September 2 was Labor Day. And clearly, there is no better way to celebrate workers is to require them to endure long, stressful shifts while the rest of us take advantage of the amazing sales at Best Buy, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Macy’s.
It is incredibly sad that some of the worst paid, most poorly treated workers in the U.S. are the ones who get no chance to celebrate Labor Day. A recent report by Forbes found that of the 10 lowest paying jobs, six were in food preparation and food service. Some 2.94 million people work in these fields, where they earn just $9 an hour. Fast food cooks and dishwashers earn $9.03 to $9.10 per hour. Three others in the top ten are in the personal care business, with the remaining one being farmworkers, who of course are laboring so we can enjoy our barbecues and beach parties. Tomato pickers in Florida, for instance, make about 50 cents for every 32-lb. barrel of tomatoes, which requires picking about 15 baskets (about 500 lb.) each hour. This wage is virtually unchanged since the 1970s. Not on the list but perhaps even more horrifying are the Goodwill workers who are disabled, hired through a 1938 law called the Special Wage Certificate Program, which allows charities to get special permits to pay workers with disabilities as little as they want. Consequently, some Goodwill workers with disabilities in Pennsylvania earn just 22 cents an hour. And of course, few count the tireless unpaid labor of mothers and fathers who take care of their children.
At the same time, the gap between the lowest paid and highest paid laborers continues to widen, and is even worse when you take into account other perks and benefits, like health insurance. CEOs of the largest companies in the U.S earn, on average, 354 times more than the typical worker. Nine of the top ten highest paid positions in the U.S are in the medical field, and the average anesthesiologist earns $111.94 an hour. The CEO of Goodwill International made $729,000 in 2011.
Of course, many will argue that these workers are happy to provide their labor on holidays like September 2, as it occasionally commands time-and-a-half pay. My response is that they would surely rather earn a high enough hourly wage that the call to earn extra pay is not so appealing. It seems like most people, if they had enough to meet their basic needs, would prefer to spend holidays with family and friends, not working. This is the idea behind the recent strikes by fast-food workers. In the last week, some 1,000 workers walked out of about 1,000 restaurants, asserting that they should be paid closer to $15 an hour, which would be a living wage. A full-time, minimum wage worker cannot even afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S.
The U.S. desperately needs to begin valuing those who work so hard to bring us our sustenance and our pleasure. Until we do, celebrating Labor Day seems little more than a farce.