In the back of the restaurant, out of sight of the patrons, an employee is trying to avoid sneezing on your dinner.
He shouldn’t be there. He should be home in bed, but he can’t afford to stay home because his wages barely cover his expenses and his employer does not provide paid sick leave. Working sick is one reality of the new American economy.
The movement to require employers to provide sick leave has not taken hold in New Mexico so far. Legislation on this issue is not expected in the upcoming 2016 session. What is expected is another attempt to pass right-to-work.
Right-to-work is the principle that a worker employed in a unionized company or organization should not be required to join a union or pay union dues in order to keep his job. Supporters say the lack of right-to-work is holding New Mexico back because businesses won’t come to a non-right-to-work state. Opponents say that’s based on outdated information.
There’s even a dispute about whether right-to-work is intended to damage or weaken unions. Right-to-work advocates say it isn’t. That’s nonsense. Intended or not, it will damage them.
A friend who favors right-to-work says unions are not really needed any more because the important rights of workers are safeguarded by laws. Labor unions were needed in the past, she says, but all the reforms that organized labor fought for are now enforced by government agencies.
But laws can be changed. There are powerful business interests that would like nothing better than to roll back those protections.
Organized labor gave us policies we take for granted today: things like the 40-hour week, overtime pay, the minimum wage, limits on child labor, and workplace safety standards. Young working people may not even know the history: their forebears bled and died for these things.
But when we look at the state of labor today, we see that those principles are in jeopardy from directions that were not anticipated – like the reduction in hours imposed by some companies so that workers will not qualify for the benefits full-time employees receive.
Labor unions were in their heyday in a prior generation, and no doubt some took advantage, making exorbitant demands of employers and padding the pockets of their own leaders. It seemed then that labor may have been too powerful, sometimes at the expense of small business, sometimes burdening consumers. There was a legitimate argument for cutting some of their power.
That has been done. Arguably, it’s gone too far. Big corporations in service industries that employ moderately skilled workers, like retail and restaurants, can set low wage levels and keep the extra profits. Low-wage workers may qualify for public assistance. So we are in effect subsidizing the employers with the worst employment practices out of our taxes and adding to the national debt. Superficially, it can be made to appear as if low-wage workers are taking advantage of public assistance programs – but it’s not hard to calculate that big business really benefits.
If organized labor does not have the strength or money to continue defending the existing rights of workers, those rights are in jeopardy. If the right-to-work bill comes back this year, remember that.
I share the concerns of small businesses about how they would be affected by new mandates like a higher minimum wage or mandatory sick leave for workers. On the other hand, in the USA, every adult who works full-time should be able to survive on the wages of one job, and should have a way to stay home when sick so he doesn’t have to sneeze on your dinner.
New Mexico is still a small business state. Let’s figure this out.