Category Archives: labor

Jobs Numbers Show Rolling Back Covid-19 Restrictions Would Restore Resilience in U.S. Economy

This press statement was originally published on cei.org.

The Biden Administration’s Labor Department reported today that the United States added 559,000 jobs in May and the unemployment rate dropped to 5.8%.

CEI Senior Fellow Sean Higgins said:

“The Labor Department’s report Friday makes clear that rolling back the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 outbreak remains the surest way to restore resilience in the economy. The nation added 559,000 jobs in May, bringing the unemployment rate to 5.8% with increases in the leisure and hospitality sector (292,000 jobs) and public and private education (141,000) leading the growth thanks to loosened restrictions. The DOL said that 7.9 million people, down from 1.5 million in the previous month, reported that they were unable to work because their employer had closed or lost business due to the pandemic. That shift dwarfs the May’s job gains, suggesting the nation would be in significant trouble if it hadn’t eased the restrictions.”

CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young said:

“It turns out the key to the COVID economic recovery isn’t stimulus payments. It isn’t a $6 trillion proposed budget, and it isn’t $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. The key to a quick recovery is people getting vaccinated so they can resume normal activities. There is still a ways to go, since 5.8 percent unemployment is still well above pre-COVID levels. But this week’s news that 63 percent of adults are vaccinated in the U.S. is a sign of continuing progress.

“As the economy continues to trend back to normal, there are still things policy makers can do to help. They should get more never-needed regulations off the books, and they should get rid of Trump-era trade barriers that raise consumer prices on everything from cars to housing. Not only would these provide an additional economic boost, they would do it without any new deficit spending.”

Minimum Wage Tradeoffs Go beyond Jobs

I’m quoted in a Daily Signal writeup on several policy issues the new administration will be active on in the coming months. My quote is on the minimum wage:

However, the economic impact isn’t limited to jobs, said Ryan Young, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. 

“The biggest trade-off and negative effect would not be job loss, but non-wage pay decrease,” Young told The Daily Signal. “Employers would cut tuition payments, benefits, and it would mean more work for the employees if positions aren’t filled.”

Young added that the economic impact could be harsh, but noted that the average for state minimum-wage laws nationally is “in the neighborhood” of $12 per hour. So, the proposed increase itself for many states would not be more than double. 

Read the whole thing here.

Federal Minimum Wage Hike to $15 an Hour Will Hurt Small Businesses, Lead to Lost Jobs

This news release was originally posted at cei.org.

President-elect Joe Biden today announced a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 recovery plan that includes not only $1,400 stimulus checks to many Americans but a federal minimum wage hike to “at least $15 an hour.” CEI economic and labor policy experts warned against the real-world impact that new mandate would have on businesses and jobs.

Ryan Young, Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow:

“Adding a $15 per hour minimum wage to the next COVID-19 relief bill would be a mistake because the timing is terrible and the tradeoffs are not worth it. Small businesses often have a hard time making payroll as it is, with bills and rent still piling up amid COVID-related slowdowns. A higher minimum wage would do no good for the workers who would be let go because of it.

“A $15 minimum wage would also give big businesses an unfair advantage. Many big companies such as Amazon, Target, and Costco already have $15 minimum wages for their employees. Other big companies can afford to automate some jobs and have the cash reserves to absorb extra payroll for the rest. Smaller competitors might not be able to keep up, especially during hard times like right now.”

Sean Higgins, Competitive Enterprise Institute research fellow:

“Ironically, it was only a few years ago that Neera Tanden, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be the next director of the Office of Management and Budget, was warning Democrats against a $15 minimum wage. Tanden, speaking as president of the Center for American Progress, told Hillary Clinton’s campaign in an April 15, 2015 email, ‘Substantively, we have not supported $15—you will get a fair number of liberal economists who will say it will lose jobs.’

“Tanden was right back then: setting the federal wage that high will result in employers cutting back in hiring and limiting workers’ hours to adjust to the higher labor costs. Ultimately, the workers will see little benefit. Consumers, on the other hand, will see higher prices across the board as companies turn to higher prices for their goods and services.”

December Job Losses in Leisure & Hospitality Eclipse Gains in Other Sectors – What Can Policymakers Do?

This press release was originally posted at cei.org.

The Labor Department reported today the economy lost 140,000 jobs in December 2020. Gains in various sectors were eclipsed by 500,000 jobs lost in the leisure and hospitality sector.

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young says policymakers should continue to clear away never-needed regulations and build in flexibility to future reopening plans:

“There is a small ray of sunshine from today’s jobs report: leisure and hospitality jobs are pandemic-sensitive. They’ll likely come back quickly as more people get vaccinated. Since other jobs are up by about 360,000, that means the rest of the economy is likely growing, if slowly. Officials should continue to remove never-needed regulations that continue to block businesses from adapting to consumers’ and employees’ changing COVID-era needs. 

