×

Here's what Paul Ryan should do first

The following is an open letter to incoming Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Dear Speaker Ryan:

You assume the top position in the House of Representatives at a critical time. Expectations are high – for you and for the Congress you now lead – because as you noted, the American people need Congress to do better:

"[The American people] never get a raise. They never get a break. But the bills keep piling up — and the taxes and the debt. They are working harder than ever to get ahead. Yet they are falling further behind."

You're right, Mr. Speaker. And you are in a unique position to set the agenda that will give them exactly what they need and deserve.

Getty Images

The first thing you could do is pass an increase to the minimum wage, which has been frozen for six years. Wages are not just stagnant; they are declining in real value, and the costs of living and providing for one's family keep mounting, meaning that workers fall further behind each year. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) has introduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020, and Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has introduced the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act, which would increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2020. Both bills enjoy strong economic support, and extremely high popular support among all demographics, including Republican voters. It's the right thing to do both in terms of policy and politics, and it's yours for the taking, Mr. Speaker.

Next, you could ensure that people with criminal records have a fair chance to compete for jobs in the federal government and with federal contractors. The Fair Chance Act, introduced by Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), would ensure that background checks in hiring occur at a point in the interview process after the candidate's relevant qualifications are fully considered. A companion bill, introduced in the Senate by Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), was unanimously approved by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and should quickly move through regular order to the House floor for passage. And the Redeem Act, introduced by Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.), and by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker in the Senate, would make huge strides toward helping the formerly incarcerated effectively re-enter their communities and find good jobs.

Third, you should support the Department of Labor's efforts to update the so-called "white collar" overtime exemptions. Included among the people you mention who never get a break are as many as 13.5 million workers who are missing out on overtime pay protections because current rules allow — in fact, encourage — employers to "promote" low-wage workers into low-paid "managerial" jobs and impose significant overtime hours without any pay at all for those excess hours. Too many people are working too many hours, to the detriment of their personal and family lives and those who would get work they need — jobs or more hours — if currently unpaid overtime hours were spread among more people rather than concentrated among a smaller number of low-paid "managers." Two House committees have held hearings attacking these proposed regulations, but as Speaker, you can give workers stretched thin by long hours and low pay the chance they deserve by putting a stop to efforts to block, derail or delay these crucial regulations.

Similarly Mr. Speaker, workers should be able to seek remedies from wage theft and unsafe working conditions, but they can only do so effectively if they can hold responsible parties accountable for violations of our most basic workplace protections. So you should make sure that the cynically named Protecting Local Business Opportunity Act never reaches the House floor. This bill would overturn decades of common-law doctrine that allows workers to hold joint employers liable for their workplace violations. When two entities both have the right to control and direct the actions of an employee and a workplace, there should be no opportunity for either of them to escape legal liability for violations of our labor and employment laws.

You are right Mr. Speaker – the American people deserve more than they are getting. They deserve higher wages, less unpaid and involuntary overtime work, safer workplaces, fair chances to compete for employment, and the ability to right the wrongs they face on the job. You are in a unique position to make sure that they get all of these things and more, such as paid sick and safe leave, paid family and medical leave, and a chance to have a meaningful voice in the terms and conditions of their work. The American worker needs you, Mr. Speaker. Please don't let her down.

Commentary by Judy Conti, Federal advocacy coordinator, National Employment Law Project.