Working families in many states have won crucial new workplace protections, including dramatic increases to the minimum wage, paid sick time, and family leave and protections against unpredictable part-time work schedules. These policies are powerful tools for fighting economic inequality; they help working families put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and care for their children and family members. But the real-world impact of these historic policy wins depends on effective enforcement. Historically, workplace standards have been enforced through the combined efforts of public agencies and private class-action lawsuits. Today, corporate use of forced arbitration, combined with shrinking budgets for public worker protection agencies, is undermining our new, hard-won workplace standards as well as long-standing protections. The right to be paid a livable minimum wage, to take meal and rest breaks, to safe workplaces, and to equal earning and promotion opportunities regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or other social category—all of these important rights are at risk of being hollowed out by underenforcement.
Elected leaders’ misplaced budget priorities have left worker protection agencies severely under-resourced. Staffing has not kept up with the growing workforce nor with the increasing size and complexity of businesses. At the same time, wage and hour violations, workplace discrimination, and health and safety violations persist. Indeed, new findings show that:
- In Oregon, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont (the states profiled in this report) the number of workers per wage and hour investigator ranges from 54,900 to 188,800.
- The number of workers per federal wage and hour investigator and per officer is now 175,000—well over double the ratios that existed in the late 1970s.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of corporations are forcing their employees to sign away their right to pursue justice in court if their employer violates their workplace rights. In forced arbitration, a company requires a worker or consumer to waive their right to sue in court; instead, disputes must be resolved by a private arbitrator. Surging corporate use of forced arbitration has already blocked over half of private-sector nonunion employees from suing when they experience discrimination, harassment, or wage theft, leaving private arbitration—a secretive, biased, and expensive alternative—as their only option. The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis worsened this trend. The court held that employers can require employees to give up their right to sue on both an individual or collective basis— denying workers the right to band together to seek justice and allowing employers to force all disputes into individual arbitration. We anticipate a surge in corporate use of forced arbitration following Epic Systems. Our analysis shows that by 2024, more than 80 percent of private sector nonunion workers will be blocked from court by forced arbitration clauses with class- and collective-action waivers. Soon, the vast majority of workers will have signed away their right to go to court or to join with their coworkers to vindicate their workplace rights.
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