Can you name the worst job you’ve ever had? For Cliff Martin, that’s not an easy question. All three of his current jobs — delivering newspapers, delivering magazines and working as a janitor — are strong contenders. Taken together, they pay so poorly that the 20-year-old Northfield, Minnesota, native relies on MNsure, the state Medicaid plan, for healthcare and lives at home with his father to save money. But what if Martin’s bosses had to fork over a fee to the state for paying him so badly? That money, in turn, could be used to help support Martin and his fellow low-wage workers in a variety of ways, from direct subsidies for food and housing to social programs such as Medicaid or public transportation.
TakeAction Minnesota, a network that promotes economic and racial justice in the state, wants to make that fee a reality. It’s developing the framework for a bill that it hopes will be introduced in 2015 by state legislators who have worked with the network in the past. As conceived, the “bad business fee” legislation would require companies to disclose how many of their employees are receiving public assistance from the state or federal government. Companies would then pay a fine based on the de facto subsidies they receive by externalizing labor costs onto taxpayers.
TakeAction Minnesota’s plan is one prong of a larger national effort. As progressive organizations grapple with how to turn years of public outrage over income inequality into policies for structural change, a network of labor and community organizing groups has seized upon the bad business fee as a solution that might take off.
Just how much money are low-wage businesses draining from local, state and federal coffers? A study released in April by Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of more than 400 organizations that advocate progressive tax reform, estimated that Walmart alone costs taxpayers $6.2 billion annually in public assistance. That report draws from a 2013 study by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which estimated that Walmart cost taxpayers, on average, between $3,015 and $5,815 per worker. For a hypothetical 300-person Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin, that added up to as much as $1.75 million in public subsidies per year. Those taxpayer dollars come in the form of joint federal-state programs such as Medicaid and the School Breakfast Program, as well as federal ones such as the National School Lunch Program, the Section 8 Housing Program, the Earned Income Tax, Low Income Home Energy Assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps).
Americans for Tax Fairness used the House Democrats’ study to extrapolate Walmart’s public-assistance burden on each state. In Minnesota, for example, where Walmart has 20,997 employees, the public burden totaled $92.7 million per year. That’s $92.7 million Walmart isn’t paying in wages or benefits, but that instead is being borne by taxpayers — taxpayers who, of course, include Walmart workers.
The study also notes that Walmart profits from food stamps on the consumer end. According to the company’s own estimates, Walmart captures 18 percent of the SNAP market, some $13.5 billion annually. The irony is not lost on Walmart worker Bene’t Holmes, a 25-year-old single mother of a 5‑yearold boy. “Recently I was forced to apply for food stamps just so my son and I don’t starve. Walmart is the country’s biggest beneficiary of food stamp dollars, and many of those dollars are coming from its own workers, like me,” she writes in an email to In These Times. “I want to raise my son in a nice neighborhood, but when Walmart only pays me $8.75 an hour, I can’t afford it. If it weren’t for my parents letting us live with them, we’d be on the streets. I shouldn’t have to face the reality of poverty and public assistance working at the country’s largest employer, but Walmart pays hundreds of thousands of us so little we can barely stay afloat.”
Walmart isn’t alone; there are thousands of other low-wage employers. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 1.5 million hourly workers reported earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in 2013, and another 1.8 million said they earned less than that — which means they’re either legally excluded from minimum-wage laws or illegally underpaid. (Those numbers are likely low; they don’t include salaried workers and rely on workers feeling comfortable disclosing their wage data to the census.) According to the latest salary data from Glassdoor.com, McDonald’s cashiers make an average of $7.81 an hour; Target team members, $8.94 an hour; and J. Crew sales associates, $9.17 an hour. For a part-time job of 30 hours a week, all of those hourly salaries would qualify those workers for SNAP benefits and federal Medicaid, even if they didn’t have families to support.
And while conservatives would argue that the majority of low-wage earners are teenagers slinging burgers for pocket change, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that the average age of workers who would benefit from a raise to $10.10 an hour is 35, and 88 percent are 20 or older. Fifty-six percent of them are women, and 28 percent have children. On average, the EPI calculates, these low-wage workers bring in half of their family’s total income.
Most of those minimum-wage workers are in the service industry, particularly in food service. And not coincidentally, taxpayers are also shelling out to prop up food industry wages. Studies last year from the National Employment Law Project and the University of California, Berkeley, showed that fastfood companies cost taxpayers an additional $7 billion per year in public assistance, with McDonald’s accounting for $1.2 billion. The Berkeley study notes that fast-food companies pay cashiers and other frontline workers a median wage of $8.69 an hour, and more than half of those workers rely on one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.
