The Silver Lining in the Election for Democrats

By Christine L. Owens

Tuesday’s stunning election results underscored the deep economic uncertainty and scarring felt by voters across America. Frustration with the status quo reached the boiling point, and where people had a chance to vote for what they thought was change – they took it. That’s as true of voter support for Donald Trump as it is of voters crossing party lines to approve four state ballot initiatives that raised the minimum wage for 2.3 million working Americans.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump won by dividing Americans and appealing to the worst impulses in people. His ugly campaign will have far-reaching consequences for the nation that we can’t even begin to tally. But many working-class voters were drawn to Trump because of their well-founded belief that the rules of our economy are rigged against them. Americans are working too hard for too little. They know that they should be sharing more in the profits of their employers, and they are frustrated that the economic recovery is not translating into better jobs.

There’s no better sign of that frustration than the minimum wage. Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage since 2009, and so this year voters in four states took matters into their own hands. The decisive wins demonstrated the breadth and depth of national support for action on wages. In Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington State, voters decisively backed minimum wage increases of $12 to $13.50 an hour. In red Arizona, voters in the City of Flagstaff also approved a $15 minimum wage, making it the first city outside of the coasts to join the Fight for $15.

In Maine and Flagstaff, voters also approved a gradual phase-out of the outdated and unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers – a give-away to the restaurant industry whose staying power is a testament to the lobbying clout of the “other NRA,” the National Restaurant Association. As the first state and city to get rid of the tipped wage in 30 years, these historic votes create momentum for the “One Fair Wage” movement calling for national action to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

These ballot victories should be a wake-up call to Congress that voters are demanding bold action on the federal minimum wage and jobs, and workers have made clear that $15 is what they need to get by in all regions of the country. As leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, has warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”

Forty-three cities and 18 states have raised their minimum wages since the Fight for $15 launched four years ago – raising pay for 20 million workers. As Goldman Sachs analysts summarized earlier this year, “the economic literature has typically found no effect on employment” when the minimum wage has increased. State-of-the-art research shows that, unlike small minimum wage increases, $15 minimum wages raise pay for as many as one-in-three workers.

Federal action on the minimum wage would require Republican support, but fortunately there are already signs of cracks emerging in Republican opposition. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, whose opponent Ted Strickland challenged him for keeping the minimum wage low, announced last month that he is now open to an increase.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was forced to abandon his opposition to the very existence of the minimum wage in the face of a challenge by Russ Feingold. And U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) became the first Republican to back a $15 minimum wage, explaining that “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Even president-elect Trump, who initially said that “wages were already too high,” changed his position to support a minimum wage increase.

Voters are right that our economy is rigged by the super-rich and corporate interests. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and our challenge and moral duty is to make sure it’s shared more equitably. If president-elect Trump really believes that too, he’ll work with Republicans and Democrats to put America’s workers and families first by raising pay and enacting the kinds of policies our elected leaders were clearly put in office to achieve.

Commentary by Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund. She served as Director of Public Policy for the national AFL-CIO, the Democratic National Committee’s American Majority Partnership director, and an attorney in private practice and the federal sector, representing workers in employment law matters. She is also a member of the board of the directors of the Coalition on Human Needs.

This op-ed was originally published on CNBC.com.

Trump’s Maternity Leave Proposal Is Smoke and Mirrors

The following statement can be attributed to Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund:

“Donald Trump says he has a plan to provide six weeks of maternity leave to working women. From the very limited detail that has been provided, it appears he is proposing paying new mothers six weeks of unemployment benefits and financing the payments by ‘eliminating fraud’ in the unemployment insurance program.

“We do not have much more detail than this, but based on the bare bones outline provided, we are convinced that the proposal fails to meet the medical and caregiving needs of today’s working families and also could cause serious damage to the nation’s unemployment insurance program.

“First, the Trump plan does not appear to include new fathers, and it would not extend to other forms of leave covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This proposal would not provide payment for the various other medical and caregiving needs covered under federal law—such as up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, or to recover from a personal illness or injury.

“Second, the proposal appears to compensate new mothers for only six weeks at levels provided by their state unemployment insurance (UI) programs. Unemployment insurance benefit levels are controlled by state law. There is wide variation between states. Nationally, the average unemployment benefit is only $338 and covers only about a third of a worker’s average weekly wage. Six states have maximum rates below $300. For example, under the Trump plan, a new mother in Florida could not receive a weekly benefit greater than $275. The Trump proposal would provide a benefit that carries with it all the geographical disparities and state deficiencies currently facing the unemployment insurance program.

