Policy Points: How Business Can Address Chemical Safety, Minimum Wage and Student Debt

The 'Fight for 15' movement, which seeks a national $15 minimum wage, is gaining traction across the nation -- and city governments are boosting wages. What can business do to help?
The ‘Fight for 15’ movement, which seeks a national $15 minimum wage, is gaining traction — and city governments are boosting wages. What can business do to help?

By Zach Bernstein

Farsighted business leaders already implement sustainability initiatives and operate social enterprises. But protecting their businesses and the public from others’ unfair corporate practices takes more than voluntary standards. We need laws and regulations that vigorously support smart long-term decisions; laws that capture the all-in costs of social and environmental externalities.

Legislators need to know that business leaders support pragmatic policies like these to make our economy resilient, healthy and workable — sustainable in the largest sense.

Support meaningful chemical safety reform

The House recently voted 403-12 to pass a bill updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s chemical regulatory law, which has not been updated since its passage in 1976. The new bill follows years of back-and-forth between House and Senate negotiators and is a notable compromise between earlier bills in both houses. The Senate was set to take up the legislation until Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) placed a hold on it, arguing he needed more time to fully consider it. A vote is still expected sometime in June; President Obama is expected to sign the bill.

What’s at stake

TSCA has been disastrously remiss at testing toxic chemicals; about 62,000 chemicals were already on the market when TSCA was passed, and were “grandfathered” in without any safety testing. This bill would start to change that but does not provide the needed level of reform. It would expand the EPA’s authority to test more chemicals but would set an unnecessarily slower testing pace. Worse, states would be prohibited from regulating chemicals while the EPA was still testing them, which could leave blocking toxic chemicals in limbo for up to three years.

The American Sustainable Business Council and its members have expressed concern about the bill and called for stronger testing and transparency measures.

What you can do

True reform requires that transparency, safety, and innovation be supported in federal law. While this bill is currently on track to pass, it’s only a start. Efforts at the state level continue, and more businesses are responding to increased customer demand for safer chemicals. Business leaders’ views matter; support even stronger chemical reform by joining the Companies for Safer Chemicals Coalition.

Support raising the minimum wage

The Washington, D.C. City Council recently passed a minimum wage increase that would give the capital city one of the highest wage floors in the country. Under current legislation, D.C.’s minimum wage would increase gradually over time, reaching $15 by 2020, after which it would be indexed to inflation.

A previous proposal would have raised the minimum wage for tipped workers to $7.50 an hour; the new law would raise it to $5.55 an hour, and it also would be indexed to inflation. (The “tipped wage” assumes supplements from customer tips; if a server does not receive the normal minimum wage of $15 through the tipped wage plus tips, the employer would have to make up the difference.)  Efforts are also underway to put on the November ballot a measure that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, tipped or otherwise.

What’s at stake

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009 — and is actually worth less now than it was in 1968 when adjusted for inflation. States are moving to make up the gap; in 2015, 29 states and Washington, D.C. had wage floors higher than the federal level. While critics predictably argue these additional costs burden businesses, research has found that minimum wage increases have not led to major changes in unemployment. Workers with more disposable income spend it with local businesses, and are less likely to seek better-paying jobs elsewhere, forcing firms to spend money on replacement hiring and training.

What you can do

Raising the federal minimum wage would help worker compensation keep pace with the actual costs of goods and services, boost consumer spending nationwide, and free up our tax dollars currently used on public assistance for full-time workers whose employers take profits at the expense of a living wage. You can show your support for a minimum wage increase by joining Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.

Support retiring student debt for new farmers

Last month, ASBC member Clif Bar was featured in an article in MarketWatch, discussing the need for legislation to reduce student debt burdens for new farmers. “Farming is a tough business,” said Matthew Dillon, Clif Bar’s director of agricultural policy and programs. “It’s a lot of risk and if we can help early on in lowering the entry fee in farming by creating some debt forgiveness, all the better.” The bill under discussion, the Young Farmer Success Act, would allow farmers to have the balance of their student loan debt wiped away after 10 years of payments.

What’s at stake

Agriculture is obviously essential for our food supply and an education is increasingly needed for success, but farming is becoming an unfeasible career due to young farmers’ crippling college debt. According to survey data from the National Young Farmers Coalition, more than half of their members either delayed their farming career or quit farming because of student loan issues. With American farmers growing older, the need for more and younger farmers is crucial to avoid threats to food security, a major problem faced by food manufacturers like Clif Bar. By addressing the student debt burden, this bill could remove a major barrier to younger farmers starting careers in agriculture.

What You Can Do

Legislation easing new farmers’ path to entry into agriculture is crucial for our food security — and for the growth of numerous businesses nationwide. Show your support for the Young Farmer Success Act.

Image credit: Flickr/The All-Nite Photo

Zach Bernstein is Manager of Research and Social Media for the American Sustainable Business Council.

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American Sustainable Business Council

The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) is a network of companies and business associations. Its column, Policy Points, identifies public policies where a business voice, grounded in principles of innovation, fairness and environmental stewardship, can make an essential difference in the advocacy process. The goal is to arm readers with information and specific actions to take. As business leaders, we can and must support policy change to help make the economy more green and sustainable. The column editor is Richard Eidlin, ASBC's Vice President - Public Policy and Business Engagement.

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