Several big stories of 2015 promise to transcend the new year, including:
• The fight for higher wages, led partly by unions and advocacy groups who note that the purchasing power of the $9 minimum wage has fallen over the past 30 years as the price of rent, food and clothing have risen markedly.
Last week, members of SEIU Local 26, which represents service workers, said during a march downtown that they are out to win $15-an-hour wages and better work rules for 6,000 members who are cleaners and security officers at commercial buildings throughout the Twin Cities.
“In bargaining, we found that raising wages to $15 for all janitors and security officers would lead to over $30 million of economic activity each year pumped into our communities,” said James Matias, a union member. “Local 26 members are overwhelmingly people of color, which means that money would be going back into areas that have been left behind by our economy for too long.”
The good news so far for low-wage workers is that the growing, worker-hungry Twin Cities employers are paying closer to $11 or $12 an hour to attract and retain workers in many industries. That still buys less than the minimum wage of 40 years ago.
• Minnesota generally has benefited from lower oil and gas prices over the past year because we’re not a producer of either, a la North Dakota and other sagging energy-producing states. However, the decline in commodity prices generally has been rough for the farm economy and the depressed Iron Range. And there’s no evidence of a quick turnaround, particularly on the range.
Minnesota taconite producers have idled several plants and laid off 2,000 workers, which ripples negatively through Main Street businesses and communities. Iron ore blast furnaces and pellet plants are closing around the nation, amid charges of foreign steel dumping in the U.S.
The depressed commodity prices also have hurt the state’s alternative fuels and “green chemistry” companies that sprang up in recent years as alternatives to petroleum products.
• The rocky implementation of Obamacare enters its first full year of incentives and penalties five years after passage. That means more Americans are covered by private plans and Medicaid, as planned, but implementation of the complicated transition to cover individuals not covered by government or employer plans has been problematic.
Independent analysts said last week that the administration should meet its goal of having 10 million people signed up and paying premiums by year-end 2016. And more younger people are signing up, also an encouraging sign. Those who don’t will face penalties on 2016 tax returns. Meanwhile, big UnitedHealth Group says it’s losing money in the individual market and may pull out. That raised industry eyebrows about an insurer that makes a lot of money off its Medicare-related business.
Many older workers, albeit too young for Medicare, now can get underwritten with private plans if they leave or lose their employer’s group coverage. And some companies, such as Target have quit paying early-retiree health care and send pre-65 retirees to the exchange.
Harpstead on human service challenges and trends
CEO Jodi Harpstead of Lutheran Social Service, a former Medtronic executive, said 2015 has been a very good year, including growth of community service throughout Minnesota, thanks partly to increased contributions from donors that led to record revenue of $123 million in the fiscal year ended in September.
Harpstead said about 60 percent of LSS’s budget is dedicated to supporting people with disabilities. And a top priority will continue to be moving more people with disabilities out of group homes, the preferred model for 40 years of community-based residential housing, and into more independent living.
Harpstead said 43 percent of the people LSS supported in some way lived in group homes, compared with 23 percent today.
“Sixty percent of our revenue supports people with disabilities and within that our top priority is moving people who can and who choose to the most independent settings,” she said. “We have about 122 four-person homes across the state. And as with older adults, we want to help them stay in their homes as long as possible.”
The next highest priority for LSS is homeless youth, a growing situation. LSS operates shelters and youth services in the Twin Cities, Mankato, Rochester, Willmar, Duluth and other towns.
She expects to join other nonprofit human service leaders in talking to the Minnesota Legislature in the next session about solutions.
Tis the season of generosity
Many announcements cross my desk in December of extra efforts made by employees, business owners and others to provide something meaningful or extra for the disadvantaged around the holidays. From toy drives to food drives, it all matters, and, as the psychologists tell us, it also can provide better-off folks with a sense of greater purpose.
I came across a new one this week from Hopewell Music Cooperative in north Minneapolis, a tiny nonprofit that provides more than 260 neighborhood kids free and low-cost music lessons.
The family of a U.S. Bank officer learned of the need for a good piano and donated a Yamaha Disklavier piano, valued at north of $15,000, according to Madeline Koch, a volunteer who works for the state economic development department. It will bring a billion bucks worth of value to more than 100 piano students in 2016.
Happy and generous holidays to all.