Interfaith Worker Justice

This is what religion looks like.



12 Million People Robbed Each Year

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Pam Shearman |

You may have heard the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” Stealing is more than losing money or a possession. I remember when our home was broken into, and we were robbed. We replaced the material things, and we fixed the broken door and window. But our sense of security was difficult to replace. It was a long time before we could sleep well without feeling threatened and vulnerable.

We spend almost as much time at work as we do at home, so being robbed at work can leave us feeling vulnerable, day after day. According to data shared by the Illinois Department of Labor, nine out of ten employees in restaurants have had wages stolen. The operational commandment in the food service industry seems to be “Thou SHALT steal.”

Recently, we heard from a young woman whose first job was with a national fast food chain. Her first day went very well, and both she and the manager were pleased with her job performance. After she clocked out at the end of the shift she said goodbye to her manager. “Where are you going?” he asked. Then he explained that she needed to stay and work off the clock. That was her first and last day at that job. She knew that standing up for her employment rights was the strongest course of action.

This young woman and millions like her should not have to take a stand alone.

The National Restaurant Association ("the Other NRA") estimates that 13.5 million people work in restaurants in the U.S. This adds up to more than 12 million people robbed at work (compared to only 1.5 million home robberies each year). The NRA has no policy stand on wage theft. Here is a sampling of the NRA’s policy positions for workers:

  • The NRA is opposed to the Affordable Care Act even though 90% of restaurants have fewer than 50 employees and do not have to offer healthcare insurance to employees.
  • The NRA is opposed to mandatory paid sick and family leave to take care of sick loved ones claiming that “arbitrary mandatory provisions that require new benefits without giving flexibility to businesses will come at the expense of other benefits.”
  • The NRA is opposed to an increase in the minimum wage stating, “dramatic, mandatory wage increases…would place yet another financial burden on business owners”. The minimum wage for tipped workers in Illinois is only $4.95/hour! (Find out the tipped-minimum wage in your state.)

The NRA expects that 1.3 million restaurant jobs will be added over the next decade – that’s a million more workers with no private healthcare insurance, insufficient paid sick time for themselves and their families, and rock bottom hourly pay. And that’s a million more workers who have their wages stolen by their employers.

Can they count on you to fight theft with them? Learn more about IWJ Issues and see all the opportunities to get involved. Together we can make “Thou Shalt NOT Steal” the standard for everyone!

Pam is a seminarian joining Interfaith Worker Justice this summer for clinical pastoral education, she will be reflecting each week on her experiences. Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Retreat to plan ahead

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Kim Bobo |

I love staff retreats. Getting away from the office with colleagues allows you to build and strengthen relationships, think about the “big picture” directions of the work and plan for the future.

This year’s retreat was especially fun, very encouraging and slightly poignant for me. The highlight of the fun was the high ropes course. Even though you are technically “harnessed in," so that no harm can actually come to you, it feels super scary as you step out onto tiny ropes or wires about 30 feet above the ground. I have bruises all over my body from ramming into the platform or gripping the ropes too tightly. But, I made it around the course with some coaching and encouragement from colleagues. The young and fit staffer zipped around the course and I moved slowly and cautiously, but most of us pushed ourselves outside our comfort zones in ways that were scary and totally fun. I was quite proud of myself!

The retreat was quite encouraging about the future of the work because IWJ has such a talented group of staff with great passion for the work and overall clarity of purpose. We disagree sometimes on approach and language, but we are committed to working together and growing in our experience and effectiveness. I have such respect for my colleagues and think one couldn’t find a better team of folks with which to work.

staff retreatA good part of the retreat focused on my upcoming transition, how we best prepare IWJ for a new director and how the entire staff can support a new director. Even though I am helping drive the transition because I think it is the best thing for the organization, there was some sadness for me around realizing that this past retreat was likely my last retreat with the staff. Next year’s retreat will be with the new director.

Overall, the retreat was fabulous – fun, renewing, and encouraging. Just what a retreat should be.

Community: The Key to Organizing

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By Elizabeth Nawrocki

“Elizabeth can make a new best friend at a bus stop,” my mother, for many years, has been known to explain her middle daughter as very outgoing and friendly. It didn’t surprise her at all when I recounted a fascinating conversation I had about Hinduism and Christianity at (where else?) a bus stop on the way to work. Perhaps this trait my mother realized in me paved the way for my love of and perceived vocation to community, in whatever capacity that may be.

