Part 2: A Living Wage & Universal Health Care
by Patrick S. Cassidy, Esq. President, the WALS Foundation
The Wheeling Academy of Law & Science – WALS Foundation -brings informative educational programs on issues of law and other public concerns (such as climate change) to our community, including continuing legal education to area lawyers and other interested individuals.
Since this is not the best time to be holding public programs, WALS intends to provide a series of “Reflections on the Law during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” for educational purposes only. These are not intended to constitute “legal advice” to any person or group in any particular situation. Rather, in this time of pandemic, these offerings are intended to stimulate thought and refection before decisions are made by lawyers, HR personnel, employees, small businesses and others, in trying to do the “right thing” by their employees.
Accordingly, no employee, business owner, lawyer, or anyone else should rely on these “reflections” with respect to any particular planned employment decision, but should consult with their own attorney or legal adviser before making any decision of legal consequence.
WALS is getting some reports that some employers in the area are not considering the Governor’s Executive Order spacing guidelines as “public policy, “and are making it difficult for employees to follow the guidelines, and may even be taking “retaliatory” action against employees for such things as using their own masks at work, or taking other reasonable steps (such as drawing a line on the floor spacing customers at least 6 feet away from employees).
While there are certainly no West Virginia cases stating it to be true (yet), retaliation against an employee for trying to follow the Governor’s Executive order may constitute unlawful retaliatory conduct in contravention to the “public policy of the State,” arising by authority of the Governor’s Executive Order. If so, that would make any adverse employment action against an employee in retaliation for their efforts to abide by the Governor’s Executive Order an exception to the usual “employment at will” doctrine that has governed most employment decisions for hundreds of years, ever since we borrowed the concept from English Common law, or, what we here at WALS refer to as the “King’s law.”
The right to a “living wage” job, which WAL’s Jobs First Agenda believes should be codified into law as a constitutional amendment, would not “require” the employment of any citizen by any employer, but if they were employed by a private employer, the right would guarantee that an employer could not take adverse economic action against their employee “except for good cause,” a right held by too few Americans, except as a matter of contract for those fortunate enough to work under a “collective bargaining agreement” negotiated by their union.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has also demonstrated is the close connection between a living wage and the need for universal health care. We are witnessing first hand the fact that our country does not have a well-structured “public health system,” only a hodgepodge of individual insurance programs for most Americans, that do nothing to help the most vulnerable among us when confronted with a Pandemic such as we are experiencing now.
And we can accomplish these things, under our current economic system, and without socialism. In fact, what is more American than Norman Rockwell? His famous paintings of the “Four Freedoms,” based on Franklin Roosevelt’s January 1941 State of the Union address, put in visual format Roosevelt’s vision for a post-WW II world. Though the United States was not yet in the war, Roosevelt knew that the continuing crisis of the Great Depression and the unfolding Second World War required a positive and transformative conception of the future.
Two of Rockwell’s paintings—“Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship”—depicted rights and values already enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. Yet, Rockwell also rendered images of “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear.”
“Freedom from Want” features a family sitting down to a turkey dinner (maybe Thanksgiving) and depicts their apparent lack of “want” for the basic necessities of life—food and shelter—and is also symbolic of their right to a “living-wage,” and perhaps education as well.
“Freedom from Fear” portrays a sick child being lovingly tended to, and has been thought to depict one of the great fears shared by all Americans—absence of care in time of illness. The painting symbolized President Roosevelt’s belief that universal health care should, as well, be a “right,” or as he put it, “Freedom from Fear.” FDR’s belief was enshrined, not in our Constitution, but largely though the efforts of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Rights.
While our country signed-on to the Declaration of Rights (and then forgot its provision of “freedom from fear” and “want” due to the Cold War and the U.S.’s great post-war economic expansion), every Democratic nominee for President this year has stated at one time or another that “universal health care should be a right.” Everyone has paid lip service to a “living wage,” but most actually support only an increase in the “minimum wage” (to $15 per hour). None have articulated a plan for how to make universal health care, or a “living wage,” a right.
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will again put these two issues—a living wage and the right to universal health care—center stage and move us beyond quibbling about how to implement such a system. In the final analysis, no plan will work unless and until the country is committed to a fair and reasonable response to the health-care needs of all Americans. Such a “reasonable” response necessitates implementation of the right to work at a “living wage,” rather than “minimum pay.” While the minimum wage (at best) affords citizens the bare necessities, a living wage allows all Americans to contribute to the increased costs of ensuring all Americans have Freedom from the Fear of inadequate, or no health care, and inadequate living standards that makes them vulnerable to homelessness, want, and poverty.
Our nation’s rickety and patchwork response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows that global outbreaks of disease require certain conditions to develop and spread. We tend to think of disease outbreaks as “natural” acts, but any society’s social, economic, and political conditions (i.e. human-made factors) are part of the equation of whether and how a disease spreads. The U.S.’s lack of a public health system and universal health care, and overall unpreparedness, has certainly contributed to the virus’ fast spread.
Rather than a reactionary response (a consequence of a mindset dedicated to the preservation of private profits), we need a mindset and health-care system predicated on prevention and universal care, that has the ability to take on, for example, mass-testing of the population to further control the spread of the virus, among other things.
WALS believes that when there is no compulsion (because these are not yet constitutional rights) any politician, from any party, need not keep their promises about “living wages,” or “universal” health care, however they propose implementation, so long as they are not universal rights held by our citizens. Where are the proposals to have our Constitution amended to ensure these long-sought human rights?
In fact, WALS has been working for years to promote just such amendments to the constitution, which it believes can be accomplished… without Socialism; but with the help of The Jobs First Agenda secret weapon—increased tax incentives for private businesses, who choose to hire employees not at the “minimum” wage, but at a “living wage,” as determined by private collective bargaining.