Meeting with workers at the Madison Workers’ Rights Center. Photo by León Carlos Miranda.
Before serving with Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), I thought it was people without jobs who experienced economic problems. From my perspective, once you’d secured a job, you could at least reach stability.
At the worker center in Madison I meet workers every day who fall into the category of “working poor.” Low wage jobs and day-labor are typically places where workers are at risk: At risk of not getting paid for all the hours they worked, at risk of injuring themselves in a dangerous job, at risk of experiencing discrimination based on their age, race, national origin, gender, and a number of other factors. The real kicker is that most workers do not know their rights, so when they experience one of those violations they don’t know their employer broke the law and don’t know the process for reporting and correcting the issue.
When I started at IWJ, I had been through a good high school, graduated college, held a few low wage jobs, and completed a Masters degree. I still had no clue what my rights were as a worker, not even the minimum wage. My experience is pretty much the norm. The worker center offers trainings, during which we usually give a pre-quiz on workplace rights, and the minimum wage is the only question that a handful of people will answer correctly.
As I write this, I’ve just come from giving the opening prayer at a memorial service for workers who died on the job during the last year (about 4,000 people throughout the USA). April 28 is recognized as Workers’ Memorial Day in the United States. When we give trainings on Health and Safety in the workplace, we remind workers that their lives are at stake. The right to a safe and healthy workplace is the most frequently overlooked. Often employers, knowingly or unknowingly, put incentives in place to keep quiet about any issues that may cause injury or illness in the workplace. The fix will cost money. Workers who keep their head down and stay productive get promoted. Workers who raise questions and concerns are often disliked or openly punished for speaking up.
When workers persevere through dangerous conditions, there is a cost. Last week I met with a worker, James, who got hired into a construction site while waiting in the line at the food pantry. It looked like a great opportunity; a contractor came in saying that he would pay $100 for the day. A few hours into the job James was taking apart a garage door with a circular saw. The saw kicked back and sliced off two of his fingers. After returning from the ER, James could not find the contractor who hired him, or anyone in charge of the construction where he’d been working. He didn’t get paid for the day, and his life ability to work were totally changed.
Thankfully, in Wisconsin there are options for James to get compensation, even if he cannot find the contractor who hired him, but compensation will not fix his hand. There are thousands of workers who have similar experiences. As you’ve read this, I invite you to pray for safety and justice for all workers, and to learn something about what workers experience in your area – what are their vulnerabilities, and what rights protect them? May God protect workers, and may the Spirit inspire us to participate in holding employers accountable to the safety and wellbeing of every worker. Amen.
Sarah Wilcox Smoot
Servant Community / Interfaith Worker Justice