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Programs to Aid Workers on Back Burner

February 05, 1986|Harry Bernstein

The estimated $70 billion a year that the government spends on welfare programs to help the sick, poor and elderly will be among the most furiously debated issues in the nation this year.

Unfortunately, far less attention will be given to the country's inadequate minimum-wage laws and social insurance programs--both of which are supposed to help the average worker. These critical issues are generally ignored because money for those programs doesn't come out of the deficit-plagued federal budget or state and local budgets. Yet the needs of the millions of low- and middle-income American workers are, in many ways, almost as urgent as the needs of welfare recipients, whose benefits have already been cut and almost surely are going to be cut further.

The only social insurance program involved in serious public debate is Social Security, and, while most of that raucous argument appears to be over, there are continuing, widely discussed demands for the elimination of--or at least further curbs on--cost-of-living increases for retirees. But debates over the minimum wage and social insurance programs such as workers compensation for on-the-job injuries and unemployment benefits are barely noticed by the general public. That's because arguments about them will take place mostly in rather obscure committees of state legislatures and in small government commissions.

In many states, including California, changes in the minimum wage or social insurance programs are often made by the legislatures or by government commissions only when substantial agreement is reached in private talks between a wide variety of often conflicting forces such as employers, unions, insurance firms, lawyers, doctors and hospitals.

Among the least-audible debates are those over laws that set minimum wages, even though they directly affect an estimated 15 million workers and indirectly affect millions more who earn above the minimum--since they get raises from private industry when the minimum wage is increased.

Congress, which enacted the first federal minimum-wage law for workers in interstate commerce in 1938, is giving no consideration to raising it. The federal minimum is now so low that it doesn't meet the original intent of Congress, which was to allow an ordinary worker enough money to maintain a standard of living at least up to the poverty level as defined by the federal government. Yet the Reagan Administration wants to undercut the present minimum by creating a "subminimum" wage for young workers.

Even without the further cut sought by the Administration, minimum-wage workers have been badly battered economically since the minimum was last raised five years ago. Inflation has eaten away a whopping 25% of the buying power of $3.35. The minimum would have to be raised to at least $4.20 an hour just to give workers the same purchasing power they had when President Reagan took office, and it would have to be $5.20 an hour to give the working poor the same standard of living they had in 1968, when the minimum was about 55% of the average workers' wage.

Today, the minimum is less than 38% of the average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Each state sets its own minimum wage for workers on jobs involving intrastate commerce, and almost all follow the federal $3.35-an-hour pattern. Only Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages above the federal level. Alaska's minimum is the nation's highest: $3.85.

Despite its widespread impact, the California minimum is set by just five individuals who are members of the state Industrial Welfare Commission. Last year, the commission, now all appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian, voted against any increase for the fifth year in a row. And it isn't certain if an increase will even come up for a vote this year.

There may be a bit more public discussion of such social insurance programs as workers compensation and unemployment benefits because some aspects of those programs have been highly controversial, such as compensation for disability due to job stress. But the chances of any significant improvements this year are slim because, among other reasons, employers (who generally agree that benefits should be raised) want much stiffer eligibility rules before any increases are granted.

While several states have made some improvements in their social insurance programs in the past three years, most, including California, have not. Last year, Gov. Deukmejian vetoed laws passed by the Legislature to increase both workers compensation and unemployment benefits because they did not make eligibility rules strict enough, as employer groups had demanded.

New measures are now being debated in the California Legislature to improve benefits, but the chances of that happening are slim even though this state pays maximum temporary disability benefits of $224 a week and so ranks near the bottom of all states in benefits paid to workers injured on the job.

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