Weekend News & Commentary – May 2 & 3

Published May 3rd, 2015 -  - 05.03.1511


On Thursday, a divided House of Representatives voted 228 – 192 to strike down a D.C. bill that would ban discrimination based on employees’ reproductive decisions. The New York Times reports that, while House Speaker John Boehner framed the legislation as an issue of religious liberty, Democrats criticized the Republicans’ votes against the bill as an infringement on women’s reproductive rights and privacy and an affront to the District’s right to self-governance. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the bill “an outrageous intrusion into workers’ personal lives,” noting the bill was inconsistent with the anti-government rhetoric “we hear around here morning, noon and night.” She called the vote “Hobby Lobby on steroids,” paving the way for employers to needlessly meddle in employees’ health-care choices.

Aetna, Inc., a health insurance company and a member of the Fortune 100, announced this week that it will spend $27 million per year to raise the pay of its low-wage workers to $16 per hour. NPR reports that CEO Mark Bertolini says he believes the raise will pay for itself, by making workers more productive. The raise will affect 5,700 of the company’s workers. Before implementing the raise, Bertolini had discovered that many of his lowest-paid employees were on public assistance to make ends meet. He reported he was shocked “that we, as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people living like that among the ranks of our employees.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the decades-long trend of shrinking income for workers and growing profit for companies may be reversing. In the first quarter of the year, workers recorded the largest annual gain in pay since 2008, with total salaries and benefits rising 1.2%, while blue-chip companies are likely to record their steepest year-over-year drop in profits since 2009, with a 2.8% decrease from 2014. Labor’s gains over capital likely stem from employment growth and the relatively small pool of available workers. While the continuation of this trend may depend on how tight the labor market is in the short run, both the Federal Reserve and outside economists expect the trend to continue.

California’s low-wage workers are older and more educated than they were three decades ago, but they earn less, according to a UC Berkeley study released last Thursday. The LA Times reports that, according to the study, the state’s lowest paid quintile of workers has seen inflation-adjusted wages decline 12% since 1979, while the top 10% of California workers have seen wages grow 35%. This trend has persisted despite the fact that the low-wage workforce has grown more educated and has more work experience than their comparators three decades ago. The report indicates that the situation isn’t likely to change any time soon, as projections for California’s job market in 2022 shows that the mix of jobs in each industry will be relatively the same and that, of the ten occupations expected to add the most new jobs through 2022, seven are in low-wage positions making less than $12 per hour.

In a celebration of International Workers’ Day, May 1, an exhibition aiming to show the lives of the working poor opened at the Talk Shop Gallery in New York City. The photos featured in the exhibit have been taken by employees from chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway, and Burger King.The photos depict scenes of workers’ poverty, portraying empty refrigerators and back-of-the-envelope budget calculations. The New York Times reports that Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said that, while the exhibition “may be well intentioned, it does not paint the full picture of an industry that provides real pathways to achieving success.”

According to Business Insider, when Wal-Mart laid off 2,200 earlier this month, it provided its employees with a packet of information including “stress management tips.” Gawker has posted photos of the packet, which instructs workers, “Care for yourself by eating well, exercising, and resting when needed. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine and depressants such as alcohol.” The packet goes on to caution workers that the layoff may provoke memories of “past transitions” and may result in “difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of being ‘hyper alert.’” Wal-Mart has responded to critics of the document, charged as “completely blind to the realities of many of its employees,” by emphasizing that the document is a standard resource provided to employees to help manage the difficulties of discussing work transitions with others.

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