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Low-wage workers in Johnson County speak out

BY KAITLIN DEWULF | SEPTEMBER 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Low-wage workers in Johnson County say they have had enough.

So the Iowa City chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations partnered with the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa Thursday in a forum to hear the stories of local low-wage workers who said they face challenges such as dangerous working conditions and discrimination regularly.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the term “low-wage workers” generally refers to the labor force making just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 or less. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that encompasses nearly 3.3 million workers who are paid by the hour.

After hearing these testimonials, a new set of proposals was unveiled by the center in hopes to improve employment standards in Johnson County. The demands included the right to a union, livable wages, timely compensation with a check stub, secure scheduling, and a discrimination-free workplace.

“We cannot do this alone,” the center President Marcela Hurtado said. “That’s why we’ve identified problems and also solutions.”

The organizations are working to gather enough signatures on the proposals suggested at the forum to take to the Iowa City City Council.

Ricardo Simon shared his own story. While working in a meatpacking factory, he warned his supervisors that his machine malfunctioned frequently. They would fix it, only to have it break down the next day.

One day, the machine sucked his hand up into a blade, causing him to lose a finger.

“When I came into work the next day, my supervisor told me I didn’t have a job anymore,” Simon said. “They fired me and said it was because I didn’t follow the rules of the machine.”

Other stories included problems with poverty wages, temporary work, wage theft, unpredictable schedules, and discrimination in local workplaces.

“These problems are bringing us down, and they’re not allowing us to live lives of respect,” Hurtado said.

Colin Gordon, a senior research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project — which produces research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions — said a recent study showed Iowa workers lose $600 million a year in wage theft. Wage theft occurs when employers fail to award workers the wages or benefits they are due.

Jesse Case, the vice president of the Iowa City Federation of Labor, said low-wage workers face workplace issues at a disproportionately higher rate than counterparts who are supported by a union. He said non-unionized workers are “at will” employees and have very little recourse.

“Union employees have a mechanism in place to deal with these type of issues,” Case said. “They have a grievance and arbitration process that levels the playing field by putting some burden of proof on the employer.”


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