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Low-Wage Workers Tell MMAC: ‘We Need a Raise’

100,000 city workers earn poverty-level wages

Jul. 2, 2013
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About 50 low-wage and displaced workers took over the offices of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) last Thursday to ask the city’s business community to help them lift themselves out of poverty through steady work and fair wages.

The “Raise Up Milwaukee” group was personalizing a new report by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) showing that 100,000 workers in the city, about a third of Milwaukee’s workforce, were making poverty-level wages when fully employed year round.

These low-wage jobs are concentrated in the food service, retail, and residential and home health care industries—some of the fastest-growing sectors of the local economy—and have replaced the city’s once-plentiful family-supporting manufacturing jobs.

After a tense standoff with MMAC’s legislative director, Katy Venskus, some of the workers were allowed into the conference room, where they told Venskus about going without meals and health care; working years without a raise; losing better-paying jobs during the Great Recession and settling for part-time and minimum-wage work; and missing opportunities to better themselves through job training and education.

Katina Carter pointed to COWS’s report as evidence that poverty-wage jobs are booming at the expense of workers while the MMAC has done nothing to help lift those workers out of poverty.

MMAC was instrumental in striking down the city’s referendum-approved paid sick days ordinance. Its only worker-related legislative agenda items on its website are dialing back state labor regulations and advocating for turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work state, which would gut workers’ rights, pay and unionization efforts.

“Economic recovery has not happened under the current direction of the MMAC and will continue to fail unless the leaders, the members of the chamber of commerce, face reality and accept the evidence you have in your hand that it’s time to implement real regulations in the best interests of the people, the workers,” Carter said.


‘Things Are Sliding’

The COWS report, Raise the Floor Milwaukee, shows that 35% of city employees earned poverty-level wages in 2012, which COWS defines as $11.19, equal to the amount needed to pay for basic necessities for a family of four.

The state’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, although tipped workers’ minimum wage is $2.33 per hour.

COWS found that 28% of white workers, 38% of African American workers and 50% of Hispanic workers earn poverty wages in Milwaukee.

One in three poverty-wage workers lack health insurance, COWS found.

On a conference call with reporters last week, the report’s author, COWS Associate Director Laura Dresser, said that even after years of analyzing the state’s economy and workforce she was surprised by the city’s current lack of quality jobs.

Real wages, those adjusted for inflation, in metropolitan Milwaukee have fallen since 1979—even in manufacturing—at the same time productivity and education levels have risen.

“Things are sliding,” Dresser said. “We have a much bigger bottom in our workforce.”

According to COWS’s analysis, the region has shifted from a concentration of well-paid manufacturing jobs (33% of metro-area jobs in 1979 to 18% in 2012) to widespread low-wage, low-quality service jobs with inconsistent hours and no benefits. The service sector’s share of metro-area jobs was 27% in 1979; that jumped to 47% in 2012.

“That’s where we see the boom,” Dresser said.

At the MMAC on Thursday, these poverty-wage workers talked about their struggles to get by even though they are working as many hours as they can get from their employer.

Byunka Starr and DeAngelo Coleman are among the 68% of Milwaukee’s poverty-wage food service workers, where the median wage is $8.60 an hour.

“I can’t take care of my son, I can’t pay my bills off of $2.33 an hour,” said longtime restaurant employee Starr, a single mom and college student who also supports her young niece and nephew.

 “My rent is my checks,” said Pizza Hut employee Coleman, who earns $7.75 per hour, just above the minimum wage.

Coleman said he picks and chooses what to do without each month so that he can get by on his paycheck. He said it’s not “morally right” for big corporations to reap huge profits while paying their workers poverty-level wages.

“I’m sure if they could pay me less they would pay me less,” Coleman said.


Former Deaconess Workers Struggling Without Jobs

About half of Milwaukee’s residential and home health care workers are earning poverty-level wages. COWS found that the median wage of these workers is $10.85 an hour.

They also lack health insurance and other benefits crucial to lifting themselves out of poverty.

At the MMAC, former Deaconess Home Health workers, who lost their jobs in April when the state suspended its Medicaid and BadgerCare Plus payments pending a fraud investigation, told Venskus they weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits because Deaconess had employed them as independent contractors, not direct hires.

Pilar Rivera, a single mother of five who brought her baby to MMAC’s offices, cried when she told Venskus that We Energies had cut her lights off after she lost her Deaconess job and got behind in her bills. She said the workforce development agency UMOS rejected her when she attempted to get help with her job search.

“I’m still working with my patients even when I don’t get paid,” Rivera said. “Because Deaconess closed but they don’t get better. They get worse.”

She said she didn’t want a handout, just fair pay for her work.

“I am just asking if you guys can help us with this fight,” Rivera said. “We just need to get better paid to feed our kids. We aren’t asking for you guys or anybody else to give us the food or the shoes for our kids or the payment for our rent. We just need to get better paid.”

MMAC’s Venskus said that she would look into Deaconess’s failure to pay unemployment for its laid-off workers.

“That’s wrong,” Venskus said. “I don’t know that I will be able to do anything about it, but I will look into it.”


MMAC Commits to Business-Worker Dialogue

Following the 35-minute discussion, Venskus told the group that she would set up a dialogue between the workers and MMAC members to shed light on impact of the region’s low wages, especially in the food industry.

“One of the things we are trying to do, not through statutes but in practice, is to push our employers to realize that if you want talent you have to pay for it,” Venskus said. “$2.33 an hour or $7.25 per hour isn’t paying for it.”

She said she wanted MMAC members in the food and beverage sector to hear from the group.

“I am happy to make that connection,” Venskus said.

MMAC President Tim Sheehy, who joined the meeting after the discussion and Venskus’s promise, agreed to help facilitate that dialogue.

“I think that we want this community to be economically prosperous and that doesn’t mean one part of this community is economically prosperous,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy sidestepped the issue of the impact of MMAC’s agenda on workers, but he noted that the business community had a responsibility to listen to their employees.

“If we’re not successful at making this an attractive place for people to invest capital and develop jobs and grow we’re all going to suffer,” Sheehy said. “And consequently on the other side of that we have a responsibility as part of this community to understand the concerns and participate in that dialogue and help with those solutions.”


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