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There are hidden parts of Biden's infrastructure plan that will affect everyone

Republicans are having limited success turning the public against the Biden administration's $2 trillion infrastructure plan by claiming the proposal is too wide-ranging.

A new NPR poll shows solid support not only for the provisions relating to roads and bridges but also for spending on modernizing the electric grid, achieving universal broadband coverage and even expanding long-term health care.

Given the sweeping scope of the proposal, it is not possible for pollsters to ask about every component. I suspect there also would be high support for a portion of the plan that has received little attention.

That is the provision to strengthen the capacity of federal departments responsible for enforcing workplace protections.

The federal government [needs] the tools to ensure employers are providing workers with good jobs – including jobs with fair and equal pay, safe and healthy workplaces…

Biden is proposing that $10 billion be spent to beef up agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Wage and Hour Division. The plan states:

"President Biden is calling on Congress to provide the federal government with the tools it needs to ensure employers are providing workers with good jobs – including jobs with fair and equal pay, safe and healthy workplaces, and workplaces free from racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination and harassment."

Before the Pandemic

It makes sense to push for improvements in job quality at the same time the country is striving to bring the number of jobs back to the levels seen before the arrival of Covid. Workplace abuses predated the pandemic. In some ways abuses worsened during the past year. Job safety waned in industries such as meatpacking especially. Such damage will be with us long after the health crisis abates.

Congress perennially fails to fund these agencies adequately, leaving them with insufficient numbers of inspectors and investigators.

For example, the most recent edition of the AFL-CIO's Death on the Job report notes that the number of workplace safety inspectors declined steadily during the Trump years both at federal and state levels. These staffing shortages create a form of de facto deregulation as many workplace abuses go undetected and unprosecuted.

Biden's plan briefly addresses another problem with workplace enforcement: artificially low penalty structures, especially at OSHA. The administration calls for increasing these penalties, but it does not provide specifics.

Not So Stiff Penalties

The penalty situation at OSHA is not as bad as it used to be. Changes made during the Obama administration, including 2015 legislation that extended inflation adjustments to workplace safety fines, helped raise penalty rates. The maximum for a serious violation is $13,653 and the maximum for a willful or repeated violation is $136,532.

These maximum amounts do not tell the full story. As the Death on the Job report points out, the average penalty for a serious violation in fiscal year 2019 was only $3,717. The average for willful violations was $59,373 and for repeat violations, it was $14,109. Even in cases involving fatalities, the median penalty was just $9,282.

The cumulative effect of low OSHA penalties can be seen in the data in Violation Tracker, which only includes fines of $5,000 or more. OSHA accounts for 37 percent of the cases in the database but less than 1 percent of the total penalty dollars. Numbers such as these cause too many employers to conclude that their bottom line is best served by skimping on workplace safety and paying the meager fines that may or may not be imposed by OSHA.

The Biden infrastructure plan could begin to change that.

Why it's time to make large corporations pay living wages

There was a time when landing a job with a large corporation was, even for blue-collar workers, a ticket to a comfortable life—good wages, generous benefits and a secure retirement. Women and workers of color did not share fully in this bounty, but they generally did better at big firms than small ones.

All this began to unravel in the 1980s, when big business used the excuse of global competition to chip away at the living standards of the domestic workforce. This took the form of an assault on unions, which had played a key role in bringing about the improvements in the terms of employment. In meatpacking, for instance, what had been a high-wage, high-union-density industry turned into a bastion of precarious labor.

The real solution to the problem is not voluntary corporate action but rather collective bargaining. Amazon and Walmart could assist their workers by dropping their opposition to unionization.

When large corporations off-loaded a substantial portion of their employment costs, they created a higher burden for the public sector. As their pay and benefits shrank, workers turned to the social safety net to fill the gap. Programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) that were originally designed for employees of small firms and for the unemployed became a lifeline for the workforce at some Fortune 500 companies.

Subsidizing Labor Costs

From a social point of view, this was a good thing—but it also created a situation in which taxpayers were in effect subsidizing the labor costs of mega-corporations. This became an issue in the early 2000s with regard to Walmart, and there were unsuccessful efforts in states such as Maryland to require large firms to spend more on employee healthcare.

Although the issue receded from public attention, figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have sought to keep it alive, putting the main focus on the employment practices of Amazon.com. In 2018 Sanders helped pressure the giant e-commerce firm to raise its wage rates by introducing legislation that would have taxed large companies to recoup the cost of government benefits given to their employees.

