Building a Working Class Movement in Denver

by Ali Cochran – Denver, Colorado

Last night members from the community group, Working America, joined together to share their stories and plan new ways to fight back against the avalanche of attacks being waged on working class families across the country.  The members who came were from many different backgrounds, including recent college graduates, retirees, and even a one-year-old named Maggie.   One common theme brought everyone together – a desire to strengthen and rebuild our community.

We all know things have gone out of balance in America.  In neighborhoods across the country, working families understand what’s happening.  Corporate power has grown, while working people’s power has crumbled.  Corporate profits and banker bonuses are doing great, but the rest of us are, rightly, worried.  We’re worried about keeping our jobs, staying in our homes, feeding our kids, and retiring securely.  We know what the problems are, and we want to be part of the solution.

America’s workers are more productive than ever, but the benefits of our hard work have gone more and more to a small number of the very wealthy.  As the cost of health care, housing, and education has gone up, our wages have fallen behind and America is more unequal than ever.  In Washington, D.C., in state capitals, in workplaces and corporate boardrooms, the interests of ordinary working people and their families seem to have been forgotten.

There’s only one way we can reverse it and rebuild a country that works for everyone – and that’s together.

“I’m here tonight because a canvasser from Working America knocked on my door and inspired me to get more involved,” said Diane Stallard, who holds a master’s degree in HR and has years of experience in the field, but after a round of layoffs at her company two years ago, is still looking for work.

David Bouchey wants to see his community in Aurora get back on its feet, “I want to make sure my neighbors know about what our elected officials have been up to and to hold them accountable!”

It’s easy for banks, big corporations and the very wealthy to influence the political process – they have millions to spend on TV ads, lobbying and campaign contributions and, as we’ve seen, they’re not afraid to use it.

We can’t outspend these powerful interests – but we can fight for our needs with strength in numbers.  Together, we can have a bigger impact on important decisions about our economy and our country.  The morning after the meeting, Kevin Pape, CO State Director of Working America said, “this Community Action Team has voted and agreed to meet regularly to address the issues that matter most to us – rebuilding our neighborhoods.  We’re organizing, we’re building, and we’re gaining momentum.”

If you’re in the Denver area and would like to get more involved with our Community Action Team, call our Denver office at 303-935-2776 or shoot us an e-mail at denver@workingamerica.org.

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Denver Restaurant Workers Expose Public Health Risks Without Paid Sick Leave

Ali Cochran – Denver, Colorado

Two servers, a barista and a bartender recounted personal experiences of themselves and co-workers reporting to work sick at Denver restaurants today at an event on the west end of Larimer Square to highlight the public health risks connected with workers’ lack of paid sick days. Afterward, the Campaign for a Healthy Denver introduced “Sick Rick,” a six-foot tall germ who will educate Denver restaurant diners about these risks over the next three weeks until Election Day.

“I interact with hundreds of people every day—and when I’m sick at work, you better believe that my coworkers and our customers are going to get sick too,” said Eric Love, a bartender at a popular Denver restaurant and bar. “I wash my hands constantly, but if I’ve mixed your cocktail while I have a bad cold, you just might get more than that margarita you ordered.”

Compared to other Colorado counties, Denver County has had a high rate of food-borne disease outbreaks in the last decade. Last year, 24 “disease outbreaks” were reported in Denver, including five in food establishments. Outbreaks tend to be underreported, so the real number of disease outbreaks in Denver was likely higher. Sick workers are often the source of disease outbreaks in restaurants.

“I feel bad about showing up for work sick because the customers who come in for coffee are going to be exposed to whatever illness I have but I don’t have much choice if I’m going to pay my bills,” said Laura, a barista at a coffee shop with outlets across the city. “Not that long ago, a coworker came to work with pinkeye and served coffee all day because he couldn’t afford to miss a shift. I just know that some of our customers caught pinkeye from him.”

Restaurant employees go to work sick because their wages are very low and they simply cannot afford to take the hit from their paycheck and still pay the bills at the end of the month.

“What am I supposed to do?,” asked single mother and waitress Stasia. “I might not be able to pay the rent, put gas in the car or put food on the table for my three kids if I miss even one shift’s pay.”

Initiative 300 would not prevent “shift swapping.” “I’m still losing money by staying home if I’m too sick to get on the phone and swap a shift because most of my money comes from tips,” said Joel, a server at a hip central-Denver restaurant. “I’d only be paid the tipped minimum wage when I’m sick but at least it’s something to help pay my bills.”

After the restaurant employees spoke, the Campaign for a Healthy Denver introduced Sick Rick, a six-foot tall germ who visited Larimer Square restaurant lunchtime diners to tell them about the risks of sick restaurant workers and the need for Initiative 300 to protect the public health.

