Brewing Trouble in New York
By Kira Brenner. Kira studied the MSc in Labour, Social Movements and Development at SOAS in 2014-2015. She is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Development Studies, researching the Tunisian trade union movement since the Arab Spring. The views expressed in this article are Kira’s own, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the SOAS Department of Development Studies.
I wake with a jolt at 3:30am. My two-model out of date iPhone, a relic of my previous life, blares a combination of its standard alarm and BBC World News. I stumble into the bathroom to shower, hoping that the hot water will wake me up. A little before 4 am, I walk out of my second-floor walk-up apartment, into the pitch black of northern Manhattan. I enter the tunnel that takes me to the station, which hasn’t had its lights repaired in years – a sign of the economic problems of the neighborhood – the florescent glow ebbing and flowing as I get further away from the street. I get to the platform. There’s a homeless man sleeping on the bench. I wait in my usual spot, so I’ll be closest to the exit in case the train is late this morning. New York, the city that never sleeps, isn’t so on top of it at this hour – the train never arrives at a consistent time, and the countdown clock can’t be trusted.
When it does arrive, I get in my usual carriage, and see the usual people. A young black woman in a Starbucks uniform, trying to stay awake despite the soothing rocking of the train. A Latino man in a Dunkin’ Donuts hat and shirt who is less successful at resisting sleep. A few others, wearing trademarked clothes that I, a white woman, have hidden under my coat. We, with the exception of the few drunk people stumbling home at closing time, are all service employees, all going to opening shifts somewhere downtown, where bankers and tourists don’t think twice about paying $6 for a latte – about what we each make in 45 minutes of slinging coffee or making sandwiches, before taxes.
The worst day I ever had at work started in the regular manner. Off the train, walk two blocks, change, clock in, find out what needs to be done. That day, what needed to be done was baking. We made these quiches in little boxes, using stale croissants, soup, and frozen egg whites. I used the last of the carton of egg whites, and went to the freezer to get some more. I opened the freezer and crouched down to reach them, always at the back on the bottom shelf, because that’s where it was coldest. As I grabbed a new carton, a tray of frozen rugalach that hadn’t been put away properly – because the top shelf was high and we “didn’t have room” for a stepstool – fell and hit me on the head. I don’t know how long I was knocked out for – not long enough for anyone to notice my absence from the front line. I came to, put the rugalach back in a better place, and told my manager. She offered me an ice pack. I suggested that I should go to the hospital, but she wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t leave without her permission – I’d be fired with cause, leaving me no recourse to even the slim unemployment benefits offered to low-wage workers[i]. She gave me a 10-minute break, and then it was back to making quiches and sandwiches.
Another girl I worked with got second degree burns all over her arms when an overfilled coffee carafe spilled all over her. That one they couldn’t ignore, and took her to the hospital. But they denied her worker’s compensation claim, and didn’t cover her emergency room bill. And when she needed time off work, away from hot liquids, they refused to pay her. That’s illegal under federal, state, and city law. But it’s rarely enforced, because the possibility of retaliation is very high.
But injuries like this happen all the time. I once pulled a tray of muffins out of the oven, and not having the proper safety equipment, the tray slipped. I heard a hiss and smelled burning flesh before I felt the pain. Probably a second degree burn. I still have an inch-long scar on my left arm, more than four years later. I have many others, but I can’t remember all of their origins. Is the one on my knuckle from the steam wand, or a hot pitcher, or the oven? Maybe some spilled boiling water? What about the one on my wrist? It became part of the daily experience, each shift ending by comparing battle scars with coworkers.
We weren’t paid well for this job. Our salaries started off a bit higher than the state minimum wage, which at that time was $7.25/hour, the same as the federal minimum wage, despite New York being the most expensive city in the country. My company had a wage increase schedule, with a potential of an extra $.25 twice a year, as long as you passed all your tests and didn’t call out sick too much. We were given no paid time off – no sick days, no holidays. Every day we didn’t work came out of our paychecks. I got all my raises, which amounted to an extra $20 a month and was actually really important to my life – it’s almost the cost of a weekly subway pass. But the pay certainly wasn’t enough to survive on in New York. We lived for holiday pay, the few days a year that our company was generous enough to pay time and a half. One year, the week of the Fourth of July, a federal holiday, we got a memo from HR. They had changed the recognized holidays, giving us our much-needed time and a half only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. But the schedule for Independence Day had already been released, and they weren’t going to pay us for it. That’s wage theft. I called the state Department of Labor, and nearly had them open an investigation, but wanted to let my company do the right thing first. I told my district manager that what they were doing was illegal, and I’d confirmed it with the Department of Labor. She told me I was wrong, but the CEO was in town, and wanted to meet with some of the baristas, so we brought it up then. Our pay was corrected, and we got an awkwardly worded apology from HR, but the revised holiday schedule stayed in place.
The last straw for me came when they implemented new scheduling software, which was designed to reduce the number of breaks that we received. In New York, shift workers are entitled to one paid 15-minute break if a shift is less than 5.5 hours, and one 30 minute, unpaid break if it’s longer. No one wants to work a shift less than 6 hours, particularly when it takes about an hour of travel just to get there. Their new system had me, and nearly everyone else, working seven 5-hour shifts, which increased all of our travel time, but had us working fewer hours, and gave us no days off.
Despite all of this, my experience in low-wage work was better than most. I knew to call the Department of Labor because of my previous work as a union organizer, and I assumed that I wouldn’t face retaliation for bringing it up. I also had the decided advantage of being white. Both management and customers treated me better because of my skin. When I finally did leave for graduate school, many of my regular customers told me how happy they were for me, telling me that I was too smart to earn a living making their morning lattes. These were the same people who watched in awe as I walked a Belgian family through the menu in French, or sold tea in Arabic, but thought nothing of it when my black and brown coworkers did the same thing in Spanish. They knew that, for me, this job was just that – a job, a stopover on my way to better things. But for many others, this, or something similar, is how they will earn a living for the rest of their lives.
These jobs are challenging, exhausting, and often dangerous. Workers are given low wages, and companies turn huge profits on their backs. That’s why actions like the Fight for $15 are so important. In New York, wildcat strikes over pay and working conditions at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s finally spurred the legislature to act. On 31st December 2015, the minimum wage for fast food employees in New York City was raised to $10.50/hour. At the end of this year, it will be raised to $12/hour, and will increase $1.50/hour each year, until it reaches $15/hour in 2018. New York also passed a paid sick day ordinance, ensuring that people would no longer have to put their wages ahead of their health. More needs to be done on the issues of working conditions and general workplace safety, but this is a step in the right direction, and one brought about by workers banding together and demanding their rights.
[i] In most parts of the United States, workers are only eligible for unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs through “no fault of their own.” If you are fired for cause, these benefits are not accessible. Unemployment benefits also pay at a percentage of your previous income, meaning that low-wage workers are at a further disadvantage.