Now the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Sanders is continuing his effort from a position of even greater influence. He just held a hearing on whether taxpayers are subsidizing poverty wages at large corporations. As in 2018, just highlighting the issue had a concrete impact. At the hearing on Thursday (Feb. 25), the chief executive of Costco announced that his company would raise its minimum pay rate to $16 an hour. This came a week after Walmart hiked its rate to $15 but only for a portion of its workforce.

Some Wage Boosts

After years of wage stagnation, it is heartening to see that large companies are beginning to feel some pressure to boost their wage rates. Yet rises of only a few dollars an hour will not do the trick. Pay needs to be substantially higher than $15 an hour. That's why the real solution to the problem is not voluntary corporate action but rather collective bargaining. Amazon and Walmart could assist their workers much more by dropping their opposition to unionization.

Having a voice at work would solve not only the pay problem but also the crisis in healthcare coverage and other benefits. The scope of that crisis was made plain by another speaker at the Senate Budget Committee hearing. Cindy Brown Barnes of the Government Accountability Office summarized research showing that an estimated 12 million adults enrolled in Medicaid and 9 million adults living in households receiving food stamp benefits earned wages at some point in 2018.

The GAO had more difficulty determining the portion of these populations employed at large corporations. That is because only a limited number of the state agencies administering Medicaid and food stamps collect and update employer information on recipients.

Corporations On the Dole

The partial data is still revealing. Among the six states providing employer information for Medicaid recipients, Walmart was in the top 10 in all, while McDonald's and Amazon were in five. Among the nine states providing employer information for food stamp recipients, Walmart was in the top 10 in all, while McDonald's was in eight and Amazon was in four.

These findings provide valuable information for the Sanders campaign against poverty wages. Companies such as Amazon—which recently reported that its annual revenues in 2020 were up 38% and its profits nearly doubled to $21 billion—can well afford to pay employees a living wage and provide the benefits necessary for a decent standard of living.

Public safety net programs are essential to society, but those who are employed by mega-corporations should not have to make use of them.

It's not just Republicans in Congress who share the blame for the failed Trump insurrection

Republican members of Congress who abetted the plot to overturn the election will go down in infamy along with the disgraced 45th President himself. That applies both to the dead-enders who still repeat the lies and those senators and representatives who abandoned the shameful crusade only after a mob whipped up by Trump invaded the Capitol.

There is another group of enablers who should be called to account: Corporate America. Sure, big business is now frantically trying to distance itself from Trump, with the National Association of Manufacturers going so far as to urge that Vice President Pence and the Cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment. Amid the chaos on Wednesday, the Business Roundtable called on Trump to put an end to the violence. In late November, a group of more than 160 chief executives urged the Trump Administration to accept Biden's victory and cooperate in the transition process.

While Trump moved steadily along the path to authoritarianism, large companies allowed themselves to be bought off with tax giveaways and regulatory rollbacks.

Yet, as with Congressional Republicans, these gestures came after four years of enabling Trump's anti-democratic practices. While Trump moved steadily along the path to authoritarianism, large companies allowed themselves to be bought off with tax giveaways and regulatory rollbacks. There were occasional confrontations with corporations such as Carrier and General Motors over layoffs and offshoring, but these were bogus, reality-TV-type confrontations that amounted to nothing.

Regulations Rollbacks

More significant were the policies adopted by a purportedly populist President that weakened labor unions, rolled back OSHA enforcement, curtailed fair labor standards and installed employer-friendly Secretaries of Labor.

Corporate America has also benefited from Trump's retrograde environmental policies, especially the efforts to roll back limits on greenhouse gas emissions. On their way out the door, officials such as Andrew Wheeler of the EPA are trying to limit the options the Biden Administration will have to restore pollution controls.

Specific corporations have also been the beneficiaries of Trump's policies. Military contractors such as Lockheed Martin have profited from the Administration's use of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia as a key element of its foreign policy. Telecommunications equipment companies such as Cisco benefitted from Trump's campaign against its Chinese competitor Huawei.

News and Social Media Giants

Even companies chosen by Trump for his faux confrontations have profited from him or have assisted his accumulation of power. News corporations such as CNN gave Trump's early rallies undue coverage and helped propel his political rise. Social media corporations for the most part have allowed Trump to disseminate hate speech and dangerous falsehoods.

Some prominent corporate figures have directly supported Trump, both with endorsements and substantial campaign contributions. These include Stephen Schwarzman of The Blackstone Group, Kelcy Warren of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Other corporations and trade associations have sucked up to Trump and his family over the past four years. Last February, NAM, the organization now promoting the 25th Amendment, gave its Alexander Hamilton Award to Ivanka Trump.

On the whole, big business has offered little more than mild rebukes to Trump's dangerous tendencies while reaping substantial benefits. Like Congressional Republicans, Corporate America needs to be held to account.

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