36 Cents

 

I had dinner with my mom a couple of weeks ago.

Once in awhile, she’ll bring important documents she’s received so I can review and translate them for her. This time, she brought something she’s never received before: a notice that she earned a raise at her second job. She was beaming!

My mom has been a waitress for 30 years. My childhood was framed with her work ethic and dedication to her job. Our schedules shifted based on her work schedule, and we often felt the stress of her job when she would come home tired and frustrated from a long day. Despite the burdens, she took her opportunity to make a living seriously.

A few years ago, she got a second job. A victim of one of the unintended consequences of Obamacare, her full-time hours as a waitress were cut and she decided to find another source of income to fill the gap.

She found a job at a mainstream discount clothing retailer.

I remember she worked so hard to get that opportunity. She’s pretty persistent when she wants something, she worked for months to get an interview: visiting to check in on the status of her application and doing her best to show that although she lacks a formal education, she is friendly, responsible, and punctual.

 

She finally got it.

 

Her experience at the store has been relatively positive. She doesn’t earn tips like she does at her restaurant job, but she doesn’t have to deal with hangry (hungry + angry) customers who are hard to deal with it. She also avoids other increasingly burdensome systems that machinate customer service and make it hard for workers to keep up. (More on that later, but visit ROCLA who is working on behalf of food workers)

In her annual evaluation at her second job, she earned stellar reviews from her supervisors. They described her great customer service skills, her ability to work with teams, and her overall good attitude.

In addition to her accolades, she received a raise on her hourly wage. The first in a lifetime of working for a minimum wage.

Jobs that respect their workers, establish transparent systems for them to be evaluated, and offer salary increases are awesome. In an economic climate of stagnant wages, they seem to be few and far between, especially for those with a limited skill set.

Retail jobs like these are more and more prominent. Indeed, the whole American economy is shifting towards a service economy.

And in the urban development arena, we often hear about the “jobs” that are coming with development. In addition to temporary construction jobs, major developments that feature retailers like Target, Ross, and Jamba Juice, are practically stalked by city leaders and urbanists begging for investment. Indeed, we throw significant sums of money to try to make their lives easier and we validate these contributions with the promise of economic prosperity for the whole community.

 

Are we right? Are these retailers the cornerstone of sustainable economic development?

 

Surely, there is a lot of inherent value in any type of job (talk to anyone who is unemployed), but the critical question I have is:

Are we getting distracted with our pursuit of “new jobs” by any means necessary and failing to question the quality of these jobs? Are we using our collective voices to push for something better or are these jobs enough?

The last year has seen huge strides (relatively speaking) in helping service sector workers make enough to sustain a family. In 2015, 14 cities approved a $15 minimum wage, including our beloved Los Angeles. A step in the right direction for sure, but is it enough?

The wages of hourly workers are impacting all different segments of our communities. Young workers are languishing in these jobs, and despite higher education levels, young workers today make 20% less than the generation before them. At the same time, workers over the age of 25 make up 80% of the hourly wage workforce. It’s not just young students that are working the cash registers at your local Target or Dollar Store, it’s older people like some of our parents.

 

Things are not getting better, they are getting worse.

 

Some may say that increasing the wages of hourly workers will hurt the bottom line of companies that are providing jobs and other benefits to communities. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the Walmart’s recent move to increase hourly wages get attributed to their drop in stock price. The common language seen in our economic system in general, not just Walmart, is that you simply can’t pay workers well if you want the company to do well…”too much competition, rising costs will force us to lay people off, etc.” (Walmart had higher than expected earnings for the last 3 months – $3.77 Billion)

What’s clear (at least to me) is that the current state of the American worker needs some radical intervention. We can’t simply hope the market takes care of the poor, and that companies will see the value of supporting their workers from a moral standpoint. Our system is not wired that way. (One friend asked me recently: Is the system broken? Or is the system working perfectly fine?) We have to think proactively on how to change things. Here are some of my thoughts on this front:

  1. Support worker entrepreneurs – I find that low-income, urban communities are ground-zero for entrepreneurism and work ethic. Many low-income workers are actively looking for ways to make extra income, or even start their own businesses. We have to support them through policy and access to capital, but we also need to create spaces where these worker leaders, who have similar desires, can connect. I’m heartened to see workers in cities like Santa Ana begin to work cooperatively to create new enterprises, and i’m also excited to see organizations emerge who are building the capacity of workers to be owners.
  2. Advocate for living wages – So many leaders have been working for years to advocate for a living wage in cities. It’s unconscionable that a person can work 40 hours or more a week and still not be able to put food on the table and pay their rent. We can’t stop at a $15 minimum wage; it’s simply not enough for families to survive in cities like LA. Shouldn’t we expect more?
  3. Change the narrative – I think one of the things we all can do immediately is begin humanizing these issues and upgrading our expectations. It’s a mental shift that starts with being curious about the conditions of workers and how they are compensated and valued in a company. The simple question: how much do workers get paid here? Could lead to further examinations within ourselves…is this enough? Do these workers have enough to take care of their families? Could I survive on that much? What if my family members worked here? I believe these internal questions AND a kinship with workers could lead to change. All of us contribute in some form to the economic issues we face by either patronizing bad actors or simply looking the other way. In order to change a system we must activate ourselves as agents of a new paradigm. Perhaps our new narrative can be one that’s less about complacency and taking what we can get, and one that simply expects the best for our communities and works for that always. There’s no reason why a full time hourly worker can’t pay for the basics, especially in a city like LA. We need to infuse these principles not only amongst ourselves, but in our conversations with businesses, developers, and others who want to invest here in our city. Treating your workers fairly and making a profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive.


We shouldn’t be afraid to raise the standard of what we expect from companies that do business in our city and receive hefty tax incentives to open up shop. Indeed, what makes a company do well in Los Angeles is Angelenos themselves, no one else. We can’t forget about that.

So, are you curious how much her raise was?

After a year of high performance, she’ll be making an extra 36 cents an hour.

(Photo by LA Times)