Can’t Get Away

Two weeks ago my family headed off to our abbreviated summer vacation, cut short by high school orientations and soccer tryouts. My twin teenage sons were looking for adventure. As the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national faith-based organization addressing problems faced by workers in low- wage jobs, I was looking to get away from workplace problems. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

First we took a cab to O’Hare, driven by an immigrant who probably works 12 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week, in order to feed his family. Cab drivers used to be employees of cab companies, working for wages plus tips. Now, in most cities, they are "independent contractors" who lease their cabs from cab firms and then struggle to pay the lease rate, gas prices and earn a living, without health care or a pension, and are required to pay their full share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. Taxi driving is one of the most dangerous occupations due to the stressful working conditions, ridiculously long hours and risks of robberies and accidents.

We flew to Kalispell, Montana using my United Airlines frequent flyer miles. On August 21, the Chicago Tribune reported on United Airlines workers wearing orange armbands calling for the ouster of Glenn Tilton, the company’s CEO. The workers are upset about the low wages that were agreed to when the company was in bankruptcy and the multi-million dollar bonuses given to managers who led the company into bankruptcy. Workers believe they deserve higher wages and more say in the direction of the company.

Our first night we stayed in "downtown" Kalispell. We headed to the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo. The fair had many of the standard rides that are transported from town to town. With a mean average wage of $7.44 per hour, amusement workers are very low paid workers. It is almost unheard of for them to have health care, pensions, sick days or vacation days. Despite the inherent dangers of the jobs, many are illegally denied workers compensation coverage. The amusement ride workers have problems, but I couldn’t help wondering if the bucking bronco riders at the rodeo had workers comp, especially after the second "rider" had to be carted off the field after being dragged around the ring.

The next two days we spent on a white water rafting trip down the middle fork of the Flathead River. I shouldn’t have talked with the guide about his working conditions, but I was struck by his long hours. Most the workers are seasonal workers, employed from June through August or September. This young man told me he works six days on and three days off. Rafting down a river does sound like a great job, but this guy worked hard — rowing all day, cooking meals, supervising tent set-up and take-down and being "responsible" for us Chicago city-slickers for 30 hours straight. Of course I asked if he got paid overtime for such long trips. According to him, during regular trip days, they were paid by the hour, but for multi-day trips they were paid by "the job." Judging by all the homemade signs employees posted encouraging us to tip, much of their income came from tips, not wages. So were they employees one moment and independent contractors the next? Sounded fishy to me.

Then we proceeded to Glacier National Park, where we were to spend three days before returning home. Our first breakfast in the dining room, my son overheard the manager telling all the wait staff to turn in their tips. Guess my teenage son has heard too much conversation at the dinner table about how workers get their wages stolen. I don’t really know what was happening, but I was suspicious given the rash of lawsuit settlements involving store managers illegally "sharing" in wait staff’s tips. Despite being "on vacation," I talked with the hotel manager and urged her to make sure the wait staff members were getting all their tips.

Later in the day, the rather basic no-bathroom cabin was "cleaned" (garbage emptied) by young men speaking some eastern European language. I suspect the workers were H2B workers. According to the H2B Workforce Coalition, H-2B visas are "temporary non-immigrant classifications that allow non-citizens to come to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal work that is nonagricultural (such as hospitality or resort work) if persons capable of performing such a service or labor cannot be found in this country." The coalition claims that these workers are paid well and treated well. Worker advocates believe that H2B workers are employed in conditions similar to serfdom. The workers are here on a temporary basis and totally controlled by the employer. Typically they are totally dependent on the employer for housing as well as their work and visas, which results in their being afraid to complain about unjust working conditions. The industry claims that H2B workers are paid decent wages. Worker advocates believe that if wages were raised, more college students and unemployed workers would be drawn to remote places like Glacier National Park to take hotel jobs.

On our way back to the airport, we stopped by A&W Root Beer, a favorite of my family. A&W appears to have a pretty good record of paying workers all the wages required by law, although I suspect the wages are low and the benefits negligible. Most fast food companies are notorious for underpaying workers for all their wages, denying workers legally-owed overtime pay, or cheating them in other ways. Google your favorite fast food restaurant and the words "unpaid wages" to learn about workers suits against most of them.

Labor Day is a chance to reflect on the workers all around us. Unfortunately, many aren’t doing well. Record numbers are employed in jobs offering no health insurance, pension, vacation days or sick days. Millions of workers are having billions of dollars in unpaid wages stolen illegally by unethical employers. Millions are misclassified as independent contractors when they really should be employees. Some workers have their tips stolen.

Although we should all attempt to support ethical employers who treat workers well and pay fairly, we must also recognize the many ways that workers all around us — even on our vacations — are denied wages and are not treated with the respect they deserve. It’s instructive to talk with workers in low-wage jobs in your community and learning more about their working conditions.

This year, Labor Day falls two months before the Presidential Election. We can expect the standard Labor Day press releases from the candidates, but I want more. I want policies that raise standards for all workers in low-wage jobs. I want a Department of Labor that aggressively pursues and penalizes employers who intentionally steal wages from workers. I want a President who cares about the cab driver, the airline workers, the amusement workers, the river guide, the restaurant wait staff, the hotel housekeeping staff and restaurant workers.

I want to know that the workers who make my family’s vacation a great experience are treated fairly.