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Two Views: Higher pay creates better future for all

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Ostensibly, 2014 was a good year for the U.S. economy. The national unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent — the lowest in 6.5 years — while job growth averaged 246,000 per month.

It’s tempting to presume we’re on the right track, but let’s get something straight: Our economy is working only for a few. The last few years we’ve seen the gap between wealthy and working families grow. Between 2009 and 2012, 95 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent of income earners.

Even more troubling, Oregon taxpayers bankroll low-wage, no-benefit jobs that allow corporations to rake in record profits. Earlier this month, the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center found that taxpayers are subsidizing corporations’ reliance on a low-wage, no-benefit work force to the tune of $1.7 billion a year.

The report shows more than 400,000 Oregonians are employed in low-wage jobs. One in four Oregon workers are bringing home less than $25,000 each year.

As a result, demand for public services has reached a record high. In other words, companies boost profits by relying on taxpayers to support Oregonians who are working, yet still struggle to put food on the table and make ends meet.

This session, state legislators have the opportunity to make us a priority by addressing both economic inequities and the outdated, broken rules that still govern work and wages. Two key policies would fix our broken economy and give all of us a fair shot at success: higher wages and the ability to keep those wages (and our jobs) when we — or our kids — get sick.

On increasing the minimum wage: $18,925 a year isn’t enough to get ahead. Raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour would boost wages for nearly 650,000 Oregonians and give more working families a fair shot at a better life. Putting more money in the pockets of consumers would empower our local economy and help small businesses grow.

Many believe high school students represent the majority of low-wage job workers. However, data shows that adults over 20 make up the vast majority of the low-wage work force, many with a college degree or some level of higher education.

In fact, national data indicates the average minimum-wage worker is most likely to be a 35-year-old woman, often a mother with a family relying solely on her wages. The reality is that women, people of color, and people living in rural areas make up the largest percentage of our low-wage work force.

Some employers say they can’t afford to pay their workers more. Research tells a different story. Recent studies show minimum-wage increases had nominal or no impact on the costs of goods and services, hiring costs, or worker’s hours and benefits.

On expanding access to paid sick days: Everyone gets sick, yet 71 percent of Oregonians working low-paying jobs don’t have a single paid sick day. These workers are disproportionately women and people of color. Ensuring all Oregonians earn paid sick days makes it so all of us can afford to stay home when we — or our kids — get sick.

Three states and 15 cities have now passed paid sick days laws, including Portland and Eugene. Extending this protection to all Oregonians would benefit many workers and their families. It would also strengthen Oregon’s economy and keep everyone healthier.

While there are some minor costs for employers in providing paid sick days, the costs of not doing so are even greater. We face serious public health consequences when employees have to work sick, especially in service-sector jobs where the risk of infecting others is higher.

It’s time to put an end to the massive corporate giveaways that subsidize low wages and inadequate benefits. It’s time we listen to the data, prioritize public health, and create a better future for working families.

And above all, it’s time we ensure that Oregon’s economy works for all of us.

Andrea Paluso is chairwoman of the Fair Shot for All Coalition and executive director of Family Forward Oregon.