In the weeks before Labor Day, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is traveling the country promoting what he calls “the simple notion that if you work a full-time job you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”
It’s a simple notion, all right, but one that is very complicated to bring about. Just witness the friction in Kansas City and throughout Missouri over attempts to raise the minimum wage.
But Perez correctly sees his job as using his cabinet post in President Barack Obama’s administration to cheer for positive efforts that are underway and to encourage more of them.
He stopped in Kansas City this week to visit the Metropolitan Community Colleges, which has attracted notice in Washington for the good work it does in “skills-to-work” education.
Perez also joined The Star’s editorial staff and others at the newspaper for a wide-ranging conversation about workplace issues. Here are a few highlights that resonated with me:
▪ People around the nation recognize the fairness of increasing the minimum wage.
Voters in four red states — Nebraska, Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota — supported increases at the polls in November, Perez noted. While the margin of victory in South Dakota was about 6 percentage points, voters in the other states supported a pay increase for low-wage workers by resounding margins.
Perez applauded the state efforts and slammed Congress for not taking the lead. “It’s unconscionable that the Republican leadership won’t take up the minimum wage,” he said, noting that only two presidents have not increased the minimum wage since it was created during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
The two are Gerald Ford, who took office only a few months after Richard Nixon signed an increase; and Ronald Reagan. Obama will become an unwitting third if he can’t get Congress to move over the next year.
▪ The Department of Labor recently issued “guidance” to help employers distinguish between employees and contractors. This of course is a hot topic as ride-hailing, personal shopping and other app-based services are enlisting thousands of workers who operate somewhat independently but under the auspices of these companies.
But actually, Perez said, misclassification of workers is an old problem with three categories of victims: workers who miss out on benefits and often acceptable pay; employers who follow the rules; and U.S. citizens, who miss out on tax revenues that employers should be paying.
Perez took aim at the notion that the so-called new economy won’t flourish if government steps in to protect workers. “I categorically reject the false choice between innovation and regulation,” he said.
▪ The labor secretary said he was optimistic that employers will decide on their own to stop abusive practices like on-call scheduling and back-to-back shifts. These tactics, used mostly in the retail and service sectors, leave workers exhausted, scrambling for child care, and unable to better their lot by taking classes or a second job.
“We believe the prudent course at the moment is to see what we can do in a collaborative manner,” Perez said. “If you’re in the retail space you can recruit and retain people much more easily if you’ve got sensible scheduling policies.”
Let’s hope more employers see it that way. Experts are increasingly worried about the way the stresses of erratic scheduling for parents affects children. If employers won’t change, there’s always that regulation thing.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bshelly.