Counting dimes

Lately I find myself curious as to why so many people just accept their fate as one of the exploited working poor. Why do people not rebel against what will surely be a life of endless struggle?

As I’ve been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed,” I have been struck by the failure of workers to demand better working conditions. When she asked her fellow workers at a cleaning service what they thought of being exploited while others lived in luxury in the big houses that they cleaned, they all seemed to accept their station in life and only meekly responded that being rich was something to aspire to. I do not understand how anyone can accept that it is OK to be exploited. Even in my days working at just above the minimum wage, I never recall thinking that paying such low wages was OK. And on more than one occasion I quit a job due to the exploitation of myself or others I worked with.

Yet, as Ehrenreich found, employees at the low end do not stick together. They do not realize the strength of their numbers. They are brainwashed into thinking they deserve low pay and that unions are evil. Yes some unions have a bad track record, but by and large they are the champion of workers. It is not by accident that where unions exist wages and working conditions are dramatically improved. And I have never understood the business logic in paying the lowest wages possible. A well-paid employee is a more conscientious worker who will surely save the company money in the long term through institutional knowledge and improved productivity. And the high rates of turnover in low-wage jobs costs money.

But we are a society that values things that are disposable. Why should businesses not treat employees as disposable when we treat everything around us a such. We spend money on new cell phones and TVs that we don’t need only to turn around and buy new ones a year later. We throw things away rather than make simple repairs. We feel an intense need to keep up with the frantic cycle of material goods. I confess that I am not immune. As I’ve been walking the need to purchase goods has been mostly diminished as I must carry everything in my backpack. But that does not stop me from having shopping pangs for items I cannot use.

I love buying new clothes, eating out and new electronic gadgets as much as the next person. But the love of cheap goods and services is not worth keeping more than 37 million people in poverty in this country, and more than a billion people in poverty worldwide.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Not keeping up with the Joneses

As it turns out, keeping up with the Joneses may be out of reach for 1 in 4 American families. That is the estimated number of working families who are low income.

More than 1 in 5 jobs pay wages less than the poverty threshold.

A report by The Working Poor Families Project, Still Working Hard, Still Falling Short, found that in 13 states 33 percent or more of working families, are low-income. Two states, Mississippi and New Mexico, have 40 percent or more families classified as low-income. Between 2002 and 2006 the number of low-income working families increased by 350,000, and income inequality among working families increased by almost 10 percent. In all, a total of 42 million adults and children struggled to get by in 2006.

“Nationally, more than one in five jobs, or 22 percent, is in an occupation paying wages that fall below the federal poverty threshold. In eight states, more than one-third of all jobs are in poverty-wage occupations.” – Still Working Hard, Still Falling Short

The report defined low-wage families as those earning less than double the poverty rate. For a family of four, that would have been an annual income of $41,228 or less in 2006.

The good news is that last month the federal minimum wage was increased to $7.25 an hour. The bad news is that in 2006 a full-time worker needed to earn an hourly wage of $9.91 to meet the poverty threshold for a family of four.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

I don’t need no sick days

We are a sick nation. According to a survey by Monster.com earlier this year, 71 percent of American workers admit they go to work when they are ill. The reasons for going to work points to an American workforce that is more focused on productivity on the job than their personal health. Some 33 percent of respondents said they feared losing their job and 38 percent said their workload is too busy to take a sick day. Still others report to work when they are sick because they do not have paid sick time–57 million people in the United States do not get sick days.

A few days ago I was browsing for books at The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland, N.Y., and found myself talking about my injury with an employee there. She said when she first started work there she had no health insurance since her employer had in place a waiting period before new hires were eligible for benefits. During that time, she said, she lived in fear of getting sick or injured. But now that she has health insurance the situation is not much better since she has no sick days. She put it this way: “taking a day off when you’re sick means you can’t pay the bills.” Yet this has somehow been lost in the healthcare debate. What is the point of having medical benefits if you cannot afford to miss a day at work?

