OP-ED: Rebuilding Pennsylvania's middle class


This Labor Day we recognize the incredible achievements of America's working people and celebrate all those who make our country run. Many of us will be busy enjoying the parades, the picnics and the various celebrations and events that bring family and friends together.

All across our state working people are coming together to change public policies and working conditions to restore the value of work and to rebuild our middle class. Joining us are many of our allies and supporters who share our values and beliefs and who once again want to see our nation and our state prosper and become stronger both economically and politically.

Administrative reforms initiated by our U.S. Department of Labor will raise the wages and improve the lives of millions of hard working people across the United States and in Pennsylvania. The changes are part of the president's economic initiatives to level the playing field for working families and which do not require an act by Congress.

A significant reform will extend overtime protections to an estimated 5 million additional workers. Employers will no longer be able to simply designate employees as managerial even when their duties are nearly identical to the employees they manage. This rule change, along with increasing the income threshold in which salaried workers are covered by overtime protections, will raise the wages of more workers, many of whom are 35 and under. The income threshold hasn't been updated since the 1970s. At that time over 65 percentof salaried employees were entitled to time-and-a-half pay for overtime while today only 11 percent are eligible.

Another significant action is the Administrative Interpretation released in July by the U.S. Labor Department that will help end the misclassification of "employees" as contractors or what is often referred as the overuse of 1099 hiring.

The misclassification of workers is a growing problem that, according to a recent study by Temple University Law Professor Jennifer Lee, results in cheating workers out of millions of dollars in wages every week. Lee's study estimates that workers in Pennsylvania lose between $19 million and $32 million every week because of wage theft. Many of these workers, who are misclassified, don't believe that they are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime protections, when in fact, they are. Some of these workers are earning piece rates below the minimum wage and are not paid when travelling between job work sites. The AI notes that the critical determination in independent contractor misclassification claims is whether a worker is genuinely in business for himself or herself.

Just as important is legislation introduced by state Sen. Christine Tartaglione and state Rep. Patty Kim that contains strong anti-wage theft protections and companion legislation that raises Pennsylvania minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Pennsylvania is standing alone, and not for a good reason, as the only state in the region not to have raised the minimum wage above the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. Twenty-nine states have done so. Raising the minimum wage will not only boost the wages of 1.2 million Pennsylvania workers, it will provide an additional boost to local economies especially in rural areas of our state. We must pressure the leaders in the Legislature to let their members vote to raise the minimum wage. Gov. Tom Wolf supports the increase and so does over 70 percent of Pennsylvanians.

As we continue to push for these and many other policy changes which will raise the wages of millions of working Pennsylvanians, we also salute the thousands of workers across Pennsylvania who have just recently formed their unions for a stronger voice on the job. Their success along with a growing union presence in Pennsylvania's economy will help raise the standards for every working family in Pennsylvania.

We also encourage community support for our friends and our neighbors, members of the Communications Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the United Steelworkers, as they continue to stand up for good jobs, defending their retirement security and their health care.

Their struggle is ours because what they are fighting for is what all of us want to achieve for ourselves and our families. All of us deserve to make more than a decent living, we deserve a decent life. It's time America's economic policies put people and families first, instead of the interests of a handful of wealthy and well-connected corporate CEO's. We need to change the debate from "what is good for the economy" to "what is good for America and working people." Enjoy the Labor Day Holiday and please remember to buy Pennsylvania and American made products every time you shop.

— The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO represents over 800,000 union workers.