I think this love of community is what draws me to this work. I am spending the summer with the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME), part of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), in Oakland, Calif. In my short time with FAME and EBASE, I have seen the importance of community in more ways than one. Community is essential when dealing the broad task of imagining and creating a more just society. It is easy to slip into the individualistic vibe of the world today. Often our activism takes the form of our signature on a petition and not much beyond that. Community organizing, however, takes a different approach. Beyond simply signing a petition, organizing fosters relationships.

The relationships I have witnessed form the backbone of the campaigns in which we are involved, and these campaigns would not have any success without the established community backing them. The minimum wage workers and the organizers know one another’s stories; they know the person beyond their hourly wage. The hotel workers and union representatives sit down around the  table and chat; they have a relationship. When this shift in focus from “a cause” to one’s brothers and sisters occurs, the campaigns for justice become so much more meaningful and so much more effective.

At FAME we not only explore the relationships we have with other individuals, but we explore the relationships that take shape between the issues with which we have engaged. As I become more aware of the intersectionality that is present between each aspect of social injustice, it becomes virtually impossible to deal with a single issue without addressing or affecting an other. At FAME, I have become particularly familiar with the intersection of labor and immigration. Management can use a worker’s status again him, creating a workplace unfit for any type of flourishing. The main provider of a family can be detained and deported, leaving the rest of the family fumbling financially and emotionally. 

These intersections provide the opportunity for coalition work, fostering even greater community and interdependence. I attended one of the monthly vigils held at the West County Detention Facility and witnessed the beauty that is present in community. We gather together to pray, to weep, and to stand in solidarity with the detainees held in the facility. We share stories of the families affected and imagine how to reunite them and bring justice to the broken system. But my favorite part is the “moment of noise” at the end. In a display of our contempt for the current system and our love for our brothers and sisters held within the facility, we make as much noise as possible. We hope for those inside to hear and know that we are standing with them. We form a community, a friendship with those beyond the walls.

While this may not be what my mom was getting at when she would tell relatives about my ability to befriend a stranger in no time, there is no doubt that these are related. Establishing relationships is at the very core of any social movement. The people I have gotten to know and the events I have been able to experience have been transformative to my faith and understanding of what it means to be part of a community. No way could we make a change without each other. There is truly a beautiful society, beyond the economics and the politics we see today, that can emerge from an ever-growing sense of love and community.

Photo courtesy of EBASE-FAME

David vs. Goliath over Worker's Comp

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By Mia Katan

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” — Emma Lazarus

Sadness needs no translation. Sofia’s (her name has been changed for privacy purposes) rapid Spanish rolled over me in waves. Beyond “Best Western” and “cleaning maid” I relied on another intern’s translation. In the cool of a church basement in East Boston, we absorbed Sofia and Isabella’s stories. They shared a common theme: each were injured at work, their employer denied the injury had occurred on the job, and lost their job.

Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health is working with injured workers. The worker center helps injured workers, who primarily hail from Boston’s thriving immigrant community, navigate the workers' compensation system. This summer, Kristen and I are working on a report about the Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation system. We're interviewing attorneys, injured workers and experts. We will explore contributing factors in delayed medical treatment and inadequate wage replacement benefits.

When an employer or insurance company contests an injured worker’s claim it triggers a long and complex process. It is illegal for an employer in Mass. to not carry workers’ compensation insurance. Employers without worker’s compensation sometimes attempt to avoid fines by dumping injured workers at the hospital and denying any responsibility or relationship. Employers with insurance try to deny responsibility to avoid increasing insurance premiums. This legal battle hurts everyone involved. Injured workers’ health deteriorates as treatment is delayed, which increases the cost to the employer, insurance company and the state. Many injured workers already face socio-economic disadvantages like language and education barriers. When you consider the financial power of employers and insurance companies it truly becomes a David vs. Goliath interaction.

Then there is this: Insurance companies hire “Independent Medical Examiners” to examine a worker and write a report. One attorney I spoke with says these reports often contain leading questions that help physicians come to the conclusion their employer is seeking. These doctors are anything but “independent” and are paid up to $1,000 an hour for an appointment usually less than fifteen minutes long. In this way, insurance companies get the medical documentation they need to contest a worker’s claim in court.

