Several progressive members of Congress this week are working on two fronts to highlight and ultimately improve the plight of low-wage workers.
Some are participating this week in the “Live the Wage Challenge,” in which they commit to trying to live within a weekly budget of $77, what a minimum-wage worker (in states at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour) would have left after paying taxes and housing costs.
Others are preparing to co-sponsor a bill scheduled to be introduced today by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) that would give workers more rights to have predictable work schedules, cracking down on practices that among other things make it difficult for low-wage part-time workers to go to school or to get a second job.
The Live the Wage Challenge is designed to prod the House in particular to put to a vote a measure that would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. So far, House Speaker John Boehner has refused to allow a direct vote on such a measure, even though – or, more likely, because – such a measure would win majority support in the House.
Among the members of Congress who are taking the challenge are Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). In a call today with reporters, Schakowsky talked about how, in preparing for the challenge, her weekly grocery shopping took longer as she more carefully weighed her produce and scrutinized prices before heading to the checkout counter so that she would stay within her budget.
But Schakowsky’s experience was nothing compared to that of Heather Holstein, an actual minimum-wage worker who also participated in the call. “I don’t think my standard of living is sustainable at all,” she said, noting that she gets by with the help of a live-in boyfriend. She said she has “thousands of dollars in hospital debts,” and those debts on top of her weekly expenses mean that “any bill could send me over the edge.”
“My boyfriend and I would really like to get married,” she said, “but weddings are expensive, and getting married would mean that he would take on my hospital debt, which I don’t think is fair to him. We’d also like to have kids, but we would not be able to provide for them. Many of my fellow coworkers do have kids and they struggle every day to take care of them and to find a babysitter.”
“Even an increase of $1 an hour would make a big difference for me,” she added. “I would be in a better position to pay off my hospital debt, finish school, and my boyfriend and I could start planning our life together.”
“People don’t know what life is like for many Americans,” said former Ohio governor Tom Strickland, who is now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “This challenge is a way to in some small measure to help people understand what it means to be poor.”
Millions of low-wage workers, already struggling with inadequate pay, are finding themselves increasingly struggling with a second insult: unpredictable, unstable work schedules. These workers are expected to be available at almost any time, even if their actual work is only a few hours a week. Because their hours are finely calibrated to match anticipated demand on a week-to-week basis, these workers find themselves unable to schedule second jobs, attend classes, or manage child care.
Some of the most egregious abuses were chronicled in a New York Times story Saturday. Employers – particularly large retailers – “are pushing all of this unpredictability onto the workers,” said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. Employers who impose just-in-time scheduling on workers are refusing to recognize that “you can’t rearrange child care just in time,” she said.
The legislation that Miller plans to introduce is designed to address the problems these workers face. According to The New York Times, the Miller bill “would require companies to pay their employees for an extra hour if they were summoned to work with less than 24 hours’ notice” and “guarantee of four hours’ pay on days when employees are sent home after just a few hours.” It would also include a provision that is also in a Senate bill by Rep. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and a House bill by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) that gives employees the right to request flexible work hours or have a say when they are required to be on call to work, and requires employers to have a compelling business reason to deny the request.
“These are the types of things that unions have bargained for,” Gleason said. But in recent years, in the wake of the decline of private sector unions, local governments have had to step into the breach, passing ordinances that curb the most egregious scheduling abuses. The miller bill, she said, “legitimizes the host of political solutions that cities and states are exploring.”
The Fair Workweek Initiative will be launching a campaign to build grassroots support for the Miller bill, and to force lawmakers to answer if they support or oppose allowing businesses to cripple the ability of their workers to better their lives by taking classes, taking on a second job or spending time consistently with their children.
The campaign goes hand in hand with the fight for an increased minimum wage, Gleason said. Low-wage workers “need higher wages and decent hours. That adds up to a fair paycheck.”