Sick days can be touchy subjects in any line of work. But when low wages force laborers to work 16-hour days just to make ends meet, illness can spell disaster.
“I have been so lucky that I haven’t been sick all these years,” said John, a wage laborer who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity. He wants to speak publicly about how a living wage ordinance would improve his life, but right now he fears the issue is too controversial to risk using his real name.
John came to Arlington from his native El Salvador 14 years ago, and spent the last decade and a half working all day, sending most of his wages home to his wife. Currently, he serves as a supervisor for a custodial crew that cleans and maintains a county-owned building. Despite his years of experience and his responsibility as a supervisor, John earns just $8 hour.
Living on that salary makes sick leave impossible. He’s afraid, if he calls in sick, that he will be fired and replaced by someone willing to do the job for even less, and he says that if his employers knew he was speaking to the media, they would likely fire him. Speaking through a translator, he described the problems he has encountered while earning less than a living wage.
John currently shares a house with his adult sons but has at times shared one-bedroom apartments with as many as six people. Dividing rent payments among that many people was the only way to get by, he said. Even then he often had to work two jobs.
Taking the night shift as a custodial supervisor left his mornings open to work as a landscaper, an occupation that many other Latino laborers rely on. “Everybody has to do that,” he said.
In fact, too many people have taken landscaping as a second job. The landscaping business has become too competitive, he said, and he was forced to give up that valuable source of income.
As people like John struggle to make ends meet with low-wage jobs, some Arlingtonians are organizing efforts to lobby the county board for a living wage ordinance. Such a law would require companies performing contract work for the county to pay their workers a certain amount, yet to be determined, but probably around $9 per hour.
TWO YEARS AGO, a coalition of labor unions, churches, workers and concerned citizens succeeded in bringing living wage legislation to the City of Alexandria. Some of those same coalition members are now helping Arlingtonians organize for another initiative.
Headed by Jobs for Justice, the Arlington Living Wage Coalition met Wednesday, Nov. 20, for a planning session. The meeting, which allowed only limited media access, focused on legal issues surrounding living wage legislation.
“We’re going to make sure we’re constitutional,” said Keith Willis, a member of the Coalition. Legal barriers delayed the Alexandria process for years, as city officials and business leaders argued that state law prohibited various proposals. Anticipating similar reactions in Arlington, the Coalition began investigating legal options this summer and received a report on the legal questions Wednesday.
Legal research constitutes one branch of a three-part plan currently underway, according to Kathleen Henry, lead organizer for the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee and also a member of Jobs for Justice. Henry is leading another branch of the initiative, interviewing workers like John who would be affected by living wage legislation.
The final portion of the initiative, which some participants said was the key to success in Alexandria, is building a coalition out of social activist groups in Arlington, groups that will help build civic pressure on county government to pass a living wage ordinance.
It’s an involved process, and Henry stressed that the Coalition is not ready to bring legislation or petitions to the County Board.
But members of the business community are expecting action eventually. “We were pretty sure it would be on the horizon,” said Rich Doud, President of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber has not taken an official position on the subject and has not made it in an agenda item, according to Doud. “It’s been discussed informally,” he said, “but not within the confines of a chamber meeting.”
LIVING WAGE LEGISLATION would help the county as a whole, say supporters.
Laborers who make less than a minimum wage cost taxpayers because they rely on housing subsidies, food stamps, extended day childcare and other government assistance programs.
“To the extent that employers do not pay a living wage, they have essentially pushed off onto the county at large the support of their low-income workers,” said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, the county teachers’ union.
According to McCreery, some part-time school employees, like extended day aides who help take care of children before and after school, would be affected by a living wage ordinance.
When it comes to school employees, hourly wages are not the only issue to consider. “The problem with some of the school system positions is they are not 40 hours a week … and then of course they’re not always year-round,” she said.
But when calculations are made to determine the hourly rate necessary for a living wage, a year-round, 40-hour week is assumed. So part-time school employees face a particularly difficult situation.
Providing a living wage would increase the quality of life for working people, not serve as a handout, said John. “If they hire me to work in the night, I go in at night. If they hire me to work in the morning, I go in in the morning. I’m not afraid of work.”
He and his sons want to continue working in Arlington; they just want to be compensated enough to take care of themselves. John says with pride that he owes money to no one, and he wants to keep it that way.
“I will try to make sure I put some money in the bank,” said John. Although he has a small savings account, at his current wage he is unable to add to it. With a living wage, he could make sure he will be able to care for himself when he is no longer able to work.
“I’m not that young,” he said. “And I’m going to get older.”