The Campaign for a Healthy Denver – a coalition of more than 120 community organizations, labor groups, faith leaders and organizations, public health groups, elected officials and businesses – seeks to pass Initiative 300, the Denver ballot initiative to protect public health by guaranteeing a basic standard of paid sick days for employees in all Denver workplaces.

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Word on the Street: Young Workers Come Together to Fight for Jobs In Denver

Ali Cochran – Denver, Colorado

Last night members of Working America gathered in Downtown Denver for a happy hour to address the jobs crisis and its disproportionate harm to young people.

Alex Jones, a local college student came to the Young Workers Community Action Club meeting because he’s nervous about finding a job when he gets out of school.  “These days it seems like even with an advanced degree there’s no guarantee.”   The sad part is, he’s right.  Young people have been hit harder than their parents by this economic recession.  Wages earned by young people have declined by 10 percent over the last 30 years.  Over one third of young workers don’t have health insurance and more than half have no retirement plans at work.

Karen Nussbaum, Executive Director of Working America, traveled from DC to meet with these workers as part of a multi-state tour to talk with some of Working America’s 3 million members.  There are over 90,000 members in Colorado alone, with more signing up every day.  As Karen told the group last night, “There is great strength in numbers.  At Working America we knock on people’s doors every night to talk to them about the issues they’re facing; we follow-up with our members and engage them in new and fun ways, like this Young Worker Community Action Team meeting tonight; we’re a part of something big and we are standing together to change the direction of our country.”

The Young Worker Community Action Team meet up was the third of its kind in Denver and comes just in advance of a young workers’ summit in Minnesota next week.  “Groups of young people are coming together across the country, meeting just like this group is tonight,” Kevin Pape, Colorado State Director of Working America, told the crowd.

A member of the Young Workers Community Action Team, Romina Halabi, was recently published in the Denver Post asking “where are the jobs for educated young workers in Colorado?”  She told others about her letter to the editor and how we need to make sure the media and our elected officials are paying attention to this devastating issue, “the easiest way for us to do that, is to tell our stories, and tell them often.”

Studies have shown that young workers are the first to get laid off, compete with more experienced workers for the same jobs, and often get paid less because they are younger.  It’s time to shine a spotlight on this issue.  It’s time for our voices to be heard.

If you’d like to get more involved with the Young Workers Community Action Team or Working America, please contact Ali Cochran at 303-935-9300 for information about our next happy hour.

Earned Sick Days for a Healthier Colorado

By Ali Cochran – Denver, Colorado

Since August, Working America has been talking to working class folks in Colorado about the issue of earned sick days, and we are finding overwhelming support for it. We’ve found that two out of three people that we talk to are signing up as members of Working America, in part because they support the ability to earn paid sick days. Coloradans understand that having access to sick days is needed to protect the health of families, workers and the community. Nearly 1 million Colorado workers–43 percent of the workforce–do not have any earned sick days. Most of these are lower-wage workers who are forced to go into work sick rather than risk not being able to make ends meet at the end of the month–or even losing their job.

When Working America knocked on Kristin D.’s door last week, we learned that she works at a children’s hospital in Denver. Her child became sick with a serious illness and she took time off to care for him. She was given two paid sick days by her employer but needed six days to fully care for her son. When she took the extra days she was fired from her job.

All Coloradans are put at risk when lower-wage workers in restaurants, childcare centers and medical caregiving are forced to go to work sick because they work for businesses that do not provide earned sick days to their employees.

Businesses benefit from earned sick leave policies because the resulting increase in productivity and reduced turnover saves nearly $600 a year for each full-time worker with earned sick time. This is even more important in a down economy when businesses are less able to absorb these costs. When sick workers are able to stay home, the spread of disease slows and workplaces are both healthier and more productive. Plus, workers recover faster from illness and obtain timely medical care — enabling them to get back to work sooner.

“Real-life experience tells us businesses are not going to have to close or relocate due to this modest measure,” said Dr. Cynthia Fukami, a professor of business management at D.U. “The data and experience in San Francisco and other places simply don’t support this fear.”

A lack of earned sick leave is a huge public health issue. The workers without the chance to earn paid sick days typically have significant interaction with the public. For example, you could be getting more than you ordered with your lunch. That’s because over 85 percent of the restaurant industry – servers and cooks – do not get a single earned sick day.

“We exchange cash with you, make your latte, hand you your pastry and yes, we sneeze,” explained Laura, a barista at a popular coffee shop in Denver. “So if an employee had to come to work with the flu because she couldn’t afford to miss work, you might be walking out of the store with your double latte and the flu.”

