U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (left), of Virginia, and Keith  Ellison, of Minnesota, speak about issues affecting the working poor Tuesday at Richfield City Hall.  Credit: Photo by Nate Gotlieb

U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (left), of Virginia, and Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, speak about issues affecting the working poor Tuesday at Richfield City Hall. Credit: Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Ellison, city leaders advocate for Working Families Agenda

Updated: January 26, 2016 - 11:14 am

Minnesota’s low-wage workers are stretched thin in part because of low wages, pay gaps and wage theft, panelists said Tuesday at a forum hosted by Congressmen Keith Ellison and Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia.

The six panelists spoke about Minnesota’s lack of paid sick, family and medical leave as well as instances of wage theft and the need for fair-scheduling practices. Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10) and Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) also spoke in support of the measures at the forum held at Richfield City Hall.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges first unveiled a Working Families Agenda at her State of the City Address in April 2015. The City Council later passed a resolution directing city staff to develop policy proposals supporting paid sick time, fair scheduling, wage theft prevention. They were also tasked with studying the impact of establishing a minimum wage regionally and locally.

City leaders dropped the fair scheduling proposal, which would have required employers to give workers 14 days notice of their schedule, after significant pushback from the business community. A city-appointed Workplace Partnership group is currently studying paid sick time proposals and is expected to report to the City Council will its findings Feb. 24.

Tuesday’s forum united a coalition of nonprofit leaders and politicians who appeared eager to pass legislation and ordinances on these issues. They spoke of the continued issues facing their working-class constituents, noting Minnesota’s growing racial divide.

Scott, the most senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, criticized Republicans for ignoring issues facing workers while working to limit unions and provide tax breaks to the wealthy. He said he is encouraged by the Working Families Agenda in Minneapolis and movements like it nationally.

“You are obviously leading the country in this regard,” he said.

The state Legislature increased the minimum wage in 2014 as well as the Women’s Economic Security Act, a series of bills that worked to reduce the gender pay gap and expand family leave for mothers, among other measures. The state does not have laws requiring paid sick days and family and medical leave, however.

“People find themselves stretched very very thin with very few options to make ends meet every month,” said panelist Chris Conry, economy program manager of Take Action Minnesota.

Panelist Veronica Mendez of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), which organizes low-wage workers, spoke about instances of wage theft that her organization has seen. She advocated for workers to receive a pay stub from their employers and said workers need to be part of conversations surrounding enforcement mechanisms.

Other panelists spoke about fair scheduling, sick leave and the ways unions help workers. Ron Harris of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change spoke about a proposal for 11 hours between shifts as well as the importance of giving workers enough hours.

“If you don’t have a fair schedule, you don’t have control over your life,” he said.

Panelists also touched on Minnesota’s racial disparities, noting tough conditions for many minorities. Median income for black households in Minnesota dropped $4,500 from 2013 to 2014, from over $31,000 to just over $27,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The data also showed that 38 percent of black Minnesotans live in poverty, up from 30 percent in 2008.

“Even if you’re white, if you’re a working-class person, it’s no easy walk,” Ellison said. “But if you’re a black or brown person, it’s no easy walk, plus you’re dragging extra weight behind you.”

Ellison said workers need solidarity across occupations and racial lines. He and the panelists encouraged people to become politically active, adding that people should go beyond voting if possible.

“People need to see change,” said panelist Lisa Stratton, co-founder of the organization Gender Justice. “And when they see it can be done, it can make a huge difference.”