Yesterday I wrote a quick overview of the House GOP budget proposal, which I argued would clearly be bad for our economic—and quite possibly physical—health. The Senate GOP budget proposal is a bit better, but while less it’s less austere than the House GOP budget, it is still harmful to the general welfare and the economy.
The Senate Budget Committee’s fiscal year 2016 budget resolution, proposed by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), would continue damaging austerity for yet another year. This budget, which like the House Budget resolution passed with only GOP support, proposes to eliminate the budget deficit by 2025 without raising taxes. However, to achieve this goal, the budget punishes low- and middle-income people, with cuts to public investments (education, infrastructure, research and development), Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and nutrition programs for needy children.
Furthermore, because these cuts start early, when the economy is still likely to be operating below potential due to deficient aggregate demand, the budget plan has adverse effects on economic growth and jobs in the near-term. Based on standard multipliers and relationships between GDP and employment growth, I estimate that the Senate GOP budget cuts would reduce GDP by 0.7 percent in FY2016 and decrease payrolls by almost 800,000 jobs, relative to CBO’s baseline economic and budget projections. It gets even worse in FY2017—GDP would be reduced by almost 1.9 percent, with payrolls decreasing by 2.3 million jobs.
All in all, the Senate GOP budget does slightly less damage than the House GOP budget, but that’s a low bar to clear.
The House Budget Committee passed, along party lines, a fiscal year 2016 budget resolution proposed by Chairman Tom Price that would continue damaging austerity for yet another year. This draconian budget proposes to eliminate the budget deficit by 2025 without raising taxes. To achieve this goal, the budget would punish low- and middle-income people by reducing economic growth and jobs over the next 2 fiscal years, eroding the effectiveness of safety net programs, taking away health insurance coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act, and reducing public investments. If the Obamacare repeal and proposed savings from debt servicing are excluded, 95 percent of the House GOP budget cuts are targeted to just 38 percent of federal spending—the spending that includes public investments (education, infrastructure, research and development), Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and nutrition programs for needy children.
Besides the clearly significant, but hard to precisely quantify harm done to the general welfare, the House GOP budget resolution would damage economic growth in coming years in quite predictable ways. I estimate that the House GOP budget cuts would reduce GDP by 1 percent in FY2016 and decrease payrolls by 1.3 million jobs, relative to CBO’s baseline economic and budget projections. It gets even worse in FY2017—GDP would be reduced by almost 2.5 percent with payrolls decreasing by 2.9 million jobs.
It seems rather odd that the GOP would completely ignore the current state of the economy in designing their FY2016 budget. While the official unemployment rate is slowly falling and the economy is adding jobs every month, there continues to be a great deal of slack in the labor market. First, unemployment still remains high among some racial and ethnic groups. Second, the “jobs gap”—the number of jobs needed to restore the labor market to pre-Great Recession health—remains in the millions. Furthermore, there is only one job opening for every two job seekers. Finally, wages are stagnant for the majority of workers. Yet the budget appears to be designed to knock workers down and take away a hand up.
Fiscal austerity has been best described as a dangerous idea. The GOP seems bent on turning a dangerous idea into a health hazard.
It was widely reported yesterday that the word “patient” was dropped from the Federal Reserve statement on monetary policy. But too much focus on this one word might lead one to miss the forest through the trees.
Yes, the Fed no longer is committed to official “patience.” In practice that’s their way of saying we could raise rates at any time in coming meetings without giving you (and by “you,” I mean “markets”) any more warning. This has been widely (and reasonably) interpreted to mean that such a rate increase is coming soon.
Such a rate increase would be a mistake. The labor market is clearly improving, with unemployment falling and job growth accelerating in 2014. But the point of raising interest rates shouldn’t, of course, be simply to sabotage the labor market anytime it starts generating lots of jobs and reducing unemployment. The point of rate hikes in the face of economic strength is supposed to be preventing incipient inflationary pressures. But there’s an important link in the chain between falling unemployment and accelerating inflation: wages have to start accelerating. Importantly, they need to start accelerating faster than the sum of the Fed’s inflation target plus productivity growth.
What’s the logic of this wage target? For one, note that nominal (i.e., not inflation-adjusted) wage growth that simply equals productivity growth puts no upward pressure on prices at all. Say that wages rise by 2 percent but productivity rises by 2 percent too. What has happened to the cost per unit of output? Nothing. Hourly wages are up 2 percent, but the amount produced in each hour of work has risen by 2 percent as well, so costs per unit of output haven’t budged. Assume trend productivity growth of around 1.5-2 percent, and this means that only nominal wage growth over 1.5-2 percent puts any upward pressure on prices at all.
What’s Wrong with the TPP? This deal will lead to more job loss and downward pressures on the wages of most working Americans
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, three prominent economists, David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson make a number of controversial arguments in favor of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Autor, et al, acknowledge that the United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 due to globalization and automation, but they then make the argument that these jobs are not coming back. There’s no sense closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, as it were. But this line of thought ignores the crucial role played by currency manipulation, which costs jobs by subsidizing foreign exports to the United States while acting like a tax on U.S. exports. Many prominent economists, including Fred Bergsten and Larry Summers, have said that trade deals like the TPP should include restrictions on currency manipulation. As Dean Baker notes, this is particularly important to keep in mind because the TPP is designed to be expandable, and countries such as China (the world’s largest currency manipulator), Korea, and India are candidates for early inclusion in an expanded TPP, if the agreement is completed.
Eliminating currency manipulation could reduce the U.S. trade deficit by up to $500 billion, adding up to 4.9 percent to U.S. GDP and creating up to 5.8 million U.S. jobs, with about 40 percent (2.3 million) of those jobs gained in manufacturing. So, many of those lost manufacturing jobs could in fact be recovered, in part through the inclusion of a currency clause that Autor, et al, fail to consider in their analysis of the TPP. A TPP without a currency clause will make it affirmatively harder to end currency manipulation in the future, and the effect of this on net exports swamps the effect of even large tariff cuts.
The TPP, trade, and job loss
Autor, Dorn, and Hanson go on to claim that because U.S. tariffs are already low, import competition from TPP members would “barely affect” U.S. manufacturers. This is an old claim, often made for previous trade and investment deals, and the actual outcomes have rarely supported these predictions. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it was Mexico that made large tariff concessions when U.S. tariffs were already low. Yet U.S. imports from Mexico still grew much faster than exports to that country, eliminating nearly 700,000 U.S. jobs by 2010 through growing trade deficits.
When China came into the WTO in 2001, it clearly had much higher tariffs than the United States, and China made large tariff cuts to gain WTO admission. Yet growing U.S. trade deficits with China through 2013 eliminated 3.2 million U.S. jobs. If tariff cuts are so favorable to U.S. exports, why do these deals usually result in growing U.S. trade deficits and job losses?
