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Overworked and Under Paid: Why Is This a Reality for So Many Black People?

woman-stressed-at-workWhy does money seem to disappear shortly after you’ve been paid? When the cost of things like food, clothing, shelter, transport, and health care is just too damn high it’s no wonder many are overworked and underpaid.

People are rushing from one job to the next, red-eyed and watching the time like it’s the devil just to earn extra bucks to cover the bills.

One woman, who will be referred to as Angela, says that she “needs a second source of income to survive.” On the day I spoke with Angela, a station agent with the Mass Transit Authority in New York City, her shift ran from 6:45 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

It was a Saturday.

Since Angela, 36, leaves home at 4:30 a.m., her son is left alone to wake up, make breakfast, and get ready for school. Her son’s predicament seems to be the reality for many Black children whose parents are overworked and under paid. These children are forced to become children of experience because social and economic structures fail to make a living wage accessible to their parents and guardians.

Although working the early shift allows Angela to be at home to help her son with homework, once a month Angela works a 16-hour long double shift. She also works on her days off, and does hair to earn extra money.

And so further questions arise—are we living to work, or working to live? Surely the latter should be the desirable consequence, but how can we foster intimacy if we’re too tired to make love? How can life be enjoyed if the majority of waking hours are spent at work? How can we nurture the growth of our children if we never see them? When can we laugh with friends if they’re scheduled to work the night shift? And how does working long hours drain our spirit?

In the essay, “What Socialism Means to Us” published in 1917, activist, educator, writer, and critic Hubert Harrison says:

“To-day, fellow-sufferers, they tell us that we are free. But are we? If you will think for a moment you will see that we are not free at all. We have simply changed one form of slavery for another. Then it was chattel-slavery, now it is wage-slavery. For that which was the essence of chattel-slavery is the essence of wage slavery. It is only a difference in form. The chattel-slave was compelled to work by physical force; the wage-slave is compelled to work by starvation.”

Harrison’s words are relevant today because people are forced to work long hours to avoid the humiliation and debasement embedded in starvation, homelessness, and poverty. These people, dressed in workers’ uniforms, which convey allegiance to company that doesn’t pay them enough, are the ones that do the jobs that no one else wants to do. Invisible to the white and privileged, they are shamed by their low-income and assumed to exist merely to service others. Their contribution to society, as dishwashers, cooks, security guards, drivers and warehouse employees among other vocations,  is devalued not only because they fail to make a living wage, but because they are Black or brown people.

Angela mentioned that she cancelled cable television to save money, her remaining luxuries being her car and cell phone. Half of Angela’s monthly income is spent on rent, and after paying bills she is left with very little. Angela’s social life has dissipated and she spends her weekends cleaning or sleeping.

“If I wake up at 10 a.m. [on the weekend] that’s late considering I have to wake up early on the other days,” she says.

Angela’s weekends usually fall mid-week. She never gets Saturday and Sunday off. During the weekends white people are seen making their way into the city to enjoy a work free day, while Black people can be seen operating the subway system—usually it is a brown face that peers out of the conductor’s car just before the subway doors close. Indeed, disparities in income are symbolized by those who work weekends and those who don’t, and sometimes this disparity is also defined by race. According to Angela, weekends off are reserved for those that have seniority.

“Saturday and Sunday off is tough, you need to put in some years, or you have to be willing to work a busy station in order to get weekends off. You would have to work stations like Grand Central,” Angela said.

One woman who works in the security department of a gym wished to remain anonymous.

“One job is not enough to pay my bills,” she said.

In addition, she’s raising six children, four of whom are foster children who she decided to care for as a favor to a family member. She has a boyfriend who “does what he can to help.” When questioned whether she had considered finding a second job she stated that she had, but looked at me woefully and said, “I have children. I’d get two jobs, but then they will never see me.”

The very people who help maintain New York City are the ones who are struggling to make ends meet — a drive to ensure that people earn a living wage should be adopted by all, including those who are fortunate enough to earn a living wage.

For many, the high cost of living associated with the cost of necessities like food and housing creates a struggle to survive. People should not be surviving or attempting to avoid starvation, instead they should be living. For this to be a reality, legislation must be introduced that not only protects affordable housing, but also introduces new housing. Landlords need to be restricted from introducing rent increases that serve to push people out. Quality food should not be an expensive luxury reserved for the rich, but a basic right available to all.

Employers must be required to pay salaries that enable people to work one job, and gain access to a better quality of life.

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