Media and Politics

Paul Ryan’s (Accidental) Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

Today, Paul Ryan gave his first major policy speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He spoke for nearly half an hour about “the millions of people stuck in neutral… 45 million people living in poverty.”

While Ryan pushed many of his favorite myths about the safety net, he also inadvertently made one of the strongest cases to date for raising the minimum wage and investing in policies to help people balance work and caregiving.

Indeed, in his grand finale, Ryan called on Congress to:

“Push wages up. Push the cost of living down. Get people off the sidelines. I could think of no better way to restore confidence in the American economy.”

Bravo, Speaker Ryan. We couldn’t agree more. Now, if only we knew how to do these things…

Oh, wait. We do!

How can we “push wages up”?

It’s called raising the minimum wage. And luckily for Speaker Ryan, over 75 percent of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020.

But wait, there’s more.

As Speaker Ryan so eloquently points out, our minimum wage is a poverty wage and not nearly enough for working parents to support their families, leaving many with no choice but to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.

“So say you’re a single mom with one kid. You’re making minimum wage. You’re on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other assistance.”

So, by raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 as the Murray-Scott bill would do, not only would 35 million Americans get a raise, but we would also save nearly $53 billion over the next 10 years in SNAP alone.  

Unfortunately Ryan has voted against raising the minimum wage at least 10 times since he’s been in office.

So, how can we “push the cost of living down”?

Paul Ryan is correct when he says that the cost of living is rising. But families with young kids often face the tightest squeeze of all. Childcare expenses have skyrocketed; the average annual cost for center-based childcare is now more than tuition and fees for a public 4-year college in 31 states and DC. And low-income families spend an average of nearly 14% of their annual income on diapers alone.

What these families need is affordable, high-quality childcare—which also helps parents work—and a stronger Child Tax Credit to help alleviate the squeeze of stagnant wages and rising costs.

And, finally, how can we “get people off the sidelines”?

While there’s obviously a lot that policymakers can and should do on this one—including investing in job creation and removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records and people with disabilities, a major piece of the puzzle is ensuring access to paid family and medical leave.

Speaker Ryan has led by example on this important issue—well, for himself anyway. But, in opposing legislation that would help families access up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, he’s left other working parents high and dry.

The U.S. stands alone among developed nations in failing to guarantee access to any form of paid family leave. But research has shown that when women are able to take paid leave, they are more likely to be working; to have higher wages 9-12 months after their child is born; and to avoid turning to public assistance.

***

Interestingly, a major theme of Speaker Ryan’s speech was about how conservatives need to push new ideas to cut poverty and boost opportunity. “Our number-one goal for the next year,” he said, “is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda.”

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell him that his speech didn’t actually contain any new ideas on tackling poverty and boosting opportunity – only the same old stuff conservatives have been pushing for years such as block grants and cuts to effective programs.

Instead, at his poverty summit on January 9th, Speaker Ryan should endorse raising the minimum wage and adopting work-family policies. To borrow his hashtag of choice, that would make us a #ConfidentAmerica.

 

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Justice

Where Martha Stewart and I Went to Prison Was No ‘Camp Cupcake’

I was a 60-year-old woman when I was first incarcerated in 2010 at Alderson Federal Prison Camp (FPC), one of the few federal women’s prison camps in the United States. A month before I entered prison, my friend Russ Rothman called to tell me Martha Stewart had served her time there when she was 63. He had googled Alderson, nicknamed “Camp Cupcake,” and had found they had tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool—more like a country club than a prison, he said. Russ assured me I would be okay…and instructed me to bring my racket.

My mother had Martha Stewart on her mind too. Not realizing that Martha had actually gone to trial and lost, she said, “Martha Stewart pled guilty and went to prison for six months. Why don’t you plead guilty, go to prison, and get this nightmare over with. You can’t beat city hall.” My mother also used my love of watching 24/7 TV news in her efforts to persuade me. She said, “At least you will get cable TV in prison. I didn’t get that in Auschwitz.” I had no words.

Ultimately, my mother was right: I couldn’t beat the government’s charges of tax evasion and mail fraud, even though I was innocent. And so, eight years after Martha went to prison, my case went to trial and I was convicted. But from the moment I entered Alderson, I realized it was no country club. After being fingerprinted and having my mug shot taken, I was given “newbie” clothes, that is, the clothes inmates wear for the first day only. The slip-on sneakers were two sizes too large; the bra had as little material as a G-string and didn’t hold my breasts in place. The oversized outfit could have fit two women.

After this initial intake, I waited with three other new arrivals in a freezing cell in the Receiving and Discharge (R & D) building. We got the prison bag lunch of a bologna sandwich, cookies, an apple, and a water. When we missed dinner, we got another bag of bologna sandwiches.

