Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:
The New York Times on worker rights
President Trump ran for office as a champion of American workers and a friend of labor unions, but his administration has systematically favored employers at the expense of workers.
In recent months, the administration has moved to tighten qualifications for who must be paid the minimum wage and who must be paid overtime. It is asking the Supreme Court to rule that companies can fire workers on the basis of sexual orientation. The number of workplace safety inspectors employed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fallen to the lowest level in the agency’s half-century of operation.
And as the administration has pulled back from protecting the rights, safety and economic welfare of workers, it has sought to undermine state regulators and to prevent workers from protecting their own interest through collective bargaining.
Mr. Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he supported a $10 federal minimum hourly wage, but since taking office he hasn’t sought any increase in the minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. Instead, his administration has tried to limit worker pay. In April, the Labor Department ruled that workers for an unidentified cleaning company, and for similar businesses, were contractors rather than employees and therefore not entitled to be paid a minimum wage or overtime or to have the company pay a portion of their Social Security taxes.
The administration has retreated from an Obama-era effort to expand eligibility for overtime pay. Most full-time, salaried workers who earn less than a federally defined ceiling are eligible for overtime. In the 1970s, more than 60 percent of workers qualified. But because Congress failed to adjust the threshold for inflation, the share of eligible workers fell to 7 percent by 2016. The Obama administration rehabilitated the rule by raising the salary line to roughly $47,500 and by mandating inflation adjustments. But a federal judge in Texas blocked implementation, and the Trump administration declined to defend the rule. Instead, in March it proposed a new threshold of $35,300. The administration estimates that the increase from the current ceiling of about $23,700 would benefit about a million workers, while the Obama rule would have benefited more than four million. And the proposed rule does not include automatic inflation adjustments - so the benefits of the increase once again would gradually fade away, in effect delivering a windfall to employers.
The Labor Department began a program in 2018 allowing employers to report their own violations of federal wage laws and to avoid penalties by paying workers the money they are owed. The administration has not made a convincing case that clemency for delinquent companies will produce better results than punishing them. While some employers may be encouraged to acknowledge wrongdoing, others may conclude they can take an interest-free loan by underpaying workers now and making amends later. The program also makes no effort to coordinate with state regulators to determine whether workers are entitled to additional compensation under state law - a likely circumstance given that 29 states require employers to pay a higher minimum wage than the federal standard.
And the administration is siding with employers in a set of cases that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear regarding the rights of gay and transgender workers. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that federal law bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the administration has taken the opposite view, arguing that existing protections on the basis of sex do not extend to sexual orientation.
Mr. Trump has demonstrated his support for such discrimination by barring transgender individuals from military service.
The federal government has displaced unions as the primary protector of the rights and safety of American workers. But Mr. Trump is also moving to limit the power of unions - which still serve millions of workers - and to limit opportunities for workers to join or create them.
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board decided that it did not have jurisdiction over labor complaints by Uber drivers, because those workers are contractors rather than employees. That decision means the government will not enforce standard protections for unionization drives at Uber or other companies with similar business models.
Mr. Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, provided the deciding vote last year in a case that hobbled public-sector unions by barring the mandatory collection of fees from workers who decline to join. The ruling allows workers to enjoy the benefits of unions without contributing to the cost - and, over time, will make it more difficult for unions to provide those benefits. The confirmation of Mr. Trump’s second nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, has solidified a pro-business majority on the court.
The administration has also sought to restrain other forms of collective action. In April, the Labor Department proposed new limits on the ability of workers at franchised businesses, such as McDonald’s restaurants, to pursue claims against the franchiser. The National Labor Relations Board proposed a similarly restrictive standard last year. Both rules would reverse efforts by the Obama administration to hold corporations responsible for their growing reliance on workers who are not full-time employees.
The Trump administration is correct in arguing that it is seeking to maintain the status quo. But the evolution of the American work force requires an evolution in regulation. Companies are forging new kinds of contractual relationships with workers for the purpose of skirting the basic protections that the government has long provided. Preventing such arbitrage ought to be a basic goal of regulation.
The administration is also falling short in its obligation to enforce existing laws. It has sharply reduced the ranks of OSHA inspectors. As of January, there were just 875 on the beat, a 14 percent decline since 2010 and the lowest number in the agency’s history, according to the National Employment Law Project. The slow pace of new hiring is the primary reason for the decline. Indeed, during the first full budget year of the Trump administration, the National Employment Law Project found that the agency did not hire any inspectors.
