Reflections of an Evolving Elder: Labor Day

Shaun A. Pennington
Shaun A. Pennington (Source file photo)

On a walk in the woods Sunday, I was reflecting on the importance of Labor Day and what it means in America in this year 2019. But more particularly what it means in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The first thing that came to mind was the dire need for what has become known as a living wage.

The territory has raised its minimum wage to $10.50 per hour from the federal minimum of $7.25. But that does not apply to people working in restaurants or “tourist service” – whatever that means. Generally, people who are tipped can make as little as $4.20 an hour.

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The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the Virgin Islands, according to rentdata.org, is $1,139, the ninth highest in the 54 U.S. states and territories. Of course that figure has an automatic flaw because it includes St. John where rents are well … exorbitant.

But let’s do the math anyway. Someone working for $10.50 an hour in the V.I. will bring home after taxes roughly $350 a week, times four — $1400 a month, leaving less than $300 to live on.

Even if they paid no taxes, take home would be $420 for 40 hours of labor.

I need to insert just one fact here to make this real, though statistics make people’s eyes glaze over in general: Almost 30 percent of our children live in poverty in the United States Virgin Islands. Given the above math, that is not hard to believe. And 58 percent live in a single parent home. So, in many cases there is only one income supporting a family.

As for the rent, I am not taking into account that rent is lower than average in housing communities for low income people or some of the newly built middle-income properties. But still. People who labor for their money should have dignity and the same basic opportunities and safety nets as those who make money from money. Let’s have that as not just an ideal, but as a goal, whatever it takes.

The other thing that was on my mind during my long walk, was an idea implanted before a meal as a “grace” at one of my retreats about thanking the farmers and the truckers and the grocers who made it possible for us to have food on the table. And that could be extended every morning, noon and night for the government employees, and the Water and Power Authority personnel, and the postal workers and those who care for the elderly and ill … the nurses, hospice workers, teachers who care for our children, the police, lifeguards, construction workers. The list could go on forever.

And yet the establishment of a day to honor laborers in 1892 was hard won. When you read the details of the history of labor movements in this “land of the free” it will shock you. Or at least it shocked me. I have been making my way through “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn for years.

The things we were never taught boggles the mind and makes me furious, which is why it has taken so long for me to get through Zinn’s landmark work. Decades. Thousands of people died in riots in New York State alone. They wanted safe working conditions. They wanted fair wages. They wanted an end to child labor. They died so we could celebrate those things today.

The deaths were not in vain. Those brave, determined men and women achieved many of their goals. We have labor unions and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But those institutions could not stop the greedy in our country today who would happily put 8-year-olds back to work if it would improve the bottom line. They got around all that by sending some of their jobs, along with their headquarters, to places that have yet to arise to the most paltry of U.S. standards.

However, most of our manufacturing jobs – which supported a blue collar middle class for most of my lifetime – have been automated with great glee by the thought of how much will be saved if you don’t have to pay people. So, where are those people who lost their jobs and quickly ran out of unemployment? They are all over our country and islands.

An acquaintance said recently in a casual conversations that “people don’t want to work.” It’s such a cop out concept. My reply was, “Where are the jobs?” She replied with assurance, “There are plenty of jobs.”

I wanted to ask her – even if that were true, which it isn’t – if she would want to work at those jobs she felt were readily available. Like how about some fast food joint for minimum wage – or in a convenience store as I once did to make ends meet when I was developing a new career in the daytime that didn’t pay enough to suffice. But I knew it was pointless to try to convince someone who has bought the “welfare queen” concept that that is a myth.

I have learned in my old age, people either really care about and are willing to consider the true plight others, or they don’t and aren’t.

So, I would like to suggest that as we are cooking our hot dogs and playing on the beach with our family and friends on this Labor Day, that we give a few moments of thanks and prayers for those who are not on the beach. Maybe they are at work like some of those mentioned above. Or maybe they are at a homeless shelter. Or perhaps they are just wandering around with all their worldly goods wondering where they are going to spend the night because even though they are working, they don’t make enough to afford a place to live.

We are creative and capable as people. We just need to apply our best efforts toward making our world safe and healthy for everyone. It’s is our civil obligation. And while we are at it, looking our fellow laborers in the eye and giving them a genuine, heartfelt thank you for their service goes a long way toward soothing the woundedness created by the epic inequality that we live with for now.

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