States Are Going Around Trump to Get More Workers Overtime Pay

Getting a promotion is usually a cause for celebration. But after Chip Ahlgren was made a general manager at a Jiffy Lube in Washington state, he moved from an hourly position to a salaried one, and was no longer owed overtime pay when he put in more than 40 hours a week. Instead, Ahlgren could be asked to work as many hours as his boss demands for the same $52,000 a year.

These days, he’s putting in around 60 hours a week, even though his contract says he’s supposed to work 50 hours and the payroll system only counts 40 hours a week for the purpose of accruing sick leave. His managers keep giving him more to do. “They just add and add and add,” he said. “There’s no way for us to get everything done.”

While overall his pay is higher than it was when he was hourly thanks to bonuses, those bonuses aren’t guaranteed. In terms of guaranteed pay per hour, he’s making less: He estimates that right now, it averages out to about $8 an hour, whereas the people below him make $16 an hour. And so much intense work has taken a huge toll on him. “It wears you out to work this many hours,” he said. “I’ve blown out my knee, blown out my back. I’m almost on the brink of not being able to survive physically.”

Ahlgren isn’t eligible for overtime pay because the federal threshold of $23,660 to qualify has gone without an update for decades. And without extra overtime pay for his extra hours, he’s just keeping his head above water financially. “I don’t have really enough to survive or go to the doctor or plan for the future or anything like that,” he said.

Ahlgren may be able to look forward to some relief, however. At the beginning of June, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries released a plan to update its own overtime threshold. It would ensure that any worker in the state who makes less than 2.5 times the minimum wage — by 2026, nearly $80,000 a year — will be owed overtime pay. About 400,000 people like Ahlgren are expected to be affected.

The state of Washington had to take matters into its own hands because efforts to increase the overtime threshold at the federal level have stalled. In 2016, the Obama administration updated federal overtime rules so those making $47,476 or less would be automatically covered, both hourly and salaried. It would have been updated every three years to keep up with wage growth thereafter, likely covering those making $51,000 by early 2020.

But the update was challenged in court and ultimately struck down. Rather than defend the Obama update, the Trump administration first did nothing, and then put forward its own proposed increase to $35,308 without any automatic updates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, it will cover 8.2 million fewer people than the Obama rule would eventually have.

In the wake of Trump’s weak federal action, a number of states have stepped into the breach, because, as with the minimum wage, federal overtime law is just a floor; states and localities can go higher if they choose.

“This is a standard that is really important to the vibrancy of the middle class, and it has dramatically eroded over time,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. The minimum wage raises pay and living standards for those at the very bottom, but overtime is “about the lower end of the middle class,” she said. The typical person impacted by it is the front-line supervisor in a fast food restaurant or retail store — a low-level manager who may be asked to put in 60 to 70 hours a week at no additional pay. Updating overtime therefore acts as a “companion standard” to increasing the minimum wage, she said.

Pennsylvania was the first to act when last year Gov. Tom Wolf (D) proposed raising the state’s threshold to $47,892 by 2022 and updating it automatically every three years after that. California and New York have also taken action: California‘s overtime threshold will cover everyone making less than $62,400 by 2023, while New York will raise it to $58,500 in New York City and phase it in at different rates for different parts of the state.

But Washington state has so far gone the furthest. “The Washington announcement is definitely the boldest,” said Paul Sonn, state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s a model for how states can take strong action to protect workers from the Trump overtime rollback. We hope it’ll spur more states.”Previously, about two-thirds of the salaried workforce had to be paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Washington’s update would cover about 44 percent, Sonn said: “It’s really quite moderate historically because it wouldn’t fully restore overtime pay to the share that had it in the 1970s.”

Federal overtime law is just a floor.

One of the beneficiaries in Washington would be Sidney Kenney. When he started working at a residential service provider for developmentally disabled people in a salaried position, he was told the job would be 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. “Soon you find out that’s not true,” he said. He was required to always be on call, even on weekends, holidays, and vacations. It meant keeping his phone at the ready even when at the movies or in bed. “It changes how you live,” he said.

He once took a vacation to go to a friend’s wedding but found himself having to do work on the way there, during the wedding, and on the way home. Every time he put in those extra hours, he was paid the same. “It builds resentment,” he said. “You’re angry, you feel like you’ve been lied to, feel like you’ve been taken advantage of.”

So, he decided to move to an hourly position instead. “I loved the job I was doing,” he said. “However, I realized it was not a lifestyle I could continue or wanted to continue.” Now he has a set number of hours, and if he has to come in early or stay late, he’s paid for that extra time. “My days off are my days off,” he said. “I still get phone calls from work and I still get some text messages, but I don’t have to answer them.”

