The bare minimum

Since Labor Day, I’ve been reading a lot about our country’s minimum wage. This is probably not a newsflash (but just so we’re clear), it’s at $7.25, and is not a livable wage. Even here in Washington State, where our minimum wage is the highest in the country at $9.19, it falls short for many working families. The Self Sufficiency Standard calculates what it actually takes to make ends meet in each county. It takes into consideration things like household members’ ages, and cost of housing, food, and childcare. For example, a single mother with 2 kids in Seattle needs to make $26.94 an hour to meet the needs of her family. That same mom in Pend Oreille county needs an hourly wage of $16.33. Even for two working parents, the minimum wage doesn’t work. In Seattle, two working parents with two kids would each need to make $14.58 an hour. In Pend Oreille, more than $10 an hour each.

Back in 1963, one of the things protesters who marched on Washington demanded was a $2.00 minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $15.26 today. Recently we have again seen workers rise up against inadequate wages. Fast food employees are asking for a $15 minimum wage. President Obama has mentioned raising it to $9 and some members of Congress have proposed over $10. I’m not one to regularly read the Bloomberg report, but I came across this article from a self-described Capitalist who fully supports a significant minimum wage hike. He argues that “the fundamental law of capitalism is that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers. That’s why the extreme, and widening, wealth gap in our economy presents not just a moral challenge, but an economic one, too.”

Some argue against this, claiming these are “entry level” jobs that are starting points, not places to stay long-term and support a family. But when we look at who is earning minimum wage, we see that the vast majority are adults and most of those adults are women. minimum-wage-chart

We have to ask ourselves, what do we value? If you (and your partner) work, should you be able to afford the basics for your family? If you’re in an abusive relationship, should you be able to earn enough so that money doesn’t factor in to whether you stay or go? A higher minimum wage could mean freedom, safety, and security for those experiencing abuse. And I’m all for that.

You want a cold with that lettuce?

UFC21-LogoThe United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW)* is currently in the middle of their collective bargaining efforts. Why should you care? Because the big name grocery stores are proposing to eliminate health benefits for part-time workers. Even worse, they are asking workers to waive their right to paid sick leave (if they work in Seattle) and any rights to paid sick leave that local or state government might pass in the future.

WHAT?!?—you rightfully exclaim, shocked that the folks who handle the food we eat wouldn’t be given access to healthcare to stay healthy, or paid sick leave so they don’t contaminate the lettuce.

But wait, what does this have to do with domestic violence?

I’m so glad you asked. Like I’ve said before, money (and jobs) have a lot to do with domestic violence. There are plenty of grocery store employees whose jobs are helping them survive violence in their relationships. Their jobs provide healthcare (even for part-time workers), a wage that they can live on, and for those who live in Seattle (and hopefully soon for everyone else), paid sick leave. Paid sick/safe leave in Seattle also allows workers to take time off to deal with domestic violence (like if they need to go to court, relocate, or go to support group). So you see, these benefits can play a critical role in the lives of those experiencing abuse. I recently heard a worker at a UFCW event share how her job was the thing that helped her get out of an abusive relationship. She said that without an income and health insurance for her kids she would never have made the decision to leave.

So what can you do about it? Excellent question.

Let the workers at your local union-represented grocery store know that you support their efforts to have healthcare and paid sick leave. Let the manager know that you are a regular customer and you expect their employees will have a contract that does just that. Get the word out that we need to support good jobs in our communities. Good jobs help survivors stay safe!

*WSCADV is a community partner with UFCW Local 21

Equal pay (and dinosaurs and robots) are cool

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day—the day symbolizing how far into 2013 women must work to earn what men earned in 2012.

Oh for crying out loud. This is still a thing? Yes, it is!

Over dinner I was telling my 6-year-old son about it. I asked him to imagine that he and his sister were doing the same job for a day and that at the end of the day I paid him more than her for the same work just because he was a boy. I asked him what he thought about that. At first he said, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair.” And then he said quietly, “I wish Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive.” When I asked why, he said “because he would do something about it, and change it.”

Well then we started talking about legacies, and after I explained that a legacy was something you leave behind, I asked, “Do you know what Dr. King’s legacy is?” I explained that it’s that we all could realize that we are somebodies who can do something about injustices. And that I was somebody. And that he was somebody. And that his sister was somebody. And that we could all work to change things. After a pause and some deep thinking he responded, “Cool.”

And then we moved on to how cool robots and dinosaurs are. Because they are. And wouldn’t equal pay for equal work be cool too? Let’s get on it!

equalpay

Leaning in

I cried at work yesterday. I found myself overwhelmed, feeling like a failure. Turns out I’m not the only one who had this kind of day. I came across a post about Sheryl Sandberg—who says it’s OK to cry at work—and her new book Lean In. I haven’t lean-in-coverread the book, but am so fascinated by the media blitz that I’ve been clicking from one article to the next. Some are hailing “Lean In Circles” as feminism, revitalized. It’s Girl Power, grown up.

But others say that she is blaming women for not being better at climbing the ladder. Sandberg responds that she is simply identifying behaviors that typically hold women back so that we can recognize and change not only the behaviors but the reasons why they exist. OK, that doesn’t sound so bad…

Maureen Dowd criticizes her for not knowing the difference between a social movement and a social marketing campaign. She claims Sandberg’s elitist approach is not going to reach those women workers who are in low wage jobs. CNN ran an article on how Sandberg’s framework completely disregards the working experiences of single mothers, who “couldn’t lean out if they wanted.” OK, also a lot of truth there.