“As the pandemic subsides, officials should allow flexibility for companies to set their own reopening policies. Reopening safely will require trial and error, which means error-prone policymakers should reject a top-down approach that would make it difficult to adapt as needed.”

CEI research fellow Sean Higgins points to lockdowns and restrictions as a big impediment for leisure and hospitality jobs:

“After months of jobs gains indicating the businesses and workers were adapting to the Covid-19 crisis, Friday’s report that economy shed 140,000 jobs shows the drag created by continual lockdowns and restrictions is starting to roll back those gains. The losses were concentrated in the leisure and hospitality fields, indicating those sectors are running out of ways to cope and are scaling back instead.

“Just two months ago the leisure and hospitality sector was leading job growth, having added 318,000 jobs in September. In November, that dropped to a mere 31,000 jobs gained; and in December, that same sector lost 498,000 jobs. Since February, employment in leisure and hospitality is down by 3.9 million, or 23.2 percent, accounting for more than half of the 5.7 million jobs lost overall since the pandemic started.

“Seasonal shifts account for part of the loss, but the shuttering of the economy severely exacerbated the situation. As the BLS report notes, 15.8 million people reported in December that they had been unable to work because their employer closed or lost business for reasons related to the pandemic, up one million from the previous month.

“The silver lining is that the economy can recover if given the chance. There is no substitute for letting people get back to work. Hopefully, as vaccinations accelerate, public officials will relent and let this happen.”

To-Do List for 2021: Just Get Rid of AB5

It isn’t just Washington that gets a fresh start in January. California gets one, too. One of the top items on the Golden State’s policy agenda should be getting rid of what’s left of Assembly Bill 5, the controversial gig-worker law. As I argue this morning in several California newspapers, including the Orange County Register:

California’s unemployment rate is at 9.3 percent, compared to 6.7 percent nationally. California voters helped by passing Proposition 22 in November, which exempts app-based rideshare and delivery companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash from California’s Assembly Bill 5 “gig work” law. This comes months after the state legislature passed an “oops” bill to exempt thousands of other workers that AB5 accidentally threw out of work, from journalists to musicians. Now that AB5 no longer applies even to its primary ridesharing targets, the legislature should just get rid of AB5 altogether. Meanwhile, the rest of the country should learn from California’s experiment.

Read the whole piece here. For more on AB5, see other pieces by Ryan RadiaSean Higgins, and me.

Book Review: Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Waste not, want not. Minter’s tour of the global scrap and recycling industry is fascinating. He grew up in the industry, as the son of a scrapyard owner in Minnesota. As Minter got older and learned the business (and dealt with his father’s messy personal life), he discovered a whole world based on turning trash into treasure, and parlayed that into a journalism career, based in Shanghai. The amount of creativity and hidden efficiencies he finds are a source of optimism. A dreary-sounding dirty job turns out to be vibrant, innovative, and highly globalized.

At the same time, Minter is realistic about his industry. There are some shady goings-on in the circuit recycling and scrap metal industries in China, including corruption, dishonesty, and worker mistreatment. On balance, the ingenious ways entrepreneurs find to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste are good for the environment. But there are still some problems, especially in China. While these abuses are almost certainly greener than shutting down these industries would be, there is room for improvement.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, the most effective way to make sure people are responsible environmental stewards is to allow them to make a profit, and allow them to be creative. As in so many other policy areas, progress happens from the bottom up, not the top down.

Minter recently published a sequel of sorts, titled Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

The 2020 Election Actually Had Some Free-Market Victories

Neither presidential candidate has much interest in limited government. But over at National Review, I look at some neglected down-ballot victories from the 2020 election. A divided Congress will prevent one party from running everything, regardless of who wins the White House. There were also several state-level victories across the country. 

California voters partially undid the AB5 gig-worker law that made unemployment even worse during the pandemic. They also voted against an expansion of rent control, which is one reason California’s housing prices are so high.

Not that legislators will listen, but Illinois voters sent them a message to address the state’s pension crisis by cutting spending rather than raising taxes:

The Illinois legislature had already passed a separate tax hike bill, conditional on voters approving the amendment. Voters disapproved by a 55-45 margin, and taxes will remain as they are.

Voters in Oregon and several other states also continued to deescalate the drug war:

In order for people to respect the law, they have to be able to respect it. That was a major cultural cost of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, and of the drug war today. Drug legalization allows law enforcement to focus on real crimes and ease an avoidable source of antagonism between police officers and the communities they serve—especially in minority areas where drug laws are disproportionately enforced.

