Labor Day 2009

The US Department of Labor web site on the History of Labor Day states that “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It goes on to say: “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.“

Sadly, there remains a large segment of the labor force that does not share in many of those social and economic achievements. A new report, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities states that more than two-thirds of low-wage workers were paid less than what they were legally owed for the work they did. The report is based on a survey conducted the National Employment Law Project (which is part of Brooklyn Law School’s Public Service Law Program). The survey of more than 4,000 workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles exposes a world of work in which the core protections that many Americans take for granted—the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks, access to workers’ compensation when injured, and the right to advocate for better working conditions—are failing significant numbers of workers.

The Executive Summary states:

In 2008, we conducted a landmark survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. We used an innovative, rigorous methodology that allowed us to reach vulnerable workers who are often missed in standard surveys, such as unauthorized immigrants and those paid in cash. Our goal was to obtain accurate and statistically representative estimates of the prevalence of workplace violations. All findings are adjusted to be representative of front-line workers (i.e. excluding managers, professional or technical workers) in low wage industries in the three cities—a population of about 1.64 million workers, or 15 percent of the combined workforce of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

The report makes three major findings:

  • Finding 1: Workplace Violations Are Severe and Widespread in Low-Wage Labor Markets
  • Finding 2: Job and Employer Characteristics Are Key to Understanding Workplace Violations
  • Finding 3: All Workers Are at Risk of Workplace Violations

The section of the report dealing with solutions states that everyone has a stake in addressing the problem of workplace violations and identifies three key principles that should drive the development of a strong policy agenda at the federal, state and local levels.

  1. Strengthening government enforcement of employment and labor
  2. Updating legal standards for the 21st century labor market
  3. Establishing equal status for immigrants in the workplace