An economist looking at Vermont statistics can see that the state is benefiting from the U.S. economic expansion, which became
the longest on record last summer: There are more jobs, higher wages, fewer children in poverty.1
At the same time, many Vermonters can look at their paychecks and wonder when the recession is going to end. The state’s
economic growth continues to favor those who are well off, while low- and moderate-income families wait for things to pick up.
Both views are true.
Everyone in Virginia working a full-time job should be paid enough to provide for their family. However, for many this is not the case. Nearly two-thirds of Virginia families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold have at least one adult who is working, yet they are paid too little to make ends meet. Virginia policymakers could raise the wages of working people in Virginia and help families across the commonwealth by raising Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, closing loopholes that currently exclude many Black and Latinx workers, and making sure Virginia’s wage laws are fairly enforced.
The federal minimum wage has eroded significantly since the late 1960s compared to the typical cost of living, median wages, and the economic productivity of working people. Virginia’s current minimum wage, set at $7.25 an hour to match the federal minimum, is the lowest in the country compared to the typical cost of living in the state, according to OxFam’s State of Working America report. The choice to maintain this inadequate minimum that leaves many families behind is a part of a pattern in Virginia of policymakers failing to act to protect working families and instead too often erecting barriers to success, particularly for working families of color. This erosion in the minimum wage has particularly harmed Black and Latinx working people. This is because working people of color in Virginia are more likely than white workers in Virginia to be stuck in low-wage occupations due to ongoing job discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, and other barriers that white people in Virginia are less likely to have faced.
A prosperous New Jersey depends on the livelihood of all our workers. In fact, the state economy benefits most when workers are able to earn fair pay for all the hours they work while balancing employment responsibilities with family obligations. However, millions of people across the nation, including hundreds of thousands in New Jersey, are not covered by overtime protections and risk being exploited for their time.[i] This is a direct result of federal overtime laws that have eroded over time—and the lack of a strong state overtime law—where far too many workers are exempt from the right to earn time-and-a-half when they work over 40 hours a week.
Currently, some salaried white-collar workers who earn more than $23,660 a year can be legally denied overtime pay. These exempted workers (1) are considered “highly compensated,” earning at least $455 per week ($23,660 per year), (2) have primary office or non-manual duties, and (3) pass the “duties test,” a complicated test of employees’ tasks and responsibilities that establish them as a bona fide executive, manager, or highly trained professional.[ii] The federal overtime salary threshold for these exempted workers will increase to $35,568 in 2020, but this still falls significantly short of historical standards.
In many ways, Americans have been given a gift for the last decade – an economic expansion unprecedented in its length. And many of the indicators of the expansion are quite strong: Unemployment levels are very low, particularly for those with college degrees. The nation continues to add jobs each month, though Ohio cannot consistently say the same. And the economy is growing each quarter.
But by other measures, we are far behind previous economic peaks. At this point in the business cycle, labor market participation (the share of those either working or seeking work) should be higher than ever – it is instead lower than in all but one of the last 40 years. After so many years of growth, median wages should be at an all-time high – they are instead lower than they were in 1979, when workers were much less educated and our economy was much less productive. And at this point in the cycle, our elected officials should have used the boom years to be ready for the inevitable bust, by investing in essentials that benefit us all long term. Instead, nationally and in Ohio, policymakers have neglected critical needs, leaving us less equipped to face any looming downturn.