By Fran Quigley
Indianapolis Star | November 19. 2014
Judging by online message boards and the pronouncements of some politicians, it is easy for some of us to treat the working poor as an abstraction.
So allow me to introduce Ana Rosas. If the statistic that one in every four private sector workers earns less than $10 per hour seems a little remote, ask Rosas about the challenge of working as a janitor in Downtown Indianapolis. She can tell you how wages of $8 per hour, and take-home pay of less than $300 each week, translates to standing in line at the church food pantry. Ask her about her humiliation when asking for loans from family and friends in order to pay the rent.
Perhaps it is tempting to dismiss the working poor as somewhat lazy. That temptation disappears when Rosas describes the excruciating back and leg pain that is a predictable result of a 54-year-old woman mopping, vacuuming and hauling trash 40 hours each week. Like nearly half of the Indiana private sector workforce, Rosas had no paid sick days in her janitorial job. Every evening, she put aside her pain and limped into work.
Record levels of local and national income inequality may not seem tangible to us. If so, ask Rosas about how she scrubbed the toilets used by lawyers and business executives who take home wages 10 times or greater than hers. During the day, the occupants of those offices arrange for vacation homes and season tickets. At night, Rosas wipes down their desks and worries about eviction notices and filling prescriptions.
Maybe we shake our head in disapproval at teenagers flunking out of school after no one was home to oversee homework. Judgment becomes a little harder to issue when Rosas explains that her husband died when she was pregnant with their second child. Leaving her teenagers home while she worked until 1AM was a necessity, not a choice.
The limited protection of U.S. labor laws can seem like just words on a page. The one in five union activists who get fired for speaking out may come off as mere data points. At least until you talk with Rosas about when she asked for a raise and expressed her desire to be represented by the Service Employees International Union. She was fired days later.
An unfair labor practice charge has been filed and awaits a ruling. But, in the meantime, Rosas is without permanent work, and the company is likely to be safe from any more union talk at the workplace. The worst-case scenario for the company is likely being forced to give Rosas some back pay. As University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer has said, U.S. labor law’s limited deterrence to employers is akin to making the worst punishment for a burglar the prospect that they may have to return the stolen items.
It is not surprising that Ana Rosas is invisible to so many of us. The lawyers and the business executives whose offices she cleaned work for big-name companies whose names we all would recognize. But they did not directly employ Ana Rosas or her colleagues. The law firms and corporations leave that to a property manager, Ambrose Property Group. Turns out Ambrose delegates that unpleasantness out, too, leaving the janitors to work for a low-profile contractor, Sunshine Maintenance Services. (Ambrose declined to comment for this column, saying the matter is between Sunshine and its employee. Sunshine did not reply to my request for comment.)
So you may not know Ana Rosas. But she knows you. She knows people think $7.25 per hour is just fine for a minimum wage. She knows that people believe employers should be able to crush a union whenever they wish.
But she wonders if you would still hold onto those views if you had to confront her reality. If you had to go to work when you were sick or hurt. If you were fired for speaking out. If you tried raising a family on poverty wages.
Rosas has been composed while explaining her struggles, but finally her voice starts to rise. “Are you able to live on $8 per hour?” she asks. “Do the math and tell me how this is supposed to work.”
Now, tears of frustration begin to flow. They are no abstraction, either.
Quigley is a clinical professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.