Washington state voters registered disapproval of a plastic bag tax. This is a victory for my colleague Angela Logomasini, who has written about the issue here and here.

A lot went wrong in the 2020 election, as is true every year. But some things also went right. Now let’s build on those victories and create some new ones.

Read the whole thing here. Ideas for the next free-market victories are at neverneeded.cei.org.

September Brought Uptick in Jobs – Will Next Government Steps Help or Hurt?

This is a press release originally posted at cei.org.

Employers added 661,000 jobs in September, and the unemployment rate declined to 7.9 percent from 8.4 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said today in its monthly report. CEI experts expressed encouragement that deregulatory policies and re-openings are helping people recover financially from pandemic lockdowns and shutdowns this year but warned that more government action is needed – to deregulate and to reject a return to lockdowns.

Statement by Sean Higgins, CEI research fellow:

“Friday’s Labor Department report that the economy added 661,000 jobs, dropping the official unemployment rate to 7.9 percent, is welcome news but also a reminder the economy has a long way to go to fully recover. The good news is the data suggest people are eager to go back work and shop, eat in restaurants, and go to theaters. But they cannot and that’s holding the recovery back.

“If we want the economy to recover, we cannot revert to locking everything down in reaction to a recent surge in coronavirus cases. We must find better ways to allow people to safely interact, instead. Doling out more stimulus funds to businesses or extending unemployment relief is placing duct tape over the problems, while piling on more debt that taxpayers will eventually have to pay off.

“The department’s report found the sector with the largest growth was leisure and hospitality, which added 318,000 jobs in September. That accounted for about half of the overall employment gains in the last month. Bars and restaurants accounted for the largest part of that, adding 200,000 jobs, with the rest in gambling, amusements, and hotels. These gains are dramatic because hospitality was the sector hardest by the outbreak. Since February, that sector of the economy has recovered 3.8 million jobs but remains down more than 2.3 million from where it was at the beginning of the year. That’s about a third of the total 6.8 million jobs lost since February.

“Retail trade grew by 142,000 jobs over the last month, the largest part of it (40,000 jobs) coming from clothing outlets, indicating more people are out shopping. Retail is still down 483,000 jobs overall from February.

“The good news is these sectors can rebound quickly when given the chance. Doing that means allowing people to get out of their homes to re-engage safely with the outside world. That has to be the focus if we want the economy to recover.

Statement by Ryan Young, CEI senior fellow:

“The economy continues to create jobs, but the pace is slowing. It will be some time before the economy is back to normal, let alone everyday life. Unfortunately, there are still thousands of government-created barriers that keep people out of work. These include licenses, permits, entry barriers, excessive paperwork, and tariffs—not to mention looming antitrust threats against the very tech companies that help make remote work possible. Over-regulation is hindering virus response and economic recovery.

“President Trump and Congress should continue to eliminate never-needed regulations. Depending on how the election goes, further regulatory reform will a positive addition to the Trump legacy or the springboard for a second-term agenda. Either way, regulatory reform is the right thing to do to get people back to work.”

California’s #NeverNeeded AB5 Is Harming the Coronavirus Response

California’s AB5 law was already backfiring before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The legislation intends to reclassify many California-based independent contractors as formal employees in an attempt to raise their wages and benefits. It has instead cost thousands of jobs—many of which are home-based and quarantine-friendly.

California legislators have reportedly been mulling an “oops” bill that would offer exemptions from AB5 requirements. Over in the Orange County Register, I argue that exemptions are not enough. AB5 should be repealed outright:

While offering exemptions has the virtue of requiring politicians to admit their policies are hurting people, it has three significant problems.

One, exemptions take time to process. We don’t have that right now. …

Two, the officials who grant exemptions would gain great power. There is a risk some would use this power to enrich themselves. California legislators would also be tempted to bully companies for campaign contributions by dangling AB5 exemptions.

Three, exemptions would give favored businesses a government-granted advantage over competitors.

Read the whole piece here. I weighed in earlier on AB5 here. Ryan Radia’s CEI study on AB5 is here.

The Spectrum Case against AB5

California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) is intended to classify more independent contractors as formal employees. The goal is for workers to get higher wages and benefits. It is aimed mostly at rideshare and food delivery companies like Uber, Lyft, and GrubHub, but thousands of other workers are losing their jobs in other fields from journalism to entertainment to business consultants. These unintended consequences are almost exactly what Ryan Radia predicted in a CEI study published shortly before AB5 came into effect.

Part of AB5’s problem is that it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the labor market. It treats workers as either contractors or formal employees, but that is not an either/or question. The labor market is a wide-ranging spectrum, not a simple binary. There are all kinds of in-betweens, nuances, and complications.