The United States is the only country out of the top 20 world economic powers with no federally mandated sick days. An Associated Press article reports that almost half the private sector–48 percent–has no sick days.

“The Associated Press interviewed several workers in the food industry. Not surprisingly, most didn’t want their names used for fear they would be fired. They told stories of coming to work with a fever or flu in order to keep their jobs, and of seeing sick co-workers sneezing and coughing near food.

A study on sick leave found that 68 percent of those without paid sick days had gone to work with a contagious illness such as the flu or a viral infection. And one in six workers reported that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished, or threatened with firing after taking time off to care for themselves or a family member, according to the 2008 study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.”

This is despite evidence that employees who come to work are less productive than had they taken the day off. The Center for Law and Social Policy found lost productivity from working while sick at 72 percent compared to 28 percent when employees missed work days due to illness.

Perhaps instead of popping an aspirin or ibuprofen and grinning and bearing it we could all use a day off.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

A sh*#!y thing to do

Day 61–Sept. 2

Over the border in Surrey, British Columbia city leaders attempted a truly foul solution to the problem of homelessness. According to an article in the Surrey North Delta Leader, chicken manure was spread around a Whalley social service building on Aug. 14 in an attempt to drive away vagrants. A political relations nightmare ensued and by the following Monday the manure was cleaned up and lime spread to cover the odor.

Change.org’s  Shannon Moriarty perhaps said it best:

“To many, this bird dung story will be kind of funny, really nasty, or completely outraging. But to me, it’s just really sad.

Sad for the people who usually sat outside of those city buildings, most likely because they had nowhere else to sit. Now the whole world knows what city officials really think of them, perhaps even what they equate them to.”

I like to think that some good has come from such a horrible act of disrespect towards our fellow man. Yes manure was spread. But, when the situation was brought to the light of day, citizens were disgusted and demanded the injustice be righted.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Shortchanged

As if working for minimum wage isn’t bad enough, a new study, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, a survey of more than 4,000 low-wage workers, suggests “many employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated.”

The 2008 survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City–found that 26 percent of workers in the study sample were paid less than minimum wage in the previous work week. Further, a quarter of those polled worked more than 40 hours during the previous week, 76 percent of whom were not paid the legally required overtime rate. This translates to a loss of an average of $2,634 annually, out of total earnings of $17,616, for a full-time employee or a wage theft of 15%.

In addition, when workers complained about working conditions or tried to organize a union, employers often retaliated against them. For this reason, many other workers in similar situations were too afraid of the consequences to complain.

“The core protections that many Americans take for granted—the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks, access to workers’ compensation when injured, and the right to advocate for better working conditions—are failing significant numbers of workers.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

Women were significantly more likely than men to experience minimum wage violations, and foreign-born workers were nearly twice as likely as their U.S.-born counterparts to have a minimum wage violation. Such violations could be found in every sector of the economy and were not restricted to the low-income employees.

I wish I could say I find the news shocking but I myself was frequently uncompensated for overtime while I was working as a reporter, often putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks. Even worse, when I worked for a newspaper in Fairfax County, Va., I didn’t initially notice I was not being paid the salary they had promised when I was hired. I soon learned it was a common practice of my employer to offer a higher salary and then pay employees several thousand less. Without an employment offer in writing there was little I could do.

Beyond employees being cheated, these wage violations have far-reaching consequences on the economy. Low-income employees who cannot make ends meet are forced to rely on public services. Each time an employer shortchanges an employee we all pay. And, left unchecked, such mass violations of employment laws impact even those who treat their employees fairly.

“Everyone has a stake in addressing the problem of workplace violations. When impacted workers and their families struggle in poverty and constant economic insecurity, the strength and resiliency of local communities suffer. When unscrupulous employers violate the law, responsible employers are forced into unfair competition, setting off a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market. And when significant numbers of workers are underpaid, tax revenues are lost.” –Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

To combat these violations, the study suggests the following: strengthen government enforcement of employment and labor laws; update legal standards for the 21 st century workplace; establish equal status for immigrants in the workplace.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper