Glimmer of Hope for Low-Wage Workers

By Kristen Meriwether
Epoch Times Staff
Created: February 14, 2013 Last Updated: February 19, 2013
Related articles: United States » New York City
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Bintou Kamara, 21, from the Bronx, has experienced how pay above minimum wage can change her life. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Bintou Kamara, 21, from the Bronx, has experienced how pay above minimum wage can change her life. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

NEW YORK—Imagine working 40 hours in each of the last two weeks flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant, washing cars, or folding endless piles of shirts. It’s payday, and you tear open the envelope to find $720—before taxes.

Welcome to minimum wage.

$7.25 = current minimum wage
$15,080 = annual income on minimum wage (40 hours/week)
$8.75 = proposed minimum wage by Gov. Cuomo
130,000 = more low-wage jobs than in 2008
$49,461 = median household income
20.9 percent = poverty rate in 2011
1.6 million low-wage workers in N.Y. state

For the nearly 1.6 million low-paid workers in New York state, and millions of workers across the United States, this is their payday reality.

The last federal increase to the minimum wage was in 2009 when a series of increases over two years raised the rate from $5.15 per hour to its current $7.25 per hour.

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.75 per hour in his State of the State speech. This week, in his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama made the issue a federal priority when he proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour.

Makes a Difference

Bintou Kamara, 21, from the Bronx, has seen what this kind of raise can do for her bottom line. She was making $7.25 per hour. When she was given only 10 hours a week, she quit. Her new job, at Abercrombie and Fitch, paid $9 per hour for a 33-hour week.

The increase allowed her to rent an apartment, take care of her sister, and more. “I was able to pay for some of my books in school,” Kamara said. “I didn’t need to take a loan out to cover those expenses.” She was even able to send some money back to her parents in West Africa.

But the raise didn’t solve all of her problems. During the holiday season, Kamara’s hours were cut substantially and she was given “on call” shifts. She was still considered full-time, so she could not seek other employment, and was left scrambling to find a way to make ends meet. She organized a petition online claiming the scheduling was unfair, and received 7,000 signatures.

Kamara is not alone in protesting unfair work practices. Car wash workers have been protesting in Queens recently, Cable Vision workers have been actively protesting what they call unfair work practices, and Christine Quinn gets signed petitions regarding the paid sick leave bill regularly at City Hall.

“Working as hard as you can isn’t paying off for them. They are becoming a permanent underclass in the City of New York,” said mayoral candidate Bill Thompson.

The low-wage working class in New York City has grown by 180,000 since 2008. With the local election season heating up, and many government positions up for grabs, supporters also have more ears interested in listening to their concerns.

On Wednesday, worker advocacy groups as well as candidates for the local elections, released a report listing items in addition to minimum wage that they feel will help improve working conditions for New York City workers.

Some of the items include having City Council pass the paid sick leave bill, which has been delayed for three years; increasing regulation of high-violation industries like car washes; and establishing a Mayor’s Office of Labor Standards, which would be responsible for investigating workers’ complaints. With the cost of living much higher in New York City, the council would also like to see the state look at making the minimum wage even higher for New York City.

“We have an electoral backdrop where we can demand that these issues be addressed,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio at a Workers Rising event Wednesday.

“This has to be the moment to do it,” added de Blasio, who is currently running for mayor.

Rise Up

Kamara is currently enrolled in Mercy College, studying for a Bachelor of Science in health science. She hopes to finish this year and break the cycle of minimum wage for herself.

Others are not so fortunate.

Alterique Hall, 23, works at McDonalds, making $8 per hour. He often has to walk to work because he can’t pay the subway fare.

Even with a raise to the $9 per hour proposed by President Obama, he is unsure whether he will ever be able to break the cycle.

“We are worth more than a min level someone else has set on us,” Hall said. “We need a living wage to sustain ourselves and to make ourselves better, to educate ourselves—so we don’t have to be fast-food workers forever.”

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