These companies often drain government coffers in other ways, too. The Americans for Tax Fairness report notes that Walmart avoids about $1 billion per year in federal taxes. Policy research center Good Jobs First reports on its Walmart Subsidy Watch website that the company has received more than $1.2 billion in “tax breaks, free land, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing and outright grants from state and local governments around the country.”
Federal lawmakers are taking note. When the UC-Berkeley report came out, Sen. Tom Harkin (D‑Iowa) released a statement saying, “Anyone concerned about the federal deficit only needs to look at this report to understand a major source of the problem: multi-billion dollar companies that pay poverty wages.”
With Washington ground to a halt, getting a bad business fee on the federal level seems unlikely at the moment. But state and local activists aren’t waiting for Congress.
A novel strategy
The force behind the bad business fee idea is TakeAction’s parent organization, National People’s Action (NPA), a community-organizing network that advocates economic and political reforms to shift power from corporations to people, along with the labor organization Jobs With Justice (JWJ). They have partnered with other labor and community groups, such as the Service Employees International Union and the Making Change at Walmart campaign.
Though the plan is in its infancy, NPA and JWJ see the bad business fee as uniquely positioned to catch on across the country. To build lasting change, says NPA’s executive director George Goehl, policies must provide short-term, tangible results and have long-term, transformative potential. He believes the bad business fee does both.
Martin, a member of TakeAction Minnesota and an enthusiastic supporter of the plan, agrees: “My life will be easier because of this,” he says. “It’s also the foundation of a totally new economy and totally new way of thinking about the way our economy works, what we are putting our money into, [and] the true effects of how we’re spending money.”
The bad business fee has the potential to bring together an “unusual set of allies,” according to Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.
As inequality has become a hot-button issue, the solutions on offer tend to focus either on taxing the extremely wealthy or on raising workers’ wages. What makes the bad business fee particularly attractive is that it does both of those things. It makes the connection conceptually between the low wages at the bottom of the work chain and the outsized incomes at the top, and sets out both to punish companies that keep wages low, and to create value out of that punishment for the people struggling on low incomes.
In that way, the fee is win-win. If companies seek to avoid it, they end up doing something just as good for their employees, or even better. Martin says, “For me in particular, the better part is my boss may be thinking, ‘Well, I should just pay my employees better. I should just pay a living wage. I should just give Cliff some benefits.’ ”
To Liz Ryan Murray, policy director at NPA, the bad business fee bridges the issues of workers’ rights and taxpayers’ rights. Often conversations around public benefits get mired down in arguments about deficits and the cost to the taxpayer, ignoring the value of the programs to the people who depend on them and rarely conceiving of “the taxpayer” as a low-wage worker herself. But, Murray notes, on this issue there’s no way to split them apart — the taxpayer and the worker have the same interest in seeing big companies pay their fair share.
Goehl believes that the policy even has the possibility of appealing to conservatives. “I think about my dad in southern Indiana who, for most of my life, was a fiscal conservative. Handouts to corporations that pay low wages were the kind of stuff that really upset him,” he says. Introducing the badbusiness fee in conservative places may prove educational, Goehl says, in smoking out the opposition. “Wichita would be interesting because the Koch brothers are there, and to see what kind of stops they would roll out would be fascinating,” Goehl says. “It would also be nice to win something in a redder area to show it’s possible everywhere.”
The nuts and bolts
Rather than dictating from above, the NPA and JWJ plan to anchor the initiative with what JWJ’s director of campaigns, Erica Smiley, calls “a hub for support, strategy, development and shared experience, shared lessons,” in which groups interested in the policy can get help and connect with one another.
Beyond that, the details of the policy itself are still vague. The coalition wants to leave room for local flexibility, so that the tax can take different forms in different cities and states, depending on the particular needs and desires of the community.
But there will be some constants. The extent to which a company’s employees have to rely on public assistance serves as a measure of whether that company provides jobs that can sustain people, and is thus the most likely basis for how the fee would be assessed. The fee might be implemented on a per-employee basis — in Cook County, Illinois, NPA and JWJ partners are considering a $5,000 charge for each employee receiving public assistance— or as a lump sum based on how much an entire sector costs taxpayers, which would then be split up among the employers in that sector. The organizers also want to hold big businesses accountable for their supply chains and franchisees. For instance, if McDonald’s Corporation got slapped with a fee for each restaurant that underpays its workers, it could be pushed to include higher wages in its franchise contracts. Similarly, if Walmart had to pay not just for its retail employees, but the workers in its warehouses, it might have an incentive to require better wages from subcontractors.
