Work­ers make ap­peal to tax­pay­ers

Low earn­ers across U.S. say a higher wage would keep them off public as­sis­tance.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By David Kelly na­tion@la­times.com

AURORA, Colo. — An­drew Olson works at a McDon­ald’s here, mak­ing about $8.60 an hour while his fi­ancee earns min­i­mum wage at a nearby Dollar Tree.

Their salaries are so mea­ger, he says, that they rely on food stamps and Med­i­caid to get by.

“The tax­pay­ers shouldn’t have to pay for what we need to sur­vive,” said the 25-yearold Olson, who planned on tak­ing part in the Fight for 15 march Wed­nes­day in Den­ver for an in­creased min­i­mum wage. “It should be be­tween em­ploy­ees and com­pa­nies to de­ter­mine a living wage.”

The Den­ver protest was one of sev­eral staged Wed­nes­day by fast-food work­ers and other low-wage earn­ers na­tion­wide. Nearly 1,000 pro­test­ers turned out in Los An­ge­les, while in Chicago bois­ter­ous demon­stra­tors car­ried signs read­ing “We are worth more!” Pro­test­ers staged a “die-in” in New York, block­ing the en­trance to a McDon­ald’s. Some car­ried signs read­ing, “We see greed.”

As the ranks of ser­vice jobs swell and in­comes stag­nate, in­creas­ing num­bers of min­i­mum-wage earn­ers are un­able to make ends meet with­out gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance, a sit­u­a­tion la­bor ad­vo­cates say poses an un­due bur­den on em­ploy­ees and tax­pay­ers.

A study re­leased Mon­day by the UC Berke­ley Cen­ter for La­bor Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion, funded by the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union, re­ported that 56% of all state and fed­eral public as­sis­tance now goes to work­ing fam­i­lies. That adds up to $153 bil­lion a year, in­clud­ing $25 bil­lion in state fund­ing.

“When com­pa­nies pay too lit­tle for work­ers to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, work­ers rely on public as­sis­tance pro­grams to meet their ba­sic needs,” Ken Ja­cobs, chair­man of the cen­ter and coau­thor of the re­port, said in a state­ment. “This cre­ates sig­nif­i­cant cost to the states.”

At least one state is look­ing to ad­dress those costs through leg­is­la­tion.

A bill wind­ing through the Con­necti­cut Gen­eral As­sem­bly would re­quire com­pa­nies with more than 250 work­ers to pay a fee to the state for ev­ery em­ployee not earn­ing at least $15 an hour. It’s es­ti­mated that the leg­is­la­tion, spon­sored by Demo­cratic state Rep. Peter Ter- cyak, would gen­er­ate $171 mil­lion in rev­enue its first year and $341 mil­lion af­ter that.

“We are pro­vid­ing all kinds of ser­vices that th­ese em­ploy­ees qual­ify for be­cause they are paid so lit­tle,” Ter­cyak said. “We have ac­tu­ally found some of th­ese com­pa­nies steer­ing their em­ploy­ees to th­ese state ser­vices.”

In Colorado, there are rum­blings of such a “McWalMart” bill aimed at ad­dress­ing what some call cor­po­rate “free rid­ing ” on the backs of tax­pay­ers.

“There is a high level of chat­ter about it,” said Tim Hoover, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Colorado Fis­cal In­sti­tute, a left-lean­ing think tank. “Some­thing is likely to ma­te­ri­al­ize but we have no idea when.”

This week’s UC Berke­ley study un­der­scores the costs states ab­sorb to sup­port low-wage earn­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the study, Cal­i­for­nia spends $3.7 bil­lion, New York $3.3 bil­lion and Texas $2 bil­lion on public as­sis­tance pro­grams to, among oth­ers, fast-food em­ploy­ees, childand home-care work­ers and part-time col­lege fac­ulty.

Last week the Colorado Fis­cal In­sti­tute said 600,000 Colorado em­ploy­ees, or a quar­ter of the state work­force, earned less than $12 an hour. As a re­sult, tax­pay­ers ante up about $304 mil­lion a year to cover their health­care costs.

“We have al­ways known that high num­bers of work­ing peo­ple were on public as­sis­tance, but what we found out was stag­ger­ing,” Hoover said. “It’s clear th­ese big em­ploy­ers are shift­ing their costs to the tax­pay­ers.”

Fix­ing the prob­lem won’t be easy. There are few bolder fault lines be­tween Repub­li­cans and Democrats than their per­cep­tions of in­come in­equal­ity, and those lines are grow­ing starker as pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates stake out their po­si­tions. Democrats blame an in­her­ent un­fair­ness in the econ­omy for the wage gap, while Repub­li­cans cite high tax­a­tion and oner­ous reg­u­la­tions.

But while politi­cians pos­ture, states are be­gin­ning to take up the is­sue them­selves.

Colorado, Maine, Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton all are con­sid­er­ing in­creas­ing their min­i­mum wage to $12 an hour.

Then there’s the McWalMart bill.

If such leg­is­la­tion be­came law in Con­necti­cut, Colorado and else­where, would it be a good idea? Some say a dra­matic in­crease in min­i­mum wage would re­sult in com­pa­nies hir­ing far fewer work­ers, caus­ing greater un­em­ploy­ment. In that case, the gov­ern­ment would wind up sub­si­diz­ing even more peo­ple.

“It’s not the job of a busi­ness to pay ev­ery­one who works there a so­cially determined in­come,” said Michael Strain, deputy direc­tor of eco­nomic pol­icy stud­ies at the con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “If McDon­ald’s paid the cashier $30,000 a year, they would be los­ing a lot of money on their em­ploy­ees.”

Strain said the ten­sions were un­der­stand­able in a so­ci­ety where wages for most have barely budged while salaries for those at the top keep ris­ing.

“The ques­tion isn’t if the con­cern is un­rea­son­able; it’s how to ad­dress it,” he said. “It’s in the best in­ter­ests of so­ci­ety for la­bor mar­kets to get paid roughly for what they bring in. If you’re a brain sur­geon and mak­ing money for your hos­pi­tal you should make more money than the per­son work­ing in the hos­pi­tal cafe­te­ria.”

Per­haps, but for An­drew Olson, that’s a bit aca­demic. He found him­self on the lowwage tread­mill when he re­al­ized he couldn’t af­ford col­lege and now won­ders whether he can ever get off. He’ll soon be get­ting a small raise but says it’s un­likely to make much of a dif­fer­ence.

“Just be­cause I work in fast food, does that mean I should have to just scrape by in life?” he asked.

David Gold­man As­so­ci­ated Press

CAR­MEN BUR­LEY-RAWLS joins a Fight for 15 rally out­side a Burger King restau­rant in Col­lege Park, Ga. “The tax­pay­ers shouldn’t have to pay for what we need to sur­vive,” said a fast-food worker in Colorado.

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