Although employment is growing overall, most working people in Washington are facing serious economic headwinds. Stagnant wages and growing income inequality (driven by declining unionization and gaps in pay by gender and race), combined with higher costs for basic necessities, are making life harder for most working people across the state.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Strong employment growth can promote economic opportunity – but only with the right public policy choices. We need to pursue sustainable economic development policies and public investments that promote worker bargaining power, strong communities, and more equitable access to opportunity. These include boosting public investments in child care, education, housing, and health care.
In the long run, stopping or reversing rising inequality will require enacting policies that both spur faster wage growth for low- and middle-wage workers and also rein in the perpetuation of privilege and power by wealthy elites. Washington voters and policymakers have already taken a number of steps that protect hard working families up and down the income ladder and mitigate the negative impacts of inequitable economic growth, including:
- A minimum wage well above the federal level, with cities able to set higher wages;
- Paid sick and safe leave protections for most workers;
- A paid family and medical leave program that will provide extended paid leaves for serious health conditions or to care for a new child beginning in 2020;
- Pregnancy accommodation and updated equal pay protections; and
- Prevailing wage standards and protections for the rights of workers to collectively bargain.
These policies earned Washington Oxfam’s number two ranking after the District of Columbia as the best state to work. Nevertheless, our local and state leaders could do much more, including:
- Updating rules defining which workers are protected by minimum wage, paid sick leave, and overtime laws, to ensure fair compensation for hours worked, expand the right to earn paid sick time, and enable workers to better balance their jobs with time for maintaining health, family, and community.
- Creating fair work scheduling standards (the city of Seattle provides an existing model), and rigorously enforcing wage laws aimed at preventing wage theft.
- Increasing enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in hiring, promotion, and pay.
- Ending policies that lead to mass incarceration, and prevent access to jobs and secure housing for the formerly incarcerated.
- Instituting drug price transparency and restrictions on surprise billing in order to control health care costs and protect people from medical debt.
Other needed improvements will require increased state investments – but Washington’s regressive tax code already limits funding for essential public services, and hurts those who are already struggling. In 2019, state legislators should take steps to make Washington’s tax structure more fair and sustainable: closing the loophole on capital gains, increasing the estate tax, and exploring other progressive revenue options. Policies like these will help ensure more of Washington’s wealthiest contribute their fair share to education, health, and other foundations of thriving communities, including:
- Expanding access to affordable childcare and early learning, and improving quality by investing in compensation for the early childhood workforce.
- Expanding access to affordable health care and controlling out-of-pocket costs for individuals and families, by providing a state-sponsored public option with wraparound support in the Exchange.
- Ensuring high school graduates and those seeking new job skills with access to public higher educational opportunities – without crippling educational debt.
- Providing new mechanisms for retirement savings and establishing a system of long-term care insurance.
- Addressing the need for affordable housing in communities across the state.
- Providing flexible transportation options, in both urban and rural settings, so people can easily get to jobs and services and commerce can thrive.
These public policy choices will help promote sustainable growth, equitable opportunity and economic stability through life’s inevitable ups and downs – helping build an economy where every person has the individual freedom and equality of opportunity to follow their own path to happiness, and all people, families and communities can flourish.
 Oxfam America, “The Best and Worst States to Work in America,” August 30, 2018, https://policy-practice.oxfamamerica.org/work/poverty-in-the-us/best-states-to-work/.
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