Even when a worker receives compensation, it’s not enough. In Massachusetts, a worker is entitled to up to 60 percent of their previous average weekly wage with a $1,181.28 maximum and $236.26 minimum. Many of these workers were receiving a minimum wage of $8, an already unlivable salary. Can you imagine taking care of a family on $236.26 a week, while disabled? According to a report from MIT, a living weekly wage for one adult with two children in Boston is $1,314. Therefore, injured workers receiving workers’ compensation are not only dealing with their disability but also a dramatically decreased standard of living.

The system is clearly flawed. Immigrant injured workers are fighting an uphill battle. Massachusetts must reform to protect society’s most vulnerable. Writing a report is a drop in a bucket, and I can only hope this drop joins a stream in the fight for worker’s rights. This report will inform MassCOSH on what workers’ compensation reform should look like. Just as advocacy groups, including MassCOSH, recently won the fight to raise minimum wage in MA one can hope my contribution will inform a future battle for worker’s compensation reform.

Thanks to People Like You

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Pam Shearman |

A chance encounter at the ‘L’ brought home for me the daily reality of underpaid workers. A middle-aged man dressed in a uniform explained that his minimum wage job doesn’t even pay enough for him to rent a small studio apartment on his own. That same day the Chicago Tribune reported that the average apartment rental in Chicago is now $1,100 per month, with more high-end rentals opening every month. My new friend explained that he shares an apartment with another man, or else he would have to choose between paying rent and buying food.

He looked way off into the distance, and his voice became wistful. As if he were talking to himself he quietly said, “Fifteen dollars… A living wage… Now that would be real good.” As he came back into the present moment, he thanked me for working on this issue with Interfaith Worker Justice. Walking away, he shook his head and said under his breath, “I wish I knew more people like you.”

My friend’s thanks really go to everyone who works on the important issues of worker justice. How blessed we are when we know that others stand in solidarity with us!

It reminds me of the lyrics to the Mat Maher song Hold Us Together:

“It don't have a job, don't pay your bills
Won't buy you a home in Beverly Hills
Won't fix your life in five easy steps
Ain't the law of the land or the government

But it's all you need

And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I'll be my brother's keeper
So the whole world will know that we're not alone”

We will never make love be the law of the land, but we can walk together to make the daily reality of workers more just. We can show solidarity with our brothers and sisters so no one feels alone in the struggle. And we can work to ensure that everyone has shelter, a place of their own where they live and work with dignity. If you want to bring these issues to your faith community, consider developing a Labor Day weekend service. IWJ has all the resources you'll need to bring issues of worker and wage justice to your faith community.

I add my voice to my friend’s to shout out to everyone involved in worker justice, “Thank you for the work you do. I am glad I know people like you!"

Pam is a seminarian joining Interfaith Worker Justice this summer for clinical pastoral education, she will be reflecting each week on her experiences.

Tidings of Justice: Winning an $11 State Minimum Wage

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By Paul Drake

On Thursday, June 26, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts signed into law the new highest state minimum wage in the country of $11 per hour. Effective Jan. 1, 2015, it will raise the wage floor one dollar each year, reaching $11 in January 2017. This victory is the result of years of hard work from a state-wide coalition of faith, labor and community groups called Raise Up Massachusetts. This past fall and spring, we engaged in a historic grassroots ballot petition drive by gathering a record number of signatures to put a real minimum wage raise on the Massachusetts ballot this year if the legislature did not produce a serious bill.

Faith communities were at the center of this push, contributing a full third of the signatures gathered. Massachusetts IWJ staff and volunteers used our Labor in the Pulpits program to visit a different congregation each week, to talk about the campaign and offer congregants the chance to sign the petitions. Congregants loved it. They could make a real contribution before even leaving their congregation's walls, but also engage more in the campaign as able. People's participation in the signature drive fostered a sense of ownership in the bill and confidence in the public will behind them, both of which became critical during the legislative phase in advocacy efforts to preserve the integrity of the bill.

And to the best of our ability that is what we did. Together with other coalition members, people of faith successfully helped fight off pushes by corporate lobbyists for a sub-minimum wage for teenagers as well as seriously diminished access to unemployment insurance as part of a package. Sadly, due to fierce pressure from restaurant associations, the final bill included only a paltry raise for tipped workers, and did not include the measure indexing the minimum wage to inflation.

Our coalition mourns the loss of these important features. But in return, we won a higher dollar raise than our ballot question, and more than 500,000 Massachusetts workers will see a raise (a full fifth of our workforce) which will impact more than 230,000 children. Most importantly, people of faith and our coalition as a whole are empowered with the clear-minded expectation of more to come. Now we know we can Raise Up Massachusetts together.