Mexico and China both experienced a tremendous increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) and outsourcing in the wake of NAFTA and China’s WTO entry. FDI in Mexico nearly tripled as a share of GDP in the decade after NAFTA, compared with the decade before NAFTA. China, meanwhile, became the third largest recipient of FDI in the world. In both countries, FDI fueled the growth of thousands of new manufacturing plants that generated exports to the United States and other markets.
Manufacturers were willing to invest in Mexico and China because of special protections offered in these deals for investors, including greatly expanded intellectual property rights and special, extra-judicial dispute settlement mechanisms to protect corporate investments (so-called investor-state dispute settlement or ISDS). The TPP threatens to roll back U.S. regulations in areas such as food safety, banking and finance regulations. These changes will be enforced through private actions under the ISDS, as well as changes in government rules.
Finally, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s claim that the TPP won’t significantly expand access to the U.S. market (“tariffs are already low”) is hard to reconcile with the desire of other countries to sign the deal. Why would they sign and make the sacrifices required, if not for access to the U.S. market?
It’s also important to acknowledge that terms of the TPP are still secret, and negotiations are incomplete. We are basing our analysis based on what’s happened under past agreements; other seem to be basing their analysis on their own policy preferences.
The authors claim that enhanced intellectual property rights in the TPP will generate substantial benefits for U.S. corporations and U.S. workers in industries such as information and computer services and other industries that derive much of their incomes from copyrights and royalties (including movies and hi-tech firms like Apple and pharmaceutical makers like Pfizer). While high-tech service industries are the glamour names in these discussions, it’s important to keep in mind that U.S. manufacturing firms, which stand to lose out as a result of the TPP, are responsible for more than two-thirds of U.S. business research and development spending (68.9 percent of total business R&D in 2012).
Special protections for investors in the proposed TPP will encourage the growth of outsourcing to TPP countries. In this regard, what’s important to remember is that 12 million jobs remain in U.S. manufacturing. It’s these jobs that are on the line in the next wave of outsourcing. The TPP will open up countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to more U.S. FDI and outsourcing. If China and India are allowed to join the deal in the future, the threat of additional outsourcing will increase exponentially.
The United States already has a large and growing trade deficit with the 11 other countries in the proposed TPP that reached $265.1 billion in 2014. In contrast, the United States had a small trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, before NAFTA took effect. Outsourcing to the TPP countries is a potentially much greater threat than it was under NAFTA with Mexico.
TPP will increase wage inequality
Globalization has already increased wage and income inequality, and here our findings are similar to those of Autor, et al’s, published research (though not mentioned in their column). Our research has identified two channels through which trade and globalization have driven down the wages of working Americans. First, the growth of trade deficits with China (along with other low wage countries) has forced workers out of good-paying jobs with excellent benefits into lower-paying jobs in non-traded (e.g. service) industries. I have estimated that this resulted in direct wage losses of $37 billion for the 2.7 million workers displaced by China trade in 2011 alone.
And second, my colleague Josh Bivens has used standard trade models to estimate that expanded trade has changed the composition of jobs in ways that reduced the annual wages of a full-time American worker without a four-year college degree who earns the median wage by $1,800 per year. Given that there are roughly 100 million non-college-educated workers in the U.S. economy, the scale of wage losses suffered by this group likely translates into close to a full 1 percent of GDP—roughly $180 billion.
Autor et al’s arguments about the benefits of the TPP add fuel to the income inequality fire. As Dean Baker notes, they argue that the regulatory structures being developed in the agreement would “largely benefit U.S. corporations, since they would get more money for the patents and copyrights,” and would gain new tools to use against foreign governments who threaten those profits.
The corporations that stand to benefit have few, if any, organic ties to the U.S. economy—most have outsourced a large share of production jobs to other countries. The primary beneficiaries will be people from the United States who happen to own stock in these companies. And the greatest benefits will flow to those who own the most stocks, primarily those in the top 1, 5, and 10 percent of the income distribution. So, the TPP and similar agreements will only serve to worsen U.S. income inequality.
What’s more, there are costs to providing greater protections to intellectual property. As Paul Krugman recently noted, protecting intellectual property creates a monopoly for the patent or copyright holder, which makes the world poorer. And as Dean Baker notes, it also diverts resources to the monopolists, reducing demand for everything else made by producers of other products. Questions about the impact of the TPP on income distribution and the distortions imposed by tightening intellectual property rights have motivated Nobel Prize winning economists such as Krugman and Joseph E. Stiglitz to challenge the justification for the TPP.
The administration has chosen to conduct a high-stakes campaign for fast-track authority to conclude negotiation of the TPP and a similar agreement with the European Union (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). While fast-track requires congressional approval of negotiating objectives, it creates a process for consideration of final agreements that denies members of Congress the right to revise or amend any part of those agreements.
Alternatively, the president could decide to take steps to end currency manipulation by China and more than 20 other countries, mostly in Asia. There are a number of steps that could be taken, such as the inclusion of currency manipulation clause in the TPP. The president and federal agencies already possess the tools needed to end currency manipulation outside of the TPP. The Treasury and Federal Reserve Board of Governors have the authority needed to offset purchases of foreign assets by foreign governments by engaging in countervailing currency intervention. By taking these steps, the U.S. government could make efforts by foreign governments to manipulate their currencies costly and/or ineffective.
Ending currency manipulation could create up to 5.8 million U.S. jobs, and up to 2.3 million jobs in manufacturing alone. Manufacturing is not dead. Manufacturing job loss is not a “fait accompli,” in the words of Autor, et al. Creating millions of jobs in the United States, and especially good jobs in manufacturing, would raise U.S. wages and begin to reverse the rise in U.S. income inequality that has had a strangle hold on the economy for the past 30 years.
The president can continue the fight for fast-track and the TPP, raising corporate profits while putting good manufacturing jobs and wages at risk. Or he can take action to create jobs and reduce inequality. He can’t do both.
This post originally appeared in the New York Times Room for Debate forum on March 12, 2015.
“Right-to-work” laws deny unions the money they need to help employees bargain with their employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions. So it’s not surprising that research shows that workers in “right-to-work” states have lower wages and fewer benefits, on average, than workers in other states.
Under federal law, no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, and the Supreme Court has made clear that workers can’t be forced to pay dues used for political purposes. Right-to-work goes one step further and entitles employees to the benefits of a union contract — including the right to have the union take up their grievance if their employer abuses them — without paying any of the cost.
