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Labor Report

Prospects for $15 Federal Minimum Wage Suffer with Parliamentary Ruling in US Senate

Prospects for the adoption of President Biden’s $15 minimum wage proposal suffered a major setback on February 25th when the U.S. Senate parliamentarian advised members that including the minimum wage language in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package would violate of the chamber’s Byrd rule for budget reconciliation.

The parliamentarian determined that the budgetary impact of the minimum wage raise is “merely incidental” to the underlying intent of the policy proposal, Roll Call reported. The Congressional Budget Office earlier this month calculated that the policy would increase the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years.

The U.S. House was due to vote on the broader COVID-19 package on February 26th. Despite the new obstacle in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her chamber would vote on the bill as scheduled with the minimum wage language intact.

“House Democrats believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary,” Pelosi said in a statement, according to Roll Call. “Therefore, this provision will remain in the American Rescue Plan on the floor (Friday).”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not said how the legislation will be handled in Congress’ upper chamber, but senior White House officials have said that U.S. Senate Democrats are not planning to disregard the parliamentarian’s advice and that the president “respects the decision and the Senate process,” Roll Call reported.

Even without the procedural hurdle, the minimum wage language and the broader COVID-19 package faced daunting prospects in the U.S. Senate, which is split 50-50 between the Democratic caucus (including two independents) and Republicans. Two Democrats have said they oppose the $15 proposal: Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Outside the reconciliation process, opponents of a bill may use a filibuster to delay a vote on the legislation indefinitely. At least 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster and force a vote on the bill.

Also on February 25th, one of the $15 minimum wage’s leading proponents in the U.S. Senate, independent Bernie Sanders, chaired a Budget Committee hearing examining minimum wage from the perspective of workers who must rely on taxpayer-funded social programs to supplement the wages they receive from large corporate employers.

Sanders titled the hearing pointedly, “Should taxpayers subsidize poverty wages at large profitable corporations?”

The Vermont senator cited corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Dollar General for paying insufficient wages while many of their employees turn to SNAP, Medicaid, and housing assistance to meet their basic needs. Sanders said he invited officials from those companies to testify, but they declined. Conversely, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek willingly testified and used the opportunity to announce a new $16 minimum wage for the company’s hourly employees.

Philly Health Department Research Documents Tie Between Unemployment and Mortality Rates

Researchers for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health have established a direct statistical correlation between chronic unemployment and the mortality rate among the city’s largest racial demographic groups.

A February 17th report issued by the Department is based on analyses of 2017 data by census tract and comes less than a month before the one-year anniversary of the first known COVID-19 case in the city, which issued its first pandemic-related stay-at-home order on March 23rd, 2020.

“Social and economic circumstances are important determinants of health,” the report states. “Factors like poverty and unemployment are associated with food and housing instability, higher rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes, and higher risk of both contracting and dying from COVID-19. Studies have shown a strong link between job loss and subsequent mortality, and a link between unemployment and poor mental health that persists even after retirement. Chronic unemployment, especially among men, is particularly harmful for health.”

For the purposes of the study, researchers defined the “chronic unemployment rate” as the percentage of working-age adults (16-64) who were not employed at any time in the previous 12 months. They defined “mortality rate” as the age-adjusted number of people who died per 100,000 population in 2017.

“While there is variation among Philadelphia’s census tracts, in general, census tracts with higher rates of chronic unemployment had higher mortality rates,” the report states.

The mortality rate for males increased more sharply that the rate for women as the chronic unemployment rate rose. Census tracts where male unemployment was between 21% and 30% had a mortality rate 28% higher than census tracts where the male unemployment rate was between 0% and 10%. For females, the mortality rate was 8% higher in census tracts with higher unemployment rates.

Generally, mortality rates were higher in census tracts where unemployment was higher, regardless of the predominant ethnic/racial demographic in a given census tract. Yet, mortality rates were higher in predominately Black and predominantly Hispanic census tracts than they were in predominately White census tracts where unemployment rates were comparable.

The report noted that the 2017 data can be used to inform public policy as the city continues to experience elevated unemployment due to the pandemic.

“Unemployment in Philadelphia – as in the country – has spiked (as) a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. “Like so many inequities during the pandemic, that spike has been more pronounced and prolonged among Black and Hispanic/Latinx city residents.”

