By JANET BAUER
Workers at Rawlin at Riverbend, a memory care facility in Springfield, had had enough. Patients were languishing, even dying. Residents yelled for help that a severely understaffed, poorly-paid, and insufficiently trained care team could not provide, despite their best efforts.
In hopes of improving working conditions and better serving residents, the caregivers tried forming a union. But even though 85% of them initially made clear they desired a union, the effort failed — derailed, as is often the case, by employer strong-arm tactics and union-busting consultants. Lies and intimidation won out.
Stories like that of the workers at Rawlin show why it’s time for Oregon to resurrect a strategy designed to give workers a voice and improve pay and working conditions: the wage board.
Wage boards — also called workers’ boards or sectoral bargaining — recommend minimum standards for wages, benefits, working conditions, and training. Created by state or local governments, wage boards consist of employees, employers, and members of the public. Public officials have the authority to implement their guidance, and a board can often compel officials to act. Once more common in the U.S. labor landscape, wage boards are regaining relevance.
Wage boards don’t replace the need for collective bargaining, but complement it by offering a way to overcome barriers to unionizing. For one, union-busting tactics designed to intimidate workers are obsolete when it’s the wage board representatives deciding the standards. Also, wage boards can improve working conditions across an entire industry. That’s key when it comes to hard-to-reach workers such as independent contractors, gig workers, and temp workers. At the same time, though wage boards can help workers who aren’t unionized, building worker power through on-going organizing remains essential to ensuring that boards truly respond to the needs of workers.
Workers of all races experience degraded, exploitative, and dangerous working conditions. That’s especially true for people of color and women. Undocumented immigrants power much of Oregon’s agricultural, construction, restaurant, and hospitality industries. But they are some of the lowest-paid workers, as employers take advantage of their immigration status, isolation, language barriers, and lack of familiarity with our laws. Meanwhile, women — especially women of color — predominate in low-paying occupations such as childcare providers, personal care aides, and housekeeping workers.
Wage boards are well-situated to rectify such inequities. They can set wage levels and standards that reflect the value the occupations bring to our economy. In doing so, industry-wide bargaining can reduce economic inequality and gender pay gaps.
Businesses can also benefit. By elevating wages and working conditions for all workers in an industry, wage boards reduce labor turnover and the associated costs involved in bringing on new employees, while increasing the quality of the industry’s workforce.
Wage boards have been around for a long time. Its most common form today is what’s known as prevailing wage, which sets minimum compensation standards in construction projects financed with public dollars.
States have recently rediscovered the idea of wage boards. In the past few years, New York, Nevada, and California have established wage boards in certain exploitative industries. Local jurisdictions are also seeing their value: Seattle, Detroit, and Philadelphia have set up boards to lift standards for groups of workers.
Recently, the Oregon legislature discussed setting up a wage board for the long-term care industry, but failed to take action. It was a missed opportunity. Had such a board been in place a few years back, workers at Rawlin might not have faced such horrific working conditions, and some of the residents might still be alive today.
It’s time for Oregon to bring back wage boards.
Janet Bauer is Director of Policy Research at the Oregon Center for Public Policy.