This means that if a worker who does not pay a union representation fee is fired, the union must prosecute that worker’s grievance just as it would a dues-paying member’s, even if it costs tens of thousands of dollars. Non-dues-paying workers would also receive the higher wages and benefits their dues-paying coworkers enjoy. Right-to-work laws have nothing to do with whether people can be forced to join a union or contribute to political causes they don’t support; that’s already illegal. The only freedom workers would receive is the ability to get something for nothing.
But this comes at a substantial cost. As compared with non-right-to-work states, wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower on average, or about $1,500 less a year. Workers in right-to-work states were less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension coverage. This does not just apply to union members, but to all employees in a state.
Where unions are strong, compensation increases even for workers not covered by any union contract, as nonunion employers face competitive pressure to match union standards. Likewise, when unions are weakened by right-to-work laws, all of a state’s workers feel the impact.
In our recent EPI briefing paper, How Low Can We Go?, we noted that a lower proportion of jobless workers are protected by state unemployment insurance (UI) programs than at any time in history. The UI benefit recipiency rate for state programs fell to 23.1 percent in December 2014—below the previous record-low level of 25.0 percent in September 1984.
Eight states that cut the length of time benefits were available below the traditional 26 weeks have seen recipiency declines that exceeded all other states that did not abandon the 26 week norm.
The figure below shows declines in short-term benefit recipiency in each of the eight states starting with the month cuts took effect, and compares those declines to the average decline in the states not taking this approach over the same time periods. We calculated a short-term recipiency rate in order to isolate the target population for state UI programs—those out of work for less 26 weeks or less. Even using this narrower definition of benefit recipiency, nationally only 35 out of 100 jobless workers received UI benefits at the end of 2014. In South Carolina, which cut available weeks to 20 in 2011 and adopted other restrictions, fewer than 15 out of 100 short-term unemployed workers got UI in 2014.
By Saving Billions in Retiree Health and Pension Benefits, Auto Bailouts Were an Even Bigger Success Than Acknowledged
Austan Goolsbee and Alan Krueger’s new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “A Retrospective Look at Rescuing and Restructuring General Motors and Chrysler,” provides an excellent analysis of the auto bailouts. However, it focuses mostly on the impact of bailouts on auto production and jobs for current workers. Unfortunately, for the most part it fails to discuss the impact on retirees, which had major ramifications for the federal government and the country as a whole.
The issue of the retirees was of critical importance to the auto companies’ passage through the bankruptcy process. At the time General Motors filed for bankruptcy, it had 10 retirees for every active employee. Chrysler’s retiree-to-active worker ratio was similarly skewed. Overall, there were about 870,000 UAW retirees and dependents in the pension and health care plans at GM, Chrysler, and Ford at the time of the federal bailout. The alternative to the auto bailouts—uncontrolled bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, and the likely demise of Ford as well—would have had devastating consequences for the huge numbers of retirees and their families.
Goolsbee and Krueger do note that if the companies had not received the federal bailouts, and instead had undergone uncontrolled bankruptcies, their pension plans would have been terminated and billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities would have been transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), threatening the financial stability of that agency. However, the authors fail to mention that the termination of the pension plans would also have made retirees aged 55 to 64 eligible for the federal health care tax credit. This would have put the federal government on the hook for billions of dollars in retiree health care liabilities.
Hidden amid all the discussion of when falling unemployment will lead to rising wages are the expectations shared in the media and among economic analysts that we can only expect wages to rise when unemployment is low. There is confusion here. Yes, we certainly expect wages to rise more quickly as unemployment falls. But why is there a widespread acceptance that real wages will not rise (i.e., that wages will not rise faster than inflation) at all when there is 5.5 or 6.5 percent unemployment? Why not expect real wages to rise every year as they used to in the United States and in other advanced nations? After all, output per hour has been steadily rising, profits have been historically high, and the stock market has soared. There are certainly no economic fundamentals that only allow real wages (on average or at the median) to rise during the few short years of each business cycle when unemployment is relatively low.
These lowered expectations reflect how poorly wages have performed over the last four decades. These low expectations constitute an unstated acceptance of an unacceptable normal that real wages will rarely rise. Reflecting this, analysts claim to be “puzzled” that wages have yet to accelerate as the recovery gains momentum, but seemingly are not puzzled at all when real wages fail to grow on a regular basis. So, I am calling on analysts and the journalists who cover them to examine, or at least explain, their unstated assumptions about wage growth. My view is that the failure of white-collar and blue-collar real wages to rise for well over a decade (through the last recovery and not only the recent recession but also this recovery) reflects a policy regime that makes employers dominant in the labor market, enabling them to suppress wage growth.
One of the recurring myths following the Great Recession has been that recovery in the labor market has lagged because workers don’t have the right skills. The figure below, which shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings in January by industry, is a useful way to examine this idea. If today’s labor market woes were the result of skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to see some sectors where there are more unemployed workers than job openings, and others where there are more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find, however, is that there are more unemployed workers than jobs openings in almost every industry.
The notable exception is health care and social assistance, which has been consistently adding jobs throughout the business cycle, and there are signs that workers in that industry are facing a tighter labor market. However, we have yet to see any sign of decent wage gains yet, which would be the final indicator that the labor market, at least for those workers, was approaching reasonable health.
Other sectors have seen little-to-no improvement in their job-seekers-to-job-openings ratios. There are, for example, still nearly six unemployed construction workers for every job opening. In other words, despite claims from some employers, there is no shortage of construction workers.
Taken as a whole, these numbers demonstrate that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.
Unemployed and job openings, by industry (in millions)
|Professional and business services||1.0633||0.8969|
|Health care and social assistance||0.7018||0.7433|
|Accommodation and food services||0.9598||0.6060|
|Finance and insurance||0.2514||0.2338|
|Durable goods manufacturing||0.4524||0.1817|
|Transportation, warehousing, and utilities||0.3498||0.1688|
|Nondurable goods manufacturing||0.2974||0.1137|
|Real estate and rental and leasing||0.1148||0.0638|
|Arts, entertainment, and recreation||0.2106||0.0684|
|Mining and logging||0.0518||0.0273|
Note: Because the data are not seasonally adjusted, these are 12-month averages, February 2014–January 2015.
Source: EPI analysis of data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and the Current Population Survey
The hires, quits, and layoffs rates all held fairly steady in the January Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). As you can see in the figure below, layoffs shot up during the recession but recovered quickly and have been at prerecession levels for more than three years. The fact that this trend continued in December is a good sign. That said, not only do layoffs need to come down before we see a full recovery in the labor market, but hiring needs to pick up. While the hires rate has been generally improving, it’s still below its prerecession level.