Learn more about the work to raise the minimum wage in your state!

A Step Along the Way for Workers' Compensation

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By Kristen Gold

My first few weeks at MassCOSH have been a whirlwind to say the least. From day one, we (Mia and I) dove right in to the report on workers’ compensation, our assignment this summer. In the past few weeks, I have ate, slept and breathed workers’ compensation. I have now found myself riled up about the injustices inherent in the system. A system once created as a mutual agreement between workers and their employers has, in the last 20 years, changed into yet another way the powerful subject the weak. And I, fully equipped with my unwavering and unquenchable sense of justice, am ready to fight for change!

Although I am not out scheduling actions, running a campaign, or giving testimony at the state house—and I am in fact sitting at a desk most days, Google searching "workers’ compensation"—I feel very strongly that the work I do this summer will help MassCOSH and others make changes in the workers’ compensation system.

Our report will be comprehensive. It will give a voice to workers who are so often ignored and manipulated through the testimonies we include. It will give workers’ compensation attorneys, those who arguably know the system best, an opportunity to suggest the changes that they see necessary. We have been speaking with national workers’ compensation experts and comparing the systems in other states with ours here in Massachusetts. I am confident that these faults in the system can be rectified. It won’t happen this summer, but I think this is the first step. I think I am taking part in something great.

Although we have hit the ground running here in Dorchester, Mass., I know that eight weeks is a very short time. I know that although I will finish this report, there will be years more of work to be done before real, lasting changes can be made. I can see the mountain standing in front of the MassCOSH staff and I. To overcome the mountainous power of the insurance companies and large corporations with the voices of workers will surely take more than just a couple pieces of paper. But as Archbishop Oscar Romero said in his prayer, A Step Along the Way:

…This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Real Independence

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Pam Shearman |

If I’m right, then 15 = 4. How so? $15 per hour, like the Fourth of July, represents independence.

The 4 in my equation is for July 4, Independence Day. On July 4, 1776, our forefathers declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This pursuit of happiness is related to the founding father’s ideas about owning property. What our founding fathers wanted, in part, was freedom from an unjust economy. In their day, the inheritance laws of most countries ensured that all property went to the eldest son. As the population grew, a small elite held most of the property while more and more people had to share fewer and fewer resources. On July 4, our forefathers declared that we all have the right to pursue earning and holding property according to just economic principles.

Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice in 1797, “If we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.

Today, the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than at any time in the last century. This is not the vision of the founding fathers.

That’s where the $15 part of the equation comes in. A person working a full time job at minimum wage earns much less than the poverty guidelines for a family of three. At a $15 per hour minimum wage, a family of three would have about $22,000 a year after taxes, lifting them above the poverty limit.

$15 is independence.

$15 is greater independence for workers and families who now depend on Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, food pantries, and homeless shelters to live. $15 is freedom to dream of a better life.

There is a proposed rule to increase the minimum wage for all workers on new federal contracts to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2015. While $10.10 is not enough for a living wage and it does not apply to all workers, it’s a start. It’s a start for workers who want a living wage. It’s a start for workers who want independence.

So as you celebrate Independence Day, I invite you to take a stand for someone else’s independence before July 16. Send a message that you support the proposed rule to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers

Pam is a seminarian joining Interfaith Worker Justice this summer for clinical pastoral education, she will be reflecting each week on her experiences.

The Wealth Gap and Worker Justice

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Pam Shearman |

Last week more than 200 faith leaders, worker center leaders and workers convened in Chicago to participate in the Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) National Conference and discuss strategies targeted at wage disparity, wage theft and all workers’ rights to a safe and healthy workplace.

Wage disparity is one of the greatest economic problems in the U.S. today. Even since the recession of 2008, “after-tax corporate profits in America are at their highest levels since World War II, while workers are receiving a smaller share of economic output than at any other time since 1952,” reported the Washington Times. “Seventy-six percent of people in this country live paycheck to paycheck,” the Washington Times quoted Roberts, CEO of STA Wealth Management

How do you stack up? Ask yourself the following eight questions:

  • Do you hold a permanent full time job with paid sick time and paid vacation time?
  • Do you earn enough from your job so that you do not need assistance programs to live?
  • Are you paid your wages in full, on time?
  • Do you get a pay stub that shows your hours worked, your pay calculation and all deductions from your wages?
  • Do you receive health and safety training on the job?
  • Does the company you work for offer profit sharing?
  • Are all the adult members of your family self-supporting so that you don’t have to be their safety net?
  • Do you expect to have enough money to meet your needs in retirement?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, you’re ahead of millions of underpaid workers in the U.S.

