OVERWORKED AND UNDERPAID

Words by Freddy Jimenez, edited by Josue Ramirez

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Over the course of the past year, the COVID-19 virus has led a destructive path, claiming not only countless lives but thousands of jobs as well. In the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), which became a national hotspot, said loss brought along social and economic displacement, but as we wrap up the first half of 2021, some people are returning to the workforce while others face worry and uncertainty

A marquee of a local corporate franchise, advertising open positions for servers and cook.

NOW HIRING

As a result of Governor Greg Abbott lifting the mask mandate and the COVID-19 vaccine being made available to the general population, public spaces and businesses in the RGV are reopening their doors at wider capacities, welcoming cabin-fever-ridden folks to some form of normalcy. However, as reported by media outlets, several businesses, managers, and other workforce entities are having trouble filling open positions to operate functionally. 

Local media has reported on the phenomenon under the guise of  “recovering from economic slowdown,”  centering the perspective of the managers and bosses. Other news sources have labeled it a “labor shortage.” A local general manager of La Playa Mexican Cafe in Harlingen, for instance, claimed he was making tortilla chips in the restaurant’s kitchen and seemed to blame this on the lack of workers. He went on to blame the lack of workers on the emergency unemployment checks supplied by the federal government.

More peculiar, still, is the sentiment shared by Pat Hobbs, the executive director of Cameron County Workforce Solutions, the institution responsible for the development and implementation of staffing for local industries.

“Now that we’re re-opening, those jobs are coming back on the market — the jobs are there but the workers are still staying at home,” Hobbs told local media. “The people have been offered their jobs back so they’re not accepting going back to work,” he said. “We can’t recover until all those businesses are able to open up and those workers get off the couch. If we get them off the couch, we’ll be in good shape.”

Alleging that working-class people are choosing to stay home because of federal aid is one thing, but accusing them and implying they’re lazy and couch ridden is another.

This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

While one can understand the plight of the managers and bosses, where is the highlighted struggle of local workers? If we have the side of those who do the hiring and how they’re “hurting,” where is the side of those that are hired – those that sell their labor for a wage – where is their narrative? Local media hasn’t failed to report on it; they’ve purposely chosen not to do so. This is done conveniently, because ironically, the same managers who are now crying wolf, complaining about a lack of workers, are the same ones who fired and let their workers go last year. 

For context, as businesses closed last spring and unemployment claims were at 6 million, Congress passed the CARES Act (Corona Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act), a $2.2 trillion stimulus package to help offset some of the damage. Included in that was the infamous $1,200 stimulus checks, as well as $600 weekly paychecks to workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The subsequent relief Acts provided $600 and $1,400 stimulus checks, however, unemployment benefits went down to $300 a week, with states being able to opt out of the benefits.

The question then becomes, why are workers choosing unemployment checks over the sudden plethora of readily available jobs? 

A screenshot of a local media article in which a restaurant manager and workforce center official comment on workers’ availability and attitude. 📸 by Freddy Jimenez.

MINIMUM WAGE NOT ENOUGH

Those unemployment checks, as reported by media outlets, helped many directly impacted individuals and families, often allowing them to meet needs they could not otherwise. In the Rio Grande Valley, where 58% of household incomes make less than $50,000, the economic industry is composed of customer service jobs, including but not limited to big chain franchises and local restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, entertainment hubs, home care providers, daycares, gas stations, auto shops, and countless retail stores. For the most part, these types of jobs usually require one to work for long, strenuous hours, try to maneuver an unpredictable schedule, and only pay the minimum wage if not a little more. And to add another layer, due to the conditions of the border region, in many cases, some employers are able to  exploit their workers and pay even less because of their immigration status. As a result, it’s common to find people working two or even three jobs to make ends meet. 

Take for example Jose M. Gazcon, 28, out of Mercedes, who was let go from his position in April 2020. As the pandemic was settling, he says he felt first-hand the difficulty and uncertainty that struck and inundated daily life. 

