LOS ANGELES: Ashley Maddox boards a bus and heads to work at a restaurant in Miami’s South Beach, a chore that can take up to 1 hour. 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 mother heads back home on the bus to her toddler son, whom she leaves in the care of his grandmother 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.”
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 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 children or pay rent.
For these workers, the past 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,” said Noah Warman, a labor lawyer with Sugarman & Susskind in Coral Gables, Fla. “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 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,” said Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
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.
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, said 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, Fla., says employers already are concerned about the new labor cost implications of health care 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 a point 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 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.”