“Hard work no longer assures the American dream” reported For the middle class, it’s been one step forward, two steps back for several decades. The result is the biggest gap in wealth in a century as shown in the report:

  • “The gap between the top 10 percent and the middle class is well over 1,000 percent...
  • The average employee needs to work more than a month (more than 160 hours) to earn what the (average) CEO earns in one hour…
  • One percent of America has 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, but the bottom 80 percent has only 7 percent (of the wealth).”

How appropriate are the words of Abraham Lincoln, “There has never been but one question in all civilization – how to keep a few (people) from saying to many (people): “You work and earn bread, and we will eat it.”

We are all engaged together in building the American economy. At the IWJ conference, faith and labor leaders reminded us that the struggles that others experience will eventually arrive at our own doorsteps. One of the faith leaders reminded us to build carefully and with justice so that the economy won’t come “a-tumbling down” around us like the walls of Jericho.

How do we build an economy that sits on a solid foundation? We can continue working to create good jobs that offer an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We can support initiatives for a living wage for families. We can share in the profits that we’ve contributed to. Let’s follow the vision of the prophet Isaiah says (Isaiah 65:21-22):

"My people shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat. For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands."

Pam is a seminarian joining Interfaith Worker Justice this summer for clinical pastoral education, she will be reflecting each week on her experiences.

Speaking truth to power at Walmart

0 Comment(s) | Posted |

By Anne Burkhardt

Last week, I participated in my first ever action with Interfaith Worker Justice (I am interning with the national staff through the summer internship program) and joined a delegation to a local Walmart store. Our delegation was one of several groups who visited stores throughout Chicago. Delegations of faith leaders and advocates went with workers who were already organizing at their stores. Each delegation went to discuss a different issue (parental leave, consistent scheduling, general fair treatment…and, as always, fair wages) that had been identified by an employee in the store.

Before we left, we heard from Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a social justice lobby, and one of my favorite leaders in politics these days. She reminded us to not be scared or sit back and let other people do the work of activism for us. I knew that there was some discomfort before the action. Many folks in the IWJ network were used to being out on the ground, doing activism with their feet, but a good portion of the attendees who had joined us for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education's Congress on Urban Ministry had not – and some were nervous. Sr. Simone did a good job of reminding us what was important (and was just one of many powerful speeches we heard over the course of the conference!).

My delegation was small, but had representatives from around the country: Oakland, Nashville, Boston and Chicago. We were there with a former employee who—when she was two months pregnant—was in the store on her off day and two 32-inch TVs fell on her abdomen and leg. She was in a boot for some time and her pregnancy was elevated to high risk. It still is, two months later. She says that she filed all the appropriate paperwork for the medical/maternal leave she took; the manager of the store denies seeing any such paperwork. We went to urge the manager to reinstate her.

Our conversation with the manager of the store was difficult. He wouldn’t have spoken to us if Pastor Emily hadn’t made a beeline for his office when he poked his head out. He passed along the corporation's media relations number rather than engaging with the delegation. He claimed that he did not have the power to do any of the things we were asking. He reminded the delegation that we didn’t have an appointment, and no, we couldn’t have one, either. When we left, we were all shook up. Christine asked if we could do a prayer, so we all clasped hands and steadied ourselves.

We rejoined the rest of our friends—some 500 of us!—who were gathering outside the very store we had been within. We joined together in song and protest, hearing from some workers who testified about their experiences as employees at Walmart and the struggles they had faced as low-wage workers in the "Walmart Economy". I particularly enjoyed the variety, creativity, and passion in the handmade signs. The SCUPE folks were particularly excited about the fact that passing cars and trucks demonstrated their support with honking, waves and fists in the air; I was excited too! Folks slowed down to ask what we were doing. One woman even asked for our information so she could direct someone who she knew who had been fired by Walmart to the worker organization.

Then it was all over. We gathered once again at our DePaul and celebrated that we had put our faith on our feet and walked to the doorstep of the America's largest private employer and (literally) spoken truth to power.

Anne's reflection is part of our summer series of reflections from IWJ Interns. Anne is interning with Interfaith Worker Justice this summer.