House on Tuesday, Democrats plan to grill Labor Department officials about some of their proposals, which they have safety and transparency concerns about.

Democrats have long had questions about the U.S. Department of Labor’s approach on issues such as child labor in health care jobs and not informing the public about an analysis that did not favor one of their proposed regulations on tipping.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who will be chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, told Bloomberg Law about his plans and said, “If you’re having a regulatory change, the law requires you to produce the evidence to support the change.”

In December, the department proposed a rule rescinding parts of Obama-era tip regulations and allow employers who pay the minimum wage to take workers’ tips. The department said it would allow “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, who don’t typically receive tips, to be part of a tip-sharing pool. But the rule wouldn’t actually prevent employers from just keeping the tips.

According to Economic Policy Institute research, tipped workers would lose $5.8 billion a year in tips as a result of this rule. Women in tipped jobs would lose $4.6 billion annually.

After doing an internal analysis of the proposal, Department of Labor decided to scrub it from its proposal after it also discovered workers would be robbed of billions of dollars. Staff then changed the methodology to get a more favorable analysis, but Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were reportedly unsatisfied with even that analysis, so with the approval of the White House, they took it out. Later reports from Bloomberg showed that White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) staff said the proposal of changes to tipped worker pay rules should include professional estimates of the impact for tipped workers but Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, worked with Acosta to scrap the analysis entirely, Bloomberg Law first reported.

In December, Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for improvement of wages for low-wage restaurant workers, said the proposed rule would push a majority-women workforce “further into financial instability, poverty, and vulnerability to harassment and assault.”

Democrats on the committee, as well as other Democrats in Congress, wrote a letter to the department in February stating that if the department withheld the analysis, it “raises serious questions about the integrity of the Department’s rulemaking process.” They also demanded more information about meetings and further communication about the analysis.

Democrats also wrote a letter to Acosta and Mulvaney in August citing their concerns about a department proposal to allow teenagers to work more hours in health care positions that under current regulations, are considered unsafe for them. The department has said that exempting power-driven patient lifts from these regulations makes sense because use of the equipment would be “safer for workers than the alternative method of manually lifting patients.”

The department has said that teenagers would have to receive 75 hours of training and at least 16 hours of supervision by a nurse in the proposed rule.

But in their August letter, Democratic lawmakers said they want scientific reviews from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“While we believe in expanding job opportunities for young workers, I am sure you would agree that this should not be done at the expense of their health, safety, and lives,” Democratic members of Congress wrote.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Democrats have the House. They should use it to show how they'll fight back in the war on workers

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Winning the House doesn’t just let Democrats block some of the worst things Donald Trump wants from Congress. It also offers a chance to show what Democrats would do if they had the chance. For years Democrats have been introducing great legislation that Republicans would never allow to even come to a vote. Now is the chance to pass some of that in the House and let Senate Republicans explain why they’re not taking action.

Let’s start with the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while red states like Missouri and Arkansas (most recently) have voted to increase it, showing how deep and broad voter support is. Democrats should be able to pass a substantial minimum wage increase in the House quickly.

Democrats should pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to strengthen protections for pregnant women and prevent abuses like these.

Paid family leave. Sick leave. Protections for Dreamers. These are all obvious, necessary things with widespread support.

But you can go deeper: “Workers should not be forced to sign away their rights as a condition of employment,” Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz write. Democrats should undo one of the worst recent Supreme Court decisions with the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which allows workers to have their cases against employers heard in a real court, not a rigged arbitration process.

No, this stuff isn’t going to get through the Senate or Donald Trump. But Democrats, show us what you would do if you could. Let the country know that while Republicans use Congress and the presidency to dismantle health care and give big tax breaks to corporations, Democrats would use it to raise the minimum wage and protect pregnant workers and let workers have their day in court.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on November 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Fight for $15 Just Scored a Big Win in Maryland. We Have Unions to Thank.

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

A law establishing a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Maryland’s Montgomery County was signed into law Monday, representing a comeback win after a similar measure was defeated by pro-business Democrats just ten months ago.

It’s a meaningful victory for the Fight for $15, the union-inspired campaign to raise wages nationally. Montgomery is the most populous county in the state, with a larger population than the nearby cities of Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. It’s also a bellwether for Maryland politics, where organizing has begun already ahead of the 2018 statewide elections, including organizing aimed at improving Maryland’s wage laws.

“The difference that $15 an hour will make for so many working families cannot be underestimated. And the entire county will benefit as more workers will be able to move off publicly funded programs and spend more on local businesses,” Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, told In These Times over email.

Contreras and SEIU have been prominent in the labor coalition that has been supporting a higher minimum wage, along with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and others. “We are really proud of what we have accomplished. As with any compromise, we are not totally pleased, but this is a real step forward,” Jonathan Williams, spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, told In These Times.

“The $15 minimum wage win in Montgomery County comes on the heels of last week’s 11 victories of Fight for $15 supporters Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey. It shows the continued power of this movement and builds momentum for state-wide action next year in Maryland and other states,” Christine Owens, executive director of the workers’ advocacy group National Employment Law Project, told In These Times over email.

Satisfaction with the victory notwithstanding, some worker advocates grumbled that the political compromises necessary to solidify support came at a high price for some workers. The compromises had been hammered out over the last several months in response the Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s veto of similar legislation approved by the County Council in January.

One of these compromises was an exemption from the law for workers under age 20, a concession to Leggett’s concern that the increase would hurt job opportunities for minority youth. Another compromise extended the phase-in schedule of higher wages so that the $15 minimum does not take effect for small employers until 2023 (50 workers or fewer) or 2024 (10 workers or fewer). For large employers, the new minimum will be phased in through 2021.

Owens said Montgomery “residents should be concerned that county leaders excluded from the full $15 wage younger workers—many of whom are from low-income families or are struggling to work their way through two or four-year colleges—and tipped workers. We urge the county council to revisit and remove these harmful carve-outs.”

Williams added that the UFCW is among those advocating for a state-wide $15 minimum wage bill that could address the problems in some of the carve-outs. Political efforts are initially focusing on selecting a Democratic Party candidate for governor who will be a reliable supporter of $15. Currently, there are numerous candidates in the race, and Democrats are debating who would be the strongest candidate against incumbent Republican Larry Hogan, Williams says.

Hogan is not a supporter of a higher minimum wage and provoked the anger of many workers’ rights advocates in Maryland earlier this year when he vetoed a bill to provide guaranteed sick leave to workers in the state.

UFCW has not endorsed any candidate yet, but SEIU issued an early endorsement of Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP who is running for governor on a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive platform, including the $15 minimum wage.

Aside from positive signs in local political races, Fight for $15 recently got a boost from one of the largest private-sector retailers in the country, Target stores. Following worker organizing, Target officials announced in September it would raise the minimum wage for Target employees to $11 an hour this year, with the goal of reaching $15 by the end of 2020. Target currently employs more than 300,000 workers nationwide.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Hints of Progress for Labor in the United States

Friday, June 9th, 2017

With Donald Trump sitting in the White House and right-wing Republicans controlling Congress, there is not much for labor to cheer about on the American national political scene. In addition, the overall prospect for union organizing does not look very good. Republicans are pursuing policies at both the national and state level to further erode union membership. But with all the bad news, there have been some important victories at the state and local levels that can perhaps lay the groundwork for gains nationally in future years.

The most important of these battles has been the drive for an increase in the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the intervening eight years, inflation has reduced its purchasing power by almost 17%. Measured by purchasing power, the current national minimum wage is more than 25% below its 1968 peak. That is a substantial decline in living standards for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

However, the situation is even worse if we compare the minimum wage to productivity. From 1938, when a national minimum wage was first put in place, until 1968, it was raised in step with the average wage, which in turn tracked economy-wide productivity growth. If the minimum wage had continued to track productivity growth in the years since 1968, it would be almost $20 an hour today, more than two and a half times its current level. That would put it near the current median wage for men and close to the 60th percentile wage for women. This is a striking statement on how unevenly the gains from growth have been shared over the last half century.

The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to make up some of this lost ground during his presidency. While it may have been possible in his first two years when the Democrats controlled Congress, higher priority was given to the stimulus, health care reform and financial reform. Once the Republicans regained control in 2010, increases in the minimum wage were off the table. Needless to say, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the Trump administration will take the lead in pushing for a higher minimum wage any time soon.

Although the situation looks bleak nationally, there have been many successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in states and cities across the country in recent years. This effort has been led by unions, most importantly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose “Fight for $15” campaign is pushing to make $15 an hour the nationwide minimum. The drive gained momentum with its endorsement by Bernie Sanders in his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. While Sanders was of course defeated for the nomination, his push for a $15 an hour minimum wage won the support of many voters. It is now a mainstream position within the national Democratic Party.

However, the action for the near term is at the state and local levels, where there have been many successes. There are now 29 states that have a minimum wage higher than the national minimum. The leader in this effort is California, which is now scheduled to have a $15 an hour minimum wage as of January 2022. With over 12% of the US population living there, this is a big deal. Washington State is not far behind, with the minimum wage scheduled to reach $13.50 an hour in January 2020. New York State’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 an hour at the end of 2020 and will be indexed to inflation in subsequent years.

Several cities have also jumped ahead with higher minimum wages. San Francisco and Seattle, two centers of the tech economy, both are set to reach $15 an hour for city minimums by 2020. Many other cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis have also set minimum wages considerably higher than the federal and state levels.

What has been most impressive about these efforts to secure higher minimum wages is the widespread support they enjoy. This is not just an issue that appeals to the dwindling number of union members and progressive sympathizers. Polls consistently show that higher minimum wages have the support of people across the political spectrum. Even Republicans support raising the minimum wage, and often by a large margin.

As a result of this support, minimum wage drives have generally succeeded in ballot initiatives when state legislatures or local city councils were not willing to support higher minimums. The last minimum wage increase in Florida was put in place by a ballot initiative that passed in 2004, even as the state voted for George W. Bush for president. Missouri, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in this century, approved a ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2006. South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, all solidly Republican states, approved ballot initiatives for higher minimum wages in 2014. In short, this is an issue where the public clearly supports the progressive position.

These increases in state and local minimum wages have meant substantial improvements in the living standards of the affected populations. In many cases, families are earning 20-30% more than they would if the minimum wage had been left at the federal minimum.

In addition, several states, including California, have also put in place measures to give workers some amount of paid family leave and sick days. While workers in Europe have long taken such benefits for granted, most workers in the United States cannot count on receiving paid time off. This is especially true for less-educated and lower-paid workers. In fact, employers in most states do not have to grant unpaid time off and can fire a worker for taking a sick day for themselves or to care for a sick child. So the movement towards requiring paid time off is quite significant for many workers.

This progress should be noted when thinking about the political situation and the plight of working people in the United States, but there are also two important qualifications that need to be added. The first is that there are clearly limits to how far it is possible to go with minimum wage increases before the job losses offset the benefits. Recent research has shown that modest increases can be put in place with few or no job losses, but everyone recognizes that at some point higher minimum wages will lead to substantial job loss. A higher minimum wage relative to economy-wide productivity was feasible in the past because the US had a whole range of more labor-friendly policies in place. In the absence of these supporting policies, we cannot expect the lowest-paid workers to get the same share of the pie as they did half a century ago.

The other important qualification is the obvious one: higher minimum wages do not increase union membership. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the member unions that have supported the drive for a higher minimum wage have done so in the best tradition of enlightened unionism. They recognize that a higher minimum wage can benefit a substantial portion of their membership, since it sets a higher base from which they can negotiate upward. Of course, it is also a policy that benefits the working class as a whole. For this reason, unions collectively have devoted considerable resources to advancing the drive to raise the minimum wage.

However, this has put a real strain on their budgets at a time when anti-union efforts are reducing the number of dues-paying members in both the public and private sectors. This will make it more difficult to sustain the momentum for raising minimum wages and mandating employer benefits. For this reason, the good news on the minimum wage must be tempered. It is a rare bright spot for labor in the United States in the last decade, but it will be a struggle to sustain the momentum in the years ahead.

This blog was originally published at CEPR.net on June 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan

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