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Envelopes containing ballots are shown at a San Francisco Department of Elections voting center in San Francisco, California, November 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

6 November 2020 (Human Rights Watch) — The US elections took place amid a recession, record unemployment, and rising poverty. The economy was the top issue for voters in the election; one in two voters said that economic inequality was very important in their decision about who to support in the presidential election. But decisions that affect poverty and inequality are not only taken at the federal level.

High-stakes ballot initiatives in Florida and Colorado could go a long way in improving workers’ living standards, but a California proposition raises alarm about rights in the gig economy.

Voters in Florida agreed to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by approving Amendment 2. Under it, nontipped employees will see their minimum hourly wage increase from $8.56 to $15 by 2026.

The Florida Policy Institute says this would increase wages for 2.5 million workers in Florida, more than a quarter of the workforce. It may help lift millions out of poverty and reduce racial and gender disparities in pay, as women and people of color are overrepresented in lower-wage work.

In Colorado, voters approved Proposition 118 to create a state-run paid family and medical leave program. Colorado residents will now be entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave if they need to care for a sick loved one, recover from illness, or care for a baby or adopted child.

This stands to overwhelmingly benefit lower-income workers, who are less likely to have access to paid time off, and is an important step to address economic gender gaps.

However, in California, voters approved Proposition 22, exempting gig companies (five of which poured more than $200 million into a campaign for the initiative) from a state law that would have treated many gig workers as employees.

Human Rights Watch research shows that without the protections granted to employees, gig grocery delivery workers could face severe financial hardship in the event of illness or injury, or when algorithms that determine pay drive down earnings.

Prop 22 denies workers a minimum wage for the time they spend working because it allows companies to exclude waiting time between gigs. Prop 22 stands to increase precarious work and may contribute to economic inequality by creating a class of workers scraping to get by, many of whom identify as people of color.

California’s outcome is alarming but the results in Florida and Colorado give hope that more people will see their right to earn a decent living protected.