Raising the left

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks outside the Young Student Center at Keene State College, where she drew a crowd of about 900 in a September visit.

The latest policy proposal from Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren would seek to establish national standards for employers in setting schedules for their part-time employees.

Amid a 50-year low unemployment rate nationwide — with New Hampshire tied with North Dakota for the second lowest in the country at 2.6 percent — many Americans have been able to find work, but not a full-time job with a predictable schedule and full benefits.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have cited a workforce shortage as one of the most pressing issues in the Granite State, with training programs coming to the fore. But few protections exist for part-time employees at the state and national levels.

If employers keep a worker’s hours under 35 per week, federal law does not require them to offer health insurance, and employers have increasingly used part-time positions to lower payroll costs over the past several decades, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute.

A University of California, Berkeley study this year found a strong correlation between part-time workers and inflexible shift schedules, contrary to the belief that non-full-time jobs trade the stability of benefits for a broader choice in working hours.

Warren’s plan targets various forms of keeping workers on-call for shifts they have no guarantee of getting, sometimes known as “just in time” or “open and available” scheduling, which is increasingly driven by algorithms to optimize staffing levels, but at short notice.

The food-service industry, which commonly uses these practices, employed 1,480 people in the Keene-area last year, with a median wage of $11.16 per hour, according to the state’s Occupational Employment & Wages report from this year.

The Berkeley study of 30,000 retail and food service workers nationwide found 80 percent have “little to no input into their schedules,” and that 70 percent are required to be “open and available” to work at all times.

By the economic principle of opportunity cost, these workers miss out on other potential income opportunities by having to clear their schedules for a shift on short notice.

The Warren “Fair Work Week” plan — explained on her campaign website — would require organizations with 15 or more employees to give two weeks notice for their shift schedules.

Beyond the opportunity cost of lost earnings, Warren cites difficulties in finding child-care and pursuing post-secondary education, such as night classes, as downsides of unpredictable scheduling.

Part of Warren’s plan also includes the passage her Schedules that Work Act, which she introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2017 and again in 2019. That bill, which has yet to clear both chambers, would protect workers from retaliation if they ask for their schedules in advance or request an accommodation for caregiving, education or training.

A mandatory break of 11 hours between shifts — and higher pay for hours voluntarily worked during that window — is another component of Warren’s campaign proposal.

Warren has also called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour — where it has stayed since 2009 — to $15. Without a state minimum wage, New Hampshire employers can default to the federal minimum.

In August, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the Legislature’s bill to raise the state minimum wage to $12 per hour.

A report that month from the N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute found that Granite Staters earning less than the median wage of $20.95 per hour last year “have experienced what feels like a pay cut compared to the past” when the rising cost of living is factored in.

One consequence Sununu and other opponents of raising the minimum wage have warned of is an increase in employers resorting to part-time workers or cutting jobs entirely.

A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the National Employment Law Project found that in New York, where the minimum wage has risen incrementally since legislation passed in 2013 (adjusted by cost of living to different regions of the state), employment and wages in the restaurant industry continued to grow without overinflated prices.

Businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from the Warren plan, but were she able to raise the federal minimum wage with Congressional approval, that would apply to all enterprises.

The rest of Warren’s plan is available online at elizabethwarren.com/plans/part-time-workers.

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.