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A Wage That Counts
Livable Labor
by JOHN GRONBECK-TEDESCO

Austin, Texas is the latest U.S. city to pass a groundbreaking measure that, if upheld, would require companies looking for tax incentives in Travis County to pay its employees $11/hour. This is particularly big news for the area’s large construction sector that has long relied on low-wage workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, to subsidize the state’s robust building history that has thrived under minimal worker protections.

The policy is sure to bring fanfare from other ranks of the state’s workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, in 2011 473,000 out of 5.9 million wage earners made the federal minimum of $7.25/hour or less. Texas is not alone in relying on low-wage labor to generate state growth. At least 5.2 percent of American hourly employees make the minimum or less, the majority of them women. Austin has followed a growing number of urban landscapes that have observed Baltimore’s historic lead when it passed a living wage ordinance in 1994.

With respect to living wages, municipalities tend to be more generous with their hourly increments than states. Early in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that 18 states and Washington, D.C. now have minimum wages higher than the federal level, though these tend to be conservative rates. Californians, for instance, fare only slightly better at $8/hour while residents in Washington state, who enjoy the highest state-regulated minimum wage, are promised at least $9.04/hour. But 23 states still adhere to the federal guideline for their minimum wages, Texas and New York among them. Strikingly, five states have no declared minimum wage law—including Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—and four states have minimum wage laws lower than the federal level, though all U.S. workers are supposedly guaranteed $7.25/hour.

More troubling, of course, is that such statistics do not expose the fact that the federal minimum is often not enforced. It is now commonly known that many more people make the minimum or less because their wages go unreported. Undocumented immigrants, underemployed and unemployed people, and migrant workers make up formal and informal labor markets who work hand-to-mouth in restaurants, construction, landscaping, domestic service, dry cleaning, car washes, and other industries that maintain large labor pools while effectively keeping these businesses’ income expenditures off the books. At $7.25/hour, America’s minimum wage is only $2.00 more than its poverty wage, $5.25/hour, which many workers, especially poor immigrants, earn because they work 70-80 hours a week for a nominal weekly paycheck and without overtime. That weekly pay often meets the federal minimum if one were to work 40 hours/week but ends up falling below the minimum because so many workers commit to more hours in order to ensure job security.

Despite the augmentation in minimum wage laws, pro-labor advocates call attention to the reality that elevated minimum wages do not necessarily guarantee decent livability. According the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, an individual working full-time (2080 hours/year) living in New York City must earn $11.50/hour to meet the minimum expenses of reasonable subsistence, while the recommended earnings for Los Angeles is $11.37/hour, neither of which is in force in either city. Californians earn $8/hour, but to what extent can this provide a reasonable standard of living in Los Angeles? In contrast, the estimated living wage in Topeka, KS, is recommended to be $8.50/hour, so $7.25/hour, while still sorely lacking, represents a narrower gap than the disparity for workers in large cities. Thus part of the problem with U.S. poverty and wealth is the one-size-fits-all model for taxes and income. Living expenses are vastly higher in New York City than Topeka yet federal tax brackets and wage laws seek to serve both populations with equal standards.

The issue speaks more broadly to American cultural perspectives on the relationship between work and wellness. Related to the living wage campaign in today’s labor movement in the effort to make paid sick leave a right granted to all. While the Affordable Care Act represents a radical shift in thinking regarding the right to healthcare, in today’s occupational world, freedom to be ill is still considered a privilege—a “benefit”—not a right. In unprotected sectors, one may be fired for absenteeism due to illness. The fight for paid sick leave has caused a stir in New York City but has been stymied by the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a leading contender in the mayoral election next year. They, like other opponents, heed claims by small business leaders that mandatory sick days are financially harmful and will slow local economies. It is remarkable that in America’s largest city carriage horses that pull throngs of tourists through Central Park have earned more rank-and-file support against animal cruelty than the endeavor to pass mandatory sick days for human beings.

It is a testament to how America continues to view stratified labor and its dutiful notion of the time-tested “Protestant work ethic.” This is the virtue of working first, living second. But today there is no shortage of salaried and union-protected positions in which sickness is tolerated and paid for, with one’s leave not a threat to job security. Then there is the type of labor, mostly unskilled—and mostly non-Protestant—in which one’s absence due to illness is grounds for dismissal. There is no guaranteed job security. These discrepancies draw from perceptions of meaningful and meaningless work and the value differences attached to each. Many of those, particularly undocumented workers, who work in restaurants, dry cleaning, car washes, landscaping, and construction have no right to sick days and thus suffer detrimental consequences. Tales abound in which a worker cannot afford to take days off to recuperate from something as mild as the common flu to something far more serious like chemotherapy treatments. And the lack of coverage hugely impacts working parents who have little recourse if a child falls ill.

It is imperative that in an era when attacks on unions and collective bargaining agreements are on the rise, labor advocates revisit the institutions and philosophies that have governed American workers since the Depression era. It is more urgent to redouble the effort to fight on behalf of working people, since it is they who have become public targets for the reasons why budgets are not met and economies fall flat (pensions, health benefits, vacation pay).

Notably, there is hope that this history stays with us, as more unionization efforts continue to take place across the country. Quite recently fast-food restaurant workers in New York City walked off the job to signal unfair conditions, with some participants pointing to salaries that have not moved beyond $8/hour after three years of service. Although the U.S. lags behind other wealthy nations in terms of paid sick leave, with roughly 40% or workers without coverage, a few cities have adopted measures that emulate San Francisco’s landmark decision in 2007. Now Seattle, for instance, requires businesses with five or more workers to provide mandatory sick days.

But much more needs to be done to join workers of all skill levels who contribute to the economy and fight for the right to dignified work. It is fundamentally a question about corporeal preservation and a commitment to ensuring that labor remains livable for everyone.

John Gronbeck-Tedesco is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He has worked with various immigrant labor groups in Austin, TX, and Queens, NY.