There is little agreement on how to take Lean In. But I’m not sure the top is the only place we should set our gaze. I’d like to see a system that supports and honors women in all levels of employment by offering adequate paid family and sick leave. I’d like to see employers create good policies and protocol for supporting employees who are experiencing domestic violence. If “Lean In Circles” can contribute to that kind of change, that would be a success.

Problem: Poverty. Solution: Marriage?

Good news! Word is that all that single mothers need to do to ensure that their children are happy, healthy, and successful is to get married. Wait…what? According to the New York Times, poverty is the result of marriage choices. Now come on, we’ve been here before. Several years ago there was a federal initiative that gave states funding for programs that promoted marriage to people on welfare. The goal was to move families off of welfare and on to economic stability. These programs were by and large unsuccessful. Why? Because a man is not a financial plan. And what children need (besides the basics like love, full bellies, and a place to live) is parents who are respected, happy, and safe. Marriage is not the thing that will necessarily make this happen.

It’s myopic to conclude that children living in a home with two parents do better because of two paychecks. Yes, more income certainly makes it easier to afford the necessities, but (especially for moms who have been dealing with abusive relationships) marrying for an additional income just doesn’t seem like a wise choice. Let’s find some solutions that work for single moms and don’t insult their life choices. Let’s support funding for childcare, equal pay for women, and living wages for all. Fortunately, the New York Times also lets people like Katie Roiphe speak her mind: “The real menace to America’s children is not single mothers, or unmarried or gay parents, but an economy that stokes an unconscionable divide between the rich and the not rich.” Exactly!

Paid leave pays off

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: access to money can protect women from abuse. A steady job offers not only income, but also protects against isolation, a powerful way abusers control their partners.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how workplaces support parents, probably because of my own preparation for baby #2 who is on her way. I am so fortunate to work for an organization that offers more leave than the law requires— some of it is even paid! This is a fantasy for many working moms-to-be. And yet, I still have to go back to work too soon and stress about both finding childcare and the financial burden that goes with it.

Imagine a place where new mothers (and often fathers) get ample paid leave when they have a baby, and childcare is available and affordable when it’s time to go back to work. Yeah, that place is called Germany, or Sweden, or Norway.  And while these are among the most generous places that offer paid leave, many countries throughout the world do.

The U.S. has recently been called out for our lack of support for mothers in the workplace. This is not good for any of us, but it especially affects those who are dealing with abuse in their relationships. Without enough paid leave, women risk losing their jobs, their income, their support network.

And parental leave isn’t the only factor. Paid sick leave and flexible work schedules have also been shown to benefit employers and employees alike and give critical help to those dealing with abuse. Let’s shift the way we think about jobs in this country and demand policies and practices that better support families.

Welfare is not a dirty word

I cried at work this week. More than once. It’s something I don’t often do. Like so many of us, I’ve learned to become desensitized, detached even, to the horrific tales of suffering that I hear. But then I met Claire.

Claire has five kids between 6 months and 16 years. She was a teenage mom and has suffered abuse her whole life. She’s had to go on welfare several times since she was a teen on her own. Now it looks like she’s about to lose this safety net no matter how bad things get.

In Washington, you will soon get cut off of welfare if you’ve been on for a total of 5 years. Losing these benefits is about to be a new reality for many struggling families and is a direct result of our state’s budget crisis.

I could tell you more sad and horrible details about Claire’s life in an effort to convince you that what’s happened to her is not her fault. But I think you’ve heard stories like this before. I remember what it was like for me before I started this work. When I heard about an awful situation I thought “I must not know all the facts. They might have made bad choices.”

After years of working with people living in poverty, I now know that there is not always the opportunity to grab those bootstraps and pull your way out. Meeting Claire hammered this home for me once again.

Claire has worked harder in her life than I will ever have to. She’s surely made a few mistakes, but haven’t we all? She has also done a lot of things right. So it makes me angry that in this country, where we have so much, she should get so little for all her efforts.

I am asking you to change your perception of people on welfare. It’s supposed to be a safety net when a person falls on hard times, but over the past 14 years this net has been neglected and cut to the point where it’s not very reliable anymore. Welfare is not a dirty word and it should be there to catch us if we fall.

(c) Independent Media Center

Everybody needs a little knipple

Recently, while sharing stories about her family, a coworker mentioned that she kept finding knipples in her mother’s house. After an awkward silence, she explained that “knipple” (pronounce the “k”) was a Yiddish word that meant a woman’s secret stash of money. That got me thinking—this sounds like a pretty good idea.

When a woman has money, it gives her more options and more power to make her own decisions. This makes her life more stable and gives her flexibility to respond if things go south (like in her relationship). Sure, it’s important to have community resources like affordable housing, food banks, and so on. But nothing gives you freedom, and that includes freedom from abuse, like cold hard cash.

Knipple

It would be great if we all had a rich uncle who could overnight us a boatload of Benjamins, but we’re not all so lucky. We need to find ways for women to access cash when they need it, promote financial education, and protect and expand welfare  programs that already exist. Because, at some point, everybody needs a little knipple.