Isabel Lara told his story months ago, but no one knew. As a low-wage worker, Lara wanted people to know the difficulties he faced. But when he spoke to The Connection in November, he asked to remain anonymous because he feared his employers would fire him if they knew he was asking for a raise.
Last Saturday, Lara was talking again, this time no longer afraid of reprisals, and feeling hopeful for the future. “I feel better, with more strength,” he said through a translator.
On April 26, Lara joined others in the Arlington Living Wage Coalition in thanking County Board members for including funding for a living wage ordinance in the fiscal 2004 budget. County board members are expected to pass the ordinance within the next few months. After that, Lara and other county employees, contractors and home health care companions can look forward to wages of $10.98 an hour.
“We’re determined to get this passed as soon as possible,” said Emil Abate, secretary-treasurer of Local 27, the Parking and Service Workers Union, which is affiliated with AFL-CIO.
Even with funding secured in the budget, many workers may not see raises next year. Many workers who will benefit from the ordinance work for companies that have three-year contracts with the county. Depending on the ordinance’s language, a “living wage” may not apply until new contracts are negotiated.
“To make these workers wait two to three years would be unjustifiable,” said Abate.
Malugeta Gelagay agrees. “Three years is too long, you know,” said Gelagay, a native-born Ethiopian who works at the Ballston parking garage, which is filling out its own three-year contract with the county.
He currently has a second job as a gas station attendant and works 15-16 hours per day to make ends meet and send money home to his family. “They depend on me,” he said.
TWO YEARS AGO, a coalition of labor unions, churches, workers and concerned citizens succeeded in bringing living-wage legislation to Alexandria. Many of the same people were instrumental in pushing County Board members to adopt the living wage budget initiative in Arlington.
Kathleen Henry, lead organizer for Northern Virginia Jobs With Justice, led efforts to recruit workers, including Lara, to join the effort. On Saturday, though, she downplayed her role. “It wasn’t me — it was the coalition,” she said.
Lara said now that he sees a pay increase in his future, he is committed to working even harder. “I should send my wife, my family more money,” he said.
He has been sending $200 a month to his wife in El Salvador for the last 14 years. “But it’s not enough,” he said. “With her salary, she just can’t make ends meet.”
As he said in November, he has been working 16-hour days as a supervisor for a custodial crew that cleans and maintains a county-owned building. Despite years of experience and his responsibility as supervisor, he earns just $8 per hour.
Faced with the possibility of having to wait three years for the living wage to apply, Lara realizes there’s more lobbying to be done. “A long time, maybe some people can handle it, but I can’t,” he said.
Abate said there’s no reason for county board members to make any workers wait that long. “There’s no reason to delay it simply because of a contract,” he said. “It’s not breaking the contract, it’s simply paying the workers a higher wage.” Abate said a one-year phase-in period would be acceptable.
Lara said he is confident now and ready. ”I feel better, I feel more relaxed, and I will keep on struggling together with everybody in this coalition. We’re building more power,” he said. “We’re still in that process and we’re going to see it through to the end.”