When will workers get a break?, by Julianne Malveaux

2/18/2021, 6 p.m.
Now that the impeachment trial of the 45th president is over, perhaps our legislators can turn their attention to working ...
Julianne Malveaux

Now that the impeachment trial of the 45th president is over, perhaps our legislators can turn their attention to working people, or more accurately, those who used to work and are now not working.

There were 18 million more unemployment insurance claims now than a year ago, and nearly 10 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. Most disturbing is the departure of women from the labor force. Last month alone, more than 250,000 women left the labor market compared to 71,000 men.

Many of those working, especially in meat-packing, manufacturing and most service occupations, don’t have the luxury to physically distance at work. Some of these folk earn appallingly low wages, in some cases hovering near the $7.25 federal minimum hourly wage, which has not changed in more than a decade.

To be sure, minimum wages are higher in some cities and states, with the District of Columbia, San Francisco and Seattle establishing a $15 minimum. Other jurisdictions have passed legislation gradually moving the wage to $15.

President Biden promised to support new minimum wage legislation and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is pushing hard. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 was introduced on Jan. 26 and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said a version of the bill will be sent to the Senate for approval.

Senate Bill 53, the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 level to $15 by June 2025. The first increase to $9.25 would happen this year. In subsequent years, it would rise to $11 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14.00 in 2024 and $15 by June 2025.

Raising the minimum wage gives at least 27 million workers a raise. Most of them are women. A third are Latino and 40 percent areAfrican-American. Raising the wage would reduce inequality and poverty.

Sen. Sanders is prepared to push this legislation through by reconciliation if he can’t get Republican support. If Republican senators value their constituents’ voices, they will support legislation that brings relief to some of them.

Now, Democrats control the Senate and the schedule, and the legislation will receive some review and deliberation. But chambers of commerce and other business groups are likely to oppose it. Research shows that the presence of unions in the workplace increases wages. Equally important, it protects workers from unsafe working conditions.

Perhaps legislation will provide workers with some relief this year. It is also possible, though, that working people, especially those near the bottom, will get caught up in partisan squabbling. Workers need a break, need a raise, need safe working conditions. Can Washington deliver?

The writer is an economist and author.