Soon after our arrival, R & D officers gave each of us a large laundry bag which contained a blanket, two sheets, soap, shampoo, a comb, a toothbrush, and, most importantly, “Maximum Security” deodorant.

Photo provided by author
Photo provided by author

The R & D building was separated from the sleeping quarters (the “units”) by a long stretch known as “Hallelujah Hill.” For some, this nickname was a reference to its proximity to the prison chapel, but for the older crowd, making it to the top merited a shout of “Hallelujah.” During my first trek to the Admissions and Orientation (A & O) units, I was forced to stop several times to catch my breath while carrying the heavy laundry bag. I lagged far behind the younger women.

During my first two weeks in prison, I went through orientation with thirty other women. Correctional officers showed us a film on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and emphasized there was to be no lesbian sex. I understood that to mean lesbian sex was the only kind of sex that merited punishment, as opposed to some of the contractors’ well-known proclivity for sexually abusing prisoners. They also lectured us on the rules of the compound, the different facilities, and told us we had to work.

In Alderson, everyone was required to work in the kitchen for their first 90 days. That is, everyone but Martha Stewart, who requested but was denied kitchen duty. I suspect she was refused because this chore might have given her an inkling of pleasure within the miserable prison environment. She was instead assigned instead to the humiliating task of mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of the warden and other higher-ups.

My first job at the Alderson kitchen was cleaning floors after the lunch and dinner shift. Although I worked seven or eight hours a day, I earned only $5.25 during my first month. There were also few accommodations based on age—elderly women were given the exact same jobs as younger women; even older women who could barely walk had to endure the long work hours. And after our work was done, we were not permitted to go back to the unit between lunch and dinner. We were not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles, knit, play cards, or sleep. Instead, everyone had to spend long hours in plastic seats attached to the table. As an older woman, this took a real toll on me physically.

Any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences older adults experience behind bars.

After my days of kitchen duty were up, I got transferred to the landscaping department, which meant that, at the age of 60, I was charged with the backbreaking work of mowing the lawns in the hot summer and shoveling snow in the winter. Once, I was assigned a heavy 1950s-style lawnmower but could not get it started without assistance. When I went to push it, I couldn’t even move it an inch.

After I went to landscaper and asked for a different assignment, he gave me a broom and instructed me to sweep the streets. I cleaned the road of rocks but quickly realized that the area would be filled again as soon as a truck came by. And so, I asked the officer if I could remove the stones and put them far from the road. He replied, “But then you would have nothing to do.”

At an age where working a physically demanding job for seven- and eight-hour days was grueling, I served as the Sisyphus of Alderson, sweeping rocks off the streets only to see my work undone by passing vehicles. My experience is far from unique. While there are 75,000 prisoners over the age of 60 that are under the jurisdiction of correctional authorities, accommodations that take into account the reality of aging behind bars are all too rare.

What I’ve come to realize is that although older people do commit crimes that warrant punishment, there are few reasons, public safety or otherwise, to incarcerate elders. Certainly, any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences we experience behind bars. Instead, we need alternatives to incarceration that acknowledge that older people are too vulnerable a population to be held in our prisons and jails.

As for Martha Stewart, well, Martha was lucky. She went home to a billion dollar company. But as for me, I’m homeless, broke, and living proof that Alderson is no “Camp Cupcake.”

 

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Labor

How Employment Agencies Abuse Jobseekers

If you don’t have a job, or you want a better one, advertisements like these may seem promising:

CLEANERS – NOW STAFFING – F/T & P/T, no exp needed. Up to $29.00 per hour.

The U.S. economy continues to improve and the unemployment rate is decreasing, reaching a seven-year low of 5.2 percent in New York City in September, according to the New York State Department of Labor. But many people are still looking for a job or seeking a better one, which can be a stressful and time-consuming process. Lured by advertisements and the promise of work, some turn to an employment agency for help.

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which I serve as Commissioner, licenses and regulates employment agencies. While we are very vigilant in our protection of job seekers, with such a high demand for services and many people desperately in need of work, there are inevitably those who try to take advantage of vulnerable individuals. This has led to a proliferation of predatory employment agencies that exploit the unemployed or underemployed who are trying their best to provide for their families.

One of these individuals was Rosa. After paying $125 to an employment agency, the agency sent her to a laundromat that they claimed was looking for workers. However, when Rosa went to inquire about the job, the owner of the laundromat said they were not hiring and had never asked for workers. Rosa returned to the employment agency asking for a refund, but was refused one. Their only response to her was that she was “too old” and so the laundromat just didn’t want to hire her.

