Who's fighting for low-wage workers?

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Many of us can't imagine raising a family on $10 an hour. And yet, every day, thousands of Chicagoans do it. The U.S. government estimates that one-third of all American workers are "low-wage workers"--people who's wages are so low that even if they worked full time, their wages wouldn't lift them above poverty.

So, what happens to these workers when their checks are shorted? Or don't come at all?

One of those people is Maria Ortiz, a former home health care aide. She worked for low-wages for a Chicago-based company, ASI, but routinely didn't get a pay check. It got so bad that Maria's granddaughter once went hungry because the family couldn't afford to buy formula.

Maria Ortiz held the crying newborn in her arms, rocking her back and
forth to try to get her to sleep. But the baby wouldn't quiet down; she
was hungry.

Ortiz kept rocking, knowing there was no formula in the house to feed her granddaughter.

"I didn't have any money," she said, her voice trembling as her eyes filled with tears.

In our March issue, we investigated Ortiz's employer and found that although the company claims they don't pay workers because the state doesn't pay them, the numbers don't add up. In fact, 75 percent of the time that the company got enough money from the state to make payroll, they still didn't pay workers on time.

It's not just this one company or group of workers. Warehouse workers employed by temp agency Reliable Staffing in New Lenox, Ill., are trying to file a class action lawsuit against the company for shorting their checks. The group of 120 workers say they were paid less that the minimum wage, not paid for hours they worked and didn't receive overtime pay.

And back in November, we documented the attempts of one car wash employee to get what he was owed from his employer. In the end, he got about half of what he said he worked for, but even that was a victory.

Are these just isolated incidents? Or are the people at the bottom of the wage ladder getting hurt further by unscrupulous employers who take advantage of them and skirt the law? While some might be lucky enough to gain the help of groups like Warehouse Workers for Justice or Arise Chicago, we don't know how many others are going unheard.

If one-third of our workforce is already struggling to get by, what happens to those families, and our economy, when they don't even get what they worked for?

Photo credit: walknboston


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