“Your time is invaluable,” he noted. “I can plan things, I can enjoy my time. It’s a crazy world and nothing’s promised, so what time I do have I want to enjoy.”

But he thinks if his state’s proposed overtime update goes into effect, almost all of the positions at his job will simply be made hourly to accommodate it. “I would have stayed in the same position if it were hourly,” he noted. “If they were to extend the same position I had … but in an hourly capacity, I would go back to it.”

Ahlgren doesn’t expect that being covered by overtime regulations would reduce his hours. But it will mean extra money for his extra work. “At least I would be able to go to the doctor and take of myself,” he said. “I would be able to plan for a future where I wouldn’t just have to do this forever.”

Other states may soon join in the action. Last week Massachusetts held a hearing on a bill that would increase its threshold to $64,000 by 2026. Colorado’s labor department kicked off a comment process for whether and by how much it should raise its overtime standards, which will continue through Aug. 15. And a bill has been introduced in Maine’s legislature to increase its threshold. There may be others just waiting in the wings: Sonn noted that 16 states filed objections to Trump’s overtime update. “That shows there’s a long list of states that think it’s not enough,” he said. “We may well see them acting in the future.”

Workers in Washington also hope their state can inspire others to act. “So many businesses have built their models around having these free workers,” Kenney noted. “It’s not right, it’s not ethical, and it’s not fair.”

“I’m just hoping more states follow suit,” he said.



There’s a Retirement Crisis. The New $15 Minimum Wage Bill Could Help.

Congress hasn’t raised the U.S. federal minimum wage in more than a decade, the longest stretch between increases in history. To remedy that failing, House and Senate Democratic leadership have introduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. It would also link the minimum wage to median wage growth thereafter, and phase out sub-minimum wages for tipped workers, which has been stuck at $2.13 per hour for 28 years, and workers with disabilities, which allows employers to pay disabled workers as little as pennies per hour.

If passed, the new federal bill would also have far-reaching consequences that aren’t widely touted — including helping address America’s growing retirement crisis.

As of 2013, nearly one in five Americans age 55 to 64 had zero retirement savings or pension. The crisis is much more acute for lower-income Americans: While nearly nine in 10 families in the top fifth of the income distribution have retirement account savings, fewer than one in 10 families in the bottom fifth do.

It’s not surprising, then, that seniors increasingly rely on Social Security’s very modest benefits, which make up 90 percent or more of the income of nearly one in four seniors — a share that rises to more than six in 10 for those in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

The yawning gap between the high pay of the rich and the stagnant or declining pay of the working and middle class is a key driver of the crisis: According to the Urban Institute, rising wage inequality means that today’s 45-year-olds in the bottom fifth of the lifetime earnings distribution will have 3 percent less retirement income than today’s seniors, 25-year-olds will have 6 percent less, and 5-year-olds will have 13 percent less. Meanwhile, for the richest fifth, annual retirement income will rise over time.

The amount a worker can afford to save for retirement is tied to her earnings, and the Urban Institute researchers find that raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to just $12 — below the $15 Congressional Democrats have proposed — would offset nearly 60 percent of the retirement income lost by the bottom fifth of today’s 25-year-olds, and nearly 40 percent lost by today’s 5-year-olds.

The minimum-wage bill’s impact would be especially profound on workers of color — particularly black workers, a full 40 percent of whom would get a raise. Black workers are paid much lower wages than their white counterparts, with the typical full-time, year-round black male worker earning just 70 percent of what a white male worker earns, while black women make just 61 percent. They also face a much more severe retirement crisis, exacerbated by systematic inequalities that hamper saving, prevent wealth-building, and inhibit upward mobility. Black Americans who are nearing retirement age have only about 10 percent as much wealth as whites in the same age group. Social Security benefits made up at least 90 percent of income for 46 percent of black seniors, compared to 35 percent of whites.

The low-wage, low-quality jobs disproportionately held by workers of color don’t pay enough to make ends meet — much less save — nor do many offer the tax-preferenced retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) that help build wealth. As a consequence of shorter life expectancy and lack of resources, many black men will die before they are able to retire.

This raise is a decade overdue: In 2019, a worker earning $7.25 per hour will lose nearly $2,600 compared to 2009 — when the federal minimum wage last went up — because inflation has eroded the wage’s purchasing power. A $15 minimum wage would also lift millions of Americans out of poverty, dramatically reduce spending on public assistance programs, and improve infant health. In just the last five years, 22 states and Washington, DC, have increased their minimum wages, at little or no cost to government and without the job losses conservative pundits claim will result.

