Small steps toward a living wage aren’t enough for low-paid workers like me
September 18, 2014 12:00 AM
By Dan Stillwell
It seems like a lot of people are asking the same question this month: What is a living wage in Pittsburgh? From the 35,000 low-wage workers employed by UPMC to striking fast food workers, many people are fighting for a higher wage.
Some employers are starting to take notice. My employer of 16 years, IKEA, is one of them — stating that it’s raising the starting wage at many of its stores to match local living wage levels. But the wage increase applies only to new hires, not to workers like me who have invested years in the company but don’t work full-time while struggling to make ends meet.
The worker unrest that has been spreading across Pittsburgh isn’t just about a dollar amount — it’s about building a modern economy that works for everyone. When workers invest in their employers, working hard to build companies and make them profitable, our companies should also invest in us.
I was a senior in high school when IKEA opened its store in Pittsburgh. I got a job in the retailer’s restaurant, making $4.25 an hour, and I loved how we were like one big family at IKEA. I’ve known customers and coworkers for years. On a flight to Georgia, I ran into an old customer who remembered me from his family’s weekly brunch at IKEA.
But companies change. As time passed, I saw the family-like atmosphere among coworkers and management turn more profit-centered as full-time jobs were replaced with part-time positions. When I finished my first 15 years at IKEA Pittsburgh, I was making $10 an hour. Even after working steadily at 40 hours per week, I wasn’t making enough money to survive on in 2003.
Frustrated by the lack of good jobs in Pittsburgh, I moved to New Jersey and Georgia for 10 years. But Pittsburgh is where my family lives. When I came back, I reapplied at IKEA and was rehired at an hourly wage of $9.25 — less than what I earned in 2003.
I am grateful to have the job, but it’s not a living wage at any number of hours, especially part-time hours. After nearly 16 years with IKEA, stagnant wages and part-time schedules mean that my most generous paychecks are only about $194 per week, before taxes. I had to find another part-time job to pay my bills.
Like everyone, I want to pay off my bills and save for my future. Despite working two jobs, I’m one paycheck away from financial ruin because I don’t make enough to put away any savings. I don’t even make enough to buy medical insurance.
This daily struggle to make ends meet is not right. Many of my coworkers are having similar problems and would like to work 40 hours a week. IKEA can change this by treating its coworkers like family again instead of seeing us as a cost that hurts the company’s bottom line.
Retail is a critical part of the economy in Pittsburgh and across the country — 25 percent of all jobs in America are in retail. But while the world kept advancing and our lives kept getting more expensive, wages for retail workers like me and my IKEA coworkers stagnated — and our hours got worse.
When you work in retail, the number of hours for which you are scheduled is a key factor in determining whether you get by or live in poverty. That’s why, when three workers from IKEA Seattle launched a petition calling on the company to employ people on a full-time basis, they quickly got more than 1,000 signatures — many from IKEA employees and from places as far afield as Turkey and Ireland.
IKEA is a successful and profitable company, and I believe that if it invested more in its workforce, the company would have happier employees, keep employees longer and increase sales. That’s why I and coworkers are calling on IKEA to go beyond its small steps toward a living wage and raise pay more substantially while providing more full-time job opportunities.
The IKEA concept of life — running a strong business with common sense and creating a better everyday life for people — can be put into practice for its workers and customers alike.
Dan Stillwell works part-time at IKEA Pittsburgh and at GFS Marketplace. He was helped with this article by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
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