AB5 uses what is called an ABC test to determine if a worker is an independent contractor or a formal employee. It consists of three questions:

  1. How closely is each worker supervised or directed? Do they check in with a boss every day? Or do they work mostly on their own and have wide discretion on how to do their job?
  2. Is their work part of the company’s core business? For an Uber driver, the answer is yes. For an accountant or a maintenance worker, maybe not.
  3. Is the hiring company the contractor’s sole or dominant customer? Is the job mostly in the contractor’s area of specialty or expertise?

The bill text is vaguely worded. In practice, nearly any freelancer qualifies as a formal employee under AB5. But a lot of job arrangements are somewhere in between.

Legislators have come up with two categories to describe a spectrum with countless categories. AB5 is a clunky piece of legislation, and thousands of workers are paying the price.

Take actors, for a classic California example. Acting is a classic gig-oriented job. But some actors have steady gigs. Filming a one-off movie or commercial is almost surely in the independent contractor category. But what if an actor has repeat dealings with the same studio? In the old days, many actors had exclusive contracts with a studio, and were likely employees under most reasonable definitions. But what if an actor has a non-exclusive contract but still appears in multiple films in the same movie franchise, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Where should that fall on the ABC test? It could go either way. Under AB5, politicians make the decision, not the employee.

What if an actor works on two or more unrelated films with different producers and directors, but that are produced by the same studio? Or multiple movies with the same production team, but released by different studios? Are those treated differently than the Marvel movie actor under the ABC test? Workers don’t get to make that choice under AB5.

What if an actor becomes a regular go-to person for an advertising agency and does regular commercials for them, but never signs a contract and does other acting work, too? At what point on this broad spectrum does the actor pass from one category to the other? It will take years of case-by-case political decisions, and likely many lawsuits to give clarity to AB5’s broad wording. Many workers just don’t have the time or money to be without work while these new problems wind through the court system.

And it’s more than Hollywood actors. The Los Angeles Times reports about how AB5 is affecting fine artists:

We received more than 120 responses from artists across California — jazz and classical musicians, directors of arts nonprofits, magicians, costume designers, actors, a burlesque dancer and freelance food stylist, among others.

The overwhelming majority said AB5 is hurting their careers. Many are unsure how to comply with the law. Others are cutting back on programming or canceling services because of the cost required to convert independent contractors to employees.

This is the same spectrum problem. Rather than trying to fit real-world people into tidy regulatory categories, policy should allow workers to choose their own work arrangements.

The old workplace ideal of the 1950s doesn’t apply in the 2020s. Back then, the ideal was to have a Monday-to-Friday job, first shift, always at the same office, with everyone on the same company insurance and pension plan. And where possible, the gig was often intended to be for life, or at least until retirement.

Today’s workers want more diverse choices than their parents and grandparents had. Some people like the traditional model; it’s still there for them. Other people like being able to work from home or from a café some days. Other people like the kinds of jobs available in big cities like New York, but don’t necessarily want to live there. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of telecommuters increased 173 percent from 2005 to 2019.

Not everyone wants to work traditional hours. For people with young kids or other family responsibilities, or who are in school, that is often not possible. Other workers do want a 40-hour schedule, but prefer to work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days to get an extra day at home with kids.

Many rideshare drivers are retirees who want to have something to do, but don’t want scheduled hours. Others are people who are between jobs and use ridesharing as a way to make ends meet while they look for their next 9-to-5 gig. AB5’s rigid categorization hurts these workers at various places along the contractor-employee spectrum.

Other workers want more flexibility with their benefits. Don’t like the company health insurance plan? Would you prefer a different retirement savings plan? Tough, say AB5 supporters. Some workers prefer higher wages with fewer benefits. Other workers prefer the opposite. It is much more difficult for employers to accommodate diverse preferences under AB5.

That’s the main reason why independent contracting is becoming more popular. The old model doesn’t fit everybody, so everybody shouldn’t be fit into it. Contractors can choose an insurance and retirement plan that fits their family’s needs and that they can take with them wherever their career takes them. Under the traditional model, if you lose your job, you lose your insurance at the worst possible time. Formal employees who frequently change jobs have to endure hours of unnecessary paperwork changing benefit plans. Independent contractors are spared those headaches.

Californians are learning the hard way that the labor market is a diverse spectrum, not a simplistic two-lump model of contractors and formal employees. Unfortunately, the rest of the country might soon  copy California’s mistake. New York is mulling its own version of AB5. The House of Representatives recently passed the PRO Act, which contains a federal version of AB5’s ABC test. After seeing California’s experiment, hopefully legislators will reconsider.