Dispatches from the Year of the Worker

Dispatches from the Year of the Worker
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There’s no doubt 2016 will go down as the Year of the Worker.

Let’s start with the $15 Now campaign, a nationwide populist uprising to get people at the bottom of the income ladder a chance at a living wage. What began as a movement in the fast food industry to help workers increase their bottom line soon became a rallying cry to raise the minimum wage around the country.

Then, last month, President Barack Obama gave approximately 1 million federal contract workers something they had not previously had. The president gave these workers seven days of paid sick leave, allowing them to stay home if they were ill without losing that day’s pay.

That was the icing on the cake in a year in which the government has also increased overtime pay for workers. The feds are also now talking more seriously about increasing the minimum wage, where it has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Schuyler Velasco advocates for 2016 being labeled the Year of the Worker, citing the first median household income increase since 2007 and the fact that the poverty rate is on the decline; as well as new worker protections for overtime and state legislation addressing the gender pay gap in Massachusetts and fair scheduling practices in New York and Seattle.

Obama has said that, despite all the progress on state and federal level, his Department of Labor is not “resting on our laurels.” Nor should they, since there is no guarantee that the next commander-in-chief will carry on Obama’s efforts on behalf of workers. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both pledged to be job creators, but they’re not spending much time addressing subjects like overtime pay, paid family leave or paid sick leave.

As other media outlets have noted, giving 1 million workers seven days of sick leave is barely a first step when you balance that against a private sector workforce of 44 million who don’t have that benefit. The United States is still the only industrial nation without any laws that mandate paid sick leave or paid parental leave. Obama’s move may indeed be the proverbial “drop in the bucket,” but we hope this drop ends up making a big splash.

So does the President. “We’ve called on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would give Americans the ability to earn up to seven paid sick days a year,” the president told Slate’s Jordan Weissman. “We’ve called on states and cities to pass similar legislation, and many have taken up that charge. And we’ve called on businesses to step up and adopt these policies, just as the government has.”

“Over the last seven-and-a-half years, we’ve done everything we can to grow and strengthen the middle class,” the president continued, citing greater opportunity for employment, higher wages and incomes, fairer pay for women, workplace flexibility and paid leave for parents, affordable health insurance, more affordable college, and adequate retirement benefits.

The president lauded California, a state which 15 years ago enacted landmark family leave legislation that guarantees workers paid time off to care for a new child or family member. In April of this year, Governor Jerry Brown expanded the state’s paid family leave regulations to benefit more low income workers. Starting in 2018, people earning close to minimum wage will be paid 70% of their salary while on leave, while workers who earn up to $108,000 annually, will get 60% of their salary during leave. The governor expanded the paid family leave provisions shortly after the state had pledged to up its minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

The calendar is running out on 2016, on Obama’s presidency and perhaps on the Year of the Worker. Time alone will tell whether our next commander in chief is apt to undo the legislation or to allow those federal workers to take a paid sick day when they need it.

We’ll be watching. So how about it, President Hillary Clinton? Let’s make the Year of the Worker last four more years.


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