Labor Day Shines Light on Challenges, Courage of Low-Wage Workers

August 30, 2013

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Shaniqua, a 20-year-old mother, works for McDonald’s in New York City, where she can rarely get 40 hours a week. She struggles to afford food, diapers, and other basics. Nick, a McDonald’s worker in Indianapolis, survives on $800 per month while caring for his chronically ill mother and disabled brother. Medical bills from a recent sinus infection cost him nearly a month’s wages.

Dearius, an assistant manager at a Memphis Church’s Chicken, says fast food workers are tired of struggling to provide for their kids. And Shonda, a 38-year-old mother of three who works at a KFC in Oakland, says she and other strikers “just want to be able to make enough money to provide the basic necessities of life: food, rent, clothing for my children.”

Hearing how hard work isn’t paying off for these men and women is troubling—especially on Labor Day.  But they aren’t taking it lying down. Today, we’re tipping our hats to the courage and strength of thousands of low-wage fast food workers like Shaniqua, Nick, Dearius, and Shonda, who are taking to the streets to demand fair pay and working conditions.  CLASP stands united with these workers, fighting every day for policy solutions that reverse America’s arc toward inequity.

Job growth over the last several years has been concentrated in lower-paying sectors, and conditions for low-wage workers have steadily gotten worse.  Hearing their stories through this nationwide strike and examining evidence from several recent studies, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something has to change—and fast.

According to a recent study from the National Employment Law Project, front-line fast food workers like those participating in recent strikes are scraping by on a median hourly wage of just $8.94. And it’s not just fast food workers whose wages aren’t keeping pace. The Economic Policy Institute recently found that the majority of workers have experienced a “lost decade”; between 2002 and 2013, wages were stagnant or declined for all workers in the bottom 70 percent of wage distribution. But what’s particularly unfair is that wages are declining while productivity is rising. Who is benefiting from increased productivity? Certainly not the workers who are driving it.

Instead of sharing the profits that businesses reap from their hard work, many workers are struggling to get by. A recent Oxfam study found that the majority (59 percent) of low-wage workers (defined in the survey as those making less than $14 per hour) say they either “just meet” or can’t cover their expenses. The workers also reported that they say they worry about health expenses (82 percent), education (78 percent), debt payments (76 percent), housing (67 percent), and healthy food (65 percent). In the absence of sufficient wages, workers are borrowing from friends, family, and payday lenders; pawning their possessions; drawing on charities; or turning to public assistance programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid. Similarly, an Associated Press and NORC study found that 74 percent of lower-wage workers (defined in that survey as those making less than $35,000 per year) find it difficult to get ahead financially.

But it’s not just paltry wages these workers struggle with.  According to the Oxfam study, 30 percent of low-wage workers have no workplace benefits at all—no paid sick days, no paid vacation, no health insurance, and no retirement plan. Nearly 40 percent of all private sector workers do not earn paid sick days, and close to 90 percent do not have access to paid family leave, which enables workers to take leave for longer-term caregiving duties. According to the AP/NORC study, while about half (55 percent) of employers offer paid sick days, many limit them to just some of their workers. In fact, only 21 percent of those employers provide paid sick days to their workers earning low wages after a probationary period. In short, the workers being denied sick days are those least able to withstand losing a day’s wages or losing their job for staying home to care for themselves or their children.

The risk of job loss for workers without reasonable protections is real: Oxfam found that a shocking one in seven (14 percent) low-wage workers has lost a job in the past four years because they were sick or needed to care for a family member. For low-wage working moms, the number rises to almost one in five. These findings echo a 2010 NORC study, which found that 16 percent of workers had lost jobs for taking time off to address illness.  These numbers are staggering and remind us that workers’ and communities’ economic security relies not just on fair wages, but also on workplace safeguards that protect employment, promote healthy families, and make businesses stronger. Given these struggles, it’s not surprising that more than three quarters of low-wage workers in the Oxfam study believe that Americans are more likely to fall out of the middle class than they are to rise from low-income to middle class.

It’s devastating how many working families live in poverty, but we can’t and won’t be paralyzed by these dire challenges.  This Labor Day, we should celebrate those who are trying to remedy the serious problems our nation has ignored for too long.  That includes striking workers who’ve said “enough is enough,” as well as movements in states and localities to pass minimum wage increases, earned sick days laws, and paid family leave insurance (now law in California, New Jersey, and—just this year—Rhode Island).  It includes those who worked so hard for passage of health reform legislation that will ensure Nick and his family have coverage, and those who have fought for child care and food assistance that can help Shaniqua and Shonda raise their children while keeping their jobs.

With low-wage workers leading the way, let’s commit to strengthening our families, workplaces, and communities. Next year, we could have a lot more to celebrate.

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