When Four Jobs Aren’t Enough: Why We Need a Living Wage

2014 902 exha st(Photo: James Blann)By all accounts, Maria Fernandes was a hard worker. A person would have to be, in order to keep up with four different jobs. It’s that hard work that killed the 32-year old-woman, according to news reports, as the exhausted low wage worker died of inhaling fumes while grabbing a short nap in her car between work shifts.

Fernades was juggling jobs, two of which were at local Dunkin Donuts businesses, and trying to sleep in parking lots in the moments between the end of one and the beginning of another. Her last attempt at rest was fatal, as officers report she must have succumbed to fumes of a gas can in her car that had tipped over, as well as carbon monoxide from the engine she kept running.

Fernades allegedly kept the can for emergencies because she had once run out of gas traveling between shifts.

“She used to work like three shifts every day,” one co-worker told the local news. “Sometimes she wouldn’t sleep for five days.”

Fernandes’s case of working to death may seem extreme, but, as NJ.com reports, it’s a situation that many could be facing as the economy recovers but high paying and full time work still has dwindled into nothing. Many are working multiple shifts at a variety of low wage, part time positions in an attempt to earn enough to survive, a problem that is increased by the lack of benefits like health care insurance and paid sick time that isn’t available unless you have full-time employment.

“‘New Jersey has tens of thousands of people working multiple jobs’, said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick,” reports NJ.com. “‘These are are folks who would like to work full-time but they can’t find the jobs,’ Van Horn said. ‘They wind up in these circumstances in which they are exhausted. More commonly it creates just an enormous amount of stress.’”

Rather than one well paying, full time job with benefits, many Americans are cobbling together a patchwork of low paying positions, and working themselves into the grave to do it. “It is a very sad story and really tragic, and it shines a light on what is a real problem, particularly for low-wage workers, today,” Elizabeth Watson, senior counsel and director of workplace justice for women at the National Women’s Law Center, told Huffington Post.

What it also is, however, is a clear example of the service industry’s desire to milk massive profits out of low wage workers. Fernandes was forced to juggle multiple part time shifts from the same company, all considered separate employers because each one was a franchisee. The question becomes why do so many have part time shifts open, but no full time work? Either they are keeping their staff hours all depressed to ensure they don’t have to pay benefits, or every staff member is earning so little they need to layer their jobs with other jobs, making this patchwork wage work an epidemic.

A Dunkin Donut worker is earning roughly $8 an hour, making 40 hours of work a week a mere $320 even before taxes and Social Security. That’s not even $5,000 a year above the federal poverty line for the year for a single person, and that is if that person actually has 40 hours from one single job. With full time minimum wage work barely getting a person to the poverty line, no wonder a worker is forced to stack job up job upon job, to the detriment of their own health and, yes, even life.

A living wage isn’t just about fairness. It is literally a matter of life and death for today’s workers. As more reports come out that minimum wage jobs only cover half the expenses that one single adult needs to survive, it is clear that we need to at least begin the stepping up process necessary to get jobs to pay what individuals really need to live day to day.

No person should die because they were too exhausted to leave the car, after working multiple shifts just to make ends meet. We need to stop being a country that allows our poor to work themselves to death.