The voluntary quits rate rose slightly from 1.9 in December to 2.0 in January, the same rate it had been for both September and October. In January, the quits rate was still 8.0 percent lower than it was in 2007, before the recession began. A larger number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs indicates a strong labor market—one where workers are able to leave jobs that are not right for them and find new ones. Before long, we should look for a return to pre-recession levels of voluntary quits, which would mean that fewer workers are locked into jobs they would leave if they could. But, we are not there yet.
Hires, quits, and layoff rates, December 2000–January 2015
|Month||Hires rate||Layoffs rate||Quits rate|
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions. The hires rate is the number of hires during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The layoff rate is the number of layoffs and discharges during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey
While the U.S. economy has been solidly adding jobs for many months now, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) released today is another indicator of how much slack still remains in the labor market.
The figure below plots job openings and unemployment levels from December 2000 to January 2015, the latest month of data available. Both indicators are moving in the right direction and have clearly been improving, albeit slowly, throughout the recovery. However, in a stronger labor market, these two indicators would be closer together. The gap is a good indicator of a certain amount of slack. And, it is important to point out that the unemployment level doesn’t include the nearly 6 million missing workers, who have yet to enter or return to the labor force.
Republicans in Congress are trying to pass a joint resolution of disapproval to prevent the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from updating the rules that govern union elections. Republicans used fast track procedures to pass the resolution in the Senate, and held a hearing on Wednesday to begin moving the resolution through the House. If it were to pass, it would repeal the NLRB’s updates and prevent the agency from ever issuing a similar rule.
The House Education and Workforce Committee hearing was a painful experience. The NLRB is updating obsolete election rules that fail to recognize modern developments like e-mail, and which encourage excessive litigation and delay. Yet a panel stacked with anti-union lawyers attacked the rules as if they were ending American democracy. Meanwhile one witness, a registered nurse from California, offered an opposing view.
What do the new NLRB rules do? First, they require employers to share e-mail addresses and phone numbers with the union seeking an election, so that the union will have more equal access to voters. For many decades the law has required employers to share home addresses, and the NLRB sensibly thinks it is less intrusive to have union supporters call or email than to have them visit you at home. But the panel and the Republican members treated this as if it were the end of privacy as we know it (has even one of them complained about NSA spying on Americans’ phone records or calls?). Brenda Crawford, the registered nurse who testified, said her employer bombarded employees with e-mails and texts in the weeks before the election, in addition to daily anti-union messages at work, including captive audience meetings where nurses were called away from patient care to hear anti-union harangues. When she tried to put out union literature in the employee break room, it was removed. She testified that the company’s ability to campaign throughout the workday, and electronically when the workday ended, overwhelmed the nurses and their union, who had no way to respond.
Solid job growth but sluggish wage growth has been a constant refrain over the last few months. We’ve finally seen 12 consecutive months of job growth above 200,000, but wage growth shows little sign of accelerating. The question that everyone seems to be asking now is, when will wage growth pick up?
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen some employers take a step forward and make a choice to pay higher wages. Corporate profits are near all-time highs, so employers can pay their workers more without having to raise prices. They might even find that workers who are paid more have more company loyalty, leading to better recruitment and retention, and higher productivity. It’s a reminder that the path we’ve chosen—one where economic gains are disproportionately enjoyed by those at the top—is a choice.
Policy can help turn this around. Minimum wage increases across the country are a good example. In 2014, 18 states, where 47 percent of all U.S. workers reside, increased their minimum wage. And this change made a difference: while real hourly wages fell or stagnated across the board last month, low wage workers actually saw a modest wage increase.
The good news is, today’s jobs report was positive overall. February’s gain of 295,000 jobs continues a favorable trend. At this rate, economy will return to pre-recession labor market health in about two years.
One thing about this month’s report was different, however. As I noted yesterday, my expectation for coming months was for the unemployment rate to hold steady, or at least fall relatively slowly, given the underlying pace of job growth. This was because I expected more prime-age workers to re-enter the labor market as it improved. Given this, I was a little surprised by the 0.2 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate last month. This drop in unemployment was primarily because the labor force shrank, as employment growth in the household survey was just 96,000. (Admittedly, the household survey is far more volatile than the establishment survey, so month-to-month changes should be taken with a grain of salt.)
My guess is that the overall trends I highlighted yesterday are more likely to hold in coming months: participation will firm up, making the unemployment rate fall less slowly than the pace of job growth might normally make us expect. That’s what we saw in January and I think that trend will continue in the upcoming months, even if it didn’t hold this month.
When the February Employment Situation report is released tomorrow, I will be looking at three particular numbers: nominal wage growth, labor force participation, and the unemployment rate. Yes, I will also be looking at the overall jobs numbers, long-term unemployment, and everything else, but I am watching these three gauges in particular for indications of the strength of the recovery’s impact on workers.
While the economy has continued to add jobs, the most watched indicator—particularly by Federal Reserve policymakers and those who monitor the Fed’s actions—is wages. Nominal (non-inflation adjusted) average hourly wages for private sector workers has been rising slowly, at around 2 percent, the last several years. There has been lots of talk of when the Federal Reserve should raise interest rates in order to keep inflation at bay, even though, in this economic environment, there is no need to even begin talking about setting a date to slow the economy down. Wages are simply showing no signs of producing inflationary pressures.
We track nominal wage growth every month, and it’s abundantly clear that this indicator is far below target. What’s more, slowing down the economy prematurely would be especially deleterious to lower-wage workers and to workers of color. We need to give the economy a real chance to recover, and give workers a chance at decent wage increases, before we slow the economy down by raising interest rates. Remember that wage growth has been sluggish for many years, so in order for workers to make up that lost ground wages needs to start rising at a good clip.
Update: Binyamin Appelbaum has made a useful change to his article that I comment on below, noting that Black workers do indeed stand to benefit disproportionately from any demand boost that keeps overall unemployment rates falling in coming years. Again, however, I think that while he makes an important point, it still doesn’t strike me as right to frame it as about the limits of monetary policy. His point (as I read it) is that the gap in unemployment rates between Black and White workers is an economic problem that policymakers should seek to end, but this end-goal of no racial unemployment gap at all cannot be achieved with any single policy lever.
But while an expansionary monetary policy is not a sufficient condition to erase the racial unemployment gap, it is a necessary condition. That is, the first step towards tearing down racial bias in hiring is to rob employers of the economic power they can use to indulge this bias. And the best way to rob them of this economic power is to have tight labor markets that force employers to compete to hire workers. So, macroeconomic policy (which is dominated by the Federal Reserve) is just crucial to meeting the long-run goal of ending racial unemployment gaps.
