By Kaitlin Phillips
Local Albany Fast-food workers, social justice advocates, and others gather at Citizen Action headquarters in Albany, N.Y. on Wednesday to watch the live feed of the wage board issue their recommendation to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers across New York state.
When it comes to the challenge of raising the minimum wage in New York State, the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State (LRC of NYS) has not shied away from it; in fact, they’re helping to lead it. Through participating in actions, coordinating Moral Monday demonstrations at the New York State Capitol, the LRC of NYS has made it known that the poverty wages inflicted upon New York workers is highly immoral and should be a cause for major concern. Though the work rages on in New York to establish a living wage for every New York citizen, some New Yorkers, and many of us who support their struggle, tasted a small bit of victory this past Wednesday.
After years of fast food workers organizing for a wage off which they're able to survive, Governor Andrew Cuomo created a Wage Board this past May. The Wage Board allows the governor to examine the wages of a particular industry and potentially issue an industry specific minimum wage if deemed necessary. The board, consisting of three members (Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, representing the public; Kevin Ryan, Chairman and Founder of Gilt, representing businesses; Mike Fishman, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, representing labor) met in public hearings throughout the state over the past few months to hear economic analyses, worker and employer testimony, and general public opinion about the implications of raising the minimum wage for the approximate 180,000 fast-food workers state-wide.
On Wednesday, July 22, the wage board came to its final proposal that will be passed along to New York State Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino, with a final public comment period before Musolino’s approval. The recommendation calls for fast-food workers in New York City to see their wages raised to $15 an hour (phased in) by the year 2018. The rest of the state’s fast-food workers will see minimum wage raised to fifteen dollars an hour by 2021.
Though hitting the $15 mark calls for enormous celebration, as the prospect of getting a mere $10.10 just a year ago seemed insurmountable, many still insist this isn’t enough. The dire situation these workers live in as a result of making poverty wages is something that needs to be changed now. In Albany County—where the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition is located—a single adult would need to make $16.88 an hour to afford food, housing, transportation, health care, clothing, and taxes. In six years when the fast-food workers in Albany County are able to earn $15 an hour, they will already be staggeringly behind. This is why the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State is not considering the struggle finished.
Though they’ve made huge grounds in correcting the immorality of poverty wages, there work is far from being done. Fast-food workers can check off a victory they once never thought imaginable, but the question becomes “Who’s next?”. The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State will not stop battling for economic justice and a moral New York until all New Yorkers are lifted from the binds of working and living under poverty wages.
This week, we were thrilled to hear the proposed rule change by the U.S. Department of Labor that would extend overtime protections to nearly five million workers within the first year of it’s implementation; an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute predicts more than 11 million workers would benefit from the rule change. Currently, if an employee is salaried at $23,660 a year (or $455 a week) and falls under the “white-collar” exemption they are not entitled to any overtime pay. The new rule would change the amount, which was updated only once since 1975 in 2004, to $50,440 a year or $970 a week.
Right now, the Department of Labor is collecting comments during a 60-day period from stakeholders and supporters about the proposed changes to overtime regulations. At IWJ, we're gathering comments online and will deliver them to the Department of Labor before the Sept. 4 deadline. Click here for sample language and to add your comments.
Since it opened in 2013, four different workers visited the Chicago Wage Theft Legal Clinic seeking legal advice but were not entitled to overtime because they made above $23,660 a year and fell into the “white-collar” exemption. These workers were not highly compensated executive, administrative, and professional employees, which the law was intended to cover. Instead, all of these workers were either fast food restaurant managers and assistant managers or convenience store managers. All were making between $24,000 and $30,000 per year and very single one of them who came to the clinic was working between 55 and 70 hours a week.
Their employers knew the rules and knew exactly how much salary they would have to pay them in order to take advantage of them and exclude them from overtime protections.
Because their jobs duties included supervising two or more other employees, managing the restaurant or store when they were on duty, and because their opinions on hiring and firing employees had weight in the decision making process, every one of the four workers fell under the “white-collar” exemption. This is not what was intended when these overtime rules were originally written. And while these new rules do not contain revisions to those “white-collar” exemption duties tests, which would prevent these four individuals from being taken advantage of, we're hopeful that information provided during the public comment period may cause the Department of Labor to reconsider making adjustments in the future.
This rule change will have a positive impact on workers across the U.S. One thing is certain, if these rules were already in place the four managers and assistant managers that visited the legal clinic would be much better off.
