An Hourly Workers Agenda
“What are you gonna do for the worker? I’ve worked since I was 15. My whole life has been work. It’s never been easy, but it’s never been harder than it is now. Do you believe in making sure we’re treated fairly? Do you even know what the problems are? Show me you know. Show me you’ll do something.”
— David, Duplin County
The basic bargain in America is supposed to be hard work in exchange for being able to provide for yourself and your family.
But when you listen to workers — in particular, the 2.3 million North Carolinians who get paid by the hour — you see that the basic bargain has broken down.
One of the clearest messages we’ve heard is that hourly workers have been let down and mistreated — even after they provided the bulk of our essential workforce during the pandemic.
The more we heard from those workers, the more we realized that we needed to address them specifically. There are lots of issues that indirectly affect our hourly workers, from health care to affordable housing. But these folks also need specific relief at the level of their employment, their salary, their benefits, and their opportunities.
And just as we were preparing this, Oxfam ranked North Carolina as the worst state in the country for workers, based on minimum wage, worker protection policies, and organizational rights. This is a national issue, but it’s clearly a major challenge for North Carolina in particular.
Here’s what we should do:
This should have been done years ago. Almost half of our state’s workforce currently earns less than $15/hour — disproportionately women and people of color.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25/hour. In North Carolina, we’ve allowed our minimum wage to rest at the level of the federal minimum, so that’s our minimum wage, too. The last time it was increased was in 2009, which means that when accounting for inflation the minimum wage has roughly 20% less purchasing power than it did then. It’s the first time since the creation of the minimum wage that we’ve gone more than a decade without raising it.
Working full time at $7.25 an hour, a worker would earn about $15,000 annually. That’s still below the poverty line, even after a year of full-time labor.
No one is proposing that we go to $15 immediately. We do it in phases and get there over four years. Eight states — most recently including Florida — have already approved a path to $15.
The bill we need has already passed the House — on a bipartisan basis. Now we need it to pass the Senate. It’s called the “Raise the Wage Act” and it would incrementally raise the minimum wage over the next four years and then index it to median hourly wage. It would also ensure that tipped workers are paid at least the federal minimum wage by phasing out the subminimum wage.
Raising the minimum wage isn’t just about helping folks who are currently earning $7.25 an hour. It’s about helping the near-half of our workforce that earns less than $15. It’s the single biggest lever we can pull to raise the income floor for our lowest earners, to reduce poverty (especially children living in poverty), and restore the basic bargain for families that allows their work to provide an adequate life for themselves and their children. And it would be a powerful tool for racial equity, ensuring that roughly 30% of all Black workers and 25% of Latino workers would get a raise.
It’s a measure that is strongly supported in North Carolina, and we should make it happen.
Employers have a financial incentive to label as many of their employees as “independent contractors” as possible. For those workers, it means fewer benefits for them and fewer obligations to them, including not providing the minimum wage, overtime pay, family and medical leave, the right to bargain, or unemployment insurance.
As a result, many industries have seen widespread employee misclassification.
Even if you’re not an independent contractor, this affects you simply as a taxpayer. According to the Department of Labor, “Employee misclassification generates substantial losses to the federal government and state governments in the form of lower tax revenues, as well as to state unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation funds.”
I’ve supported legislation on the state level to fix this problem through the Employee Fair Classification Act, but would also support taking federal action to ensure that workers are properly classified, properly paid, and properly protected.
Hourly workers are much less likely to have an employer who provides paid family leave. In fact, only 8% of workers in the bottom quartile of earners — in other words, those who earn an average of $14/hour — have access to paid leave.
They’re also much less likely to have a salary that allows for the kind of savings to enable unpaid leave.
As a result, our status as the only developed country on earth without paid leave falls heavily on our hourly workers.
Some of the most heart wrenching stories we’ve heard on the campaign trail have been about this issue.
Single moms forced back to work days after giving birth. Final moments with loved ones missed.
But it’s also about keeping families afloat. The financial repercussions of being forced to take even a week of unpaid leave can trigger all manner of collateral consequences, especially for a single-parent household that’s already close to the brink.
