Ashley Maddox boards a bus and heads to work at a South Beach restaurant, a chore that can take up to 1 ½ hours. Once she arrives, she writes up orders, serves food and clears tables. Some days she brings home just $20, other days more. When her shift ends, the single mom heads back home on the bus to her toddler son, who she leaves in the care of his grandma or aunt, or a friend.
Each week, Maddox’s schedule changes, making a more stable child-care arrangement challenging. Whether she has a cough, cold or fever, Maddox still gets on the bus and goes to work. “I don’t get any sick days or benefits and I need my job.”
Last week, when low-wage workers gathered to show support for a proposed new paid sick leave law in Miami-Dade County, Maddox was there with her son on her hip. At 27, Maddox has had a series of low-paying jobs serving food. She’s been struggling to stay well and hold onto her current job for about a year.
We see our presidential candidates courting the woman’s vote and hear them debate job growth, flexibility, fair pay and even paid sick leave. But for Maddox and other 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 child or pay rent.
For these workers, the last few years have been particularly tough. As businesses have struggled to stay afloat, low-wage workers increasingly have endured the consequences. Many have had their hours cut and sometimes are even forced to work off the clock. Others have been stiffed out of pay when businesses abruptly closed. And, some have been subjected to bosses who fire them for taking a day off to care for a sick child or family member.
“If you’re a low-wage worker, the deck is stacked against you,” says Noah Warman, a labor lawyer with Sugarman & Susskind in Coral Gables. “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.”
Low-wage workers like Maddox are the people who serve us meals, clean our hotel rooms, ring up our purchases and care for our kids or our parents. Increasingly, they 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, a new National Employment Law Project (NELP) report shows. These workers typically earn less than $13 an hour and lack benefits or flexibility.
“As we move more and more to an economy based on service jobs that cannot be outsourced, we have a huge stake in making sure these jobs are good jobs and these workers are valued,” says Christine Owens, the executive director of NELP.
Around the country, momentum is building for change. States and cities are considering raising the minimum wage, enacting paid sick leave laws and addressing wage theft and fair pay.
In Florida, low-wage workers, typically hesitant to speak up, are becoming more vocal about their work rights. In South Beach, jilted workers recently protested in front of David’s Café saying they were stiffed out of wages at the owner’s second location that closed abruptly. In Hallandale Beach, about 75 Walmart employees protested at a supercenter over the company’s policy of silencing employees who speak up about issues like low wages, not-quite-full-time work weeks and erratic scheduling. In Miami-Dade, low-wage workers rallied to support a proposed county ordinance that would require all employers to offer earned sick time. In Broward County, low-wage workers pushed for a wage theft law to help create an easier avenue for recovery when they aren’t paid for work performed.