Americans get it: In every single state, voters say want their state’s minimum wage to be higher than it currently is. By passing the Raise the Wage Act, Congress would rightly give voters what they’re demanding, and help address the retirement crisis at the same time.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on Jan. 17, 2019. It has since been updated.



Heat Is Now the Deadliest Threat to Farmworkers. Only Two States Protect Them From It.

While temperatures were breaking records in California last week — reaching as high as 107 degrees in King City on the Central Coast — as many as 400,000 farmworkers were picking strawberries, stone fruit, and melons, trimming table grapes, and engaging in myriad tasks to keep the nation’s number one agricultural producer in business. They labored under punishingly hot sun for eight to ten hour shifts, paid by individual tasks rather than by the hour.

When it comes to hazardous working conditions on American farms, many people think of pesticide exposure; as early as the 1960s, farmworkers were ringing alarm bells about it. But heat stress has actually surpassed pesticides — which cause cumulative harm over time — as the most immediate lethal danger in the fields, according to Dr. Marc Schenker, distinguished professor of public health sciences and medicine at University of California Davis. “We don’t see acute deaths from pesticide poisoning anymore,” says Schenker (though pesticides are still recognized as a significant danger with severe health risks for people exposed to them).

An estimated 2.5 million farmworkers across the United States endure dangerously hot conditions on the job. As the heat climbs, workers can start to develop symptoms of heat stress including dizziness, nausea, fainting, vomiting, fatigue, poor coordination, and seizures. As their organs, especially their kidneys, start to break down, they can fall into a coma and die if not treated. Between 1992 and 2006, 68 farmworker deaths attributed to heat exposure were reported. Limited access to more current data makes it challenging to uncover the depth of the problem, though advocates claim deaths are likely underreported.

Outdoor temperatures aren’t the only issue. Personal protective equipment, ranging from suffocating Tyvek suits worn for pesticide application to thick trousers and heavy boots for working around thorny plants, can add to farmworkers’ misery.

“In workers, the major producer of body heat is metabolic workload,” explained Schenker. “If you’re working in outdoor conditions, you’re generating the majority of body heat from metabolism. The simple prevention is to reduce workload.” The piecework rate of payment for farmworkers, in which people are paid by the pound rather than by the hour, is a recipe for working as hard and as fast as possible. The system is great for employers, but bad for workers.

Access to drinking water, shade, and rest can help workers manage their body temperatures in high heat conditions. But just two states, California and Washington, have laws that require sufficient shade structures and drinkable water be nearby to meet the needs of the work crew. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, in which companies like McDonald’s and Trader Joe’s pay a premium for more ethically-sourced tomatoes, also requires access to shade, drinking water, rest breaks, and hygiene facilities as part of its code of conduct.  But even those requirements aren’t always enough.

In 2008, a 17-year-old pregnant farm worker died of heat-related illness because the drinking water was too far away, despite the fact that California’s heat protection law dated to 2005. Outcry led to enhanced safety regulations and better enforcement, but despite a dedicated heat violation hotline, improved data collection, and a push for better internal auditing to ensure complaints are investigated in a timely fashion, the problem persists.

Even if they have access to preventative care in the field, workers face another heat-related challenge when they go home: Farmworker housing may consist of crude shacks operated by farmers or contracting companies, or hot trailers with no air conditioning. Leydy Rengel of the United Farm Workers Foundation recalls the extreme heat of the Coachella Valley beating down on the trailer she shared with her parents, both farmworkers, as a child: “My parents would come home after 10-hour shifts, and didn’t have a place to cool down.” This can be dangerous, said Schenker: “Nighttime cooling is an important factor in preventing heat stress illness.”

While the short-term implications of heat-related illnesses are well understood, not as much is known about what they mean for people in the long term. Schenker is researching this subject, with a particular interest in what happens if workers experience repeated incidents of acute kidney injury, a potential complication of heat stress. This is especially vital since climate change is making conditions for farmworkers even worse.

California’s most recent climate assessment warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, the state’s average daily high temperature could be as much as 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher from 2070-2100 than it is today. Over that same period, the annual number of extreme heat days (over 103.9 degrees) could rise from four to twenty-four. The amount of land scorched in wildfires will increase 77 percent.

The picture can be grim for farmworkers in high heat conditions.

In California, the law protecting workers from the effects of high temperatures is clear, but enforcement has been erratic. The UFW Foundation was one of the entities that pushed the state to issue more clarity and direction to keep farms — and the contract companies that supply a large number of farmworkers — accountable. Schenker, who has spent years researching farmworkers, said “California really does lead the nation,” but what that can look like from farm to farm is highly variable.