“Third, the unemployment insurance program has never been less ready to take on the administration and financing of a new program. As of the end of 2015, just 18 states—and none of the 13 largest states, where a significant share of the U.S. workforce resides—met a federally recommended measure of preparedness that advises states to have enough reserves in their UI funds to cover at least a year of a recession. Thus, when the next crisis hits, the result will most surely be a repeat of the excessive federal borrowing by state programs, and even more severe benefit cuts, that without question will hurt families struggling with unemployment and further cripple state economies. All evidence suggests the opposite is needed for a sustainable recovery.

“Fourth, Mr. Trump erroneously buys into exaggerated claims of fraud in the UI system to pay for the new program. There are not enough savings to be derived from unemployment insurance fraud to pay for his proposal. Between 2006 and 2015, unemployment insurance fraud by claimants has been estimated by the U.S. Department of Labor at between 2.3 and 3.2 percent of regular unemployment benefits paid. Over the past three years, a 3 percent fraud rate equates to a little more than $1 billion a year of regular unemployment benefits—far less than needed to pay for this proposal.

“UI ‘fraud’ has become the favored pay-for and punching bag of politicians who have never been committed to the program. Congress has already mandated that states impose tougher penalties on fraud, and the Obama administration has held states to higher performance standards in recovering overpaid UI benefits. These efforts have been to insure the integrity of a program that for 80 years has been a central pillar of economic security for working Americans facing the harsh consequences of involuntary job loss.

“Every responsible paid family and medical leave proposal to date has been premised on a reliable revenue stream from dedicated taxes paid by employees and/or employers. Trump’s plan would rely on the already inadequate funding of a neglected unemployment insurance program that is not prepared for the next recession in order to finance a limited-duration benefit that for most affected workers would not come close to half their regular paycheck, and that would leave out more workers than it would cover. He proposes this—all while taking a cynical swipe at jobless Americans by inaccurately suggesting that there is enough unemployment insurance fraud to foot the bill. This not a serious proposal; it is smoke and mirrors.”

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The NELP Action Fund is a project of The Advocacy Fund, a non-profit organization under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.

On Donald Trump Calling for a $10 Federal Minimum Wage

Statement of Christine Owens, Executive Director, NELP Action Fund:

For today at least, Donald Trump, bowing to the overwhelming support for raising the federal minimum wage, has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour. With New York, California and D.C. already moving toward a $15 minimum wage and many others already on their way to well over $10, however, this proposal is woefully inadequate, not just in terms of the amount but also in terms of Mr. Trump’s grasp of the moment we are in.

The Fight for $15 has galvanized low-wage workers across the country to fight for the kinds of wages that provide them a real chance at economic stability, not just what politicians deign to award them. Mr. Trump may see himself as champion of workers struggling to get by, but calling for a $10 federal minimum wage when workers across the country are striking and fighting for $15 is exactly the sort of noblesse oblige that we as a country need to leave behind if we really want to build an economy that works for everyone.

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The Hill: Republicans’ Hypocrisy on Minimum Wage

This week, Republicans came out with their official position on the minimum wage in their Republican Platform 2016: “Minimum wage is an issue that should be handled at the state and local level.”

That’s a silent but clear “no” to raising the disgracefully low federal minimum wage. But recognizing the popularity of the issue, they give a faux-nod to “state and local.” And therein lies the stunning hypocrisy.

It’d be one thing if Republican state legislatures were actually handling this issue responsibly. But too many not only remain staunchly opposed to raising the minimum wage at the state level; they’re also taking extreme measures to block cities and counties from raising their own local minimum wage.

That’s right — the party of local control is actively blocking democratically elected local officials from establishing higher local minimum wages in states such as Alabama and Missouri. Eighteen other states also prohibit local action on the minimum wage.

These preemptions of local actions have devastating consequences for people living in those cities.  Take, for example, Bridget Hughes, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Bridget was a high-achieving high school student at Kansas City’s most elite public high school, and though she went on to college, she was unable to complete her education. She now finds herself working full-time at Wendy’s making a scant $8.75 per hour.

Bridget is married and her husband works as a gas station attendant. They are raising their four children as well as caring for a teenager whose mother is unable to care for her because of a drug addiction.