And Marlon, a man from Queens, New York, paid a $125 advance fee to an employment agency plus a $774 fee for a construction training class. The agency guaranteed Marlon a job. Not only did it fail to come through on that promise, it never even referred him to a potential employer. When Marlon returned to the agency to demand a refund, the office had been abandoned.

We at DCA have seen too many job seekers respond to ads for employment only to have agencies charge them illegal fees as high as $1,400—for processing their application, background checks, or “required” trainings like Marlon’s. Many of these agencies operate without a license, send people to jobs that don’t exist, or place them in jobs that don’t pay minimum wage.

This is a growing problem among our immigrant and low-income communities, as they are often the main target of these scams. Over the past year, DCA received more than 600 complaints about employment agencies, and as a result initiated more than 225 investigations into both unlicensed and licensed offices. In the past year, DCA has issued more than 400 violations and secured more than $77,000 in restitution for 269 consumers who were charged illegal and predatory fees.

DCA has also increased its education and advocacy work in this industry. Together with New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), DCA recently created a Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights, which is available in eight languages. It outlines what employment agencies can and cannot do. Advocacy groups have been distributing it to employers and job seekers throughout New York City. Some of the rights and responsibilities noted include: an individual’s right to a full refund of any advance fee if an agency doesn’t find that worker a job or if a job offer isn’t accepted; the job seeker’s right to file a complaint regardless of immigration status; and the requirement that employment agencies refer workers only to employers that are hiring.

“Every day, predatory employment agencies take advantage of unemployed low-wage and immigrant workers,” says Manuel Castro, Executive Director of NICE. “That’s why [we have] worked with DCA on this Bill of Rights. With DCA cracking down on bad actors, and a campaign pushing for legislative reform, low-wage job seekers will be better protected when looking for quality jobs.”

We urge New Yorkers to know their rights, including the right to submit a complaint to DCA about employment agencies in New York. For job hunters who choose to use an employment agency, it’s important to check the local laws and know your rights. Here in New York City, get our tips and read the Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights. There are laws and rules that can protect the unemployed and underemployed from these predatory practices. Knowing those rights is the first step.

Author’s note: Read the results from DCA’s investigations of employment agencies.

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Labor

Why Ending On-Call Scheduling Benefits Workers and Businesses

Just last month, Urban Outfitters became the newest addition to a growing list of retailers that have ended the use of on-call scheduling for their employees. This practice, which requires employees to plan their lives around the mere possibility of having to work, has been subjected to an investigation from the New York Attorney General’s office and damning stories in the press.

Sure, the fact that Urban Outfitters and other retailers such as The Gap, J. Crew, Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret are nixing an abusive practice is laudable. In addition to heading off potential legal trouble, their decisions over the past several months demonstrate that companies are listening to the needs of their employees and the questions being raised by customers.

But let’s not let these headlines fool us into thinking that all is well in the retail industry. Despite Urban Outfitters abandoning the practice, many large profitable restaurant and retail chains continue to intentionally deny employees more hours and use scheduling systems that wreak havoc on their ability to take care of their families.

For example, it’s common for employees to find out whether or not they need to work a shift mere hours before they are scheduled to start. In fact, almost half of the service industry employees surveyed in Washington, D.C. reported that they first learned of their work schedules less than one week in advance. Nearly one-third received less than 24 hours’ notice of schedule changes.

And the problem goes beyond not knowing when you’ll work. It’s also about not knowing how much you’ll work. Plenty of companies force their employees to keep their schedules open with the possibility of being scheduled full-time, but then only assign and compensate workers for part-time hours. And being sent home before the end of a scheduled shift is then passed off as a natural part of the job.

These practices add a whole new level of volatility to people’s lives. Not knowing when you’ll work from week to week can make it difficult or men and women to arrange child care, pursue education or training, or hold down a second job to make ends meet. It’s also next to impossible to budget when you don’t know if you’ll be scheduled for 10 hours or 40, or if you’ll be sent home an hour early each day.

It is possible for businesses to be productive while allowing their employees to lead stable, meaningful lives

Luckily, we’re making strides so that the lives of the people who ring up our purchases and serve our food are less turbulent.

In San Francisco, community leaders, labor advocates and retail employees came together and enacted the first set of comprehensive and meaningful standards that would address this issue. Now, when an employer cancels an on-call shift with less than 24 hours’ notice, they must pay the employee two to four hours. The new rules also mandate that schedules are posted two weeks ahead of time and that the nation’s biggest and most profitable retailers must provide part-time employees with more access to hours before hiring additional part-time workers. Acknowledging that scheduling and hours are just part of the picture, the organizers of this initiative also worked to successfully raise San Francisco’s minimum wage to $15.