Yet, if some predications come true and employers switch some salaried employees to hourly employees it will be more important than ever that the Department of Labor issue a clear paystubs regulation. This will allow workers to see their pay rates and exactly how many hours they worked, which will help them ensure that they are receiving the overtime that they are finally owed.
Julian Medrano is IWJ's Legal Director, in addition to supporting our team and affiliates with legal capacities, he runs Interfaith Worker Justice’s pilot wage theft clinic and is committed to providing all individuals access to the justice system. Photo courtesy: Bernard Polet, Flickr
Many have been waiting in anticipation for Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be to You) released Wednesday. In the landmark text, the Catholic Church clearly states its great concern for the state of our Earth and the people on it. Upon its release, both right and left leaning groups scrambled to appropriate the Holy Father's message to serve their own agenda and turn the document into a political tool. But Pope Francis has little concern for political parties. His encyclical is a call to action for people of all faiths to stand up and save our planet from the neglect and abuse we have laid upon it.
Pope Francis sees the world through a faith lens and not a political one. During his whole pontificate thus far, he has courageously taken on challenging issues and risen above the political fray by focusing on the values relating to the issues. This encyclical is no different as he even connects two important issues together: the climate crisis and poverty.
In the encyclical, he argues that the climate crisis disproportionately impacts the poor. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and Eco-systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry." The harsh and life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis "will probably be felt by the developing countries in coming decades."
Pope Francis makes the case that because of this environmental inequality poor countries bear the burden of rich countries' greedy abuse of our shared natural resources. This, he said, is a "social debt towards the poor... because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity."
Not everyone agrees. Some have even gone as far as calling the pope anti-business or even Marxist. Predictably, those reactions come from those who fail to see the long view or don't care to because it compromises their immediate profit. There is nothing "anti-business" about the pope's stance on the environment. There is nothing wrong with asking businesses to act more responsibly.
Too often we think of politics before our values, but our values should inform our politics. For instance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, said of the encyclical, "I don't get economic policies from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm." Bush acknowledged that he could get in trouble with his parish priest for making that comment. And he should, but not for "chastising the Pope." What he should get in trouble for is for missing out on the point of religion and how it informs the values-based decisions we make each day. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana said it best: "What is morality about if not about our conduct, our decisions, our conscious and the choices we make; and we don't make decisions in a vacuum. Morality has to do with the choices we make in certain concrete situations including economic situations and business choices. Stop making this artificial separation between moral, theological and business issues."
We can only claim "our values" to be truly ours if we are willing to do something about them. Thank you Pope Francis for taking a courageous stand and calling us all to recognize the impact of the climate crisis and the disproportionate way it effects the poorest among us.
As the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization that builds power with workers through faith-rooted organizing and advocacy, my faith and values are what ground me and call me to do this work. I'm Catholic and feel deeply connected to my faith, which has been a constant presence in my life, and is the core to who I am.
I know that the joy, hope and love I feel within my faith is no different from the joy, hope and love others experience within their own faith tradition. I feel this way because we share a set of common core values, such as respect, dignity, dedication, sacrifice and love.
It is because of these shared values that I've decided to join my Muslim friends as they fast from sunup to sundown during this holy month of Ramadan. I also join them in embracing the blessings one receives during such an important time of fasting, charity, prayer and introspection.
Fasting during Ramadan is not just about fasting from food but also from the things that can take us away from being our best selves, such as gossip, insults, lies, negativity & disrespect for others. Ramadan helps us look inward by challenging and encouraging us to be better people, by being more conscious and aware of our place in the world and how we relate to those around us.
In my Catholic tradition I have fasted many times and have seen the benefits of choosing to go without in order to focus on what's inside. Fasting helps make space for other things to come into greater focus, such as a deeper connection with those less fortunate, a greater emphasis on my relationship with God and being more disciplined about the choices I make.
Similarly, fasting during Ramadan is as much about filling ourselves with prayer, empathy and love as it is about fasting from the things that separate us from our true nature. It is through Ramadan's intentional sacrifice of food that we are fed an abundant spiritual buffet.
Ramadan also gives us an opportunity to be more charitable to others. But it's more than just about giving alms to the poor -- it's about broadening our awareness and understanding of the systems that make and keep them poor. More importantly, it is about deepening our connection with those less fortunate.
We practice real empathy and compassion by reaching out and seeking to understand why people struggle, and acting on it. "Why are they hungry?" "Why are they homeless?" By asking these questions we also challenge ourselves to think of what we can do: "How can I do the most good for the most people?" "How do I impact the real problem and make ongoing change happen?"
