On Tuesday, October 2, Amazon announced that it would raise its internal minimum hourly wage for US employees, including part-time workers and those hired through temporary agencies, to $15 an hour. This includes workers at the company’s warehouses or “fulfillment centers,” as it calls them, in addition to store employees at Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired last year. The e-commerce giant also said it planned to lobby the US government to raise the federal minimum wage from its current hourly rate of $7.25, last updated in 2009, the New York Times reported:
The new wages will apply to more than 250,000 Amazon employees, including those at the grocery chain Whole Foods, as well as the more than 100,000 seasonal employees it plans to hire for the holiday season. The change will not apply to contract workers. It goes into effect on Nov. 1. “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, said in a statement. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.”
The move came amid growing pressure on Amazon from the media and politicians regarding its pay practices and the work conditions of its lowest-paid employees, particularly those at its warehouses or “fulfillment centers.” Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken critic of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, who is currently estimated to be the wealthiest individual in the world, citing news reports that large numbers of Amazon’s low-wage employees were dependent on public assistance. Sanders and California congressman Ro Khanna have been pushing legislation that would require companies to compensate the federal government for the cost of public assistance benefits received by their employees, including food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing.
The next day, however, Bloomberg reported that Amazon was cutting monthly bonuses and stock awards for hourly employees to help offset the costs of the minimum wage hike. Still, the company insists that these workers’ total compensation is rising:
The holiday hiring season is already in full swing in the US and the number of seasonal workers hired this year is expected to grow, according to a new forecast from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, citing year-to-year trends and announcements retailers have already made this year:
Last year, seasonal retail employment increased by 668,400 during the final three months of the year, 4.3 percent higher than the 641,000 jobs added in 2016, according to employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). … Last year, BLS data showed that transportation and warehousing employment increased by a non-seasonally adjusted 279,700, up 13.4 percent from the 246,700 workers in the final quarter of 2016 and 6.6 percent higher than the 262,300 workers hired in this sector in the final three months of 2015.
Companies in this sector are averaging 5.2 million workers this year, compared to 4.9 million in 2015 and 4.2 million in 2008, according to non-seasonally adjusted BLS data.
Challenger points to several companies that have announced they will hire as many holiday season employees as last year or more: Macy’s announced this week that it planned to hire 80,000 seasonal workers, as many as it planned to at the start of the 2017 season (it ultimately hired 87,000 last year). FedEx announced plans for 55,000 holiday hires, a 10 percent increase over last year’s number, and said it would also increase hours for some current employees. The big-box retailer Target, meanwhile, said on Thursday that it would hire around 120,000 seasonal workers for the holidays, 20 percent more than last year, while also raising starting pay by $1 per hour, the Star-Tribune reported:
The New York City Council passed legislation on Wednesday to put a one-year cap on for-hire vehicle licenses and to empower the city government to set a minimum wage for ridesharing drivers, in a crackdown on the largely unregulated growth of platforms like Uber and Lyft, the New York Times reported:
The proposal to cap ride-hail companies led to a clash among interest groups with taxi industry officials saying the companies were dooming their business and Uber mounting a major advertising campaign to make the case that yellow cabs have a history of discriminating against people of color.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said the bills will curtail the worsening traffic on the streets and improve low driver wages. … But Uber has warned its riders that the cap could produce higher prices and longer wait times for passengers if the company cannot keep up with the growing demand.
New York is the largest market for Uber in the US, but already regulated ridesharing more stringently than many other American cities. To address concerns about unfair competition from the local taxi industry, New York requires drivers to obtain special licenses from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, along with commercial liability insurance and special plates for their vehicles, which must meet certain eligibility criteria.
The new will not affect Uber and Lyft drivers who are already licensed to operate in the city, but will pause the issuing of new licenses immediately while the city studies the effects of the rise of ridesharing on traffic, driver wages, and the local economy.
The warehouse club retailer Costco announced on Thursday that it was raising starting wages for its US employees by $1 to $14 or $14.50 per hour, effective June 11, while other workers will receive raises of 25 to 50 cents an hour, Seattle Times business writer Benjamin Romano reported:
The raise, to be paid for with part of Costco’s savings from U.S. federal corporate tax cuts that took effect this year, will go to upwards of 130,000 U.S. employees, costing the company about $110 million to $120 million a year before taxes, Costco chief financial officer Richard Galanti said during the company’s fiscal third quarter earnings report Thursday. … Costco competitors including Target and Walmart announced wage increases and bonuses for their employees tied to the tax cuts earlier this year.
