For even more on workforce planning and supporting workers and employment see our latest Global Local Bulletin.
A recently released report, issued by Local Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, provides a comprehensive overview of how local governments in the United States have used wide-ranging aspects of their authority to advance workers’ rights. The report covers how local governments have set higher standards for their own municipal workforce, established city-level labor departments or agencies, created worker boards to institutionalize the voices of workers within local government, taken public pro-worker stances, and used policymaking, contracting, licensing, and enforcement powers to support working people. Although local authority varies tremendously among different countries, and the United States has a particularly decentralized system of government, local governments globally should consider some of the innovations described in the report.
Many local governments in the United States have passed municipal laws governing the workplace that apply to employers within their city or county’s borders. These laws are layered on top of applicable state and federal laws, which serve as a floor for working conditions. Many localities have set minimum wages higher than that required by state and federal laws. Localities also led the way in the United States in passing paid sick leave laws, which entitle workers to time off when sick, which have now been adopted in a number of states. Local governments have enacted laws protecting workers excluded from other statutes, such as platform or gig workers, domestic workers, and freelancers. They have also passed innovative laws regarding fair scheduling, as well as expansive anti-discrimination ordinances protecting LGTQ+ individuals and formerly incarcerated people, among others.
At least 20 U.S. localities have created or are creating dedicated local labor departments or agencies, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Saint Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, and soon Tucson. These labor agencies have the power to enforce local workplace laws, and have brought action against large and small employers that violate local laws; for example, Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards reached a $3.4 million settlement with Uber and nearly $1 million with platform delivery company Postmates for violating a local paid sick leave law applicable to such companies. Local labor enforcement agencies have also publicized their efforts, which has been shown to cause even greater deterrence.
Local governments can promote compliance by requiring high labor standards for city contractors, for example by paying living wages and creating systems to exclude repeat violators of workplace laws from city contracts, as the city of Somerville, Massachusetts has done. Localities that issue licenses or permits for certain kinds of businesses can also establish consequences for licensees, permit holders, and applicants with a history of labor violations. For example, the county of Santa Clara, California has a system to suspend a restaurant’s permit if it has outstanding unsatisfied wage violations. In South Korea, the city of Seoul has established a payment monitoring system that works with local banks to ensure that construction workers are paid promptly and do not experience wage theft–the practice of employers failing to pay workers the full wages to which they are legally entitled.
Recently, several cities in the U.S. have also established worker boards or councils to provide workers with a formal voice in local government. Worker boards can provide recommendations to local governments on, for example, minimum standards for workers in certain industries, local government purchasing and contracting policies, workforce development programs, tax abatement and incentive policies, economic development planning and community benefits agreements, distribution of local government funding, and workplace safety trainings. Worker boards can also be empowered to conduct hearings and conduct outreach to workers who may be hard to reach otherwise. The City of Seattle, for example, created a Domestic Workers Standards Board in 2019 when it passed its Domestic Workers Ordinance, and Detroit created a structure for establishing industry standards boards in 2021.
Some localities might be particularly interested in how they can serve as model employers in relation to their own workforces. In the United States, the so-called Great Resignation (which might more aptly be named the great upgrade) has hit local governments hard, as the sector has seen many workers leaving state and local government. And labor shortages in Australia and Ireland might also indicate that similar trends are occurring globally. In this time of uncertainty, there is a great opportunity for governments to raise labor standards for municipal workers, furthering retention, reducing turnover, and helping meet recruiting goals. A number of localities in the United States have raised the minimum wage paid to their own municipal workforce; recent examples include Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Jersey City, NJ; Milwaukee, WI; New Orleans, LA; North Miami Beach, FL; Tallahassee, FL; and West New York, NJ.
Finally, local government leaders can use their public platforms to demonstrate their support for working people by showing up at labor rallies and events, holding hearings, and uplifting the challenges faced by workers and their solutions in the media.
This surge in local leadership on workers’ rights should be celebrated, and yet, there remains considerable untapped potential at the local level to improve conditions for working people. The moment is ripe for local action and leadership on workers’ rights.
LiJia Gong is the policy and legal director at Local Progress. She leads the development of Local Progress’s policy and research capacity to support members, and drives the development and growth of national program areas.
Terri Gerstein is the director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and is also a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. Previously, she worked for over 17 years enforcing worker protection laws in New York State.