Mention “labor” in America, and nostalgic images come to mind of 20th-century white men in hard hats, hands and faces grimy with hard labor.
For whatever reason, people with work called a career don’t see the labor now before us. But there they are, providing supply and support.
People with white collars have unacknowledged entourages in retail and service. They hand us coffee, pick up our trash, provide unarmed security, wipe our kids’ noses, sew our clothes in sweatshops around the world and drive us to and fro when we summon them with an app.
Working-class life sure is different these days. Working Americans in 2019 don’t head out from single-family homes with single-family incomes, to return after eight hours to evening leisure and after 30 solid years to a secure retirement.
American work in 2019 is different. And American workers now are different – black, white and brown, many of them women, many of them wearing cheery healthcare uniforms.
Just to pick one of today’s new workforce, today’s decentralized healthcare sends out home health aides, LPNs and RNs early in the morning to urban stops and rural routes.
They do the thankless work of consults and injections, turning and cleaning patients and managing family expectations with a touch and a smile.
Moving from stop to stop, working the cell phone all the while, they come home late to their own families, looking down the barrel of paperwork and preparation for the next day.
But cost pressures, like that other stuff, rolls downhill, keeping their wages and benefits down.
Sometimes, that pressure is on them and their bosses to cut corners, requiring many hours of work per week “off the clock” for meetings, computer entries, driving and more.
The fields of wage theft are white with harvest, by some estimates billions of dollars a year unpaid.
Two articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically address labor and wages:
“(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
“(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
“(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
“(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Article 24: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
Wage theft falls hardest on the most vulnerable, black workers. Metaphorically, if white working people just catch cold from job abuse, black people get hospitalized.
They are the last hired, the last promoted, the first hours cut, the first laid off and the first fired for trumped-up reasons.
Is it any wonder that though black people work a lot and work hard, they live paycheck to paycheck? That on average they only have $200 in the bank for emergencies?
That due to the redlining of the 20th century, black people live even more segregated than ever, in poor neighborhoods with poor property values?
That in 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery in North America, per The Angela Project, Americans are on the road to zero black wealth in just a few years?
But the cries of wages owed to vulnerable workers have reached the Lord of hosts. (James 5:1). The law and justice require that all hours be paid.
One person alone can’t actually bring a case: The odds are too long. But many states, including my old Kentucky home, allow class and collective actions for all workers affected. No one has to stand up to the boss alone.
My law partners and I are handling a case for home-health workers en masse, addressing hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. Wage theft is all around us, and what is wrong can be made right.
If we do nothing else in and around the World Day of Social Justice, let’s notice our virtual entourages who work all around us.
And vow – again – to treat the most vulnerable among us the way we want to be treated.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles for the World Day of Social Justice (Feb. 20). The previous articles in the series are:
Why Social Justice, the Kingdom of God Go Hand in Hand by Colin Holtz
Who Gets In? Who Doesn’t? The Law Has Nothing to Do With It by Terrell Carter
A practicing employment lawyer, active in law, labor, faith and politics, Sanders serves Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black college, as coordinator of Empower West Louisville, a coalition of black and white churches dedicated to economic empowerment in Louisville’s segregated West End that sponsors The Angela Project.