Post-COVID businesses still scramble for workers as legislators ponder higher minimum wage


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ALBANY — The Business Council of New York State often finds itself on the opposite side of issues that progressive politicians and activists pursue.
They recently blasted a crypto mining moratorium that environmentalists have long sought.

And they frequently characterized the state’s vast roster of regulations as a barrier to economic growth. High costs for workers compensation insurance has long been a target and the group has consistently supported property tax relief.

But there are some items on which the Business Council and an array of progressive groups are aligned: Criminal justice reform as it relates to the sealing of conviction records for those released from prison.

The organization supports the “Clean Slate” proposal for a simple reason, according to Paul Zuber, executive vice president of the Business Council.

By automating the sealing of criminal records – after a period of time – thousands of people who are now excluded from the work force would be able to get jobs.

The unemployment rate among those who have previously incarcerated is about 27 percent, Zuber noted. 

Statewide the rate is under 5 percent.

And the Business Council, has for some time been hearing member complaints  about the difficulty of finding workers in the post-pandemic world.

“This is a major, major problem,” Zuber told members of the state Assembly’s Labor Committee during a workforce hearing last week.

The Business Council, like many progressives, also believes there is an urgent need to improve child care options and affordability, which would allow more women to enter or re-enter the workforce post-COVID.

Zuber was one of several speakers at the hearing. 

Lawmakers are delving into the  Great Resignation, looking to see if there is anything they can do about it during the upcoming legislative session.

A year after the worst of COVID is fading and  after the federal cash payments to people have ended, countless businesses continue to struggle with staffing.
 
Restaurants have cut back hours while factories are competing to hire people like welders or computer programmers (many of today’s factories are digitally controlled).

There aren’t enough home care workers and just try getting a plumber when you need one.

There’s no shortage of suggestions for addressing this shortage, but it is unclear how effective they may be.

While Zuber mentioned the Clean Slate and child care, Karen Cacace, labor bureau chief for Attorney General Letitia James, said lawmakers should create a state OSHA or Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

There already is a federal OSHA, and several lawmakers wondered why the state needs one too, given that the attorney general and state Department of Labor can also enforce health and safety rules.

Cacace, though, said their efforts to prosecute Amazon for what they said were COVID safety problems in their Staten Island warehouse were blocked in the courts over state-federal jurisdiction questions. 

Having a state OSHA could solve that, she said.

Also needed, she said, is reform of non-compete clauses that employers sometimes use to keep employees from jumping to  better-paying competitors.

Traditionally, such clauses were the province of highly technical jobs or those where trade secrets come into play.

But Cacace said employers have expanded the criteria for such clauses, which tends to lock people into jobs and slows the dynamism of a labor market.

Wages, of course, were a topic, with progressive groups arguing that better pay would lure more people back to work.

“Raise wages,” advised James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policies at the New School in New York City.

Parrot said lawmakers should raise the state minimum wage to $21.25 by 2026. The upstate minimum will be at $14.20 in 2023, although many businesses including fast food restaurants are paying more in order to attract scarce workers.
 
The increases, Parrott said, could be phased in with geographic differentials to compensate for the higher cost of living downstate.

A skills gap continues, some lawmakers said, explaining that, despite some K-12 vocational programs, business continue to say they can’t get enough welders, machinists, and other jobs that require training but not a four-year academic degree.

Zuber agreed, noting that Wolfspeed,  a North Carolina computer chip maker, recently opted to build a new feeder plant in the Tar Heel state.

The plant will supply silicon carbide to an existing chip fab facility in Marcy, near Utica.


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