As people start returning to work in greater numbers, the question of how to boost and sustain economic recovery will come more sharply into relief. For the answer, we should look to how states like Washington have been laying the ground for resiliency and prosperity over the last several years. This crisis is hitting Americans across the nation hard, but some states, including mine, will have a head start on recovering.
One key to resiliency is better pay. When people are paid more and have more money in their pockets they are better able to withstand a job loss and will be able to recover more quickly when they are back at work. And their greater earning and spending will help businesses recover more quickly too.
While people may remember that the Fight for $15 achieved its first victories in Washington State, what is less known is that the state remains a leader in raising wages. The minimum wage in the city of SeaTac, which voted to enact a $15 minimum wage in 2013, is now up to $16.34/hour. Seattle enacted a $15 law in 2014, and the minimum wage for most employees is now $16.39. Washington State now has the highest state minimum wage in the nation, $13.50, the result of a voter approved initiative in 2016. Just last year, Governor Inslee broke national ground again, with an executive order, gradually raising the salary cap under which overtime must be paid to 2.5 times the minimum wage by 2028. That order strengthens overtime protections for 400,000 hard working Americans in Washington.
The current crisis finally spurred the federal government to enact short-term COVID-related paid sick days and family leave, which applies only to employers with fewer than 500 employees. But Washington state lawmakers were well ahead of them. In 2012, working people in all sizes of Seattle employers began accruing paid sick days, followed by Tacoma in 2016. And by 2018, working people all around the state earned paid sick days, after action by the state legislature. By 2020, working people could take up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave if they were seriously ill, or needed to care for a newborn child or sick family member, under a newly established social insurance program, financed by payroll premiums on employees and some employers.
The list of innovations goes on. One widespread abuse of service sector workers is last minute scheduling, which wreaks havoc on a person’s ability to plan their lives: childcare, work another job, relax on a day off. But starting in 2017, Seattle has required large retail and food service employers to post the work schedules of their employees 14 days in advance. If the schedule then changes, the employees can either refuse to work the changed schedule or if they choose to work, they will receive additional compensation. Starting last year Seattle extended basic labor protections to domestic workers. Both Washington State and the City of Seattle make community college tuition free, which will be particularly important as young people often have the greatest difficulty getting jobs when economies recover.
And in passing the nation’s first long-term care insurance fund last year, which will provide up to $36,500 a year in coverage, Washington is pioneering what I am sure history will consider a major advance in the national social insurance system, when a future federal government follows the state’s lead.
Given all this and more, it’s no surprise that Oxfam ranked Washington the best state for workers. But what would shock the business lobbyists, conservative economists and politicians who say over and over again that “raising wages kills jobs,” is that CNBC ranked us the best state in which to do business. If they were right that regulations that require corporations to share their wealth more equitably with employees were economic poison, Washington would rank dead last.
As Congress wrestles with how to recover from COVID, it should look to states like Washington — and there are other great examples around the country — as models. The fastest path to recovery and the only path to long term prosperity, along with a functioning democracy, is to pass laws and policies that benefit working people, so they can drive our economy forward.
A few pieces I read that resonated with me this week:
Stay safe and healthy!