In the News 2014
New York Times, December 6, 2013
The employment report for November shows why fast-food workers across the nation are striking for higher pay and why workers are pushing for a higher minimum wage at the federal, state and local levels.
While the job numbers were stronger than expected last month, they were still weak when measured against today’s needs and historical standards. In November, 203,000 positions were created and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.0 percent. Some of that improvement was a rebound from the partial government shutdown in October. Still, there were real job gains in many industries, and the decline in joblessness reflected more hiring — rather than a shrinking labor force, as has often been the case in recent years.
Unfortunately, job creation remains concentrated in low-income work, including in retail, restaurants and bars. It is little surprise that fast-food workers have been organizing and agitating for better pay. Their employers are adding jobs and earning profits, but pay is stuck around $9 an hour. A recent study found that more than half of fast-food workers rely on public assistance. A wage increase — the strikers are asking for $15 an hour — would clearly help them, and everyone else, because the public aid they require costs taxpayers an estimated $7 billion a year.
Employers, however, have been unresponsive. There was no evidence of accelerating wage growth in November. While there have been recent minimum wage increases by several communities, including a new hourly minimum of $15 for workers at SeaTac Airport outside Seattle, the proposal by congressional Democrats for an increase in the federal hourly minimum from $7.25 to $10.10 is years away from becoming a reality.
In the meantime, Congress should not make things worse. It should not allow federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed to expire as scheduled at the end of the year. Some 4.1 million Americans — 37.3 percent of the nation’s 10.9 million unemployed workers — have been out of work for more than six months. Yet despite the obvious need for continued aid, lawmakers are wrangling over whether the benefits should be renewed as part of a budget deal, separate from a budget deal or at all.
Congress should package together a renewal of jobless benefits with other vital program extensions, including payments to doctors under Medicare and tax relief for foreclosed homeowners. Beyond addressing those immediate issues, Americans need Congress to move away from the misguided budget-deficit obsession of the past few years and to address what President Obama referred to on Wednesday as the “deficit of opportunity.” And that means more federal spending for job creation, job training and improved education, as well as updated labor and immigration standards to support wages.