“From stores closing early or altogether, to the County saying only two people per car, it all felt weird,” he said.

In January Gazcon was working as a circulation manager for a small community publishing company but as COVID-19 cases in the Valley rose, surrounding business partners were hit too hard by lack of revenue and closings. That loss in proceeds translated into a lack of ad sales. In turn, the company lost funds for payroll. 

“I remember checking and reading the news everyday, and seeing those numbers climb and climb,” he recalled. “Between so many people getting sick and businesses closing, people losing their jobs, I would think to myself, ‘It’s only a matter of time before we’re hit.’” 

First, his circulators, or deliverers, were reduced – from four to two. Eventually, like many others, Jose’s position was cut.

Soon after that, however, Gazcon was able to apply for unemployment benefits, which he says kept him afloat until he was able to graduate college and begin his pursuit of more professional jobs.

In his regular 40-hours-a-week schedule at his former position, Gazcon would bring in about $350 weekly, or $700 every two weeks, but after taxes would come out to a little over $500. That’s $1,000 a month to pay for the basics: rent, transportation, food, and phone bill. However, after the pandemic surged and Congress approved the first stimulus bill, which provided  those directly impacted an extra $600 a week, Gazcon was earning a little over $1,700 every two weeks. 

From $1000 a month to almost $1,700 bi-weekly, a significant difference in income, partly due to unemployment checks being taxed very low.

“I was able to pay off a semester of college or else I wouldn’t have graduated. I paid off two traffic tickets. I paid off a credit bill that was affecting me from getting loans or other credit cards,” explained Gazcon, adding that “It’s almost like having a clean slate.”

A Five Below flyer advertising job openings. 📸 by Freddy Jimenez.

The same can be said for others, such as Juana Muñoz, 31, mother of three, out of San Benito, who lost her job as a kitchen supervisor at a Circle K back in June 2020. “First they reduced my hours since the store wasn’t getting as much traffic,” she recalled, “then, I was let go a few weeks later.” Shortly after that she said she applied for unemployment benefits and realized the federal assistance was better than what she was paid by her former employer.

Like Gazcon, Muñoz saw some of her co-workers were either being let go or quitting prior to her departure. “Members of my team were getting fired, so that left me to pick up the pace but it was for nothing,” explained Juana. “After a few weeks to a couple of months of that, they let me go, too.”

Juana was in a peculiar situation, living at her mother-in-law’s house while the pandemic struck. By way of the federal unemployment benefits, which also increased her wage significantly, she was able to rent an apartment and purchase a dependable car. In addition, she was able to pay off long-standing debts, a common claim many working-class folks have made.

Mari Reyes, a 63-year-old home care provider based out of Harlingen, who was averaging $10 an hour from working two jobs, also lost her positions in June last year due to the COVID-19 virus and the restrictions placed on her type of work. According to a recent economic impact study of the RGV’s healthcare and bioscience industry, 42% of employment fell to home health and nursing home workers, what we commonly refer as  providers, averaging an income of $16,076. That is 60,411 jobs where people earn less than $18,130 compared to the average person employed in the RGV healthcare and bioscience industry.  

A chart depicting healthcare workers’ salaries. 📸 Courtesy of the Economic Impact Study of the RGV Healthcare & Bioscience Industry.

Reyes explained she was earning $700 bi-weekly, at 35 hours a week, from one job, and $320 bi-weekly, at 16 hours a week, from another, for a bi-weekly total of $1,020 for a little over 100 hours of work. And that’s without the standard tax deductions applied. To keep it simple, we’ll keep it at $1,020, multiply it by 24, and you get an annual income of $24,480. 

After successfully applying for the unemployment benefits passed in March, Reyes realized the federal assistance provided a higher sustenance.

Speaking in Spanish, she explained, “In my 20 years of working as a provider, I have never made this much, never. I’m used to food stamps or MedicAid from the government, but actual money to use and spend freely is different. Now, I actually have money to pay my debts or fix my house.” 

