Furloughed federal workers who are finding life tough because of the partial government shutdown are sacrificing and taking extreme measures to make ends meet and pay their bills. They are visiting pawn shops, asking for loan extensions, applying for SNAP (food stamps), using food pantries and visiting soup kitchens. They are taking any part-time temporary work they can find at whatever pay rate. They go to bed each night wondering how they will get through the next day, week, month. Sort of like a huge chunk of U.S. workers.
When the strike is over, they will get back pay, great benefits and continued security. Unlike a huge chunk of U.S. workers—like my paper doll ladies. And federal workers have a growing support network of people helping them with donations and work. My ladies aren’t so lucky. Oh, and these are only ladies because I suck at making paper dolls, and these came out decently. Make believe they are either men or women. Your choice, because they are pretty much being screwed equally.
All of the government, academic and other studies I have looked at clearly show that government employees whose educations do not include advanced degrees earn roughly one third more than private-sector workers. In these economic times, they have a good gig.
Most workers in the actual “gig economy” live creatively. Two of my ladies have two jobs. One has three. None have benefits. All are temporary and part-time, as in they can be told without warning not to come in the next day. One with children can’t afford child care, and so trades with other moms in the same boat. Nobody gets enough sleep. Two of my dolls are slightly overweight, not because they thrive on unlimited organic food, but because two of every three meals are based on rice or pasta. At least they aren’t hungry—most of the time.
Their problems are hidden by the media, which never reports on the true state of American workers, driven as they are by a heavy Washington fist and powerful special interests, and by the federal government, which continually changes the rules of the game by fudging the way in which inflation is counted. For example, Americans’ food costs are used in calculating the cost of living (CPI/Cost of Living Index). The rub is that if we cannot afford better cuts of meat and have turned to ground beef, the CPI remains the same basing cost on cheap hamburger over steak, for example.
Every government statistic tells us happy days are here again. We have low unemployment (see my earlier article, Working for Legumes, to see how those numbers are manipulated). As I previously noted, the government gets its information by calling a limited number of people on their landlines. Landlines, hmm. Mostly older, comfortable, secure folks. Maybe federal workers. The people who are scurrying around looking for hours have given their mobile numbers to prospective employers so they don’t miss a call. And since many of these gig jobs provide income that goes unreported, no one is going to volunteer this info to the feds. Right? It has been estimated that roughly one third of workers are working in the gig economy. Look around at your friends and family. How many have one well-paying secure job—with benefits.
We have two issues here. Security and benefits and a livable minimum wage. I believe the former will never be adequately dealt with until we organize, dare I say unionize? I once belonged to a union, and I always felt that someone had my back. Instead of a job-specific union, we could organize as workers who demand a just and fair minimum wage for all. Of course the media and special interests would yell “communists.” Just remember who has what to gain or lose.
The Labor Department changed the way in which inflation is calculated in 1980 and again in 1990. Elizabeth Warren told a Senate hearing in 2013 that if the inflation rate had kept up with worker productivity, the minimum wage would be $22. Add five years of inflation, and that number would be $24. Forget $15 an hour. Every candidate will offer us that. I say let’s go for $30, which is what minimum likely should be by the time the election rolls around. It’s time to give the paper dolls a break.
Sheila Velazquez is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in more than 100 print newspapers and magazines, including Grit, New Woman, the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, the San Antonio Express-News and Bay Area Parent. Her awards include two from the Society of Professional Journalists for a syndicated column. Sheila has contributed to online websites, including commondreams.org and dissidentvoice.org. She served as contributing editor of Organic Producer magazine and wrote biographical material for reference collections that include “Contemporary Authors,” the “Encyclopedia of International Biography” and “Notable Sports Figures.” Feel free to send her an e-mail.