House Democrats eye minimum wage laws to fix past 'racial discrimination'

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House Democrats on Monday trumpeted plans to undo past racism by raising the minimum wage of tip workers and giving overtime pay to farm and live-in domestic workers.

It is the latest attempt by Democrats to correct what they see as continuing reverberations of slavery and long-ago discriminatory policies. Republicans said it would overstep federal authority, harm the economy and cost the workers their jobs.  

At a hearing of a House Education and Labor subcommittee, Democrats said Congress excluded professions such as waitresses and farmworkers from the nation’s main labor protection law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1936, because most workers doing those jobs were people of color.

Southern Democrats, a key voting bloc at the time, objected to raising the pay of Black workers to be closer to those in jobs more likely done by White workers, said Rep. Alma Adams, North Carolina Democrat, chairwoman of the House Education and Labor Committee’s workforce protections subcommittee.

“After 80 years, the FLSA still includes aspects of our nation’s history and racial discrimination by expressly denying farmworkers, domestic workers and tip workers the full protections of wage and hour protections,” she said.

Ending the disparity of the tipped minimum wage has been a goal on the far left for years, though without tying the issue to racism.

Tipped workers such as restaurant servers are now entitled to a $2.13 minimum wage. Tips make up the difference with the $7.25 minimum wage for other workers.

A bill by committee Chairman Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat, would double the regular minimum wage to $15 by 2025. The minimum wage for tipped employees would gradually rise to the same level by 2027.

Democrats also are pushing bills previously introduced by then-senator and now Vice President Kamala Harris that would require farmworkers and live-in domestic workers to get overtime pay.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Center, quoted James Mark Wilcox, a Democratic congressman from Florida during the debate over creating the labor law. Mr. Dixon had opposed raising the pay of Blacks by including certain occupations in the law.

“‘We may rest assured, therefore, that when we turn over to a federal bureau or board the power to fix wages, it will prescribe the same wage for the Negro that it prescribes for the White man,’” Wilcox had said. “Now such a plan might work in some sections of the United States, but those of us who know the true situation know that it just will not work in the South.”

Ms. Dixon told lawmakers they have an obligation to act. “To ensure that our economy and the larger society is truly fair and just, we must center racial equity in policy choices and directly confront how racism shaped the economy we have now,” she said. “This stratification perpetuates two-tiered workplaces and a Jim Crow economy.”

However, Paul DeCamp, an administrator in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division during the George W. Bush administration and now a labor lawyer in Washington, questioned the constitutionality of the federal government telling people that they have to pay overtime to domestic workers living with them in their private homes.

Mr. DeCamp said businesses and farms would respond to having to pay higher wages and overtime by laying off workers.

The Democratic proposals, he said, “will hurt more people than it will lift out of poverty.”

Rep. Fred Keller of Pennsylvania and the subcommittee’s top Republican, said Congress instead should focus on changes to labor laws that allow businesses to adapt to a rapidly changing global economy.

“A radical mandated wage policy and one-size-fits-all regulations will lead to fewer economic opportunities, less economic freedom, restricted hours for workers and less use of automation, all the while harming our economic recovery from COVID-19,” he said.

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