During the recent high heat event, the UFW Foundation ran an awareness campaign encouraging people to report unsafe conditions and setting up tables at locations farmworkers frequent to educate them about their rights. Rangel said even with the promise of anonymity, workers were reluctant to report. “They’re rather just be quiet,” she said, especially when they’re undocumented. And when state officials may take days to respond, complaints don’t always lead to enforcement.

Outside California and Washington, the picture can be grim for farmworkers in high heat conditions. They have some protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but for farmworkers, especially undocumented people in isolated areas, knowledge of the law and the ability to ask for enforcement can be limited.

“Last year, there was a 24-year-old farmworker, an H2-A guest worker in Georgia, who had only been in the country for less than 10 days, and he suffered heat illness. Nobody paid attention, his employers were not informed of how to handle this. They thought he was just being lazy,” said Rangel. It wasn’t the first time an ill worker had died in similar circumstances.

As consumers grow more aware of concerns around farmworker health and safety — calling, for example, for restrictions on pesticide use and listening to farmworkers speak out about sexual abuse in the field — heat illness should be a more prominent topic of conversation. Just as hotter days and longer summers will affect the quality of crops, they’ll affect the quality of life for the people who cultivate and harvest them.



Everyone Is Overlooking a Key Part of the New $15 Minimum Wage Bill

This July, the House of Representatives is planning to vote on a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. Most of the media coverage has highlighted the groundswell of progressive support behind the increase — a $15 minimum wage was considered a pipe dream only a few years ago, and now the bill is co-sponsored by a majority of congressional Democrats. But an equally monumental — and largely overlooked — story behind the bill is what it would mean for the 1 in 5 Americans living with a disability.

A loophole in the current minimum wage law allows employers to pay workers with disabilities a subminimum wage that’s even lower than the federal limit of $7.25 — in some cases, paying people as little as pennies per hour. In recent years, an estimated 420,000 individuals with disabilities have been paid an average of just $2.15 per hour.

The new bill would sunset the separate subminimum wage, immediately setting it at $4.25 and then gradually increasing it every year for the next six years until it is even with the minimum wage.

Disability advocates have been pushing for this type of legislation for years. The subminimum wage was initially introduced in 1938 to encourage employers to hire veterans with disabilities — and has barely budged in the nearly 80 years since. Now, the Depression-era policy does far more harm than good. Partly as a result of these extremely low wages, workers with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be economically insecure as workers without disabilities.

While some advocates argue that the subminimum wage offers workers a foot in the door of the labor market — paving the way to skill development, training, and an upward career trajectory — research shows that it exposes workers with disabilities to exploitation and seclusion. In 2016, phasing out the separate subminimum wage was a key recommendation of the Department of Labor’s advisory committee on employment among individuals with disabilities.

The Depression-era policy does far more harm than good.

In its current form, the subminimum wage pigeon-holes workers into dead-end jobs — most often at sheltered workshops, where workers with disabilities are kept separate from other workers. It’s stigmatizing, sending the message that disabled individuals’ work is not as valuable as other individuals’ work. And it’s discriminatory, robbing workers with disabilities of the basic labor protections afforded to workers without disabilities and leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Senator Casey and others have introduced the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which would include a graduated phase out of these programs over six years and financial incentives to support current programs to move to a model of integrated employment at competitive wages. However, the Raise the Wage Act is notable for finally treating these workers as a key part of the workforce from the outset.

Congressional Democrats’ embrace of one fair minimum wage taps into a growing — but so far, largely frustrated — movement. President Obama attempted to partially rectify the law by including workers with disabilities in his 2014 executive order mandating a minimum wage of $10.10 for federal contractors, which President Trump has threatened to reverse. At least six states, New Hampshire, Alaska, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont have independently passed legislation to phase out the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities. Other subminimum wages, like the one that exists for tipped workers, have been able to make more progress.  Eight states ban the tipped minimum wage, and all national minimum wage bills introduced since 2012 have included provisions to partially or fully phase it out.

For the 40 million workers who struggle to make ends meet on low wages, the Raise the Wage Act is an historic step towards ensuring a livable wage for all. This call is especially significant for the millions of workers with disabilities who — after 80 years of being left without a voice in federal legislation — are finally able to join the chorus, demanding the fair shot at fair pay that all workers deserve.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on May 18, 2017. It has since been updated



Giving Incarcerated People the Right to Vote Isn’t as New of an Idea as You Think

For the first couple of months of my incarceration, I was facing the death penalty. Before my arraignment, my attorney informed me of that fact, but reassured me that the then-Manhattan County district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, was against the death penalty. So, at worst, I would get life without parole.