“But not everyone at Costco is happy,” Romano notes:
Some salaried employees, including some in the company’s Issaquah corporate headquarters, say they’re being left out of the equation as Costco spreads around the tax benefit. One person, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said after the wage increase announcement, “I would make a considerable amount more going back and gathering carts for the warehouse in the parking lot.”
Raising pay and benefits for entry-level hourly employees has been a growing concern for US retailers and other low-wage employers in recent years as the labor market has tightened, making even low-skill workers more challenging to attract and retain.
Last week, the board of elections in Washington, DC, approved a ballot measure for the upcoming primary election on June 19 that will ask voters whether to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees in the restaurant industry from its current rate of $3.33 per hour to match the capital city’s minimum wage for all other workers by 2026. Advocates of the measure are framing it as a way of protecting low-income workers, especially women, from harassment and abuse, the Washington Post reported:
[C]ritics of the split-wage system say some workers face intimidation and retaliation when they tell their bosses that tips came up short. They say low-income workers in the restaurant industry deserve the same predictable income as other employees. …
“In this Me Too moment, in this Time’s Up moment, we have to stand up for women and empower women and really call this two-tier wage system for what it is: a source of sexual harassment,” said Diana Ramirez, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., which is sponsoring the ballot initiative.
“If you know that you are getting a base wage from the employer, and a customer is acting inappropriately with you, you don’t have to put up with that behavior anymore to make a good tip,” she said.
Restaurant owners and some workers who earn much more than the minimum wage on the basis of tips oppose the measure, saying it will eat into restaurants’ already thin profit margins and force them to raise prices, cut jobs, and perhaps abandon tips altogether in favor of a flat hourly wage.
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The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division announced last week that it would soon begin a six-month pilot of the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which will give employers an avenue for resolving potential overtime and minimum wage violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act by self-auditing and voluntarily reporting these violations to the division:
This program will ensure that more employees receive back wages they are owed—faster. Employees will receive 100% of the back wages paid, without having to pay any litigation expenses or attorneys’ fees. The program requires employers to review WHD’s compliance assistance materials, carefully audit their pay practices, and agree to correct the pay practices at issue going forward. These requirements improve the employers’ compliance with their minimum wage and overtime obligations and further protect the rights of workers. …
It is purely the employee’s choice whether to accept the payment of back wages due, and employers are prohibited from retaliating against the employee for his or her choice. If the employee chooses to not accept the payment, the employee will not release any private right of action. Additionally, if the employee chooses to accept the payment, the employee will not grant a broad release of all potential claims under the FLSA. Rather, the releases are tailored to only the identified violations and time period for which the employer is paying the back wages.
Wage and hour disputes already being litigated or investigated by the Labor Department will not be eligible for resolution through the PAID program. Employers also cannot use the program to repeatedly resolve the same violation. The six-month pilot is expected to launch in April; once it concludes, the department will assess its effectiveness and decide whether to maintain it going forward.
A district judge in Hennepin County, Minnesota ruled last week that an ordinance passed by the city of Minneapolis last June raising the local minimum wage to $15 an hour was legal under state law, the Star-Tribune reported:
Judge Susan Burke ruled that the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act, the state minimum wage law, doesn’t preclude municipalities from passing local wage ordinances to meet the needs of their communities. …
Minnesota’s hourly minimum wage is $9.65 for large employers — those with annual gross revenue of $500,000 a year or more — and $7.75 for small employers. Those rates will rise with inflation in 2018. Under the Minneapolis ordinance, large businesses — those with 100 or more employees — must phase in the $15 minimum wage by July 1, 2022. Small businesses have until July 1, 2024.
Minneapolis is one of several cities throughout the US that have sought to implement a local pay floor higher than the statutory minimum in their state. The first major city to do so was Seattle, which voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2014. The jury is still out on what effect that decision had on employment and wages in the city, with two studies last year coming to conflicting conclusions. Critics of local minimum wage increases say they make it more expensive and complicated for businesses to operate in these areas and ultimately harm workers by reducing total employment in low-wage jobs.