Though the policy is modeled to target mega-employers — which, according to a 2012 National Employment Law Project report, employ 66 percent of the low-wage workforce — Murray hopes that this will have a salutary effect on all wages. If the fee encourages Walmart, Target and McDonald’s to raise their wages, smaller businesses may have to do the same.
As to where the funds recouped through the bad business fee will go, it’s important to the organizers that some be used to strengthen safetynet programs — such as Medicaid and housing assistance — that underpaid workers rely on to cover basic needs. Those programs have been stretched thin thanks to the years of austerity following the financial crisis. “We need a stronger safety net, not a more tattered one,” Murray says. However, she stresses that working-class people should be the ones who decide how the money is spent in their own communities.
There are plenty of options. At a municipal level, Murray explains, the money could go to an existing development department that could manage and distribute the money. On a statewide level, it could be distributed through the revenue department as a tax break for workers. There’s also the possibility of distributing some of the funds to nonprofits involved with direct worker support, childcare or food assistance.
McGrath says the money could go to bolster the public services that workers rely on, or to hire more people to enforce wage and hour laws. “Minnesota succeeded in raising its minimum wageto $9.50 an hour by 2016 and indexing it to inflation,” he says. “But we have a paltry number of wage and hour investigators in our state. How will we know that people are actually being paid the wage that was just won?”
Elsewhere, other community and labor partners are busy brainstorming about what would make sense in their states and cities. In Chicago, housing subsidies are a possibility; in New York, the money could be used to offset the rising costs of public transportation; in San Francisco, a combination of housing and transportation issues is under consideration, as gentrification has rapidly made it harder for low-wage workers to live near their jobs. In New Mexico, using a bad business fee to support early childhood education is being discussed.
Cliff Martin would also like to see the money go to incentivize worker-owned businesses or co-ops. “Putting out subsidies for the economy I actually want to be a part of, and not just programs to keep us barely living — that would be my preference,” he says. “In my mind those go hand in hand. Bad business fee? Good business incentive.”
The possibilities are nearly endless— it’s easier in some ways to say what the money and the policy should not do. “Certainly we would not be satisfied if the money just went into some fund to pay off some deficit,” Goehl says.
Winning the bad business fee will require a delicate balance between arguing that jobs should pay a decent wage and arguing for stronger, more universal social supports for those not at the top of the economic food chain. Too narrow, and the policy risks demonizing the very public welfare programs it aims to strengthen; too broad, and it loses its punch.
But the bad business fee fits into the broader strategy for structural change being laid out by NPA, JWJ and their coalition partners. The fee is designed to complement and encourage — rather than supplant — struggles in the workplace and broader efforts to raise the minimum wage. Giving local people the power to decide on where the money goes can create infrastructure for other organizing, JWJ’s Smiley suggests. Workers at Walmart, for example, could create neighborhood committees to negotiate where the money should be spent, and to inform others in the community that they might be qualified to receive something. “You could imagine [workers’] organizations being able to get to a different scale in certain communities,” she says.
Smiley also sees it as part of the enforcement mechanism for things like local living wage ordinances — a potential stick rather than the endless carrots of tax breaks and subsidies that corporations receive for so-called job creation.
Instead of cities and states genuflecting to big companies in the hope of boosting local economies, Smiley thinks this policy could make the needs of residents come first. “We’re trying to change the narrative as to who is valued in our communities, what is valued in our communities, really speaking to the value of working people and their families as the heart of our cities and our neighborhoods — as opposed to the big corporations, who are externalizing their costs but totally privatizing their profits,” she says.
The tax is a first step in changing the way we think about corporations, Goehl says. “Corporations have to apply for a charter every year to continue to be a corporation in this country,” he says. “We’ve been taught not to think about the fact that corporations are something we allow to be created. We don’t think, ‘Well, wait, we could be asking for a lot more from them just by the fact that we allow them to exist.’ ”
McGrath takes it a step further. “We are trying to start a conversation about what is the highest and best use of government,” he says. “What is the proper role for government in an economy that is experiencing such profound income inequality? Is the role of government to subsidize major corporations? [Or] is it to actually support the workers?”
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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.