This victory has inspired similar efforts in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. On the national level, the Schedules That Work Act would ensure that everyone has the right to request a predictable schedule.

And so, as this momentum grows, business owners would be wise to look to their colleagues to see the benefits of consistent scheduling for both their employees’ livelihoods and their business’s productivity.

Take Costco: in addition to offering better rates of pay and benefits than competitors, it guarantees many part-time employees a minimum of 24 hours and provides two weeks of advance notice for scheduling. As a result of these policies, the company boasts one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry.

Small business owners have also adopted stable scheduling. Tony Lucca, the owner of two D.C. restaurants, gives his employees their schedule a month in advance and uses an online scheduling system that gives employees a say in when they work. And Gina Schaefer, the owner of a number of Ace Hardware stores in the District, makes sure shifts are made available to part-time employees first before hiring anyone new.

We know that it is possible for businesses to be productive while allowing their employees to lead stable, meaningful lives. So yes, let’s cheer on the companies who are ending on-call scheduling. But as Black Friday approaches, let’s not forget that the real change will come when all families in our community achieve the strong wages, reliable hours, and sane schedules that they need in order to build a good life.

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Safety Net

How to Expand Our Nation’s Most Effective Anti-Poverty Program

Social Security is our nation’s most effective anti-poverty program. The system’s modest but vital benefits lifted 21.4 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, including 1.1 million children. It could lift millions more if we expand the program’s benefits—but things have taken a distressing step in the opposite direction.

In recent years, low and non-existent cost-of-living adjustments (“COLAs”) have been gradually eroding the value of Social Security benefits. These COLAs are calculated using an inflation measure that is intended to reflect costs faced by workers. The measure does not accurately account for costs faced by seniors and Americans with disabilities, who spend a far higher percentage of their income on health care.

To the wealthy few, the extra $40 or $50 a month from a COLA increase might not seem like a big deal. But to elderly Social Security beneficiaries, this increase is much-needed income that they can use to put food on the table and pay for lifesaving prescriptions.

That’s why Social Security’s 59 million beneficiaries were devastated to hear the news that, for only the third time in 40 years, there will be no COLA in 2016. They know that the cost of basic necessities, including medical care, prescription drugs, food, and housing, has continued to increase. But their benefits are not increasing accordingly and are losing their purchasing power. If this trend continues, younger generations will have effectively lower benefits, even though the decline of pensions and rising inequality means that they will be even more reliant on these benefits than their parents and grandparents are.

And this isn’t just hurting Social Security beneficiaries. The same formula is used to calculate the COLA for many other programs, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and various veterans’ benefits including Disability Compensation benefits, pension benefits, and Military Retirement Pay. For the millions of Americans—particularly veterans—who receive Social Security as well as one or more of these other benefits, a year without a COLA is a double or triple whammy.

But there is hopeful news. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a longtime champion of Social Security, is on the case. She is sponsoring the SAVE Benefits act, a bill—already supported by twenty of her colleagues—which would send every Social Security beneficiary (as well as others impacted by the lack of a COLA) a one-time payment of about $581 to cover next year’s lack of a COLA increase.

That payment would make a serious difference in the lives of millions of beneficiaries. For many seniors, it could cover over three months of groceries. For others, it may cover the average Medicare out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs. It’s no surprise that the SAVE Benefits Act would lift over one million Americans out of poverty.

Senator Warren’s bill is fully funded by closing the “performance pay” loophole, which allows big corporations to take a tax deduction for the lavish compensation packages they give their wealthy CEOs. This loophole costs taxpayers about $9.7 billion dollars every year. The SAVE Benefits Act uses some of these savings to provide the 70 million Americans who are not receiving a COLA with the much-needed $581 checks. The rest would go into the Social Security trust fund to bolster the program’s long-term actuarial balance.

Passing the SAVE Benefits Act is an essential step, but it is only the first step. To permanently address the gradual erosion of Social Security benefits, Congress must pass legislation adopting an updated measurement tailored to reflect the real living costs (such as high health care expenses) that seniors and Americans with disabilities face, for calculating future COLAs. And to permanently tackle our country’s looming retirement income crisis, and address the millions of seniors and people with disabilities already living in poverty, Congress must expand Social Security’s modest benefits.

This is a powerful movement that is gaining momentum every day. The American people overwhelmingly support expanding Social Security’s benefits by requiring the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share. Forty-three Senators and over 100 U.S. Representatives have pledged to support expanding benefits, not cutting them.

Social Security has been a resounding success for over 80 years. Now is the time to build upon that legacy.

 

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