Let’s Screw Over Disabled People *and* Decent Employers

I’m so sick of Bernie Sanders right now I can’t even tell you.  While everybody else is paying attention to the small matter of the Senate ramming Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court as Trump’s get out of jail free card, Sanders is proposing the Stop BEZOS act, which penalizes employers if their employees qualify for any government benefits.

In the abstract, this seems reasonable. Paying a wage that’s only sustainable because food stamps exist *is* stealing from both your workers and the taxpayer. But in concrete reality, it gets messy.

Matthew Cortland posted a Twitter thread explaining the unforeseen consequences, like making it impossible to hire anyone with expensive healthcare needs.  If it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep someone alive, their employer isn’t going to be able to pick that up, unless maybe they’re a CEO.

This seems like an example of rhetoric masquerading as policy.  It’s probably a good point to figure out what low wages cost taxpayers in benefits, especially when the same companies paying minimum wage to employees on Medicaid and food assistance aren’t paying any taxes themselves. But that doesn’t make an individual employee’s benefit payments their employer’s responsibility.

There’s a difference between a fair wage and a living wage (which is part of why we just need a universal basic income).  A fair wage for a job is commensurate with the time and effort the employee puts into it. Generally speaking, a job where you’re on-call 24/7 should pay more than one where you have your evenings and weekends free.  And most jobs pay by the hour.  It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect to do 20 hours of work and make the same as someone who does 40. A fair wage is also commensurate with the profit a company is making off the employee’s labor. It does make sense to pay the person who’s closing million-dollar deals more than the person who staffs the front desk.  Not that the person who staffs the front desk isn’t valuable, but he’s not providing the same value that Mr. Hotshot Sales Rep is.

Basically, fair pay has to do with the value of the work, both in terms of what it takes from the employee in time and stress and in terms of the benefit it provides to the employer.

A living wage, on the other hand, has to do with your expenses. How many people are in your household? Do any of them also have an income?  What about medical expenses? A living wage for a couple with no kids is a lot different from a living wage for a single parent of four.  Likewise, a living wage for two healthy people can be less than a living wage for two chronically ill, disabled people.

Because of this discrepancy, two things happen.  First, employers are punished for things they don’t actually control, like their employees’ medical needs and family size. Because of this, employers are naturally incentivized to hire people who don’t need benefits.  So, the person who most needs the job doesn’t get it.  Maybe, if they’re really lucky and the discrimination is blatant enough, they can get a court settlement, but in most cases an employer will be able to hire someone younger, or healthier, or with fewer kids or a well-paid spouse, and be able to argue that they were also better qualified.  So much of hiring is subjective and nebulous that unless a company hires someone who didn’t meet the qualifications they asked for when they advertised the job, in favor of someone who did, it’s pretty tough to prove any kind of discrimination.

There’s also a lot of discrimination that isn’t even illegal, because it’s not related to membership in a protected class.  Favoring married people over single people is illegal, but favoring people married to lawyers over those married to delivery drivers isn’t.

The other big issue is that the bill makes no distinction between part-time and full-time work.  Sure, keeping someone at 34 hours so you don’t have to provide insurance is slimy, but some jobs legitimately only need a part-time person.  If you’ve got ten hours of work in a given week for a given role, you can’t magically pull another thirty hours of pay out of your posterior, even if only working ten hours a week means your employee qualifies for benefits.  Heck, you might be their second job, then get hit with a fine when their full-time job lays them off and you’re their only employer.

Penalizing part-time work screws over not only small employers, but also employers trying to do right by sick or disabled employees.  If someone can’t perform their full-time job with reasonable accommodations, a good employer might switch them to part-time if that’s what the employee needs.  Depending on the specific situation, this may not be something the ADA would require of them.  But if that switch to part time means the employee now needs food assistance, then under Stop BEZOS, the employer is better off letting them go than trying to make things work.  Even worse, an employer might be able to make that part-time arrangement for an employee whose spouse is well-paid, but not for the one who’s single.  So, the person who could most benefit from time off to recover is out of a job. (In theory, that’s what disability payments are for, but good luck actually getting them without multiple applications and a lawyer.)

The other issue where discrimination comes into play is the stigma against receiving any kind of government benefits. Employers might not get a list that identifies which employees’ government benefits are making them liable for a fine, but in a small company, it might be easy to guess.  Susie has another baby and suddenly you have to pay a fine?  Yeah, you can put two and two together and make Susie’s life difficult. (As if companies don’t already do plenty of that.)  Even if you’re not deliberately setting out to treat Susie badly, implicit bias can still mean that she’s less likely to get promotions or good assignments.

It would be so blatantly simple to just raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour.  No screwed up incentives for hiring people with other sources of income or firing people who get sick.  No stigmatizing people for having big families or needing to work part-time because of disability.  No effectively different minimum wage based on how many kids you have.  Just a straight-forward increase in the minimum wage.  Apparently that makes too much sense.

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