Children’s health depends on earned sick days, too. Childcare center and preschool workers frequently don’t have earned sick days, putting the children in their care (and their families) at risk for illness. And when parents have no paid sick days, many have no choice but to send sick children to school where the health of their classmates, teachers and child care providers are put at risk. The result is increased illnesses and higher rates of infection for all. Earned sick days policies are good for working families.

Believe it or not, home health nurses, Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs) and nursing home staff frequently don’t have earned sick leave, either. Patients in hospitals, long-term facilities, rehab centers and at home – already vulnerable to infection – are put at risk when these lower-wage workers have to choose between economic survival and patient safety.

“The people who work at nursing facilities should have paid sick days to protect their patients,” said Myra Crenshaw, a Denver woman who helps her mother care for her World War II veteran father. “My father caught a life-threatening respiratory illness at a rehab facility following a hospitalization for a leg injury. That just shouldn’t happen.”

Earned sick leave laws have benefited workers and businesses in cities where they have been enacted. 85 percent of employers surveyed in San Francisco, where an earned sick days law has been in effect since 2007, say that earned sick days have had no negative effect on profitability, and nearly 70 percent of employers in that city support the law. Employees have not abused the policy, using an average of 3 days annually. Not only are workers healthier and more productive; they don’t expose customers, clients and patients to illness.

We’ve found from our members that they agree that earned sick days are good for business, families, workers and the community.

Word on the Street: “Now We’re Just Trying to Survive”

Russ Meyer —  Portland, Oregon

My name is Russ Meyer. I live in Portland, Oregon with my wife Stephanie and my 4 year old son Wyatt.

I’m a college grad and have spent my career as marketing copywriter. I was laid off in October of 2008 and, aside from freelance or contract work wherever I can find it, I’ve been without consistent employment since. My wife stays at home with our son. And without an extension, we will lose unemployment insurance in a couple of months.

I never dreamed I would be without work for this long. I didn’t know the door that shut behind me that day would stay closed indefinitely. For many like me, getting back to the jobs and the income we had is a fantasy. Now we’re just trying to survive. We’ve come to grips with the reality that, for now, for today, we just have to find a way to get by.

We’re acutely aware of our situation. We know exactly which bills can’t get paid and exactly how much food and gas is going to cost this week. And we know exactly how far we can stretch our benefit amount. This isn’t about finally dipping into our savings. Those savings are long gone. It’s not about finally putting our pride aside to ask our family and friends for help. They’ve helped. They’re tapped out.

Unless you’ve been in our shoes, you can’t imagine the despair we feel knowing that we’ve reached the end of the line despite our best efforts.

We’ve learned we can do a hell of a lot with a little. Now is not the time to take that help away from us.

Only in America can you work 3 jobs

by Erin Brainard—Colorado

This week at a door I met a single mother of three who was working three jobs to get by. She said she slept an average of three to four hours a night. She said that she had gotten a promotion recently at one of her jobs but because she was salary she was not eligible for overtime. Read More

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Three Dues Paying Members in One Second

by Jon Caldwell—Ohio

Yesterday in Mt. Healthy I walked up to three people talking by their cars. I told them about Ohio’s job loss, and they could relate. They all signed up as members and signed EFCA postcards. When it came for dues they all said they wished they could but they had no money on them at that time. I thanked them for their support and made my way back to the rest of my call-backs. After 5-7 minutes one of the guys drove to find me with a dues payment for him and both of his friends.

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Health care nightmare

by Michael Dice—Colorado

While canvassing, I signed up a new member for Working America who is passionate about health care reform in this country. She was diagnosed several years ago with a serious autoimmune disease. She was forced to take medical retirement from a good job in California and to move to Colorado to be near family members to assist her with her physical needs. Her latest hospital bill was $95,000 dollars and she may have to file bankruptcy as a result. She had a very compelling story and wants to help out!

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Paying her dues

by Sheldon Vaughn—Colorado

Yesterday while canvassing, I met a woman outside her home who was nothing short of amazing. I approached her and gave my intro and she immediately was hooked on the idea of Working America. While giving answers to question after question as she filled out my clipboard, the subject of the voluntary dues finally came up. She said she had no cash on her, however she was headed to the grocery store. She then told me if I met her in twenty minutes she would give me five dollars. I skeptically agreed and canvassed for twenty minutes and met her in the exact same spot and she gladly handed me a five dollar bill.

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“Say no more!”

by Michael Dice—Colorado

During my first few days of canvassing, a lady interrupted my introduction, grabbed my clipboard and said emphatically, “That’s enough! Say no more!” She grabbed my clipboard, signed up as a dues-paying member, and also had her husband sign one of the band-aids for health care reform. Her enthusiastic attitude was a big confidence boost for a new canvasser just starting out.

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