New York, NY – This month two milestone laws to benefit workers go into effect in New York State: an increase in the minimum wage on its way to reaching $15 an hour and the right to job-protected paid family leave for nearly all private sector employees. These measures are just part of a recent wave of progressive legislation that is dramatically expanding workers’ rights in New York City and State.
However, a new report from the Community Service Society (CSS), Expanding Workers’ Rights: What it means for New York City’s Low-Income Workers, finds that the city’s low-income workers may not be reaping the full benefits of these recent measures due to low awareness. In light of heightened fears among low-wage and immigrant workers in the Donald Trump era, the report urges New York City and State to ramp up their investment in outreach, monitoring and enforcement of these standards.
“The sad truth is many vulnerable, low-wage immigrant employees are fearful of asking employers about their workplace rights. That’s due in part to the climate of intimidation created by Trump Administration,” said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO. “As a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants and a place where economic opportunities offer hope to all New Yorkers for a better tomorrow, we must ensure that passage of laws are followed by persistent monitoring, outreach and enforcement needed to make them effective.”
“NY City and State have enacted a succession of progressive laws that hold the promise of being life-changing—the right to paid sick time, to paid family leave and a decent wage that lifts workers out of poverty,” said Nancy Rankin, co-author of the report and CSS Vice President for Policy, Research and Advocacy. “But much of enforcement still relies on workers asserting their rights, and for that to happen, for starters, workers need to be aware of their rights. We know that it can be difficult for vulnerable workers to risk lodging a complaint, that’s why we need widespread and repeated media campaigns that change workplace norms.”
The CSS report analyzes data on public awareness of three new labor protections—paid sick time in New York City, and minimum wage increases and paid family leave at the state level—from CSS’s 2017 Unheard Third, an annual survey of adult New York City residents. For labor standards like paid sick days and a higher minimum wage that were already in effect when the survey was fielded, workers were asked whether they were actually benefiting. The report also offers ideas for informing hard-to-reach workers of their new rights, including Medicaid claims for prenatal visits acting as an automatic trigger for notifying patients about their right to paid family leave.
Promising Gains in Paid Sick Days Coverage, but Awareness of the Law among Covered Workers Remains Low
The report finds that strong enforcement by NYC’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and an extensive public outreach campaign following the implementation of the paid sick leave law in 2014, have led to substantial gains in the share of low-income workers covered by the paid sick leave law who now have this benefit. Yet, nearly three in ten low-income covered workers say that they still lacked paid leave of any kind, with lack of paid sick leave much more common among those working part time and those working for small firms.
Furthermore, with public advertising tapering off in the past two years, more than half of low-income workers covered under the paid sick time law still have heard little to nothing about their right to this benefit.
Higher Awareness of Minimum Wage Increases, but Wage Theft May Limit Scope of Worker Benefits
Compared to other new labor protections like paid sick days and paid family leave, the report notes that New York City residents across incomes had much higher awareness of recent increases in the minimum wage. Robust outreach by the State’s Department of Labor has helped raise awareness of the minimum wage increases among workers who stand to benefit the most, including low-income hourly workers, immigrants and those working for tips. The report also finds that sizable shares of workers are already seeing the benefits of a higher minimum wage, with more than a third of the working poor and four out of 10 low-income tipped workers who said that they were better off due to recent increases in the minimum wage. At the same time more workers may not be seeing benefits due to wage theft, with a separate analysis of Census Bureau data estimating that 34 percent of low-wage hourly (non-tipped) workers are receiving wages below the applicable minimum wage.
Low Baseline Awareness of Paid Family Leave among Vulnerable Workers in New York City
CSS’s most recent Unheard Third survey was fielded in the summer of 2017, prior to the January 2018 implementation of paid family leave in New York State and preceding New York State’s rollout of a robust outreach campaign. However, even when interpreted as a baseline measure prior to advertising and implementation of the law, the report finds that a majority of low-income workers are unaware of their new right to paid family leave, with 71 percent reporting that they had heard little to nothing about the law. There was also limited awareness of paid family leave among workers with less education and those working for businesses with fewer than 50 employees who don’t have unpaid leave provided under federal law.
Baseline awareness of paid family leave was especially low among workers most likely to need to use this benefit: only a quarter of low-income working women of child-bearing age, and a third of low-income workers who had needed to take time off from their job in the past three years to care for a seriously ill relative, said they had at least some awareness of the law.
Targeted Outreach and Strengthened Enforcement Is Critical to Ensuring that Workers are Benefitting
In New York, the passage of a $15 minimum wage and the nation’s most comprehensive paid family leave law at the state level, along with the right to paid sick leave in New York City, are milestones that have advanced workers’ rights and hold enormous promise for low-income workers in New York City. But the report notes that passage of these laws is just the beginning. In order for workers to truly benefit from these protections, awareness of these standards should be raised among both workers and employers.
The report offers some useful recommendations for improving awareness of paid family leave through timely, targeted outreach to people when they are most receptive: claims for prenatal visits submitted under Medicaid and by other insurers could automatically trigger a notice, text message or both to the patient informing her of her right to paid family leave; and posters on the right to paid sick leave could be displayed at pharmacies, clinics and in doctors’ offices.
The report notes that the city is moving in the right direction of launching proactive investigations for paid sick leave. However, much of the enforcement of the law is driven by workers lodging complaints with their bosses or government agencies. This is a problematic strategy given that shortchanged immigrant, non-unionized and low-wage workers may be fearful of speaking up even if they are aware of the applicable laws. The report urges city and state agencies charged with enforcement to continue to expand proactive enforcement targeting industries where violations are common. Other recommendations include expanded funding for legal services and workers’ organizations, which provide, safe, trustworthy settings for low-income workers, as intermediaries for anonymous worker complaints and for information on where workplace violations are occurring.
The dizzying complexity of the phase-in schedule for the minimum wage, which differs by industry and employer size and location, can be confusing for both workers and employers, and may lead to increased prevalence of wage theft. The report recommends simplification of the minimum wage to aid enforcement, with elimination of the lower minimum wage for tipped workers a good first step.
Expanding Workers’ Rights was authored by Nancy Rankin and CSS Policy Analyst Irene Lew. It is based on findings from the Unheard Third, an annual CSS survey tracking the hardships and views of low-income city residents done in collaboration with Lake Research Partners. The survey reached a total of 1,761 New York City residents, and was conducted from July 12 to August 17, 2017.