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Low wages are just the start of the problems for millions of U.S. workers during COVID-19 — here’s why

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A common dilemma job applicants face is balancing salary with working conditions and labor violations.

However, new research suggests that lower-paying jobs are also more likely to have poorer working conditions, which compounds issues facing U.S. workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s according to a paper circulated this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research written by Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor, Aaron Sojourner, a University of Minnesota economics professor and Yue Qiu, a Temple University finance professor.


A 10% increase in the average wage is associated with a 4% decrease in fines per dollar of pay.


— Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor and co-author of a new study on working conditions as they relate to pay

The three researchers analyzed labor violations reported to a federal agency from 2000 to 2019 published in a database compiled by Good Jobs First, a non-profit organization. They also leverage U.S. Census Bureau data to analyze the number of workers in a given industry and pay. 

The researchers estimate that within local industries “a 10% increase in the average wage is associated with a 0.15% decrease in the number of violations per employee and a 4% decrease in fines per dollar of pay.”

It also suggests that unionized workers with collective bargaining power as well as workers in highly competitive industries are more likely to receive higher wages and better working conditions.

There’s one major problem, however. A larger number of U.S. workers are not members of unions. Just over 10% of salary and wage workers are members of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s a 10-percentage-point drop from 1983, the first year comparable statistics became available, the agency said.

That ranges from the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allowing “union shops” only when a majority of workers voted for the idea, to globalization — which sent off factory jobs — to state-level “right to work” laws that bar unions from collecting dues from non-union workers covered in their contracts.

COVID-19 has not helped worker rights

These latest findings are important because they suggest that prior research on wage inequality “understates the true level of inequality since workers who get paid less are more likely to have their rights violated,” Marinescu told MarketWatch.

That’s been especially true during the pandemic where lower-paid workers have contracted coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates than higher-paid workers, according to research published in September by Brookings, a left-leaning think-tank.

As essential workers continue to risk COVID-19 exposure at work, a third of grocery-store workers say their employer hasn’t taken the proper steps to keep employees safe during the pandemic, according to this survey, which polled 2,000 frontline workers across a variety of industries in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.


A third of grocery-store workers say their employer hasn’t taken the proper steps to keep employees safe during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, a July 2020 survey of more than 21,200 nurses conducted by the National Nurses United union found that just 24% of nurses believed their employer was providing a safe workplace, and 87% of hospital nurses said they had reused at least one form of single-use personal protective equipment. 

Marinescu does not see these issues changing in the short term. With high unemployment, employers are not compelled to offer better working conditions to attract workers, she added.

On top of that, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move supported by many Democratic lawmakers, won’t necessarily lead to better working conditions based on her research, she said.

The wage increases she studied were primarily driven by industry conditions, namely an increase in demand for workers with a particular skill, and not labor regulations. The rights of gig workers also complicates the picture.

Workers who drive and deliver for Uber Technologies Inc. 
UBER,
+0.58%

DoorDash 
DASH,
+1.57%

 Instacart and other app-based platform companies may enjoy some schedule flexibility, but gig workers are beholden to secret algorithms that determine where and how often they can find gigs, how much they get paid and more.

Data rights are labor rights, especially when it comes to the gig economy,” Mozilla Foundation said in its report published last month, which for the first time includes a focus on gig work, which it calls one of three major threats to the health of the internet. Mozilla said 50 million people engage in gig work around the world.

During COVID-19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with ensuring safe working conditions, has issued guidance for employers on preparing workplaces for COVID-19 and safely returning to physical workplaces.

It also directs businesses to consult Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

Employees can file a confidential complaint and request an inspection of their workplace if they believe their employer isn’t abiding by OSHA standards or there’s a serious workplace hazard, OSHA says.

(Meera Jagannathan, Levi Sumagaysay and Andrew Keshner contributed to this story.)

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