Finally, while the existence of a racial unemployment gap in both good and bad times is a terrible problem, it’s an even bigger problem when the respective White and Black unemployment rates are 5.3 and 11.3 percent (like they were in 2014) than when they are 3.5 and 7.6 percent (like they were in 2000). So while ending the racial unemployment gap entirely should be the long-game, we also need to be keenly aware of what can alleviate economic pain in the short run. And that short-run is just dominated by what the Fed decides to do.
Simply put, the most effective policy lever to reduce the black unemployment rate in the next few years is for the Fed to keep its foot off the economic brakes by keeping short-term interest rates low until we see real signs of healthy wage growth for American workers.
Binyamin Appelbaum gets one deeply wrong in the New York Times, riffing off a report released by the Center for Popular Democracy with (full disclosure) data assistance from EPI and concludes with a version of the old saying that the Fed’s “hammer” can’t effectively address non-nail problems like excessive unemployment.
Appelbaum notes that the report shows that Black unemployment rates are significantly higher than White (or overall) unemployment rates in both recessions and recoveries. Fair enough. And if his conclusions had simply been that because the gap persists in both booms and busts that monetary policy alone cannot completely erase these unemployment gaps, that would also have been fair enough.
But instead he pushed this idea way too far, and ended getting something completely wrong. In his words (brackets and emphasis added by me):
“The same factors [that keep unemployment rates higher for Black workers in both good times and bad] help to explain why black workers are quicker to lose jobs and slower to return to work. Any given level of economic stimulus, as a result, helps black workers less than it helps white workers.”
This is totally backwards. Because Black unemployment is almost exactly double White unemployment in both recessions and booms, this means that Black workers are indeed “quicker to lose jobs” during recoveries, but they are actually faster, not “slower” to return to work. And any given level of economic stimulus reduces Black unemployment by twice as many percentage points as it reduces White unemployment, helping Black workers more than it helps White workers. In short, as the CPD report shows, the stakes regarding at what pace the economy improves and overall unemployment falls are highest for Black workers. And this means that the stakes regarding Fed decisions are highest for Black workers.
In 2004, California enacted a nurse-to-patient ratio law. To this day, California is the only state with a nurse-to-patient ratio law. On most hospital wards, the law mandates a minimum ratio of one nurse for every five patients; within Intensive Care Units, the ratio is one to two (1:2). These mandated ratios are typically higher than the prevailing ratios prior to 2004. In fact, nurse employment rose approximately 15 percent after 2004 as a result of the law. The intent of the law was to improve care for patients and although no consensus has yet been reached, studies have shown that the law has improved patient care in a variety of domains.
My colleagues and I addressed a different research question: Could the law have improved safety for the nurses themselves? We found that it did; occupational injury and illness rates dropped over 30 percent. This is important, in part, because the nursing occupation generates more occupational injuries to women than any other occupation. We used data on work injuries resulting in at least one day of work loss among registered nurses and licensed practical nurses. These data were drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. This Survey, authorized by the OSHA law, has been collecting information on occupational injuries and illnesses from 160,000 to over 250,000 private establishments since the1970s.
Our data were annual injury and illness rates (cases per total number of employed) from 1999 through 2009. We used the difference-in-differences approach. The rates before 2004 were subtracted from the rates after 2004 within California. This California subtracted difference was then compared to a similar subtracted difference before and after 2004 for the other 49 states. In scientific language, California was the “intervention group” and the other 49 states were the “control group.” The subtracted difference for California was more than 30 percent larger than the difference for the other 49 states for both registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.
There are many mechanisms whereby greater numbers of nurses taking care of the same number of patients may result in fewer nurse injuries. For example, many nurses injure their backs they try to move patients. The nurse may weigh 130 pounds and the patient weighs 200 pounds. Back injuries have been shown to be much less frequent when two nurses lift a patient, rather than one.
Although the study did not address costs, it is likely that the law resulted in lower worker’s compensation costs because employment grew by 15 percent whereas injuries per employed nurse dropped by 30 percent.
Our results suggest that other state legislatures should consider the benefits to nurse safety that could result from enacting laws setting minimum nurse-to-patient ratios.
Business Roundtable Study Fails the Laugh Test: The U.S. Trade Deficit has Cost Millions of U.S. Jobs
The United States had a goods and services trade deficit of approximately $463.5 billion in 2013, which cost millions of U.S. jobs. Contrary to the well agreed-upon fact that trade deficits lead to job loss, the Business Roundtable (BRT) has sponsored a study which claims to show that U.S. goods and services trade (both imports and exports) supported nearly 40 million U.S. jobs in 2013. They achieve these results with a highly distorted model which looks at what would happen if all U.S. exports and imports of goods and services were eliminated “by imposing prohibitive duties against” U.S. goods and service trade.
The silliness of this approach is obvious. The BRT study arrives at its conclusions by assessing how many people would be out of work if the vast majority of workers involved in producing or using traded goods just stopped working. But that’s not how the economy works in the real world. If one assumes away 30 percent of the U.S. economy, one of course assumes away about 30 percent of the jobs. It’s irrelevant to the policy question of whether our trade should be balanced, and it falsely assumes that imports have the same positive employment impacts as exports, when, in fact, imports tend to reduce domestic employment by reducing domestic production.
Using a simple and straightforward macroeconomic model described here, I estimate that the U.S. trade deficit resulted in a net loss of 5.3 million U.S. jobs in 2013. Claims that U.S. trade deficits supported millions of U.S. jobs cannot be justified with any reasonable set of macroeconomic models or assumptions.
The BRT study also claims that two massive, proposed trade and investment deals (the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) would benefit the U.S. economy. It supports the claim by imagining what would happen if all trade with these countries were eliminated—a proposal no one has made. Any serious debate must focus on how the deals will affect trade at the margin, whether they will do more to stimulate exports or imports, and whether they will increase or decrease U.S. trade deficits. Most other major trade investment deals, including those with Mexico, Korea, and China, have resulted in growing trade deficits and job losses, so the burden of proof is on those who support these deals to show that they will have different outcomes. The study sheds no light on these questions because its assumptions are fatally flawed.
The fact is, the United States had a goods and services trade deficit of approximately $135 billion in 2013 with the European Union and members of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. This trade deficit made up 29.2 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit in 2013, and was responsible for approximately 1.5 million of the total of 5.3 million U.S. jobs displaced by the U.S. trade deficit in 2013.
The fact that unions are responsible for workplace benefits, higher wages, and the right to overtime pay is the very reason Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Koch Bothers, and other corporate interests hate them. Walker hates unions so much he compared them to ISIL terrorists, so it’s no wonder that he and Wisconsin’s Republican legislature are rushing through a “right-to-work” (RTW) bill.