Not surprisingly, she and her husband find it nearly impossible to support and raise a family on the wages they earn. So Bridget has joined the Fight for $15 and is trying to make a better life for her family, particularly her children.

The duly elected City Council of Kansas City understands the plight of workers like Bridget and voted by a margin of 12-1 to raise the minimum wage within the city limits to $13 by 2020.

But the Missouri state legislature had other ideas. When they saw what Kansas City was doing to try to lift up its low-wage workers, the legislature, which by more than a two-to-one margin is populated with Republicans, passed a bill prohibiting localities from enacting their own minimum wage laws and other worker-friendly reforms such as paid sick leave.

Though Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, the Republican-controlled state legislature overrode his veto, and the matter is now working its way through the court system.

Bridget and those struggling like her aren’t seeing the kind of help they need from their Congressional delegation either. Though Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is on record supporting a higher minimum wage, the last time Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) had the opportunity to raise the federal minimum wage in 2014, he was firmly in the “no” column.

So for now, Bridget and more than 250,000 Missourians like her who are working for starvation-level wages are out of luck.

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the Democratic Party Platform, which lists as its very first item a call to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, and to index the minimum wage to inflation so it can never stagnate again.

And Democratic-controlled legislatures and governors are walking the walk. California, New York and Washington, D.C. all recently raised their minimum wages to $15, and many other blue states have the nation’s highest minimum wages.

But the Grand Old Party of local control, even by the terms of its own platform, reveals the rank hypocrisy of its stated position with its actions around the country to block localities — those that supposedly know the needs of their citizens and their economies best of all — from raising the minimum wage for those who need it so desperately.

Their actions demonstrate that contrary to their platitudes about states and localities dealing with minimum wage, the low-wage workers in the 21 states with minimum wages currently stuck at the federal rate of $7.25 per hour, have virtually no realistic chance of seeing an increase anytime in the foreseeable or reasonable future.

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since July 24, 2009. It’s long past time for a raise, and only one party seems willing to deliver on that promise.

Conti is federal advocacy coordinator with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

Read the original op-ed at The Hill.

NELP Action Fund Applauds Missouri Supreme Court’s Decision re: Unemployment Benefit Cuts Pushed by State Legislature

Following is a statement from Christine Owens, executive director, NELP Action Fund:

“The Missouri Supreme Court has put down a marker today for economic justice on behalf of workers across the Show Me State. In a case involving a challenge to the Missouri Senate’s override of Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of HB 150—a 2015 bill that further slashed the state’s already-reduced number of weeks of unemployment insurance available to laid-off workers looking for new work—the court’s majority ruled that the override was unconstitutional. We agree, and we applaud the court for its diligence and considered judgment in this case.

“The state Senate, the court said, did not have the authority to override the governor’s veto of HB 150 in a special veto session, and that an override could only be constitutional if approved during the legislature’s regular session. The House did approve an override of the bill in regular session, but the Senate did not. Instead, Senate Republican leaders attempted to circumvent their constitutionally-proscribed procedures by approving an override in a special veto session triggered by an unrelated bill.

“The ruling voids the state Senate’s unconstitutional veto override, stating, ‘Because HB 150 was not passed over the governor’s veto, none of its provisions became law.’

“The ruling also lays bare the extreme measures—extra-legal measures—Republicans in the Missouri legislature have been willing to pursue in their fixation with inflicting harm on workers who suffer involuntary job loss through no fault of their own. In 2011, they had already reduced the maximum weeks of benefits to 20 weeks from the national standard of 26. HB 150 cut benefits further by imposing a sliding scale of 13 to 20 weeks, depending on the state’s unemployment rate.

“Since January 1, 2016, Missouri has provided a maximum of 13 weeks, the second-fewest in the nation. Tens of thousands of hardworking Missourians who have lost jobs have suffered as a result. Today’s ruling overturns the sliding-scale scheme, restoring the 20 week maximum. But the damage to those already negatively affected cannot be undone.

“Judging from their past behavior, we suspect that Republican legislative leaders will again attempt to impose the cuts contained in HB 150. We urge them to cease and desist. Instead of renewing their heartless crusade against Missouri workers’ jobless-aid protections, Republican lawmakers should work with their Democratic colleagues to strengthen those unemployment insurance protections and restore at least 26 weeks of state benefits.”

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