Opposite those jobs are more bureaucratic and of moderate income positions, such as municipal, state, and federal occupations, along with school district administration and teachers, doctors and insurance middle-men, real estate ventures, and other office-type of work. These jobs, while still containing their own modes of exploitation, tend to pay higher and scheduling is more centralized. But as the COVID-19 pandemic further expanded in March 2020, these administrative jobs moved online, becoming remote, relying on video call and emailing, which inadvertently pushed out those who were technically illiterate.

The same could not be said for the customer service jobs. Rather than moving online, workers were let go, or fired, all while politicians and media labeled them “essential workers,” sentiments that were only symbolic and offered nothing material in nature. Ultimately, workers were left to rely on Uncle Sam’s unemployment checks, which deduced less taxes, and in totality enabled them to not only pay bills but gain some form of financial stability – something minimum wage jobs don’t provide.

UNCERTAINTY LINGERS

Now, however, folks like Jose, Julia, and Mari face uncertainty as Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas opted out of the federal unemployment assistance after June 26 in an effort to force people back to work. The move came after state business leaders and organizations wrote to Abbott to end the $300 a week federal supplemental program. 

Abbott, along with business leaders, even local ones, believes that the benefits are encouraging people to stay home and not want to work, claiming that the number of unemployed people matches the number of open positions in the state. However, as the Statesman reported, the high number of jobs available doesn’t necessarily mean people have the skills required, don’t match their needs, or aren’t sensitive to childcare priorities. 

To add another layer to the pressing issue, a federal moratorium on evictions passed last September was set to expire at the end of June 2021, meaning many people who have been unable to pay rent, or are behind on it, could face eviction. But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the Biden administration, extended the moratorium by one month – until July 31 – but also said it was the final time it was doing so. According to a recent U.S. Census Household Pulse survey, over 3 million people face eviction.

Throughout Cameron County, the unemployment rate, as of April, is 9.1%, and in Hidalgo County, it is 10.3%, whereas it was 16.2% at the same time last year, showing that since the pandemic has unraveled, some people have been able to acquire a job, despite the risks. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, only 1,970 people are currently receiving unemployment benefits in Cameron County, while in Hidalgo County only 4,500 people are. 

Local governments aren’t standing idly by, however. On June 28, the City of Brownsville, in collaboration with Cameron and surrounding counties, along with several businesses, companies, and industries, hosted a job fair aimed at pumping job growth into the area, promising on-site interviews and hiring. 

A July 2 article expressed that the expo was “a success,” but when analyzed closely,  Helen Ramirez, city organizer of the event, says that surveys must be sent out to participants first in order to quantitatively know how many of the attendees were actually interviewed or were hired. With no concrete, material evidence, the article seems more like a symbolic gesture of praise and grandeur aimed to appeal and please local business owners, managers, and bosses that help is on the way.

Shown is a Spanish advertisement for the “Careers and Coffee” job fair, hosted in Brownsville on June 28. 📸 by Freddy Jimenez.

In essence, the Texas government, in cooperation with capital and business, is forcing workers to ultimately choose between going back to an unlivable wage job with an unpredictable schedule and subpar conditions, or face eviction, bankruptcy, and in some cases, death. 

However, working-class people aren’t just now realizing that the wage typical customer service jobs offer isn’t enough; their lived experiences have told them that. 

The importance of this is that while bosses and managers know they rely on exploited labor to make a profit, workers are realizing it, too, and with that, the more apparent the distinctions in class become, and with distinction comes consciousness. 

Working people are acting in their best interests opting for a livable check from the federal government. That said, if employers wish to even keep their interests, they must make the next move and raise their wages. 

 

Renters in need of rent assistance can visit https://texasrentrelief.com/

For free information the legalities around renting and eviction, renters can visit https://stoptxeviction.org/

The Texas Information & Referral Network, a resource for food aid, housing, child care, and other emergency services, can be found at https://www.211texas.org/about-2-1-1/.

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