In 2017, American workers are used to certain protections and benefits. Federal laws are in place to ensure that our workplaces are safe and our hours aren’t oppressively long. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, workers can take time off to care for a child or treat a serious health condition. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers can’t be discriminated against due to a disability and employers must provide reasonable accommodations that allow them to do their jobs. Child labor is illegal, employers must provide workers’ compensation to people who are injured on the job, and many states have made paid sick leave a requirement.
While some of these workplace rights aren’t absolute (particularly for “at-will” employees), Americans have protections that workers couldn’t even imagine a century ago. But without the courage and persistence of labor activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this wouldn’t be the case — which is why we still celebrate Labor Day every year.
After labor unions organized a massive parade in New York City in 1882, workers around the country started holding annual labor festivals. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially declare Labor Day a holiday, and other states soon followed (including Kansas, which was the 13th state to do so). By 1894, President Grover Cleveland and members of Congress recognized the growing influence of the labor movement, and Labor Day became a national holiday. It has been held on the first Monday in September ever since — a tribute to the earliest Labor Day celebrations that were held in the U.S.
While Labor Day is an occasion to reflect on how much progress American workers have made since the 19th century, it’s also a time to acknowledge the work that still needs to be done. Lately, Kansans have had plenty of reasons to think about the importance of reasonable hours, fair pay and many of the other issues that Labor Day is all about. For example, staff shortages at our state prisons have coincided with major inmate unrest — a situation that prompted the Kansas Department of Corrections to declare an official emergency at the beginning of last month. According to a grievance filed by the Kansas Organization of State Employees, some corrections officers have been working 16-hour shifts.
The annual turnover rate at the El Dorado Correctional Facility — the site of the most serious incidents over the past few months — reached 47 percent in August. In May 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Kansas corrections officers make an average of $34,520 per year — substantially less than the national average of $46,750. Moreover, the starting salary for our corrections officers is a little more than $28,000 per year, which is much lower than Nebraska and Colorado. It’s no surprise that many KDOC employees receive their training in Kansas only to leave for more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
However, Gov. Sam Brownback recently announced a 5 percent pay increase for all KDOC officers and a 10 percent increase for those who work at El Dorado. While the governor deserves credit for this response to the personnel crisis at KDOC, it shouldn’t have taken an emergency to recognize that our corrections officers deserve a fair wage. Nor should state employees be forced to work 16-hour shifts. This Labor Day, let’s remember that workers should be honored and protected at all times — not just in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.