Abstract: The Racialized Impact of Minimum Wage Preemption in the South (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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The Racialized Impact of Minimum Wage Preemption in the South

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Resha Swanson, MSSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Despite the momentum of larger national worker rights movements, the use of preemption laws in some regions may stand in the way of advancing labor rights and job quality beyond the pandemic. Preemption–a political tactic used by some state legislatures to strike down or dismiss municipal-level laws that assert legislative powers not expressly granted to municipalities in a state’s constitution–is quickly sweeping the South. Racialization and racial capitalism are also significant forces at play in the region, making preemption an incredibly effective tool for state legislatures to further exploit and oppress Black and Brown low-wage workers. Already facing economic precarity, low-wage workers of color were hit even harder by COVID-19. Minimum wage preemption policies passed in Southern states have been particularly harmful. The strength of these laws in the region suggests substantive policy change that addresses preemption is required to progress worker rights in the South. I address the following questions:

What impact have minimum wage preemption policies had on the wages of marginalized workers (women, Black, immigrant, Latinx, and Asian populations) in the South?

  1. Which industries and demographic populations of workers are most impacted by minimum wage preemption policies?
  2. To what extent did COVID-19 exacerbate the effects of minimum wage preemption policies on marginalized workers in the South?


I use American Community Survey (ACS) microdata and Bureau of Labors Statistics data from various years to quantitatively investigate specific examples of minimum wage preemption in Birmingham, Alabama and Miami Beach, Florida–two Southern cities whose attempts to raise the minimum wage were struck down by state preemption laws. I utilize descriptive, t-tests, ANOVA, and OLS regression analyses to compare the workers along gender, race, citizenship, and income lines to demonstrate the disproportionately harmful impact preemption policies have on workers of color relative to their share in the population.


Preliminary results indicate that in cities in which minimum wage increases were struck down by state preemption policies, Blacks, Latinxs, and immigrants disproportionately composed the portion of workers who stood to benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. Disparities were even starker along gender lines. When accounting for the economic impact of COVID-19 on workers in these cities, these suppressed wages further constrained marginalized workers' ability to recover from the economic shock of the pandemic.


I contend that social workers, community and labor organizers, and policymakers involved in the fight for increased job quality in the South must recognize preemption as an important racialized tool that undermines the power of workers of color and craft solutions accordingly. With racialization and racial capitalism as theoretical frameworks, Southern preemption should be brought into national social work dialogues about labor policy and COVID-19.