Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Who Changes Your Sheets?

It's no secret I travel, quite a lot. I stay in a lot of hotels, and I eat in a lot of restaurants, which means someone else is often making my bed and preparing my food. These people work hard, are on their feet most of the day, and are exposed to environmental hazards that go long with their work.

  • Housekeepers are exposed to harsh chemicals, disease and illness, have to clean bodily fluids, and are frequently targets of sexual harassment, as well as physical and sexual assault  - primarily because the overwhelming majority of the 924,000 people serving in this role according the the US Labor Department's 2018 statistics are women.  For some horrifying case examples, I suggest you read Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky, an excoriating expose on the hotel industry. 
  • Prep cooks face cuts, burns, exposure to toxins, food-borne illness and work in hot kitchens with slick floors, often with poor ventilation. Anthony Bourdain explores these worlds in Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, which are good if vulgar, reads. There is something on order of 1.2 million prep cooks in the US.

Interestingly, these two positions, hotel housekeeper and prep cook, have nearly identical average wages: $12.30/hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor (although other sources cite lower average hourly wages).

$12.80 an hour means a gross annual pay of $25,584/year, but only if you work exactly 40 hours a week, all 52 weeks a year. No vacation, no sick days, no time-off to take your child to the doctor or enroll them in school. It also assumes you are 100% on-time, your car never breaks down or the bus is late, you never have to attend a funeral or jury service, and nothing unexpected ever happens on a work day.  This also assumes that you can get scheduled for 40 hours a week, meaning the restaurant is never slow on a Monday or the hotel has a midweek slump in reservations, or the boss just hired an additional person so everyone's hours get cut by a few.

However, if you are just getting your first job in the industry and you are a new employee, chances are you are making under the average salary.

In sum, it won't take much less than that 40 hours/week for 52 weeks to qualify these full-time restaurant and hotel workers for Medicaid or food stamps, depending on the state you live in and the formula the state uses to determine eligibility (133% percent of the poverty line? 200%? Only if you are pregnant or have children? That determination alone is a cluster that the federal government has basically admitted is totally not clear NOR consistent!)

And you know the overwhelming majority of people in these positions?

Immigrants.


Knowing all this, my head nearly exploded again today when US Acting Director for Citizenship and Immigration Ken Cuccinelli publicly stated: "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." I honestly thought it was satire and then saw the headline was from NPR.

The Trump administration will evaluating immigration status on the basis of the "likelihood to need public assistance" at some point in the future.

For assistance they might qualify for despite the full-time jobs listed above (as well as many other service and labor jobs not included in this discussion.)

This is insulting and disingenuous. This kind of statement implies folks are coming here to feed off the American system like parasites. And it’s wrong.

When I was living, learning, researching and trying to serve in Bucharest a million years ago, I met a couple who had just gotten a lottery spot for a visa to America. They were excited to go- America was a chance at a new life, drastically different from their post-Communist world. They wanted to work, and they wanted to earn their new life. She told me she was able to get the visa because a motel in Tennessee gave her a housekeeping position. We talked about the work because I was worried about her- the income level and the workload. She dismissed my concerns and said they would make it, they would work hard, work more hours, because they wanted to be in America.

These are the folks that are coming here. People who take a look at their circumstances and say “I want better and I will work hard for that chance.” They aren’t coming to live off the government dole and steal American healthcare or whatever the xenophobes in the current Administration believe. These are people looking for a better life, who are being actively recruited to come here to work these low wage positions. There is an ugly reality that this country relies on underpaid workers. Those positions are often filled by immigrants who have seen the reality in their current country and are willing to take the job, because here is better than there. But instead of tackling complicated root cause issues, this administration is happy to once again, blame their favorite whipping post, the foreign-born. Never mind that legally employed immigrants pay taxes on those low wage jobs - how dare they perhaps consider they may need healthcare and the only way they might afford said care is through a government program! Apparently, these folks are good enough to change our sheets, cook our food and clean our toilets, but not use our healthcare or receive permanent residency.

Extinguish the lamp the New Colossus holds. We don't deserve the benefit of her light. Blind her eyes, so the Mother of Exiles doesn't have to bear witness to the callous, uncaring citizenry we have become. And by all means, cover her plaque, for clearly we shall only accept the storied pomp and not the tired and poor.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

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