Friday, Aug. 31, 2007

Unions welcome new tack

Labor leaders, O’Malley to mark holiday today

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Gov. Martin O’Malley is making this Labor Day better for many Maryland workers than the last four, union leaders say.

O’Malley (D) is to participate today with union leaders in a news conference marking Labor Day, discussing the living wage law and other issues, according to the governor’s office. The conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO office in Annapolis.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and Thomas E. Perez, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, are also expected to attend.

In the previous four years, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) did not appear with union leaders around Labor Day, said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland-D.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO.

‘‘We’re pleased with what Governor O’Malley has done so far,” Mason said. ‘‘He is working to benefit all Marylanders.”

Mason particularly noted O’Malley’s orders paving the way for child care and home health workers to join unions and support of the living wage bill, which will take effect Oct. 1. The law will establish a minimum wage for most employees working on state service contracts that are worth more than $100,000 at a level of $11.30 per hour in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and $8.50 per hour in the rest of Maryland.

Ehrlich vetoed a similar measure. This year, groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, which O’Malley signed.

The law will create ‘‘significant new inefficiencies and costs” and ‘‘cause unfair competition for state contracts by pitting region against region and non-profits against for-profit businesses,” the chamber wrote in a report.

But for employees trying to gain ground, the law gives them some hope, Mason said. That’s important as Census Bureau data released this week show the average employee losing ground, he said.

Real median household income actually increased in 2006 over 2005 for the second straight year to $48,200, but median annual earnings by full-time employees fell in 2006 for the third consecutive year, according to the census data.

‘‘That’s a reflection of where some of the national leaders have taken the country,” Mason said. ‘‘They gave most of the benefits to the people at the top. We’re not against CEOs earning good salaries, but it reaches a point where it becomes obscene.”

The decline in earnings suggests that the increase in household income stems not from higher wages but from people working more hours and more people working, according to a report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute. The Washington, D.C., think tank focuses on labor market trends.

‘‘As a result, we’re worse off than we were in 2000 before the recession began,” economist Lawrence Mishel, one of the report’s authors, said in a conference call.

From 2000 to 2006, the average real income for the top fifth of U.S. households rose by 1 percent, while income for the rest of American households declined. The lowest fifth of households saw the steepest drop of 4.5 percent, the economic institute reported.

But a report from the Heritage Foundation, another District think tank, says that income inequality did not statistically increase during 2006. The average income for each fifth of households increased in 2006, with the bottom fifth rising by more than 3 percent, the report says.

‘‘Median family income increased to its highest level except for the peak of the previous business cycle in 1999 and 2000,” says the report by Rea S. Hederman Jr., a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. ‘‘The number of households reporting income of less than $10,000 declined, while the number of households reporting more than $100,000 increased. Families are becoming richer in today’s economy.”

Poverty rate declines

The poverty rate declined for the first time this decade, to 12.3 percent in 2006 from 12.6 percent in 2005, according to the Census Bureau.

Maryland had the lowest poverty rate in the nation at 7.8 percent in 2006 and the highest median household income level at $65,144, the census report says. New Jersey had the second highest income at $64,470.

The share of Americans without health insurance coverage increased from 15.3 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2006. There were 47 million uninsured Americans in 2006, up from 44.8 million in 2005.

The decline in insurance coverage was attributed largely to a decrease in private coverage, particularly employment-based health insurance, the institute reported. The share of persons covered through work dropped to 59.7 percent in 2006 from 60.2 percent in 2005 and 64.2 percent in 2000.

Maryland still seeingtight labor market

Maryland is still experiencing workforce shortages in many areas, Perez said. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.0 percent in July was unchanged from a year ago, according to state figures.

Maryland’s unemployment rate is still below the national average of 4.6 percent. Since July 2006, Maryland’s private sector payrolls have grown by almost 24,000 jobs, with most of the increase in the professional-business services and education and health services sectors, according to the labor bureau.

‘‘Maryland’s job market has held up well, especially considering the slowdown in the construction, housing and financial markets that has reduced the overall pace of job generation nationwide,” Perez said.

The state is working to make sure people are aware of job opportunities and to provide more training to help deal with the worker shortages, Perez said.

Labor Day history

The first observance of Labor Day was in 1882 in New York City, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Congress established it as a federal holiday in 1894.

Union members risein Maryland

Union membership increased in Maryland from 337,000 in 2005 to 342,000 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Across the nation, membership declined from 15.7 million to 15.4 million.

Moonlighting

Some 7.6 million U.S. workers held more than one job this year, according to federal figures. About 310,000 people work full time at both jobs.