RTW laws were originally designed by business groups in the 1940s to reduce union strength and finances, and over the years they’ve been successful. As Melanie Trotman of the Wall Street Journal pointed out to me this morning, none of the 10 states with the highest rates of unionization are right-to-work. The Illinois Economic Policy Institute calculates that RTW reduces union coverage by 9.6 percentage points, on average. Unsurprisingly, weakening unions leads to lower wages and salaries for union and non-union workers alike. Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould showed that RTW is associated with a $1,500 reduction in annualized wages, on average, even when the analysis takes into account lower prices in those states. (On average, wages in RTW states are nearly $6,000 less.)
Nevertheless, RTW supporters look at the very recent experience of Michigan and Indiana, which passed RTW laws in 2013 and 2012, respectively, to argue that RTW doesn’t inevitably lead to wage reductions. It’s a misguided argument, since no critic claims that the effects of RTW are immediate: It takes a little time for RTW to reduce dues collections, weaken union finances, undermine organizing, and weaken the bargaining position of workers. The law hasn’t even begun to apply to many contracts in Michigan.
In December I showed that growing trans-Pacific trade deficits would set the stage for growing trade-related job displacement. New data released this month show that the U.S. trade deficit with the countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) increased to an unexpectedly large $265.1 billion in 2014, as shown in the updated graph, below. This increase is further proof that U.S. workers don’t need another job-killing trade deal, which would undoubtedly grow the trade deficit even more.
In addition, new developments are likely to increase opposition to the deal being crafted behind closed doors by negotiators from the United States and 11 other countries. In a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post, Senator Elizabeth Warren identifies a key way in which the proposed TPP is a dangerous and unnecessary corporate giveaway. The TPP would create special tribunals, or dispute resolution panels, that would allow corporations and foreign investors (but not public interest groups or unions) to challenge U.S. laws “without ever setting foot in a U.S. court.” These deals give corporations special rights to force countries to roll back critical regulations. Right now, for example, Philip Morris is using the process to try force Uruguay to halt new anti-smoking regulations that are designed to improve public health. As Warren concludes, if these dispute panels are included in the final TPP, the only winners will be giant, multinational corporations.
The TPP would also do nothing to combat currency manipulation, which is a major driver of U.S. trade deficits with TPP countries including Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Ending currency manipulation could reduce U.S. trade deficits and increase GDP—creating between 2.3 to 5.8 million jobs—but U.S. Trade Representative Froman has said that it has not been discussed in TPP negotiations.
It’s increasingly clear that the TPP, like past trade and investment deals, would be a bad deal for U.S. workers. The president should not try to push this deal through, and Congress should not approve it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics released Real Earnings for January 2015 today, which lets us look at trends in real (inflation adjusted) wages over the month and year. We shouldn’t be fooled by month-to-month changes in the real hourly earnings series. According to the report, real hourly wages for private nonfarm employees rose 1.2 percent between December 2014 and January 2015, but the series is volatile so we should not read too much into one month trends. Furthermore, month-to-month inflation fell 0.7 percent, which should put those inflation adjusted earnings series into perspective.
Meanwhile, real wages grew 2.4 percent over the year (between January 2014 and January 2015). While on its surface, this bump up may seem like a positive sign, this higher-than-trend number is largely due to deflation over the year, as the CPI-U, or Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, fell 0.2 percent.
Taken another way, wages unadjusted for inflation (i.e., nominal wages) grew 2.2 percent over the year, very much in line with what we’ve seen for the last five years. You can see from the figure below—pulled from EPI’s nominal wage tracker—that nominal wages have been growing around 2.0 percent a year since 2010. January’s rise in nominal wages is not out of line with this trend.
To the policymakers at the Federal Reserve, nominal wage growth should be 3.5-4.0 percent—consistent with inflation plus productivity growth. Given this, it is clear that the Federal Reserve should not take action to slow the economy down. In fact, the labor market and the economy could withstand wage growth even higher than 4 percent, because while profits are still at record highs, labor’s share of corporate sector income has yet to rise in this recovery.
Nominal wage growth has been far below target in the recovery: Year-over-year change in private-sector nominal average hourly earnings, 2007–2015
|All nonfarm employees||Production/nonsupervisory workers|
* Nominal wage growth consistent with the Federal Reserve Board's 2 percent inflation target, 1.5 percent productivity growth, and a stable labor share of income.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics public data series
Twenty-six states, led by Texas, have convinced federal district court Judge Andrew Hanen to temporarily enjoin two important executive immigration actions—DAPA and the expansion of DACA—which President Obama announced in November of last year. DAPA is the “Deferred Action for Parental Accountability” initiative, which would grant a temporary reprieve from deportation, along with work authorization (known as an employment authorization document or “EAD”) for up to 3.7 million unauthorized immigrants if they have been present in the United States since 2010, are not an enforcement priority, and are the parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. DACA is “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” announced in 2012, which grants similar relief from deportation and an EAD, but was created to protect younger unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as minors. The original version of DACA from 2012 is not at issue in the litigation—only the expansion of DACA announced by the president, which could cover an estimated additional 300,000 persons.
I do not believe the 26 states will win on the merits of the case—either in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals or at the U.S. Supreme Court—and thereby end DAPA or expanded DACA, though some scholars and lawyers are arguing that they will. But it’s important to be clear about what Judge Hanen’s ruling means exactly. First, he ruled that states like Texas were likely to be harmed by the DAPA and expanded DACA initiatives because of the costs imposed on states by federal requirements when states issue driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Because of this potential harm, which could be redressed by the court ruling to stop DAPA/expanded DACA, Judge Hanen reasoned the states had standing to sue the government. Then, his legal reasoning justifying the injunction—which halts DAPA and expanded DACA while the merits of the case are litigated—was based on the states’ complaint that the government failed to comply with certain procedural rules in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when creating DAPA/expanded DACA. Because Judge Hanen believes the states are likely to win on their APA claim, he halted the government’s future implementation of DAPA and expanded DACA.
Judge Hanen’s opinion does not enjoin the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigration enforcement priorities or other executive immigration actions announced on November 20, 2014. Only the affirmative application process for deferred action under DAPA and expanded DACA are temporarily halted from getting underway. Yet even if the states ultimately prevail on the merits of their claims, it will only be a temporary victory, because the president has alternative means available to him that are legal and would achieve all or most of the goals of his DACA and expanded DACA initiatives. Read more
Yesterday, I released a report that looked at the most recent reliable data on Americans’ wages—by decile and by educational attainment, through 2014. These data are illuminating, because they let us look beneath the hood on the overall wage story, going beyond the topline trends that are usually covered by the media.
The recovery has entered a period of solid job growth. That good news shouldn’t be overstated—if we continue to see 2014’s average rate of job growth, it will still be 2017 before we return to pre-recession labor market health—but the economy has been adding jobs at a respectable clip. However, decent wage growth has yet to be seen.
