Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
August 30th, 2012

Laboring for Worker Justice

Affirming the dignity of work on Labor Day and throughout the year


Young adults join farmworkers to protest for better wages.
(CNS photo/Jim West)

This Labor Day, many of us across the country will enjoy a day off. We might even pause and celebrate work and labor with our families and neighbors. Unfortunately, some low-wage workers will still be working, and it is those workers we should be celebrating and whose concerns we should be lifting up.

Employers are constantly finding new ways to cut costs, often at the expense of the very workers who help sustain their business. Workers suffer from low-wages that don’t provide adequate income and force families to go without necessities. They struggle with no health benefits, no paid sick days, and stolen wages. Since the economic crisis of 2008, many Interfaith Worker Justice-affiliated worker centers have reported a sharp increase in cases where employers were stealing wages from their workers.

Workers like former hotel maintenance worker Ron Stone in Phoenix, Arizona. Hotel owners promised an apartment on the property and $75-$100 in exchange for working six 12-hour shifts per week and being on-call and on property 24/7. The apartment was actually a small room without access to a kitchen. While working at the hotel, Ron was not allowed visitors and could not leave the property without permission.

Ron worked with Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, a worker center affiliated with Interfaith Worker Justice’s worker center network, to recover back wages. With help from the worker center, Ron filed minimum wage and overtime claims against the hotel. Learn more about Ron’s story.

Wage theft

Wage theft is when an employer illegally underpays workers for their work. Employers like Ron’s former boss don’t pay workers the minimum wage, or they don’t pay overtime premiums. Some tipped employees see their tips taken or used to cover fees on credit card transactions. When an employer withholds a final paycheck, it’s wage theft. Sometimes employers commit payroll fraud by lying about having employees and calling them independent contractors; that too is wage theft.

Ron’s case of wage theft is not unique. It is not a small problem of a few isolated employers who don’t understand the law. Wage theft is a normal practice for many employers in large and significant sectors of the economy, such as residential construction, retail, restaurants, janitorial services, car washes, poultry and meatpacking, landscaping, farm labor, and, of course, hospitality and resort jobs.

In an economic climate like the one we face today, the burden for low-wage workers is especially heavy. This Labor Day, we have a chance to remember the workers in our parishes and in our communities who are suffering from hard economic times. Who sit next to us in the pews on Sundays, but on Fridays sometimes aren’t paid their wages.

It’s concerning how many workers are fighting just to take home their rightfully earned pay, but that isn’t the only concern workers in America are facing. Many workers are working without health benefits, or even paid sick days.

It wasn’t long ago I was working 39 and a half hours a week at a local hardware store reaping all the benefits that weren’t offered to me as a “part-time” worker. Some of my closest friends are still working there without benefits and are discouraged from taking any days off when ill or to take care of a sick family member.

Catholic teaching

Learn more about Interfaith Worker Justice and their Labor in the Pulpits resource online.

Catholic Social Teaching calls us to affirm the dignity of work and advocate for the least among us — especially those whose employers normalize today’s low-wage and temp-worker economy. The dignity of work includes the days that we can’t make it to work because of an illness or an ill family member. More than 40 million workers in this country (more than 80% of them low-wage workers) don’t have a single paid sick day.

Together as Catholics, we must work toward creating just jobs — jobs that provide a living wage, health care, and paid sick days, and jobs where employers don’t steal workers’ wages. Let us stand by our brothers and sisters in our parish and community who bless us with their work every day.

The Author : Adam DeRose
Adam DeRose writes about and works on issues related to business, employment and the economy. He spent the last several years managing digital communications for Interfaith Worker Justice, a national non-profit working at the intersection of work and faith. Tweet him @adamderose.
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