From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the benefits of paid family leave are much broader than you might expect:
The benefits of paid leave are well established. Providing new parents with paid time off to care for newborn or recently adopted children contributes to healthy development, improves maternal health, and enhances families’ economic security. Paid medical and caregiving leave lets workers care for themselves and loved ones when ill or injured, and reduces financial insecurity and stress during those times. Paid leave benefits businesses by improving retention and productivity and boosting labor force participation.
This is not a radical idea. It has vast support — even among Republicans — and it’s long overdue.
As we learned during the pandemic, the policy of gutting our state’s unemployment system — which was deliberately undertaken by the majority party in our state legislature when they slashed the benefits in 2013 (with strong support from then-Gov. Pat McCrory) — had disastrous consequences.
An understaffed agency was unable to meet the demand of newly-unemployed citizens, and families suffered as claims often took months to resolve.
Not to mention, by gutting the agency the majority party made it far easier to commit fraud.
Federal supplements were the only thing that kept families afloat, as North Carolina currently offers the worst-in-the-nation monthly allotment.
As we exit the pandemic, we should revamp our unemployment insurance system to create the fairness and functionality that you should all expect, but that hourly workers are particularly vulnerable to during economic downturns.
For my entire lifetime, we’ve seen negotiating power flow away from workers. Offshoring, corporate consolidation, and now automation. Partly as a result, for almost my entire lifetime the average income for the bottom 90 percent of households only increased by 1%.
We’re going to continue to have one of the most dynamic economies in the world. We need to ensure that workers — especially those most vulnerable to disruption — have the ability to represent their interests. We should pass the PRO Act and make sure workers have that right.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Passing the PRO Act would help restore workers’ ability to organize with their co-workers and negotiate for better pay, benefits, and fairness on the job. Passing the PRO Act would also promote greater racial economic justice because unions and collective bargaining help shrink the Black–white wage gap and bring greater fairness to the workplace.”
If we truly believe that workers deserve more negotiating power, then passing the PRO Act is indispensable.
Of all the personal stories I heard from hourly workers, these were the most common.
They understand that their schedules are inherently less predictable by virtue of their status as hourly workers. That’s not their complaint.
The stories they tell are about last minute changes that happen over and over again that create incredible stress on families that are already living close to the financial brink. Hours that get lengthened, or shortened, or moved — often just as the shift begins. Being placed “on call” indefinitely via text message and then asking the worker to be ready to drop everything and come in once they get a text telling them to. Scheduling them for split-shifts of non-consecutive hours. Punishing workers who request scheduling changes.
These are people with families — often single parents. And women of color are much more likely to have the kinds of jobs — and in the kinds of industries — that experience erratic scheduling.
As a result of erratic scheduling, their pay often fluctuates week by week and their levels of stress — as documented by Researchers Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett — go through the roof.
The retail and food service industries are especially prone to erratic scheduling, and workers in those industries are clearly asking for reasonable protection.
We should enact “fair workweek” legislation — as we’ve seen in multiple cities and states — that would require that major employers of hourly workers provide their hourly workers with schedules two weeks in advance (which may actually improve profitability for those companies) and to ensure adequate rest time in between shifts.
In places where fair workweek legislation has already passed, the results have been dramatically positive.
Those who are entitled to earn overtime should receive it, and employers who attempt to circumvent overtime protections should be held accountable. The purpose of overtime is both to ensure that workers are properly compensated when asked to perform extra work and to incentivize employers to hire extra workers rather than simply extending the hours of their existing ones. Overtime protection is good for hourly workers, but it’s also good for helping us reach higher levels of overall employment.
We tell young people that not all of them need a four-year degree. We tell them there are lots of trades that pay very well and will allow them to have a successful career.
Then they ask where the apprenticeship programs are to help get them into those jobs, and generally we say, “We don’t do apprenticeships.”
That’s a mistake. North Carolina has a world-class community college system. It’s a system that should also house a world-class apprenticeship network.
As we look to create more on-ramps into the middle class — and to support workers who are generally paid by the hour — a robust apprenticeship network should be considered an essential element.