What low-wage workers need from the 2020 election

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Going nocturnal helped boost Courtenay Brown’s pay—all the way to $17.30 an hour.

Brown is an “essential worker,” a 30-year-old supervisor at an Amazon food warehouse in New Jersey, where she has spent the duration of the pandemic making sure that Americans get their contactless grocery deliveries. Her recent pay raise for supervising night shifts is admittedly an improvement from where she started three years ago, a little over $13: “You can’t live off that—and even now, it’s still not enough. It’s still the bare minimum,” says Brown, a Navy veteran and Brooklyn native who is trying to get out of debt from a period when she was homeless.

This story is part of a special report examining what’s at stake for a wide range of industries—and for many workers—in this year’s election.

Her warehouse recently had a worker test positive for COVID-19, Brown says. Although Amazon has ended the “hazard pay” bonus of $2 per hour it offered for working through the pandemic this spring, the threat of the coronavirus “hasn’t gone away,” she says. “We’re pretty much playing a waiting game.” (An Amazon spokesperson says via email: “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees, and we are doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible.”)

For Brown—a member of the retail-worker organization United for Respect—and for around 53 million other minimum- and low-wage workers, the coming election will be a referendum on the federal minimum wage (which is still at its 2009 floor of $7.25 per hour), but also on their broader working conditions and benefits. Large employers across retail, restaurants, food processing, health care, and many other service industries exist because of this labor force, which has shown up in person and powered the economy during the pandemic—often for very little pay and at very high risk.

“The share of workers who earn low wages, who can’t make ends meet, who are suffering, is very big—and was even before COVID-19,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney and the director of work quality at the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan think tank.

“A lot of what people are calling ‘essential’ work? Those have always been jobs that paid really low wages, with a disproportionately Black and brown workforce. And many of those jobs were always dangerous,” she adds. “They’re even more dangerous now—and there hasn’t been compensation to address that.”

Some 44% of U.S. workers between the ages of 18 and 64 qualify as “low-wage,” earning a median hourly rate of $10.22 per hour, or $18,000 per year, according to an analysis published last year by the Brookings Institution. Those workers include most of the 1.6 million Americans who earn the federal minimum wage or less (including the wage for tipped workers, who have been federally grounded at $2.13 per hour since 1991). Others live in states and cities that have raised their local minimum wages above the federal level, or work for private companies (including Amazon), which have in recent years increased their internal hourly minimums to $15.

Many of these workers are affected by systemic racism and sexism, and by anti-immigrant policies; while about half of low-wage workers are white, according to Brookings’ analysis, workers who are Black, Hispanic, and/or women are much more likely to be low-wage than their white and male counterparts. Meanwhile, even workers who earn more than the federal minimum are continuing to face wage theft and hazardous working conditions, which their advocates hope will help decide the coming presidential election.

“It’s a moment of just extraordinary crisis—and also just incredible opportunity for change,” says Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, which advocates on behalf of restaurant employees and other tipped workers who earn the subminimum wage.

Raising the minimum and subminimum wages has some bipartisan support—a majority of Americans are in favor of a $15 minimum, and some red states have enacted increases. But when it comes to the presidential election, the policy divide gets rather stark. Democratic nominee Joe Biden supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and ending the tipped minimum wage; his campaign platform also includes promises to enforce stronger labor protections, including those relating to overtime pay and gig economy workers and undocumented immigrants, as well as support for workers’ rights to organize in labor unions.

President Donald Trump has in the past expressed occasional support for raising the federal minimum wage—but he and the Republican-controlled Senate have not taken any such action during his four years in office. Worker representatives and academics who study labor movements have generally negative reviews of his presidency’s impact on low-wage workers, criticizing his weakening of protections for overtime pay and his administration’s decision not to issue a national work safety standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the pandemic.

President Trump “didn’t allow OSHA to have COVID-19 standards; he hasn’t been interested in raising the minimum wage; and he’s tried to roll back some of the really good progress that was made under the Obama administration,” says Janice Fine, a professor at Rutgers University and director of research and strategy for its Center for Innovation in Worker Organization.

Stronger governmental oversight is especially necessary during a recession, when the rate at which employers underpay their minimum-wage workers skyrockets, according to research Fine oversaw this year. This practice, known as “wage theft,” especially targets undocumented immigrants, people of color, women, and other vulnerable workers who may be reluctant to complain, for fear of losing their jobs or being reported to immigration authorities.

Now Fine hopes that, if former Vice President Biden wins this election, he’ll prioritize doing more to protect these workers—and can improve upon his years as President Obama’s deputy. “I’d like to see Biden expend political capital and say that raising the minimum wage and passing labor law reform are going to be priorities for the first 100 days,” she says.

Worker representatives are also hopeful that, beyond an increased federal minimum wage and greater enforcement of labor protections, a Biden victory would mean policy improvements in terms of the unemployment, health care, and other benefits guaranteed to the country’s most vulnerable workers.

“Conditions have gotten much worse for low-wage workers in the last four years, and the reelection of Trump would be a disaster for underpaid essential workers all across the service and care sector,” says Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has endorsed Biden for President.

Her organization represents 2 million workers in health care, janitorial, airport, and public-sector jobs, who “have been on the front lines of multiple crises for the whole year: the pandemic, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and the racial injustice crisis,” she says. “They want good jobs, with wages they can support their families on; they want the ability to get a seat at the table through their union so they can bargain for a better life; they want a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and health care that allows them to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. And they want actionable change on racial inequality.”

Still, despite his campaign pledges, Biden has more work to do in the next five weeks to win over some workers with these priorities. Including Courtenay Brown, a Black woman who says that “justice for Breonna Taylor” and larger action against systemic racism are her priorities for the election.

She won’t be voting for Trump. But “I don’t even know how I feel about voting for the man who said I’m not Black if I don’t vote for him,” she adds, referring to a remark Biden made in May (and soon called “too cavalier”). “We’re voting for the lesser of two evils.”

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