Commentary

#WageWeek: Local communities lead the way in NC

Local governments are leading the way on wages, despite determined opposition from state legislators and state constitutional limits that hamstring such efforts.

As in a number of other southern states, the North Carolina Constitution sharply limits the authority of local governments to raise wages for private sector workers in their communities. These limitations were extended to include the private businesses performing local government contracts by legislation passed in 2013 and then confirmed by this year’s notorious HB2. As a result, city and county governments are prohibited from requiring any private business (including contractors) to engage in specific employment practices, including providing paid sick days or paying living wages.

Yet municipal and county governments still have important opportunities to take positive action to promote quality jobs—especially by raising the wages of their own public employees. And many of them are doing precisely that.

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Commentary

Celebrate #WageWeek, Support Raising the Minimum Wage

Nine years ago yesterday, the United States increased the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. Yet in the decade since, workers have lived through the worst recession since the 1930’s and an economic recovery that saw their wages fail to keep pace with rising costs of living. More than half of the jobs created since the end of the recession don’t pay workers the $33,700 it takes for a family of one adult and one child to make ends meet in North Carolina. Fortunately, state and federal policymakers have the opportunity to help more workers afford the basics—and put food on the table, gas in the car, and a roof over their heads—by raising the minimum wage.

Raising the legal wage floor will help workers and boost the economy. Over the past thirty years, business productivity—the value of goods and services produced by each worker—has almost doubled in North Carolina and across the country. Yet these historic productivity gains have gone to increase corporate bottom lines rather than workers’ wages; corporate employers have spent these gains on executive compensation, expensive stock buy-backs, dividends, and income distributions to shareholders, benefiting wealthy investors at the expense of workers and their wages.

So while these productivity gains have generated a three-decades-long “Golden Age of Corporate Profits,” very few of the fruits of this Golden Age have made its way into workers’ paychecks. In fact, the share of North Carolina’s GDP (the value of all the goods and services in our state’s economy) going to workers’ wages and benefits has declined over the past decade at the same time that the economy itself experienced growth—the textbook definition of an economy that’s leaving its workers behind. As a result, workers are earning $11 billion less today as a share of our economy than they did in 2007. Given these trends, it’s no surprise that North Carolina has experienced significant long-term wage stagnation and rising income inequality.

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2017 Fiscal Year State Budget, Commentary

Budget cuts workplace safety inspectors, puts workers at risk

Every worker deserves a safe workplace where their lives and health are protected. Unfortunately, a small provision in the joint budget does just the opposite—it puts workers at risk by weakening the ability of the Department of Labor to enforce the state’s occupational safety laws.

Specifically, the joint budget adopts a House recommendation to eliminate two inspector positions at the North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) division. This measure could not be more ill-timed—137 workers died on the job in 2014, up from 109 the year before. And already in 2016, the US Department of Labor has reported 30 fatalities so far this year at the workplaces the agency was able to inspect. And the death toll is likely much higher, as the count only includes those workplaces the Labor Department is able to inspect.

Tellingly, the budget notes that NCDOL eliminated these positions specifically because they remained unfilled for two years—which supposedly suggests that they were unnecessary. But this is not a reasonable explanation, given the rising number of workplace fatalities. Rather, it appears much more likely that the Secretary of Labor, Cherie Berry, has proven as lax in enforcing state occupational health and safety laws as she has in enforcing wage theft laws.

Workplace deaths are unacceptable. Both the General Assembly and Secretary Berry need to reverse course and support the hiring of more OSH inspectors, not fewer.

 

Carol Brooke contributed to this report.

2016 Fiscal Year State Budget

Budget takes one step forward, two steps back on job training

North Carolina’s workers have been waiting for weeks to see how state legislators would address their needs, and now that the wait is over, they’re getting very little besides bad news. Not only does the compromise budget eliminate workplace health and safety inspectors at the NC Department of Labor, it also represents a missed opportunity for reinvesting in the state’s job training and workforce development system after years of cutbacks. This startling lack of investment is due largely to recent rounds of tax cuts that will reduce state revenues by as much as $2 billion in future years.

First, the good news: the budget strengthens state support for apprenticeship programs that allow participating workers to receive occupational job training from local community colleges while working for a participating employer. These programs provide workers with classroom instruction and on-the-job training on the way to earning an associates’ degree or a recognized occupational credential—and they have proven to be effective at ensuring workers get the training they need and securing job placement when they finish.

Specifically, the budget allocates $500,000 in state funding to support the administration and curriculum development of these programs and $110,000 in tuition waivers for students participating in apprenticeship programs. In effect, the tuition waivers reduce or eliminate the cost of enrollment for participating students.

But while the budget takes a step forward with apprenticeships, it takes two steps back in other areas of workforce development. After years of shortchanging community colleges and an enormously complex administrative overhaul of the state’s workforce development system, the budget does almost nothing to put these economically essential programs back on a path to success.

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Commentary

Will House move to eliminate minimum wage and overtime protections for seasonal workers?

In a surprise move yesterday, the House Finance Committee voted to eliminate state minimum wage and overtime protections for certain seasonal workers and amusement park employees. But a glimmer of hope remains for workers after key Republicans on the panel pledged to address concerns over the minimum wage and the bill was kept off the House calendar for today.

As WRAL reported yesterday, the Committee debated a proposed committee substitute for SB 363, legislation that originally regulated food carts but was stripped and replaced by entirely new language that changed the state’s wage and hour laws for certain seasonal employees. Under the new version considered by the committee, employees of seasonal camps and amusement parks would no longer be eligible for minimum wage and overtime protections under North Carolina’s Wage and Hour Act—likely a response to the US Department of Labor’s recent announcement raising the eligibility of salaried overtime workers  from those earning $23,660 to $47,476 per year.

And since these workers are already exempted from federal protections—a loophole in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act created specifically to benefit circus operator Barnum & Bailey—the proposed change in the state’s law effectively ensures that these workers will no longer have any legal entitlement to earn a minimum wage or overtime.

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