On Thursday, March 6, low wage workers from the retail, fast food, and service industries held a town hall meeting to discuss the causes and effects of income inequality in our city. Workers shared their personal stories and called on the faith and elected leaders in attendance—including State Representatives Alicia Reece and Denise Driehaus, and City Councilmember Chris Seelbach—to partner with them to find solutions.
A scarcity of living-wage jobs has left 34% of Cincinnati residents and 53% of Cincinnati children below the poverty level. Too many employers—including some of the country’s most profitable corporations—pay poverty wages that force working families onto public safety net programs. Walmart is a perfect example. A Congressional report released last year calculated that just one Walmart store costs taxpayers approximately $900,000 per year in public assistance—including food stamps and health care—for underpaid employees. That hurts our economy and our communities.
“People say, ‘If you don’t like working at Walmart, get another job,’” said Jamaad Reed, a Walmart employee and one of the speakers at the town hall event. “But these are the jobs in my community—Walmart, Burger King, McDonalds, retail, cleaning. And they all pay low wages. The solution isn’t finding a new job, it’s improving the jobs that we have, getting them to pay a living wage.”
Reed was joined on stage by several other workers from traditionally low wage industries, including Dina Smith, a commercial office janitor. Cincinnati janitors are currently trying to secure a new union contract that includes modest wage increases and protects their access to affordable health care. Despite cleaning the downtown offices of some of the country’s richest companies, the average Cincinnati janitor lives below the poverty level for a family.
Jorge Lopez, a restaurant worker and member of the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Justice Center, spoke about his experience as a victim of wage theft. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, low wage workers are robbed more often than banks, gas stations, and convenience stores combined. More than 60 percent of low wage workers have some pay illegally withheld by their employer each week.
Catherine Ruetschlin, Policy Analyst for Demos and author of a number of economic studies, including “Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry, and the Overall Economy,” also spoke at the event. “Raising wages for the lowest paid workers in the country makes economic sense, and would directly and immediately benefit millions of working families,” Ruetschlin said. “What we’re doing now—spending billions of tax dollars to subsidize corporations that pay poverty wages—only benefits the very wealthiest people in the country at the expense of everyone else.”
Cincinnati workers are joining the growing chorus of support for a higher federal minimum wage; but they’re also calling for the country’s biggest corporations to lead the way to a more sustainable economy.