From 2013 to 2014, real, inflation-adjusted hourly wages stagnated or fell across the board, with one notable, revealing exception.
Let’s start at the top of the wage distribution: those workers with the most education and the highest wages. Over the last year, real wages at the top of the wage distribution fell—by 0.7 percent at the 90th percentile and 1.0 percent at the 95th percentile. Real wages fell for workers with a 4-year college degree—a drop of 1.3 percent—and even more for those workers with an advanced degree—a decline of 2.2 percent. This sends a clear message: If even these groups of highly educated workers facing the lowest rates of unemployment are seeing outright wage declines, there is clearly lots of slack left in the American labor market, and policymakers—particularly the Federal Reserve—should not try to slow the recovery down in an effort to keep wage and price inflation in check. They’re both already firmly in check even for the most privileged workers.
This post originally appeared on TalkPoverty.org.
In a report released this week, I found that 2014 continued a 35-year trend of broad-based wage stagnation.
Real, inflation-adjusted hourly wages stagnated or fell across the board, with one notable, glimmer of positive news: Unlike the rest of the wage distribution, wages actually increased at the 10th percentile between 2013 and 2014.
The figure below shows changes in real hourly wages throughout the wage distribution between 2013 and 2014. What is particularly striking is that almost every decile and the 95th percentile experienced real wage declines from 2013 to 2014, with two exceptions. First, there was a very small increase at the 40th percentile wage, up 3 cents, or 0.3 percent. But a more economically significant increase occurred at the 10th percentile where hourly wages were up 11 cents, or 1.3 percent.
So, why did wages at the bottom tick up when they fell for nearly everyone else? What is so special about that wage that sits below 90 percent and above 10 percent of workers (i.e., is not generally earned by particularly privileged workers)?
Percent change in real hourly wages, by wage percentile, 2013–2014
|Percent change, 2013–2014|
Note: The xth-percentile wage is the wage at which x% of wage earners earn less and (100-x)% earn more.
Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata
The 69th Economic Report of the President (ERP), released this week, has much to recommend it—especially its focus on policies needed to rebuild middle-class economics, including raising the federal minimum wage and increasing job-creating investments in infrastructure, science, and technology. However, the report runs off the road when it turns to trade. The official summary of the report features a chart on trade which claims that “export intensive industries report 17 percent higher average wages than non-export intensive industries.” As I pointed out in a recent blog post on trade and wages, this frequently repeated claim is less than half the story. Wages in import-competing industries (not shown in the ERP chart) are also much higher than in non-traded industries, and also substantially higher than the jobs supported by exports. Worse yet, growing trade deficits have eliminated many more good jobs in import competing industries than are supported by exports. So, on balance, U.S. trade has eliminated many more good jobs than are supported in exporting industries. For middle-class working Americans, trade and globalization has indeed caused a race to the bottom in jobs and wages.
As I’ve written before, a good illustration is provided by U.S. trade with China, which was responsible for nearly half (46.5 percent) of our $736.8 billion goods trade deficit in 2014. Jobs in industries exporting to China did pay well in 2009–2011 (the last years for which we have complete wage data)—an average of $872.89 per week, or 10.3 percent more than workers making non-traded goods and services (who earned only $791.14 per week), as shown in the figure below. However, workers in import-competing industries were paid even better—an average of $1,021.66 per week, or 29.1 percent more than workers in non-traded industries.
Average weekly wages* in different industries affected by U.S. trade with China
|Average weekly wages*|
* Average wages by education group are from a 3-year pooled sample of workers by industry from 2009–2011.
Source: Author's analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata
Examined in isolation, jobs in industries supported by exports look good (at least when they are compared to jobs in non-traded industries). But those jobs come at a huge price to workers displaced by imports, and to all workers forced to compete with the growing surge of imports from low-wage countries.
Outsourcing by the thousands
The outsourcing companies involved in the Southern California Edison (SCE) scandal I wrote about last week—where U.S. workers were replaced with H-1B guestworkers—are Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. These two India-based IT firms specialize in outsourcing and offshoring, are major publicly traded companies with a combined market value of about $115 billion, and are the top two H-1B employers in the United States. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, Infosys ranked first with 6,269 H-1B petitions approved by the government, and Tata ranked second with 6,193. As with the SCE scandal, these leading offshore outsourcing firms use the H-1B program to replace American workers and to facilitate the offshoring of American jobs. Because of this, it’s likely that Americans lost more than 12,000 jobs to H-1B workers in just one year. FY13 H-1B data I’ve analyzed, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals new details about how firms like Infosys and Tata are using the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program. Spoiler alert: they don’t use the H-1B visa as a way to alleviate a shortage of STEM-educated U.S. workers; they use it primarily to cut labor costs. But the other main arguments proffered to support an expansion of the H-1B program are easily debunked with even a cursory look at the H-1B data.
The principal reason that firms use H-1Bs to replace American workers is because H-1B nonimmigrant workers are much cheaper than locally recruited and hired U.S. workers. As Table 1 shows, Infosys and Tata pay very low wages to their H-1B workers. The average wage for an H-1B employee at Infosys in FY13 was $70,882 and for Tata it was $65,565. Compare this to the average wage of a Computer Systems Analyst in Rosemead, CA (where SCE is located), which is $91,990 (according to the U.S. Department of Labor). That means Infosys and Tata save well over $20,000 per worker per year, by hiring an H-1B instead of a local U.S. worker earning the average wage. But at SCE specifically, the wage savings are much greater. SCE recently commissioned a consulting firm, Aon-Hewitt, to conduct a compensation study, which showed that SCE’s IT specialists were earning an average annual base pay of $110,446. That means Tata and Infosys are getting a 36 to 41 percent savings on labor costs—or saving about $40,000 to $45,000 per worker per year.
Below Average Wages for Infosys and Tata’s H-1B Workers Compared to SCE Employees and Local Average Wage (FY13)
|H-1B Rank||Firm||New H-1Bs Received||Median Wage||Average Wage|
|2||Tata Consultancy Services||6,163||$65,500||$65,565|
|Annual Wages for Computer Systems Analyst in Los Angeles CA (where SCE is Headquartered)||$90,376||$91,990|
|SCE Workers: Average Base Pay for IT Specialists/Engineers (2013)||$110,466|
Dear Mr. Secretary:
Several newspapers and journals, including Computerworld and the L.A. Times, have reported that Southern California Edison (SCE), a public utility, has laid off hundreds of its U.S. employees and replaced them with H-1B guestworkers employed by the India-based IT services firms Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. As my colleague, Ron Hira, has written, “Adding to the injustice, American workers losing their jobs are being forced to do “knowledge transfers,” an ugly euphemism that means being forced to train your own foreign replacement.”