On Sept. 15, a worker at a Peco Foods chicken processing plant in Pocahontas, Ark., lost his left ring finger in an industrial bagging machine. OSHA did not send an inspector to the plant after the accident. The next month, the government gave the plant permission to increase the speed at which chickens are processed. On Dec. 27, another employee lost a finger - this time, his right index finger.
Once again, OSHA did not send an inspector.
The decision, and the administration’s broader pattern of actions and inaction, is sending a clear message to American workers: You’re on your own.
The Jamestown Post-Journal on ambulance costs for volunteer fire departments
It’s hard to find a good reason why volunteer fire departments should not be able to recoup the cost of ambulance services from a patient’s insurance plans or to Medicaid or Medicare.
New York is the only state in the nation that doesn’t allow fire departments to bill insurers for the cost of providing emergency medical care. Under current law, only volunteer ambulance corps - including Randolph Regional EMS locally - and private ambulance companies can do so.
Sponsors of the legislation allowing volunteers departments to bill insurers without having to create EMS cops said it would improve medical care for New Yorkers.
The Randolph Regional EMS example is interesting. Over eight years, the organization has grown from 21 volunteer emergency medical technicians and paramedics at its inception to about 45 current members, of whom two are full-time paramedics. Crews responded to 457 calls in 2018, with responses projected to increase to 600 this year. Over time, the company has purchased two additional ambulances and implemented its own fly car program. The group’s first ambulance leased from the fire department has also been paid in full.
Finding volunteers to respond to rescue calls is only one challenge volunteer fire departments face. It costs money to move that equipment - and that money has to come from somewhere. It makes sense that some of those costs be paid by insurers or social safety net programs that already exist. Allowing volunteer fire departments to recoup some of their costs without jumping through the administrative and legal hurdles of creating a volunteer ambulance corps could financially strengthen volunteer fire departments while also helping strengthen emergency response in rural areas.
Legislators have a lot on their plates before the end of the legislative session. Few bills are more important than this one. It should be passed.
The Wall Street Journal on anti-growth policies from both parties
As the election results became clear in 2016, financial markets rose amid a surge of economic optimism. That surge continued for two years as Donald Trump and Republicans pursued a pro-growth agenda of tax reform, deregulation and encouraging domestic energy production. But with Democrats now controlling the House and Mr. Trump already campaigning for re-election, Washington is again taking an anti-growth turn. Don’t be surprised if slower growth follows.
That’s the disappointing big picture if you step back from the daily fray and look at the direction of U.S. economic policy. Mr. Trump’s first two years were focused relentlessly on ending the economic malaise of the Obama years. Nearly every policy was seen through a growth prism.
But as he focuses on re-election, Mr. Trump is returning to the issues that marked the worst moments of his 2016 campaign. He is restrictionist on immigration, increasingly protectionist on trade, and more interventionist in regulating business. He favors price controls on drugs, a mandate for paid family leave, and his regulators are revving up what looks like it could become the largest federal antitrust campaign since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, House and Senate Democrats are advancing their own election agenda that includes higher taxes and new regulation on finance and industry. The only pro-growth measure that could pass would be Mr. Trump’s renegotiated Nafta deal, but that is in greater jeopardy after last week’s tariffs on Mexico. Gridlock will probably prevail through 2020, but investors will have to start discounting the chance that Democrats could implement much of their agenda in 2021.
All of this is already hurting growth, and especially business investment. The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index fell to 52.1% in May, its lowest since 2016. Surveys of CFOs show that investment plans for 2019 have slowed sharply amid the new policy uncertainty. A majority of business-earnings calls mention trade as a major concern.
The residual good news is that the policy reforms of 2017 built considerable pro-growth momentum that led to 3.1% growth in 2018. The labor market is still buoyant, and wages are rising. Yet these are often lagging indicators, and consumer confidence typically declines if markets and growth fall.
Falling bond yields are signaling a growth slowdown and the yield curve is inverted in what nearly always predicts a recession if it continues for three months. The Atlanta Federal Reserve’s “GDP Now” estimate for second-quarter growth is down to 1.3%, and even some long-time bulls are warning that we may be looking at a return to the slow growth of the Obama years.
Mr. Trump seems to believe the Federal Reserve can make everything great again by cutting interest rates, and he may get the rate cuts he wants this year. We opposed the Fed’s rate increase in December, and that advice looks vindicated by declining inflation. But the Fed can’t offset bad trade policy by itself.
U.S. tariffs have a negative impact on growth around the world, which in turn hurts U.S. exports. That’s part of the explanation for the recent decline in U.S. manufacturing, as slower growth abroad means declining demand for American goods. We aren’t predicting recession, though you can’t rule that out if Mr. Trump follows through on his worst trade threats against China, Mexico and Europe.