Fasting and Prayer
As someone once told me; "Fasting without prayer is just going hungry." How true! Many Muslims pray fives times a day, and especially during Ramadan. Prayer feeds the soul and helps sustain the meaning behind the fast.
Several years ago, I was walking through the Minneapolis airport and saw a young airport worker go into a corner and pull out a small rug to pray. He wasn't trying to draw attention to himself, but he caught my eye anyway. I was moved by his act of devotion, discipline and love. I then asked myself, "Why don't I do that?" "Is my faith enough of a priority that I go out of my way to pray to make room for it?" Inspired by the young Muslim man's public display of faith and prayer, I began to pray the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy at 3 p.m everyday, regardless of where I was. Now I also include my morning prayers, Rosary and evening prayers each day. The young man's powerful example has inspired and challenged me to deepen my own faith and be a better Catholic.
It is through sharing experiences and practices that we discover we have more in common than we have differences. One of the many values that we have in common is a shared sense of respect for workers and the value of the work they produce. Across faith traditions, the teachings are clear: respect workers and treat them fairly, as we would want to be treated, or even better. Kind of sounds like a golden rule doesn't it? For good reason, as we all do better when we all do better.
So as I begin Ramadan in honor of the values that it represents, I am filled with humility and gratitude for this blessed opportunity to deepen my relationship with God and those around me. It will give me chance to turn down the noise and focus on what's most important in my life and once again, help me to be a better Catholic.
"This is what religion looks like."
It's a slogan that dons every page of IWJ's website (right up there on the top right corner), and it's the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. Yesterday, I learned that Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburg, approved a university-wide minimum wage raise to $16 an hour for employees including maintenance workers, office staffers and groundskeepers.
The university is making a decision based on moral convictions to pay all workers a wage off which one can live with dignity and afford the basic needs for oneself and family. At a time when more and more businesses and institutions are making cuts when it comes to payroll and benefits, it's news that makes me feel proud as a Catholic, a union staffer at IWJ and an unapologetic worker advocate. It's that kind of leadership I wish more religious institutions would embrace; I have faith that with the right kind of organizing rooted in our faith traditions, they will.
The Duquesne wage raises will go into effect on July 1, and impact 168 employees, according to the university. I'd be remiss to mention that the scheduled raised will lift the wage floor to $16 an hour from $15, already double the Pennsylvania and federal minimum wage of $7.25. While underpaid workers at some of America's most profitable companies continue to push their employers to do right by them, Duquesne University administration is taking the lead.
Now more than ever religious institutions must be advocates for workers and speak up for living wages, dignity at work and ensure that life is honored when it comes to health and safety standards in the workplace. Religious institutions need to do this in practice (like Duquesne), but also through justice programming and in the pulpit. Churches and religious institutions need to echo and amplify the calls of America's working families: it's time for a living wage, now.
There is no greater issue facing our families and communities today than the rampant economic inequality and the lack of access to good jobs. Today Duquesne University deserves some recognition, tomorrow maybe the entire Catholic Church, someday maybe even giant corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s.
My mother taught me about self-care from a young age. She explained that I would likely spend a lot of my time as a woman caring for others, and that it really was no one else’s job to take of me. She always looked sharp, especially for work- where it was of the utmost importance to be well put together. I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling and talking to people for a living, and they’ve spent a lot of time looking at my hands, and by extension, my nails!
I love to get my nails done, not only for the self-care aspect, but because I love art, and I love supporting skilled, women workers. I’ve found a shop near my home in Chicago with women who are technicians and really talented artists. They know their craft well: the chemicals they work with, how to sculpt, and how to paint. When I leave town, I’m proud to represent Chicago and I’m honored to wear these nails as canvasses for their art.
I’m admittedly partial to some nail technicians over the others. It’s hard not to develop a significant relationship with a woman who holds your hand and talks to you for an hour or so regularly. I talk to my nail tech about everything: city politics, her daughter, our love lives, my job, and of course, her job. I asked her once about adding some yellow paint to a design she was doing, and spoken like a true artist, she told me she couldn’t use yellow, because she “couldn’t see the beauty in it.”
One day she talked about her breathing, and told me about how she’d gone to the doctor, and he told her that she had little cuts in her nose from inhaling all of the dust from filing nails all the time. She elaborated on the effects of the fumes of her body as well. I asked her one day why neither she, nor any of her co-workers wore masks at work. She shrugged and admitted that it seemed like a good idea, but didn’t seem realistic for them.
