Worker Rights and Poverty: When Wages Just Aren't Enough

Nov 01, 2010

By Andrea Lindemann

This post originally appeared on November 1 on the Sloan Work and Family Research Network's blog.

A job is not enough to ensure economic well-being for many Americans.  Many employment laws and policies are weak and do little to nothing to protect workers. For example, there is no national law requiring employers to provide paid family leave or paid sick days.  While some low-income workers struggle to make ends meet because of low-paying jobs, others are impoverished because their employers fail to comply with laws designed to protect workers' income and benefits.  Low-wage workers are frequently underpaid or not paid the wages they are legally owed.

Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity: The Source for News, Ideas and Action is a one-stop-shop for news and data on poverty.  It provides a platform for exchanging diverse perspectives to develop innovative solutions to poverty.  CLASP manages this initiative, which is expanding its content in the area of workers' rights, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days.

The lack of robust policy and the lack of compliance with existing policy affect low-wage workers in nearly every industry.  The restaurant industry is a prime example.

In 2007, Congress raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, the first increase in ten years.   But employees who work for tips, such as waitresses and other wait staff, are subject to a special tipped minimum wage.  The tipped minimum wage has not increased in almost 20 years.  It remains frozen at $2.13 an hour.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that national media hourly wage for food preparation and service workers is only $8.59 (including tips).  In fact, a  report on the restaurant industry in Maine shows that 60 percent of restaurant workers earn low wages ($8.46-$16.99) an hour.  Another 21 percent earned below the poverty line ($7.25-$8.45) an hour.

90 percent of restaurant workers have  reported that they did not receive paid sick days or health insurance through their employers.  As a result, 63 percent reported preparing, cooking, and serving food while sick.

Spotlight intends to play a vital role in drawing attention to the pressing needs of low-wage workers.  In addition to research and news, Spotlight solicits exclusive commentaries on a range of poverty topics and regularly produces webcasts with leading experts and elected officials.

The first workers' rights webcast features the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) a dynamic organization that is supporting restaurant workers' rights through research, training, policy.  Bonnie Kwon and Nikki Lewis of ROC-DC discuss issues restaurant workers deal with daily, including paid sick leave, dead end jobs, health care and fair wages.  Check out the webcast for more!

We hope to continue to feature discussions about paid leave in upcoming commentaries and webcasts. Please submit paid leave research and suggestions and be sure to visit the website and sign-up for the weekly update.

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