Things can look bleak for American workers these days: they’re working harder yet wages keep falling, unionization levels are the lowest they’ve been since the Great Depression, and more and more jobs don’t even pay enough to survive. But workers and their supporters are still pushing for better pay, better benefits, and more rights, and they won some key fights in 2013.
Paid sick days came to three major cities
The United States is the only country out of the 15 most competitive that doesn’t guarantee that all workers have access to paid time off if they or their loved ones fall sick. But some cities and states have taken the issue into their own hands and passed laws that require employers to offer all employees paid sick leave. In 2013, the number of such laws reached seven with new policies in Jersey City, NJ; New York City; and Portland, OR. Washington, D.C.’s city council also unanimously voted to expand the city’s policy to cover tipped workers and workers in the small town of SeaTac, WA will also be guaranteed time off. Activists are pushing for similar policies in the states of Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, and Vermont as well as Newark, NJ and Tacoma, WA.
Cities and states took minimum wage hikes into their own hands
The federal minimum wage hasn’t risen since 2009, when it clicked up to $7.25 an hour. Despite overwhelming public support for raising it, multiple Republicans in Congress would rather rid of the wage floor entirely, so it’s unlikely that progressive legislators’ and President Obama’s calls for raising the wage up to $10.10 will gain traction. Rather than waiting for the feds to figure it out, though, some states and cities took matters into their own hands in 2013. Washington, D.C. will raise its wage floor to $11.50 over the next three years and tie future increases to inflation. California lawmakers raised the wage floor to $10 in the nation’s largest state. Voters in New Jersey raised the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 and tied future automatic increases to inflation. The voters of little SeaTac, WA — home to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — approved a $15 minimum wage. With low wages forcing working people onto public assistance programs by the millions and congressional conservatives intransigent, it’s little wonder that many other cities and states are starting to move forward on wage hikes of their own.
The third- and fourth-largest U.S. cities adopted new wage theft laws
In any given year, employers steal more money from their own workers in the form of unpaid time on the clock and withheld overtime pay than the combined haul from every store hold-up and bank robbery nationwide. While wage theft is illegal, most laws against it are too weak to deter businesses from cheating their workers. Despite New York City’s ban, 84 percent of fast food workers in the city report wage theft. Even among workers who manage to prove wage theft and win a judgment in California, 83 percent never see a dime of what they’re owed. In the face of these problems, the Houston City Council passed a wage theft law with teeth in November. Businesses convicted of stealing workers’ pay will lose their licenses to operate in Houston. Even without a criminal conviction, businesses that are proven wage thieves will be barred from getting city contracts and added to a public list. Chicago passed a similar law including business license revocation for wage thieves in January, and the Houston victory gives activists hope that the idea can spread throughout the South. “If you can win it in Houston, you can win it in Atlanta or Dallas,” one expert on the subject told Salon’s Josh Eidelson.
Workers in the home got expanded labor rights
Following in the footsteps of New York City, the first to establish expanded labor rights for domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers, Hawaii and California passed Domestic Workers Bills of Rights this year. Oregon’s state House also passed a similar bill in May but it was voted down in the Senate. More may be in the works for next year, however, after Massachusetts lawmakers held a hearing on a proposed bill in November and Texas and Ohio expected to consider proposals soon. Those who work in the home also won another key victory this year: home health aides, those who care for the elderly and disabled, are now included in the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Federal Labor Standards Act after the Department of Labor announced a rule change in September.
A federal labor agency backed up workers’ complaints against Walmart
Since low-wage workers at Walmart started staging strikes against the company on Black Friday last year — and kept up the pressure this year, with a string of strikes in November that hit nine cities — they have alleged that the company illegally retaliated against workers by firing them, disciplining them, or threatening them for going on strike. In November, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that protects the right to organize and demand better conditions, backed up many of these complaints. After it looked into a variety of charges, it found merit in some of them, including the fact that stores in 13 states unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or fired workers who went on strike, and announced that it will prosecute Walmart for illegally firing and disciplining more than 117 workers. If the NLRB wins its case, workers could potentially see back pay, reinstatement to their previous positions, and the reversal of disciplinary actions.