A conceit of nearly all politicians is that they can get away with bad economic policies without paying too high a price. Barack Obama believed that his regulatory assaults on business had more benefits than costs. His economic advisers told him that higher tax rates don’t matter. They should have learned otherwise after eight years of 2% growth and slow wage gains that laid the path for Mr. Trump in 2016.
Now Mr. Trump and his Republican fellow-travelers think they can impose tariffs willy-nilly with little damage. They say the doomsayers were wrong about the impact of the initial round of China tariffs, and in any case the tariffs are popular with the public. They say Mr. Trump needs wedge issues against Democrats in 2020, and he can run as a trade hawk on China against Joe Biden.
But Mr. Trump campaigned in 2016 on reviving the economy, and the surge of growth has helped to offset his personal unpopularity. Bad policies operate at the margin and their effect is cumulative. The initial tariffs were dwarfed by the growth effects of tax reform and deregulation, but the damage from tariffs will rise if they increase in severity and are imposed impulsively. Sooner or later bad policies always exact a high economic and political cost.
The Auburn Citizen on New York farm labor reforms
A recent court decision in support of labor protections for farmworkers in New York must not be used to as an excuse for hurriedly passing far-reaching legislation.
An appeals court ruled last week that farm laborers should have the same right to union protection as people in other industries. Civil rights advocates say overtime, time off, and the right to collective bargaining are long overdue. Farmers say that added labor costs would mean higher prices for commodities and put some farmers out of business entirely.
The state Legislature has been studying farm labor legislation this year, and several hearings have been held to collect public input. Those hearings have revealed that while some opinions are very far apart, there are realistic reforms that are ripe for compromise. Paying workers overtime for any day that goes beyond eights hours may not be realistic in a agricultural setting, but giving workers at least one day off per week is something that could probably be worked out without too much of a problem.
The importance of the agricultural industry in New York can’t be overstated - especially in rural areas like Cayuga County - and farm labor can’t be summed up as a single issue, because there are many specific parts to it. So with just a few days remaining in the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers must resist passing farm legislation that hasn’t been fully thought through.
The New York Farm Bureau has already said it will appeal last week’s ruling, so it’s possible that elements of the bill being developed in Albany might not hold up to legal scrutiny in any case.
It would make more sense to tackle farm labor one issue at a time - and after a thorough review of the possible repercussions - rather than lump an all-encompassing package of reforms into a last-minute bill in June.
The Middletown Times Herald-Record on the 2020 census
So it turns out that the motivation for adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 United States Census was all about depressing the return among minority populations so that Republicans could increase their advantage at the polls.
You don’t have to take the word of Democrats for that. You don’t even have to take the word of the three federal courts that have not gone quite as far as to certify political motives but have consistently ruled that the administration’s stated goal - to improve enforcement of the 1985 Voting Rights Act - is not credible.
No, for the real story you have to look at the hard drives on a computer of a GOP operative, the late Thomas B. Hofeller, who concluded that the question was essential to the goal of reducing the number of Hispanics counted, which would distort the numbers that determine the makeup of congressional districts.
In New York, for example, a state struggling to hold onto its seats as population declines, an undercount of Hispanic residents would accelerate that trend and perhaps cost even more seats with a consequent reduction of clout in Washington.
This scheme has not received anywhere near the attention it deserves considering that it attacks one of the fundamental pillars of the nation.
The Census as envisioned by those who wrote the Constitution was created and mandated to count everyone who lived in the nation and to use that number to determine what share of the fixed number of members in the House of Representatives each state would be entitled to.
To start with, the number of House members determines the importance of each state in the Electoral College which chooses a president every four years. As we have seen twice in recent decades, the Electoral College can put in the White House someone who did not win the popular vote. The Census does have an initial, practical impact.
In addition, since the passage of the Constitution, Census numbers have been used to determine many other federal actions, especially the way the government allocates spending.
When the Trump Administration proposed adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, it raised an immediate alarm. It already is difficult to get everyone to respond to the questionnaires and even the in-person visits that the Census Bureau uses to make sure the count is as accurate as it can be every decade. With its assault on immigration, the administration has made those with and without documentation fearful and likely to avoid answering the door or returning the survey.
All of that was just a theory, of course, the usual political divide in a divided time. Then the writings of the political operative came to light, showing that the plan he supported to suppress the count for minorities turned up word for word in the administration’s original draft request.
Now it is up to the Supreme Court, another creation of the Constitution, to determine if the 2020 Census will be the neutral and complete count that the founders envisioned or just another tool to be used by the Republican Party to give it an advantage at the polls.
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