Working for Less than the Minimum Wage

While Congress debates raising the minimum wage, many workers still do not earn the current minimum. Community organizers in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn are running a local campaign focused on grocery baggers who receive only tips from customers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Despite efforts to raise the minimum wage, many workers do not even earn the current minimum of $5.15 an hour, often in violation of state and federal labor laws.

NPR's Nancy Solomon visited a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where a local campaign is focusing on grocery baggers who only receive tips from customers.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick is a busy thoroughfare with discount stores, Mexican taquerias and low-priced supermarkets. Shoppers walk past men playing dominos on this sweltering summer evening.

Before they enter the Associated Supermarket, they're met by community organizers who live in this largely Latino neighborhood. Veya Vestidea(ph) works for a Bushwick organization called Make the Road by Walking, which is boycotting the supermarket because, she says, it doesn't pay minimum wage. She quickly explains the boycott to each shopper, and about half walk away.

Ms. VEYA VESTIDEA (Make the Road by Walking): I say do you agree to buy and contribute with a boycott? (Unintelligible) exploitation of the workers. And she say no, I'm going to another place.

SOLOMAN: At the organization's headquarters a few blocks away, Ramone and Tomacia Nunia-Ortega(ph) are folding newsletters in a large meeting hall. The elderly couple moved to Brooklyn seven years ago, and even though Ramone Nunia-Ortega has work documents, he agreed to bag groceries at Associated Supermarket for no pay - only tips.

Mr. RAMONE NUNIA-ORTEGA (Brooklyn Resident): (Through translator) Because there was nothing else to do. So I took it because it also was, for us, good. It wasn't too strenuous, for example, but it was hard as well.

SOLOMAN: He bagged groceries for seven years and the daily tips ranged from zero up to $50 at Christmas. Then he heard from a union organizer that it was illegal for the store not to pay him. He and others filed a complaint for back wages with the New York State Attorney General's Office.

The owner of Associated Supermarket did not return calls from NPR. His attorney, Joseph Rosenthal, says his client is cooperating with an Attorney General's investigation and would not comment further. Rosenthal also declined to confirm the store owner's name, which is listed in New York City business license records as Raedmus Demanay(ph).

Store manager Arnoldo Maldonado(ph) also declined to talk to NPR, but he told a local newspaper that the boycott wouldn't work, because his customers like low prices.

Outside the store, at a time when the organizers are not around, shoppers still say they think workers should be paid fairly, but Marilyn Morales(ph) says she's not sure whether she wants to support the boycott.

Ms. MARILYN MORALES (Shopper): Well, the prices are excellent, and I always tip them good. I usually give them $2 or $3, so you know, I don't have problems with it.

SOLOMAN: You don't have a problem with them not getting paid minimum wage?

Ms. MORALES: Oh, that I don't - it should be, they - you know, if they're working there, why not?

SOLOMAN: It's not known how many Americans work below minimum wage. Bradley Schiller, an economist at American University, says a grocery bagger working for tips could be considered an independent contractor. He says low-wage jobs, even though below the federal minimum, are an important part of the labor market that gives workers a chance to prove themselves and move into higher wages.

Mr. BRADLEY SCHILLER (Economist, American University): You know, you have to put yourself in the position of the small retail employer who, you know, has job applicants come in all the time and who has no idea who's going to work out and who doesn't.

Ms. ANNETTE BERNHARDT (Researcher, Brennan Center for Justice): This is not just about paying low wages. This is about employers breaking the law.

SOLOMAN: Annette Bernhardt is a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. In a study of low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Bernhardt found minimum wage violations to be commonplace, and not just in grocery stores.

Ms. BERNHARDT: It also includes construction, day laborers, restaurants, home care workers, childcare workers.

SOLOMAN: Bernhardt compiled U.S. Labor Department figures showing that in the last 30 years the number of workplaces covered by minimum wage standards has grown, while at the same time the Department has cut its staff of investigators.

She adds that undocumented immigrants are afraid to complain. That's why organizers stand out on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn each evening, talking to consumers.

The group hasn't just got its sights set on wages. It wants workers to have the right to unionize in these small discount stores, and it's relying on the low income consumers who live in this neighborhood to demand it.

Nancy Soloman, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: And you can read about who would be helped and hurt by an increase in the minimum wage and about the politics behind the push to raise it at our website, npr.org.

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