Faith Reflection: Stories of Low Wage Workers

 

In the days and weeks ahead, the question of improved wages, human dignity, and labor conditions for many hundreds of thousands of low wage fast food industry employees will get more and more attention in our community and around the nation.  Already, workers in many cities have taken action to stand up for their worth and dignity as people who deserve better pay and conditions for the hard work they offer the companies they serve.  Who are these people and what are they asking for.  Here in the Kansas City Metro, over 26,000 persons serve this industry.  Let me introduce you to a few of them.

Gary works for Pizza Hut and lives in Midtown.  He has worked in the fast food industry since he was 16 and is now almost 31.  Gary wants to pay his bills, put food on his table, stay healthy, and improve his education.  Not outrageous hopes, hopes he shares with almost all of us.  However, at near minimum wage, Gary finds these reasonable goals unattainable.  “Working fast food means I have a hard time keeping food in the house.  I have to juggle bills each month.  I have to pay the bill that is about to be cut off and put off the others . . . Every two weeks when I open my paycheck, I know it’s all gone and I still don’t have enough to pay all my bills . . . I’ve twice enrolled in community college and wasn’t able to keep up with the homework because I was working all the time and I had to make a choice between school and money . . . I got a pace maker put in back in 2004.  I have to go to the doctor for check-ups every three months.  I now have $130,000 in medical debt  . . . they can’t garnish my wages because I don’t make enough.  I will need a new pace maker in 6-18 months.”  Of course, Gary does not qualify currently for company health insurance and his employer is lowering his hours so to not be required to offer him coverage under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.  Gary just wants a chance; Gary just wants a fair wage.  Gary wants to be treated with dignity.  Meanwhile, the largest Pizza Hut franchisee (base in Overland Park, Ks) reports “a 46-percent boost in first-quarter profit despite same-store sales declines in the first quarter.  Executives . . . told analysts in a Monday morning call that cost savings in restaurant operations and commodities helped the company book net income in the quarter ended March 26 of $13.2 million compared with $9 million in the same quarter last year” (Restaurant News, May 6, 2013).

Proverbs 29.7—A righteous man is concerned with the cause of the poor; a wicked man cannot understand such concern. 

Wilma has been working in the fast food industry for 25 years.  She currently works for Pizza Hut.  In 2005, while working for Kentucky Fried Chicken, a piece of equipment fell on her and injured her back.  Because she had no paid sick days (a common reality in the fast food industry), Wilma was forced to work for months in constant pain in order to pay her rent, keep food in the frig for her child, and keep her job.  Workman’s compensation paid for her treatment but she could not get better because she could not miss work.  She finally had to quit in order to recover her health.  Wilma works, “paycheck to paycheck and struggles to feed me and my son, and pay the rent and utilities.”  Wilma can no longer afford a car and when she could, she could not afford to keep it running.  Wilma just wants to be able to afford to pay her bills on time, eat better, take care of her son, and have health insurance.  Wilma is no different from many of us; she just wants to be paid fairly and to take care of her obligations.  “When I think of fast food workers,” Wilma writes, “I think of people who keep the business running.  I think of people who are working hard and trying to raise kids.”

Micah 6.8—What the Lord requires of you: Only do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

In order to do the best he can for his three children and his fiancé, Terrance works for two fast food places, Burger King and Pizza Hut.  Terrance enjoys working with people and enjoys the work he does in the fast food industry.  Nevertheless, Terrance struggles, “Despite working two jobs and my fiancé’s full-time work, my family recently became homeless.”  Terrance continues, “I have poured a tremendous amount of energy into the companies I have worked for—only to be underpaid, under-valued, and under-appreciated for years.  Wages in fast food are extremely low and the benefits don’t exist.  There’s no healthcare, paid sick days, or vacation pay . . . I’m working 15-hour days and we still can’t make it . . . You talk about watching your kids grow up overnight—there are consecutive days where I don’t get to see my 3 kids because of working two jobs.”  For Terrance, fair wages means having a chance to have a life, spending quality times with his children, maybe even taking them bowling or having a birthday party.  Terrance just wants to be treated fairly and with dignity.

Jeremiah 22.16—He upheld the rights of the poor and needy—then all was well.  That is truly heeding me, declares the Lord.

So what do we do?

 

A justice action–Right now fast food workers around the Kansas City are coming together and standing up for their economic dignity and fighting for better wages, benefits, and respect.  We must commit to support low-wage food industry workers as they fight for just wages and a better Kansas City for all people.

A faith action–All scripture recognizes the inherent dignity of the created world, and emphasizes the dignity of human beings.  We must stand with the poor as an act of solidarity with God and God’s hope for all people.  We must stand with the poor as an act of faith.

 

A community action— We know it will take a movement of committed workers and community members standing beside them to build our better future in Kansas City for the long haul.  We are bringing people together from across our city to discuss what will take to build good jobs, economic dignity, and opportunity for all in our city.  Join us for a “For Jobs and Freedom” mass meeting with the Rev’d CT Vivian on Mon 7/29 at 6:30pm at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church (2310 East Linwood Blvd).  The Rev’d Vivian is a long-time organizer and leader for justice and was a member Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal executive staff during the Civil Rights Movement.  The veteran leader comes to Kansas City to lend his voice to low-wage workers’ moral struggle for racial and economic justice and to challenge us to do the same.

 

A public action—Let our faith and our commitment to justice and dignity create a community in which everyone can work with dignity.  Right now, fast food workers are coming together and standing up for better wages, benefits, and respect.  It’s time we put our faith values in action for economic dignity.  Stand with fast food worker for good jobs and a better Kansas City by publicly supporting a low-wage workers rally and march on Tuesday 7/30 at Gillham Park (Gillham Rd and 39th St) from 2:00-4:30

 

The values of our baptismal faith and the incarnational and transformational power of God working through us demand our best efforts for all of God’s children no matter the risk or challenge.  As with the prophets before us, we stand vulnerable and faithful.  Let us not fail the “least” among us (Matthew 25.40).  Let us remember the words of God to the Apostle Paul, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not be silent’ (Acts 18.9).

 

Fr. Stan Runnels, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Westport.

 

 

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