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How Local Governments Are Advancing Workers’ Rights, and Why Even More Should Get Involved

Cities are spearheading efforts to pass and enforce local labor laws that are improving standards for workers in their communities.

A food delivery guy with bicycle is seen at the Times Square in New York City.,GETTY IMAGES/ANADOLU AGENCY

What do local governments do? 

Ask most anyone, and you’ll get similar answers: run schools, clean parks, collect garbage, clear snow, etc. Increasingly, though, that framework is changing: Cities are also becoming champions of workers’ rights. 

 There’s a notable surge of action by cities and other localities in advancing workers’ rights, as documented in a report we wrote that was issued recently. Some cities and counties are now seeing worker protection as one of their core functions. 

For example, Seattle’s City Council last month passed legislation protecting delivery workers for gig companies GrubHub, Instacart and others. The new law sets a minimum wage for these workers, requires companies to be transparent about pay and tips, and bans companies from punishing workers for rejecting jobs. 

Last year, New York City passed a law covering some of the same ground. Local organizations, Working Washington in Seattle and Los Deliveristas Unidos in New York City, helped catalyze both laws. 

Enhancing Workers’ Rights

Want higher wages? While the federal minimum wage lingers at $7.25 per hour, the same as it’s been for thirteen years, 52 localities have enacted higher local minimum wages, including many in the $15 range. Since 2012, local minimum wage increases have affected over 4 million workers, generating around $7,800 of additional annual income per worker

How about paid sick leave, or predictable work schedules? Twenty localities have laws requiring employers to provide workers with paid sick days, and eight have fair workweek or fair scheduling laws requiring employers to give workers advance notice of their schedules.

Often, local laws have catalyzed action on the state level. New Jersey passed a statewide paid sick leave law after 13 of its cities had done so. Oregon enacted a fair workweek law after a number of localities had passed such laws. And earlier this month,  the New York State legislature voted in favor of a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law protecting the pay rights of independent freelance workers based on a similar New York City law in effect since 2017. 

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Years of experience with local laws can provide proof of concept, as well as showing that for most businesses, these advances end up being “no big deal” for employers’ operations and bottomline, as found by a study of New York City employers in relation to paid sick leave. 

Enforcing Workers’ Rights

Passing legislation isn’t enough – laws also have to be enforced. To this end, at least twenty local governments have created or are creating permanent dedicated offices focused on labor. These offices have been serious about enforcing workers’ rights: New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection last year sued Chipotle for $150 million based on thousands of alleged fair workweek violations, and during the pandemic, Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards recovered $3.4 million from Uber and nearly $1 million from Postmates, in relation to the city’s gig worker paid sick time law. 

The surge of local efforts to enforce workers’ rights and institutionalize workers’ voices in government isn’t just happening among the usual geographical suspects, such as large coastal cities in the bluest of states. Other cities with dedicated labor standards offices or units include Denver; Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and soon Tucson, Arizona. 

In addition, an Essential Workers Board was created in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, and a Workers’ Rights Commission in Durham, North Carolina; these bodies do not have enforcement powers, but they advise the county and city, respectively, on worker issues.

 A U.S. Senate Budget Committee hearing convened by Sen. Bernie Sanders in May posed the question, “Should taxpayer dollars go to companies that violate labor laws?” Some local governments have taken action to make sure that this doesn’t happen. They’re flexing their municipal muscles as buyers of services, by setting higher wages for government contractors, or passing laws to prevent repeat violators from being awarded city government contracts. 

Some cities have licensing or permitting laws creating consequences (like suspension or revocation) for labor violations. For example, Santa Clara County, California, has a Food Permit Enforcement Program allowing the county to suspend or revoke food health permits if an employer has an outstanding state judgment for wages owed. 

Bigger localities and their smaller neighbors can pool resources for worker protections. In California, the San Jose Office of Equality Assurance enforces local wage requirements for itself and also contracts with nearly a dozen neighboring localities to do their enforcement. This approach allows for enforcement even by Burlingame and San Carlos, each with populations in the 30,000 range. 

Dealing With Limitations 

Some cities are limited in what they can do because of abusive preemption common in the South and Midwest: Conservative state legislatures pass laws barring localities from action in certain areas. But even these cities can educate workers about their rights, enlist local lawyers to handle wage-related cases, or stop by a local Starbucks to show support for organizing workers. 

Local action, of course, is no substitute for strong worker protections at the federal or state level. The  new gig worker legislation in Seattle, for example, sidesteps the pressing questions of whether companies should be able to avoid workplace laws by designating their workers as independent contractors instead of as employees. 

Also, city by city pro-worker efforts alone will leave a lot of people unprotected. And as a general matter, when large multinational corporations violate workers’ rights, we ultimately need a governmental response that is broad based and appropriately scaled.. 

But even if we had strong federal and state worker protections, cities and localities would still have an important role to play. By definition they’re close to their constituents, and can often respond nimbly to urgent or specific needs. They can also be innovative in doing so: Justice Brandeis famously described states as laboratories of public policy experimentation; local governments now play that role, too, and have done so effectively on worker issues. 

Driving Workplace Justice

More cities and localities should become champions for the working people in their jurisdictions. Local leaders—from mayors and city councilors to agency heads and longtime civil servant managers—should consider how they can use their powers to drive workplace justice. Workers and their organizations can focus, as some already are, on pressing localities to get in this game. It’s the right thing to do, and also smart politically. Polls show overwhelming public support for minimum wage increases and paid leave programs, as well as for labor unions

The federal landscape often feels overwhelming: The filibuster prevents real action in Congress, guns are everywhere and the midterms loom forebodingly. We should be clear eyed about our national situation, but amidst it all, we can still celebrate forward motion where it’s happening and spot very realistic opportunities for swift and meaningful action. Given the untapped potential of local government and the profound need for workplace justice, we can seize the opportunity to press for more.

Terri Gerstein is the director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and is also a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. Previously, she worked for over 17 years enforcing worker protection laws in New York State..

LiJia Gong is the policy and legal director at Local Progress. She leads the development of Local Progress’s policy and research capacity to support members, and drives the development and growth of national program areas.