Many Workers Still Fall Through the Cracks of the Fair Labor Standards Act

By |2019-10-18T16:58:53+00:00October 18th, 2019|0 Comments

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Labor Day may have been over a month ago, but it’s still been on our minds at Chicago Jobs Council! We posted about #8daysoflaborday as a reminder of why we should celebrate, but more importantly, why we must continue working to make meaningful policy changes that help working class people.  

Labor Day as we know it was established 125 years ago, long before many American workers had some of the basic workplace protections we take for granted today.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was established in 1938, finally gave workers the right to a minimum wage and a time-and-a-half overtime pay to those who work over 40 hours a week. It also established the standard working week, and prohibited child labor. 

However, this landmark piece of worker’s rights legislation excluded several industries such as agriculture, service, hospitality, and domestic work–jobs that were largely held by Black individuals. 

Not having the protection of a minimum wage, tipping became a standard in the service industries, which to this day has made workers dependent on individuals’ generosity in order to make ends meet. Tipping started in the post-Civil War era as a way for employers in the service and hospitality industries not to pay formerly enslaved workers. Once the FLSA passed, this shameful business practice became practically codified into law, giving permission to employers to pay their workers subminimum wages. 

In addition, within the agriculture sector, this completely legalized making individuals work under the sweltering sun for 14 hour days for extremely low wages(sector still held by Black and brown folks). Until 1966, this industry was exempt from minimum wage laws, but still to this day farmworkers are exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA. 

And while the FLSA banned child labor, youth over 14 years old were guaranteed only  half of the minimum wage. Even today, there is still a “youth minimum wage” that sometimes lets employers pay below minimum wage to workers under 20.

Despite reforms and efforts for better pay, many young people continue to work, often as one of the family’s breadwinners.  In the words of Michelle Leon of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, “We don’t do it for fun. We do it because we need to contribute to our family’s income”. 

In the domestic work industry, folks are still trying to secure basic and fundamental rights such as safe and healthy work environments and  freedom from workplace harassment. Organizations such as National Domestic Workers Alliance are currently working with policy makers to introduce the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would secure these rights and more for millions of home cleaners, nannies, and home care workers. 

Workplace protections do very little to help workers in underground economies. That is the reality for the majority of sex workers throughout the United States. In most of the US, sex work is illegal and unprotected by the Fair Labor Standards Act. But in 2018, Congress passed FOSTA-SESTA (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017), which undermined the security and protections sex workers have devised for themselves online. This takes back years of work and increases the likelihood of violence as it poses only street-based sex work as the only option.

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