Health, Labor Issues Persist as PA’s Urban School Districts Seek Return to In-Person Classes

As the School District of Philadelphia and the city’s teachers’ union continue working through a mediator on a school reopening plan, teachers in Pittsburgh are wondering why their city’s public-school officials didn’t engage them before announcing reopening plans.

Meanwhile in Scranton, the district has delayed reopening due to what it described as a staffing shortage and issues with school ventilation systems.

Pittsburgh Public Schools on February 22nd released details about its plan to bring students back into classrooms this spring, according to the Post-Gazette. Instruction has been fully remote in the district since last March. The district said it will return to in-person instruction in phases starting in early April.

“Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said Monday that while teachers should be given precedence for vaccines, ‘it is unrealistic to continue to postpone the reopening of our schools until every teacher is vaccinated,’” the newspaper reported.

The announcement came as a surprise to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. According to the Post-Gazette, the union said it “knew nothing about the district’s plan and first learned about it through the media” on February 23rd.

Local 400 President Nina Esposito-Visgitis told the newspaper that the district is not prepared to re-open and the union has questions about building ventilation, vaccinations, and other issues.

In Scranton, the school board announced on February 23rd that it would delay the planned March 1st return date for teachers, pending the board’s regularly scheduled meeting via Zoom on March 1st at 2 p.m. The Times-Tribune reported students in preschool through second grade are scheduled to start hybrid instruction on March 15th.

The newspaper also reported that more than 50 of about 800 teachers have informed their employer they would be unable to work in-person due to health-related concerns. The Tribune reported that districts in Western Pennsylvania are also experiencing staffing shortages as schools scramble to cover for teachers who are quarantined.

Teacher shortages predate the pandemic, according to the newspaper, with certifications having fallen by 74% statewide in the last eight years, shrinking the pool of full-time and substitute teachers.

In Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite announced on February 25th a second postponement of hybrid learning in the district. Initially, students in kindergarten through second grade were to return on February 22nd, a date that was then postponed to March 1st. Now, the return date is indefinite.

In his latest update, Hite stated, “I am happy to share that the city-led third-party mediation process between the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on the phased reopening of our city’s public schools is nearing conclusion. Details will be finalized over the next few days.”

Home Depot Reports Record Income for Year; Has Yet to Provide Details on Employee Compensation Boost

Home Depot raked in $132 billion in revenue from February 2020 to January 2021, an increase of nearly 20% over the previous fiscal year, the company told analysists and reporters in a recent conference call.

Yet, details have been scarce about the $1 billion that three months ago the company said it would give “frontline, hourly” employees in “annualized permanent compensation enhancements.”

“The public health crisis triggered massive spending on home improvements, adding dramatically to demand for materials and equipment from both professionals and do-it-yourselfers,” Tribune News Service reported via PennLive.

“For many of our customers, home has never been more important,” Home Depot Chairman and CEO Craig Menear said during the earnings call.

In the fourth fiscal quarter, the company reported sales of $32.3 billion and net earnings of $2.5 billion. Net earnings for the year – a period when frontline workers in many essential industries were placed at high risk for COVID exposure – were $12.9 billion at Home Depot.

The company further reported it spent $2 billion on higher pay for workers and $240 million on personal protection equipment. The revenue growth occurred as the company opened just five new stores. It now has 2,296 retail locations and more than 400,000 employees.

Last November, CBS reported that the company would “invest $1 billion annually on increased worker benefits,” in addition to “$1.7 billion in benefits the company has already granted in response to COVID-19,” such as the temporary expansion of paid time off and weekly bonuses. The announcement prompted a quick sell-off of the company’s publicly traded stock. The price fell 3% in a single day after growing by 25% for the year.

Yahoo! reported that a company spokesperson declined to share specifics about the $1 billion compensation package at the time, and would not discuss how it would impact hourly wages. At the time, the average hourly wage was $11 for a cashier and $12 for a sales associate.

Home Depot wasn’t alone in benefitting financially from the pandemic. The Associated Press reported that a 20-city housing price index rose 10.1% in December, following a 9.2% jump in November.

The company’s total income averages out to $402 in spending for every person in the United States, according to the AP.