In 1938 child labor was regulated across the United States in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established hours of work and a minimum age of employment for children. Until then, in the absence of government regulation, young children were making cigars, mining coal and spinning in textile mills (among other inappropriate jobs), where they lost limbs, their health and even their lives to the drive for higher profits. These abuses happened in Oregon, too, where children worked in manufacturing and agriculture doing harvesting and canning.
Over the past 50 years, other labor laws have served the larger public interest: safety and health laws have significantly reduced serious accidents and deaths in the workplace. Minimum wages and overtime laws have helped raise the wage floor and build a middle class in Oregon and across the U.S. And in more recent years, the Family and Medical Leave Act has made it possible for workers to care for themselves or seriously ill family members without losing their jobs and their economic security.
All these advancements were fought by some of the business community when they were first debated. In fact, here in Oregon some business owners sued the state (and lost in the U.S. Supreme Court) over a 1912 minimum wage law for minors. It’s become clear that if protective labor legislation increases the cost of business in the short run, such laws have added to the overall prosperity and well-being of our community in the longer term.
Why recall these early labor laws now? Because there are people publicly weighing in against paid sick time who either don’t understand when labor laws are appropriate in a civil society to protect workers, or who just don’t like them because they impinge on employers’ rights to treat their workers however they so choose. The Oregonian editorial board has even suggested that consumers should drive labor practices here in Portland by shopping and eating and procuring services from businesses that let their employees earn paid sick time. Not only would that be extremely difficult (since employers so rarely post their workplace policies for public review), but also because consumers have to do enough policing by wallet as it is.
Placing public health concerns and the economic and health security of sick workers and their families in consumers’ hands is an unreliable, inconsistent and uncertain fix to a serious problem.
Protective labor laws serve an important purpose: to establish a community standard where the marketplace (and the employers within it) fails to respect basic workers’ rights. And the opportunity to earn paid sick time while working is a basic right that too many don’t have. Portland should take the lead and pass this important law locally and let the rest of the state follow its example.
Helen Moss is a senior instructor in the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon in Portland.