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Report: Low-wage workers losing ground

Bree Halverson, right, the Minnesota director for Working America, said, “The middle class jobs that were lost in the recession are being replaced by low-wage work in the retail and service sector.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

Bree Halverson, right, the Minnesota director for Working America, said, “The middle class jobs that were lost in the recession are being replaced by low-wage work in the retail and service sector.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

On Thursday, Ethel Buckingham intended to recount her tale of workplace woe at a news conference at the State Office Building, where a coalition of labor leaders and progressive groups unveiled a new study throwing cold water on the state’s improving employment numbers.

As the title suggests, “Hard Times Ahead: the Future of Work in Minnesota,” the statistic-laden report paints a dismal picture of pay, benefits and working conditions at “poverty wage” jobs, the fast expanding fields such as fast food work and retail sales that have accounted for the bulk of the employment recovery.

Buckingham, a single mother from north Minneapolis, planned to recount her frustrations with the erratic scheduling demands of her job in retail sales, which is now the single most common occupation in the state.

But in an illustration of the problem she planned to highlight, a short-notice shift change kept Buckingham from appearing in person.

In a written statement read by her brother, Omari Thomas, Buckingham described how her bosses at a suburban dollar store routinely change up her schedule, sometimes with a notice of just one or two hours.

While she often works six days a week, according to her statement, she seldom cracks 40 hours, and during slow times, sometimes as little as eight hours a week.

Those practices have become more common in many low-paying fields and many larger employers are relying on computerized “just-in-time” staffing models to set workers’ hours, according to Bree Halverson, the Minnesota director for Working America, the non-unionized arm of the AFL-CIO, and part of the coalition of labor and progressive groups that produced the report, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy.

“The middle-class jobs that were lost in the recession are being replaced by low-wage work in the retail and service sector,” said Halverson. “We’ve moved away from full-time work and fixed schedules.”

She noted that those changes have hit minorities and women, who are disproportionately represented in low-paying jobs, especially hard.

While Working America and its allies hope to build the case for fair-staffing legislation, Halverson said they have yet to draft language or, for that matter, find a sponsor at the Capitol.

However, she said the coalition has landed a champion for another legislative priority — a mandate that employers provide a minimum of one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked. She is optimistic about the prospects for the bill, she said, because “every legislator has someone in their district that needs earned sick days.”

According to the study, just 34 percent of full-time workers in the lowest earnings bracket have access to sick time benefits.

While that forces employees to make difficult choices, it also creates potential hazards for the larger public.

“When I’m sick, I still have to work. It puts my clients at risk,” said Anne Lott, a personal care attendant from Minneapolis.

Personal care work—with a median wage of $10.80 — constitutes the fastest growing occupation in Minnesota, with 33,000 new positions expected to be created by 2022, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who first introduced a earned sick leave bill in 2007, said he plans to do so once again next year.

Last session, Lesch’s proposal was originally included as part of the Women’s Economic Security Act, the DFL’s signature package of worker-friendly laws that hiked the state’s minimum wage and provided a host of other workplace protections for women.

“It was one of the heavier lifts of the package and with all the pressure we got from the Chamber of Commerce, it ended up on the cutting room floor,” Lesch said. “It was the same argument you hear from the Chamber on every single issue. It’s the boogieman — prices are going to go up or businesses are going to leave the state.”

Given that that earned sick leave failed when DFL controlled both chambers of the Legislature, what’s the conceivable path forward now that the GOP holds the cards in the House?

“It really comes down to how committed the Senate will be, but I think we still have some chance to move forward this year,” Lesch ventured.

Bernie Hesse, the director of political action for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, said any success at the Capitol will inevitably involve horse trading during conference committee negotiations.

“We’ve got to start to the conversation. Maybe the Senate could put it into a mining bill,” Hesse said with a wry laugh. “But I think the best track is to really hammer it in the Senate and then try to make it part of a political deal. I don’t know what you trade.”

Despite opposition from the business community, Hesse noted that many employers provide sick time benefits. Those that don’t run the risk of hurting the bottom line, especially in fields like food processing where infections spread among co-workers can potentially taint products and force costly recalls.

“All you need is one big episode and you’re screwed,” Hesse said. “Businesses don’t provide earned sick time because it’s the nice thing to do. They do it because it makes sense in the big picture and contributes to the sustainability of the company in the long run. Our message needs to be, ‘This is going to make plants safer and lead to higher employee retention.’”

Still, Hesse acknowledged that the legislation faces a high hurdle at the Capitol. As a consequence, he said, labor leaders are planning a parallel push at the municipal level.

“Obviously, we’re going to give it a shot at the Capitol but on a number of these things, you have to be able to show that it works,” he said.

Hesse said he’s already been in discussions with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and plans to initiate a similar push with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Labor is also looking to the federal government for help on such issues, although the prospects in Washington, D.C., are likely worse than in St. Paul.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has sponsored a fair scheduling bill that would require employers to give workers with two week notice on scheduling changes, with provisions for additional pay for last minute changes.

“It’s a common-sense bill,” said Hesse.

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