While I worry about the health of my nail tech, I know from observing her conditions and having been in other nail shops around the country, that her conditions are relatively good. The recent New York Times articles have really highlighted the need for safer working conditions and humane pay for the workers, who are mostly women, at nail shops.
So likely consumed with capitalist guilt after reading that article, what are we to do? I wish I knew fix-it-all answer, but I don’t, and no one else has come forth with that answer either. A few things are clear though:
- If you do already, continue to go get your nails done! Every time you spend a dollar, you're helping to create jobs. We want to improve industries that employ low wage workers/overwhelmingly women of color, not put them out of business. We need these jobs to stay, and we need them to be good jobs with decent wages and safe conditions.
- When you do treat yourself to a manicure, start a conversation with your nail tech. I see so many people in the nail shop letting another person wash their feet while they don’t speak to them at all. If they are open to it, learn about why they do or don't take safety precautions at work, and see if/how you can support.
- Tip like you’ve got some sense. If it’s evident that the skilled worker sitting across from you isn’t fairly compensated for a job well done, you have some hand in that. If 20% of your manicure is only $2, maybe you need to tip a bit more.
I’ve always admired the women pastors and choir directors with the fancy nails. They certainly give a finished look, especially when you use your hands while you talk. At my church, many women, even those on modest incomes, visit a nail salon regularly. I was never one of them. I’ve always had the cracking cuticles and used the “teeth method” for addressing nail tears.
Party, I didn’t have time to sit around and have someone do my nails. Partly, I was too cheap. But mostly, there was something about the nail salon scene that worried me – both the noxious smells and my gut-instinct that workers weren’t paid fairly.
I was right to be worried. Sarah Maslin Nir just published two articles in the New York Times on nail salon workers (The Price of Nice Nails – May 7, 2015 and Behind Perfect Nails, Poisoned Salon Workers – May 11, 2015) that should be a wake-up call to all of us desiring lovely nails.
The first article focused on wages and living conditions in New York City. In one of the most expensive cities in the nation, most nail salon workers are paid below minimum wage. Many have to pay a “fee” to the employer to get started, only receive tips for the first few months of work, and are routinely cheated of overtime wages or illegally fined for minor infractions. Large numbers of women bunk together in small apartments jammed with bunk beds and mattresses. The situations described sound much like human trafficking.
Although the article suspects that conditions are worse for nail salon workers in New York City, because prices for a manicure are so low compared to other cities, given my experience with wage theft in many other sectors, I bet there are similar situations in cities and towns across the nation.
The second article focuses on health risks. Nail polish and related nail products contain lots of dangerous chemicals. The fumes not only smell awful, but the chemicals are clearly harming workers. Nail salon workers interviewed for the story told about miscarriages and birth defects in their children. Advocates who’ve worked with nail salon workers in multiple cities say the products cause breathing problems and cancers. There are very few health and safety guidelines or protections for these vulnerable workers.
In large tribute to the excellent research in the articles, New York Governor Cuomo issued emergency orders to protect nail salon workers.
Before these articles came out, I was heading to Dhaka on a delegation to be there for the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the disaster in which the building owner knowingly pushed workers to continue working in an unsafe building that on April 24, 2013 collapsed killing 1138 workers and injuring another 2500. Given Dhaka’s hot temperatures I packed sandals. The day before I left, I decided to have a pedicure, my first ever, since my toes would peek out of my sandals. While at the salon I had my nails done too – perhaps the third manicure of my life.
Although my toes looked lovely and my nails did too until they started chipping and I had no polish remover, I regret having supported the nail salon industry. Like the Rana Plaza owner, nail salon owners know they are cheating workers and endangering their health. I’d had a bad feeling about nail salons, but gone there anyway. Beauty before justice.
No more. Until nail salon workers are protected, women of faith and good will ought to forego the fancy nails. I certainly will.
Workers in Emmeryville, Calif., a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area, might soon be collecting the nation's highest minimum wage by 2019, with gradual increases leading up to that level.
Lawmakers in Emmeryville okayed a proposal Tuesday to raise the wage to $16 an hour gradually by 2019. The issue is set for a final vote on May 19. If passed, it would take effect on July 1, when the minimum wage would rise to $14.44 an hour for businesses with at least 55 workers and $12.25 for smaller companies, according to Rueters:
It would increase gradually every year until it reaches $16 for all businesses in 2019.
