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Democrats urge end to labor practices they see rooted in racism

'Institutional racism' seen in fair wage and hour law

Adams, shown at a 2019 hearing, said the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded jobs held by Black and brown workers from basic labor protections.
Adams, shown at a 2019 hearing, said the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded jobs held by Black and brown workers from basic labor protections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some House Democrats are pushing Congress to expand labor protections for domestic, farm and tipped workers, whose exclusion from federal labor laws was part of what they said was a racist gambit to shore up Southern support for the New Deal.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt excluded industries heavily populated by Black workers to buy the support of Southern lawmakers needed to pass a law that established the backbone of federal labor protections, including paid overtime and minimum wage, Democrats said Monday at a hearing held by the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

“By excluding jobs held by Black and brown workers from basic worker protections, the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] injected institutional racism into a federal wage and hour law,” Subcommittee Chairwoman Alma Adams, D-N.C, said. “These exclusions robbed workers of color of economic security over the next three decades.” 

Adams highlighted three bills that would correct racist exclusions in federal labor laws, including a bill introduced by Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., that would eliminate the separate minimum wage for tipped workers and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; 2019 legislation introduced by committee member Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., that would make live-in domestic workers eligible for overtime pay; and a bill introduced that year by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., that would do the same for farm workers. 

Adams said her mother and grandmother cleaned houses, so she knew the financial hardship of domestic work. 

“I know this because I’ve lived it,” she said. “I saw firsthand how impossible it was for them to make ends meet and how impossible it was for them to cover basic necessities, let alone, let alone live comfortably.”

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Center, said Congress used sectors dominated by Black workers — domestic, agriculture and tipped hospitality jobs — as a proxy for race to exclude African Americans from labor protections.

“This exclusion depressed Black workers’ wages, effects still present today in persistent generational wage and wealth gaps,” she said.

Later expansions of the federal law extended some provisions to those sectors, but live-in domestic workers and agriculture workers still lack paid overtime and tipped workers are subject to a lower minimum wage. Some states have extended protections to those sectors by eliminating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers or requiring overtime for farm workers.

Republicans and their witness Paul DeCamp, a lawyer for Epstein Becker & Green P.C., said the policies pushed by Democrats would eliminate jobs and hurt young, low-skill workers in the rural South the most. 

“Much of the public debate about $15 an hour posits a sole breadwinner, struggling to lift a family out of poverty. The reality is that most individuals who earn minimum wage are young and are not supporting families,” DeCamp said. He worked as the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division from 2006 to 2007. 

Republicans also said expanding paid overtime to agriculture workers would undermine family farms and U.S. competitiveness against countries with lower agricultural labor costs. 

“The nature of agricultural work, especially harvesting, requires long hours during a relatively short season, thus rendering the jobs generally unsuited for overtime,” DeCamp said. “Most farmers would end up seeing a dramatic increase in labor costs, leading to higher food prices for consumers.”

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