As you know, the law (the Immigration and Nationality Act) forbids the hiring of H-1B temporary foreign guestworkers whose employment would “adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers comparably employed.” Clearly, taking away the jobs, wages and benefits of the laid-off SCE employees does adversely affect their wages and working conditions.
You have authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to investigate this case, but I have seen no announcement that you intend to do so or that you share my sense of outrage that the H-1B program is being abused in such an egregious way. I hope that we will soon learn that the Department of Labor intends to investigate and remedy this harm to skilled U.S. workers who have pursued education and training in a technical field, worked hard, and played by the rules. Our government should, at the very least, ensure that its programs, including its visa programs, are not used to destroy the careers and financial security of its people.
Economic Policy Institute
Rampant wage theft in the United States is a huge problem for struggling workers. Surveys reveal that the underpayment of owed wages can reduce affected workers’ income by 50 percent or more. Most recently, a careful study of minimum wage violations in New York and California in 2011 commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) determined that the affected employees’ lost weekly wages averaged 37–49 percent of their income. This wage theft drove between 15,000 and 67,000 families below the poverty line. Another 50,000–100,000 already impoverished families were driven deeper into poverty.
The extensive weekly minimum wage violations uncovered by the DOL study in California and New York alone amount to an estimated $1.6 billion–$2.5 billion over the course of a full year. Given that the combined population of California and New York is 18.5 percent of the U.S. total, it is reasonable to estimate that minimum wage violations nationwide amount to at least $8.6 billion a year, and as much as $13.8 billion a year. On the one hand, violations in these two states might be less frequent because the wage and hour enforcement effort in New York and California is greater than in most states and violations might be deterred (Florida, for example, does not have a state labor department). But on the other hand, their large immigrant populations might increase the prevalence of wage theft—the DOL study found that non-citizens were 1.6 to 3.1 times more likely to suffer from a minimum wage violation.
The DOL study vastly understates the total impact of wage theft because it reported only on minimum wage violations, which are more frequent than overtime violations but usually involve smaller per violation dollar amounts than many overtime pay violations. A bookkeeper, for example, earning an annual salary of $45,000, who works 10 hours of unpaid overtime a week might lose $325, whereas a minimum wage worker forced to work “off-the-clock” unpaid for 10 hours would lose “only” $72.50, or ten times the state minimum wage if it were higher than the federal minimum. (Overtime violations are very frequent among low wage workers: a 2009 study found that on a weekly basis, 19 percent of front-line workers in low wage industries were cheated out of overtime pay to which they were entitled.)
DOL’s new study shows the need for much greater efforts to ensure employer compliance. Helpfully, the president has called for increases in the budget and staffing of the Wage and Hour Division, but Congress should revisit the obsolete penalties for non-compliance: repeated or willful violations of the minimum wage and overtime requirements are subject to a maximum fine of only $1,100.
This week was a milestone for Apple. As its stock continues to rise, its market cap exceeded $700 billion—the largest valuation ever achieved by any U.S. company. This milestone, however, must be viewed with considerably less admiration after one takes a close look at its new “supplier responsibility” report. The report reveals important information about one of the less appetizing ingredients of Apple’s vast success: the continued mistreatment of the workers who make its products. The report shows that widespread labor rights violations can still be found in Apple’s massive supply chain, and that Apple continues to obfuscate these realities in its public communications on the subject.
Apple fails to report that its own data shows that labor practices are getting worse in several important areas. In its new report, which covers 2014, Apple says that in 92 percent of cases, the workweeks of the employees in its supply chain fell below its 60 hours per week standard. Apple fails to report that this compliance rate is down from the 2013 compliance rate of 95 percent. In 2014, Apple found that the overall labor rights compliance rate in the area of Health and Safety was 70 percent; it fails to state that this is down from the 2013 compliance rate of 77 percent. Notably, while Apple fails to report prior year data on those issues, which reveal negative trends, the report does provide such data on other topics—those where this year’s data is better than that of prior years.
The effects of Apple’s reforms are often dubious and overstated by the company. For example, in reporting that 92 percent of the time workers in its supply chain are working less than 60 hours per week, Apple ignores the fact that workweeks at its Chinese factories still consistently break Chinese law, which restricts workweeks to less than 50 hours and which Apple has repeatedly pledged to uphold. The average workweek Apple reports still exceeds this legal limit by a substantial margin. Apple also continues to make the remarkable claim that nearly all its suppliers have achieved freedom of association (the right to organize unions and bargain collectively), saying its suppliers achieved 96 percent compliance with this standard. As Apple is aware, such freedom is non-existent in China. Independent unions are illegal. Workers who try to form them go to jail. Moreover, the information available about a program run by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which was supposedly going to provide a greater voice for Apple’s workers (within the cramped confines of Chinese law), indicates it has fallen woefully short of its stated goals. Further, Apple touts training programs under which, according to the company, 2.3 million workers were trained in labor rights in 2014. This is a large number, to be sure; unfortunately, it is the suppliers themselves, not worker rights advocates or worker representatives (and not even Apple or its new training academy), that provide this training—and Apple provides no substantive information on its actual content or impact. Independent reports indicate that this management-provided training may be entirely cursory. (Apple’s repudiation of the use of bonded foreign labor was a positive step, but does not address the much larger, multi-faceted problem within Apple’s supply chain in China of the excessive use of domestic labor hired through dispatch agencies.)
Trade is a hot topic on Capitol Hill this year. President Obama has asked members of Congress for “fast track” trade promotion authority in order to finalize proposed trade deals with Asia and Europe that set the stage for growing, trade-related job displacement. One of the president’s core, frequently repeated arguments for these trade and investment deals is that “our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages.” But that’s less than half the story. Trade is a two-way street, and talking about exports without considering imports is like keeping score in a baseball game by counting only the runs scored by the home team. It might make you feel good, but it won’t tell you who’s winning the game. Sadly, when it comes to trade and wages, trade is driving down the average wages of American workers because the United States runs large trade deficits with the world as a whole, including many countries in Asia and Europe—the regions targeted in current trade negotiations.
A case in point is provided by U.S. trade with China, which was responsible for nearly half (46.5 percent) of our $736.8 billion goods trade deficit in 2014. Jobs in industries exporting to China did pay well in 2009-2011 (the last years for which we have complete wage data)—an average of $872.89 per week, or 10.3 percent more than workers making non-traded goods and services (who earned only $791.14 per week), as shown in the figure below. However, workers in import-competing industries were paid even better—an average of $1,021.66 per week, or 29.1 percent more than workers in non-traded industries.