"Just as our workers are creative enough to make a living off of minimum wage and support their families, I think our businesses will be creative enough to make it work and we'll all lift up together," Emmeryville City Councilwoman Dianne Martinez said at the meeting on Tuesday.
At Interfaith Worker Justice, we applaud the city council for hearing the cries across the nation that workers need a wage off which they can live. The Emmeryville ordinance is a win for workers, but we won't stop till ALL workers receive the just wages they're entitled do as human beings.
On Workers' Memorial Day, we're praying for all workers—that their workplaces be healthy and safe. We remember those who have died at work and pledge to fight so no more people die on the job. No more tragedies... like what happened to Jose Melena, a repairman who tragically died in a California Bumble Bee Foods factory after he was trapped in an oven with 12,000 lbs of tuna fish (read about the lawsuit against the company). It's unthinkable that workers' lives can be so carelessly endangered at work. Interfaith Worker Justice and affiliated worker centers and interfaith groups honored workers who have died on the job today and last weekend all across the country.
Today, on Workers' Memorial Day, we remember in a special way all of the workers whose deaths could have been prevented. We renew our commitment to pushing lawmakers and employers to strengthen workplace safety trainings and protections. Affiliates such as Mass COSH, Center for Workers Justice of Eastern Iowa, Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, Fe y Justicia and South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, IWJ of East Tennessee and New York Labor Religion Coalition hosted or joined events today. New Labor in New Jersey led a rally and march (below).
Check out more photos from New Labor's Facebook account. Our friends at the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn also hosted a march.
Today, April 24, is the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the horrific building collapse at a huge garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people, mostly young women.
I’m on a delegation organized by the International Labor Rights Forum (I serve on the board) that is looking into problems injured workers and surviving family members are experiencing in getting the money raised for them.
Yesterday, we met with thirty injured workers and surviving family members. The stories workers told were horrific. On April 23, a crack was discovered in one of the main columns of a nine story building. (We heard that factories are only supposed to be five stories, so not sure how this one got to be nine.) Workers were sent home and inspections were done. The crack was considered very dangerous.
The next morning, workers showed up at 7:30 a.m. for work, but were worried about going inside. They were fearful about the safety of the building. The building held multiple garment companies inside the building. Lots of managers and supervisors were outside telling the workers to go inside. The workers said some were told they would lose their overtime wages if they didn’t work that day. Others were told they’d lose the entire month’s pay if they didn’t work. And then, the managers pushed them inside the building.
Around 8:40 a.m., the electricity went off. Then when the generators started up a few minutes later—vibrating and shaking the building—it collapsed. More than 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,500 were injured.
When I saw the coverage two years ago, I personally focused on the 1,100 killed. I really didn’t think much about the more than double that number who were injured. And these were not small injuries. A concrete building collapsed on workers. People lost limbs. Most everyone I talked to seemed to have had a head injury. Many had serious back injuries.And everyone seemed to show symptoms of post traumatic stress. Understandable.
Approximately $24 million dollars has been raised for a fund for injured workers and family members of victims, but it is terribly unclear what has happened to all that money. Workers are clueless as to what the process is, why some folks are getting some amounts of money and others getting different amounts. There appears to be little transparency in the process and the amounts of money given to workers who lost an arm or a leg or a family members was often $1,000 or less, at least according to the papers we were shown. For a garment worker who survived on sewing or perhaps an entire family that depended on that income, getting $1,000 is pitiful when the worker has lost his or her ability to earn a living. Even though the government claims there is rehabilitation and training, none of the workers we met with had gotten any.
Up until now, the International Labor Rights Forum had been advocating for more money for the victims’ fund. Although the fund clearly still needs more money, we also are going to see what we can do to argue for more transparency, communication with workers and more assistance for injured workers and deceased workers’ dependents.
Bangladesh has no workers compensation program. There is beginning to be some conversation about the need for such a program, but it likely will be a while before it could be implemented. I’m very aware that at the same time Bangladesh is talking about setting up a program, there are efforts to dismantle workers compensation programs across the country – limiting dollars given to injured workers, not letting them see their own doctors and not letting juries handle awards. We must preserve the U.S. programs, while we support efforts to strengthen worker supports in Bangladesh.
We also must hold employers in Bangladesh and the U.S. responsible for blatant disregard for workers’ health and safety. As one person said in describing what happened at Rana Plaza, “This wasn’t a tragedy, it was a killing.”