Huey Lewis & The News sing about working for a living:
Bus boy, bartender, ladies of the night
Grease monkey, ex-junky, winner of the fight …
I’m taking what they’re giving, cause I’m working for a livin’
Their version of working for a living focuses on low-wage, low-respect jobs, including temp jobs, which comprise the fastest-growing part of today’s U.S. work force.
The blue-collar temporary/contingent work force has grown to 2.9 million, according to Pro Publica’s Temp Land: Working in the New Economy investigation. Pro Publica’s Michael Grabell told NPR Weekend Edition:
“Overall, about one seventh of the total job growth has been in the temp sector. The temp sector is growing nine times faster than the overall private sector as a whole. And the 2.9 million workers represents a record number, both in the number of temp workers and in the percentage of the economy that they make up.”
Way back when I was a teenager, I went to a temp agency for work and ended up standing at a conveyor belt, screwing caps onto pill bottles. It was boring, soul-sucking, and tiring work for minimum wage. That’s the kind work that most temps still do — or worse. Today’s temps often work with dangerous chemicals or heavy machinery. According to A Modern Day ‘Harvest of Shame’ from Pro Publica:
“The temp system insulates companies from workers’ compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the duty to ensure that their workers are citizens or legal immigrants. In turn, temp workers suffer high injury rates, wait unpaid for work to begin and face fees that depress their pay below minimum wage.
“Temp agencies consistently rank among the worst large industries for the rate of wage and hour violations, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal enforcement data.
“It is one of our fastest-growing industries, yet one of the few in which the injury rates have been rising.“
Part-time and low-wage work that makes up another growing part of our employment structure. Low Wage Workers are Older and Better Educated than Ever, according to a 2012 report from the Center for Economic Policy Research. CEPR studied low-wage workers (less than $10 an hour) in 1979 and 2011. Just two stats from that report:
- The percentage of low-wage workers with some college grew from 19.5 percent in 1979 to 33.3 percent in 2011.
- The percentage of low-wage workers over the age of 25 grew from 52.9 percent in 1979 to 64.4 percent in 2011.
Work in the food service industry is like temp work: mostly low-wage, without benefits, and without job security. What’s true for food service workers generally, is doubly true for those in fast food restaurants. CNN Money reported that today’s fast food workers are likely to be “Older. Educated. A parent.” According to CNN:
“This is the face of today’s fast food workers — 70% of whom are over the age of 20, nearly 40% have children and a third of them have spent some time in college, according to U.S. census data.”
Work life for today’s low-wage and temp workers stands stands in sharp contrast with the theology of work set out back in 1986 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principal way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for oneself. It is for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family.”
Blue-collar temp and other low-wage work does not pay enough “for human beings to fulfill their material needs.” That’s why the national push for an increase in the minimum wage. That’s why Walmart Moms are heading for the Wal-Mart’s annual meeting this week, demanding $25,000 a year for full-time work.
Wages are just one of the three elements that the bishops identify as morally significant, along with self-realization and contributing to the well-being of the larger community. Adequate pay to “fulfill … material needs” is basic. When you’re preoccupied with how to pay the rent or the choice between new sneakers or a birthday party for your kid, it’s hard to even think about contributing to the community. When your work puts you in physical danger, it’s hard to imagine work as self-realization.
On the other hand, working for fast food pays off for some people. According to the CNN story, “Fast food CEOs also make 1,000 times more than the average worker in the industry.”
What would it take for the CEOs to understand the work lives of the people who make their high salaries possible? What would it take for all of us to re-imagine work, to make it really:
… [A] principal way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization.
… [T]he ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs.
… [A way] to contribute to the well-being of the larger community … for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family.