Workers are Asking: What About Us?
As the presidency has continued, more and more people wonder if Trump’s presidency favors employers over workers and their rights.
The president who built his campaign on support of American workers and sympathy for labor unions is now only helping employers at the expense of workers.
This is the sentiment of many employees around the United States as their hopes for increased worker rights and attention slowly diminish. One New York Times article recounts their disappointment, calling it a “war on worker rights.”
Workers’ wages are being questioned with tightening qualifications on who is eligible for minimum wage and who must be paid overtime. Sexual orientation may become grounds for termination. OSHA even has a has a record-low number of workplace safety inspectors.
These changes raise flags for many workers around the country, and they feel as though their rights, safety, and economic welfare are being hugely jeopardized. Many argue the administration does not care about workers, and it wants to undermine state regulators and prevent workers from protecting their own interests through collective bargaining.
For example: President Trump said in his 2016 campaign that he supported a $10 federal minimum hourly wage. However, since his taking office, he has not sought to increase minimum wage—which currently rests at $7.25 an hour. Instead, the administration has tried to “limit worker pay.” In April of 2019, the Labor Department ruled that workers for an unidentified cleaning company, and other similar businesses, were contractors rather than employees and therefore were not entitled to be paid a minimum wage or overtime or have the company pay a portion of their Social Security taxes.
Conversations about overtime and salaried pay has also changed under the administration. Most full-time, salaried workers who earn less than a federally defined ceiling are eligible for overtime. The Obama administration aimed to expand eligibility for overtime pay.
History lesson: In the 1970s, over 60 percent of workers qualified for this. Because Congress did not adjust the threshold for salary and economy inflation, the share of eligible workers fell to just seven percent by 2016. The Obama administration rehabilitated the rule and raised the salary line to roughly $47,500 and mandated inflation adjustments. However, a federal judge in Texas blocked implementation, and Trump’s administration declined to defend the rule.
In March of 2019, Trump’s administration proposed a new threshold of $35,300. The change would indeed increase the current ceiling of about $23,700 and would benefit an estimated million workers. However, the proposed rule of 2016 would have benefited more than four million workers. Trump’s proposed rule does not include automatic inflation adjustments as Obama’s did, so the benefits of the increase would, once again, “gradually fade away, in effect delivering a windfall to employers.”
The Trump administration has taken some heat on other topics relating to workers’ rights as well. In 2018, the Labor Department started a program that allows employers to report their own violations of federal wage laws and, subsequently, avoid penalties by paying workers the money they are owed. This program has two main points of disagreement. First, the administration has not yet proven that clemency for delinquent companies will produce better results than punishing them. Second, while some employers may be encouraged to acknowledge their wrongdoing, others worry employers will take advantage of the system by underpaying workers now and making amends later.
The topic of gender and sexual orientation in the workplace is also a huge point of distress. The administration has sided with a number of employers in a set of cases that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear regarding the rights of gay and transgender workers. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that federal law bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the administration has taken the opposite view and argued that “existing protections on the basis of sex do not extend to sexual orientation.”
The New York Times’ podcast, The Daily, even had an episode about the flaming debate between the court and the millions of Americans that identify as transgender, and their painful experience with these rulings.
Labor unions have also felt threatened by President Trump, as the federal government has displaced unions as the primary protector of the rights and safety of workers and moved to limit their power by making it harder for workers to join or create them.
For a review of the legal changes the Trump administration has made to labor unions and other forms of collective action, review the New York Times article that explains how other Supreme Court members and the Labor Department have had an impact.
However, we have not yet talked about the administration’s relationship with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA). For one thing, the administration has sharply reduced the ranks of OSHA inspectors: as of January of this year, there were just 875 inspectors—a 14 percent decline since 2010 and the lowest number in the agency’s history, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Why? A large part of it is the slow pace of new hiring. During the first full budget year of the Trump administration, the National Employment Law Project found that the agency did not hire any inspectors. There are two notable cases when a worker lost a finger on the job at an industrial site. In both cases, OSHA did not send an inspector to the plant after the incident.
Many are questioning the administration's current goals toward protecting workers. While these distresses do not apply to everyone, in general, American workers are feeling less protected by their employers and more in jeopardy of limited human and worker rights, having to face the government’s message that every man is for himself.