Thankfully, neither occurred, which is why I can write this column today as a free(ish) man. But those moments of having my name associated with the death penalty were surreal — like an out of body experience. My lawyer was speaking to me, but I couldn’t make sense of the fact that it was actually me that he was speaking to and about.

Even without the ultimate penalty, though, incarceration in America is still a civil death. It deprives individuals convicted of certain offenses of many of their legal rights. And one of its most pernicious effects is felony disenfranchisement.

During my 10 years in the penitentiary and five years on post-release supervision (a.k.a. parole), I was disenfranchised by the state of New York. For 15 years, I was civically dead for a crime that I committed at 19 years old, as part of a penalty that dates back centuries.

Forty-eight of the 50 U.S. states prevent full voting rights to some segment of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations. Overall, more than 6 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, with Florida alone counting for more than one quarter of that total. One in 13 black adults is disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction.

Recently, Florida voters approved an initiative that would have enfranchised that state’s voters with felonies, who were previously permanently barred from voting. The legislature then partially overturned the initiative, requiring that those who had regained the right to vote first pay all of their back court fees — a barrier that will continue to deny the ballot to many.

But that’s not the story everywhere. Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico are the only places in the U.S. where there are no restrictions on voting for people with felonies, inside or out of prison. Massachusetts was a part of this exclusive club until 2000, as was Utah until 1998.

But, why? Quite simply, those states never implemented laws that would deny incarcerated people that right. (Though in Vermont at least, there have been challenges to the state’s stance on suffrage for incarcerated persons, which has been in place since the 1790s.)  Leaders from both states, regardless of their political ideology, offer similar reasoning. Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the Vermont Republican Party said, “The last thing we want to do is start putting up insurmountable barriers to participation in civic life because someone may have been convicted of a crime.”  In Maine, meanwhile, former state prison warden Randall A. Liberty believes that, “it’s a basic American right to be able to vote for your elected officials … regardless of their offense.” Liberty’s beliefs, in particular, are supported by former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote in a 1958 majority opinion that “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.”

But citizenship is also racialized in America, making this simple-sounding tale about civic responsibility and citizenship more complicated. Vermont is 96 percent white and Maine is 95 percent white, ranking them first and second as the whitest states in the country.

According to Ashley Messier of ALCU Vermont’s Smart Justice, who served time in a Vermont prison, “it’s easy for a 96 percent white state to allow its residents to vote.”  Civil death is less acceptable when the subject of the penalty is white.

That assertion should not surprise us, because since the incorporation of this country, the United States government had explicitly denied suffrage to anyone not white and male, whether through explicit law or reigns of terror. Only since the passing of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 and the civil rights movement that took place just 50 years ago has there been concerted action to reverse electoral oppression in America. That fight continues today, with the passing of Amendment 4 in Florida, and efforts such as the bill recently introduced in Washington, D.C., which would allow incarcerated people to vote.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the constitution there guarantees the right to vote for every person over 18 years of age (though, to be clear, they have no meaningful representation in the U.S. Congress). Interestingly, Puerto Rico is also significantly racially homogenous, with more than 80 percent of its population identifying as white, though mostly of Spanish origin.

A prison sentence does not disqualify you from caring about the community in which you once lived.

Suffrage for incarcerated populations is a moral imperative. Many other countries allow for incarcerated people to vote, and the 48 states that currently deny that right should follow suit.

As a formerly incarcerated person, I can attest to caring deeply about education, safety, health care, and immigration while I was serving my time. A prison sentence does not disqualify you from caring about the community in which you once lived. Prison should not equate to a relinquishing of the civic right and duty to inform the policies that will impact your daughter, son, or elderly parents.

In an article I wrote for The Nation, I documented the concerns of incarcerated men during the 2008 presidential election. One of the men wanted then president-elect Barack Obama to pay attention to the “shrinking middle class and health care.” Another wanted him to pay attention to “the state of the economy and implement a sound economic plan that will take the country of its current recession.”

The inconvenient truth, though, is that it is easier for the American public to ignore policies that have disproportionately negative impacts on people of color.

The general public probably thinks it’s a no-brainer that people in prison cannot vote, if they’ve ever thought about the issue at all. In part, that’s due to the tough on crime rhetoric that has permeated American politics since the days of Richard Nixon. This conditioning is racist in conceptualization and practice.

But it is time to challenge that conditioning. Theoretically, people go to prison as punishment, not to be punished. Civil death is contrary to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”

The 2.2 million people in America’s jails and prisons were not sentenced to civil death and should be allowed to inform the communities in which their loved ones still live. Neither race nor the narrative that people in prison do not deserve the right to exert their full humanity should be the factors that prevent their enfranchisement.