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Times Are Tough for Low-Wage Workers

October 24, 2012

For many workers, basics such as fair pay and sick time can be elusive, and many are beginning to speak up.

Ashley Maddox boards a bus and heads to work at a South Beach restaurant, a chore that can take up to 1 ½ hours. Once she arrives, she writes up orders, serves food and clears tables. Some days she brings home just $20, other days more. When her shift ends, the single mom heads back home on the bus to her toddler son, who she leaves in the care of his grandma or aunt, or a friend.

Each week, Maddox’s schedule changes, making a more stable child-care arrangement challenging. Whether she has a cough, cold or fever, Maddox still gets on the bus and goes to work. “I don’t get any sick days or benefits and I need my job.”

 Ashley Maddox hugs her son, Miguel Romero III,  who will be 2 in December, n her Little Havana apartment before leaving for work.

Ashley Maddox hugs her son, Miguel Romero III, who will be 2 in December, in her Little Havana apartment before leaving for work.

Last week, when low-wage workers gathered to show support for a proposed new paid sick leave law in Miami-Dade County, Maddox was there with her son on her hip. At 27, Maddox has had a series of low-paying jobs serving food. She’s been struggling to stay well and hold onto her current job for about a year.

We see our presidential candidates courting the woman’s vote and hear them debate job growth, flexibility, fair pay and even paid sick leave. But for Maddox and other low-wage workers, these issues are not about work-life balance or fairness or politics: They are about survival. Every benefit or new right in the workplace makes a giant difference in whether they can eat dinner, afford electricity, clothe their child or pay rent.

For these workers, the last few years have been particularly tough. As businesses have struggled to stay afloat, low-wage workers increasingly have endured the consequences. Many have had their hours cut and sometimes are even forced to work off the clock. Others have been stiffed out of pay when businesses abruptly closed. And, some have been subjected to bosses who fire them for taking a day off to care for a sick child or family member.

“If you’re a low-wage worker, the deck is stacked against you,” says Noah Warman, a labor lawyer with Sugarman & Susskind in Coral Gables. “Employers want your muscle, not your brain, and you become a cost of doing business. If a business needs to cut corners, this is where they do it.”

Low-wage workers like Maddox are the people who serve us meals, clean our hotel rooms, ring up our purchases and care for our kids or our parents. Increasingly, they are more of the population: During the recovery, most of the employment gains have been concentrated in lower-wage occupations, which grew almost three times as fast as mid-wage and higher-wage occupations, a new National Employment Law Project (NELP) report shows. These workers typically earn less than $13 an hour and lack benefits or flexibility.

“As we move more and more to an economy based on service jobs that cannot be outsourced, we have a huge stake in making sure these jobs are good jobs and these workers are valued,” says Christine Owens, the executive director of NELP.

Around the country, momentum is building for change. States and cities are considering raising the minimum wage, enacting paid sick leave laws and addressing wage theft and fair pay.

In Florida, low-wage workers, typically hesitant to speak up, are becoming more vocal about their work rights. In South Beach, jilted workers recently protested in front of David’s Café saying they were stiffed out of wages at the owner’s second location that closed abruptly. In Hallandale Beach, about 75 Walmart employees protested at a supercenter over the company’s policy of silencing employees who speak up about issues like low wages, not-quite-full-time work weeks and erratic scheduling. In Miami-Dade, low-wage workers rallied to support a proposed county ordinance that would require all employers to offer earned sick time. In Broward County, low-wage workers pushed for a wage theft law to help create an easier avenue for recovery when they aren’t paid for work performed.

Ellen Bravo, who directs Family Values @ Work, a network of state coalitions organizing to win paid sick days and paid family leave, says we are seeing grassroots efforts by people who need some relief. “Something like sick leave may seem like a small step but it is a significant one for helping people stay employed and pay their bills.”

Most often, low-wage workers lack education and courage to speak up about what’s not acceptable, says Jean Souffrant, coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Center of Miami, which advocates for restaurant worker’s rights. “They don’t want to ruffle feathers because they’re afraid they may not have a job at end of the day.”

Much like Maddox, Erica Sommer has spoken up to support a paid sick time law. Sommer, a Miami Beach bartender, says she still sees hotels and restaurants running so lean that managers don’t have a replacement if a dishwasher, bartender or server calls in sick. At a previous job, she says she was forced to work four days with a full-blown fever. “In the hospitality industry, people survive day to day and they feel they have to risk their health and those who they come in contact with just to get a tiny bit of money,” she says.

Meanwhile employers argue that workers often abuse sick leave and new labor-friendly laws would add an unfair cost to businesses struggling to turn a profit or create higher shareholder value. Cheryl Wilke, a corporate labor attorney with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Fort Lauderdale, says employers already are concerned about the new labor cost implications of healthcare reform. They often believe they either need to keep wages low or reduce their workforce. “It’s a push and pull with the low-wage earner stuck in the middle.”

Maddox feels the push and pull as she tries to keep her job and care for her son. She’s had employers go under owing her money and she’s had her hours reduced to where she can’t support herself. She now feels lucky to have a job. Yet, she wants to see change. She says she supports a paid sick leave law in Miami-Dade because it represents a step in the right direction for everyone. “It’s good for me but it’s also good because I have a lot of contact with customers.”