OPINION: Improving the workplace for low-wage workers is a matter of justice

By LaTanya Jackson Wilson
Chicago Sun-Times

As the economy fitfully emerges from the pandemic, fundamental shifts in the labor market have clearly changed how and where we work.

Workers with the lowest income continue to experience no benefits or unaffordable benefits, few health and safety protections, and job and income insecurity.

These people got the rest of us through the pandemic while going without these crucial protections, facing a high risk of contracting COVID-19 and struggling to meet the needs of their families. These workers provide essential services, yet the system fails to treat them as essential. And that needs to change now.

Improving the working conditions of the lowest-paid workers would significantly help self-employed or independent contractors like Sebastián.

As a day laborer, Sebastián doesn’t get paid if he’s not working, whether it’s time off for a personal reason or because they or a family member are sick. Workers like Sebastián are without a safety net for their livelihood and income.

Paid time off and family and medical leave are two critical benefits that would allow workers like Sebastián to perform their jobs effectively and take care of themselves and their families.

Providing paid leave is one of the key recommendations in a new white paper, Low-Wage Workers Speak Out: The Emerging Future of Work Is Not Improving Their Jobs, by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. The paper draws upon interviews with more than 30 low-wage workers across Illinois — including caregivers, day laborers, ride-share workers, food production workers and warehouse workers — about workplace concerns.

In Illinois, 1.5 million workers classified as employees do not have access to even one day of sick leave. It is imperative that employers and policymakers in Illinois and Washington support low-wage workers, who are primarily Black, Indigenous and people of color.

The Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, currently pending in the Illinois General Assembly, would create a state-operated program to provide all Illinois workers — gig, full time, part-time — paid and job-guaranteed leave.

This is also a racial justice issue. Workers left behind by our nation’s patchwork of unpaid and paid leave policies are more likely to be people of color or in low-paid jobs. Black and Latino mothers are more likely than their white counterparts to report being fired for taking leave after childbirth or to quit jobs after childbirth.

Black women lose $3.9 billion each year in wages while on leave. Even before the pandemic, 11% of Black employees and 10% of Hispanic employees — but only 6% of white workers — reported they needed family or medical leave from work in the past 12 months but could not take it.

Gains of paid leave outweigh hardships to employers

Nationwide, the share of employers with paid maternity leave, beyond what federal law requires, dropped to 35% this year, down from 53% in 2020, according to a recent study of about 3,000 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management. The share of employers giving paid paternity leave fell to 27% in 2022, down from 44% in 2020. Rising costs and a desire to return to pre-pandemic norms are some of the reasons cited for this unwelcome trend.

Research shows the gains of providing paid leave outweigh any hardships to employers. Paid leave policies help employers recruit top candidates and retain employees, especially diverse talent — never more important than in a tight labor market. These policies also benefit businesses by improving worker productivity without increasing operating costs, and sometimes they can even produce cost savings. 

Take California, which in 2004 became the first state to implement a paid family leave program. About 90% of businesses reported either a positive or neutral effect on productivity, and almost all businesses identified positive or neutral effects on employee morale. These workplace improvements cost very little: 87% of businesses surveyed in California reported no increased costs, and 9% even reported cost savings due to lower employee turnover or lower spending on employee benefits.

Businesses can also take advantage of a little-known tax rule, extended through 2025, that provides a tax credit for employers who provide paid family and medical leave to employees. Eligible employers can receive a tax credit for up to 25% of wages paid to qualifying employees while they’re on leave.

The future of work must be just and equitable for all workers. More than ever, we need to work toward systemic change that advances economic mobility and focuses on the needs of those most vulnerable in the workplace. It is no longer an option to stay on the sidelines. There is lots of work to be done. Policymakers at all government levels can shape the future of work to increase racial equity and protect low-wage workers. 

LaTanya Jackson Wilson is the vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

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Parade-goers hold a sign that reads, “Yes for workers rights!” as they march down South Ewing Avenue on the East Side during a Labor Day Parade on Sept. 2. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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