Balancing Act: Low-wage workers struggle to care for families, keep jobs

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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 1/2 hours. Once she arrives, she writes up orders, serves food and clears tables.

Some days she brings home just $20. 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, Ms. Maddox's schedule changes, making a more stable child-care arrangement challenging. Whether she has a cough, cold or fever, she still gets on the bus and goes to work. "I don't get any sick days or benefits, and I need my job."

Politicians debate job growth, flexibility, fair pay and even paid sick leave. But for 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.

"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."

Increasingly, low-wage workers 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, according to a new National Employment Law Project report. These workers typically earn less than $13 an hour and lack benefits or flexibility.

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 grass-roots 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."

Meanwhile, employers argue that workers often abuse sick leave and new labor-friendly laws would add an unfair cost to businesses.

Cheryl Wilke, a corporate labor attorney with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Fort Lauderdale, 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."


Cindy Krischer Goodman:


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