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Too often, hard work goes unrewarded

Updated: November 4, 2012 6:16AM

Shouldn’t hard work be the key to success? That’s a thoroughly American idea — one we all want to embrace.

But a report released this week by Women Employed and Action Now Institute makes it clear that more and more hardworking Chicagoans simply can’t make it in the jobs they hold.

The report, “Chicago’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce: A Profile of Falling Labor Market Fortunes,” finds that nearly one-third of our work force is earning $12 an hour or less — too little to support an individual, much less a family, without public support or charity.

Who works in these jobs? Contrary to popular misconception, not young people. In fact, the majority of Chicago’s low-wage workers are over 30, and 94 percent are older than 20. Not the uneducated — more than a third have attended at least some college. They’re not working for extras in the family budget — over half live in households that get all of their income from low-wage jobs. And most workers in low-paying jobs are women.

Low wages aren’t the only problem. These jobs rarely include benefits such as paid sick days, meaning that workers must choose between their health and their paycheck. Many — especially in fields such as retail and food service — don’t even offer regular hours.

Employees are called in or sent home depending on customer traffic. Without predictable hours, these workers can’t count on a steady income, arrange for child care, or enroll in school. For them, hard work is not a recipe for success — or even basic financial stability.

Take Amie Crawford. At 56, educated, with a 30-year career in interior design behind her, Amie moved to Chicago and assumed that she would get the type of work she had been used to all her life. After months of applying for jobs unsuccessfully, she took a food-service position at a fast food establishment to bring in some cash.

She figured that working full-time at minimum wage ($8.25 per hour), she could earn $1,000 per month — not enough to get by, but something to stop the hemorrhaging of her savings. She was shocked to find out that when the flow of customers was slow, she and her coworkers were sent home — without pay.

With meager earnings, irregular hours and no benefits, Amie is on the edge. She says that her co-workers are the hardest-working people she has ever met. All they want is the opportunity to earn a living wage.

Low-wage jobs are growing, but the hardworking Chicagoans who take these jobs can’t make ends meet. That’s wrong. We need to stand up for quality jobs and make sure that everyone who works hard can afford the basics of life. We need to raise the minimum wage, ensure that all workers have paid sick days, and empower workers to bargain for a fair share of the profits they help produce.

If we truly value work as the key to success, it’s time to reward it.

Anne Ladky is executive director of Chicago-based Women Employed, which works to expand educational and employment opportunities for women.

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