I have a little boy, such a fine son!
When I look at him, it seems to me
that the whole world is mine.
It's seldom though that I see my boy awake,
for I always find him sleeping and see him only at night.
My job drives me from home at dawn and lets me return only late,
so that I hardly know my own child's looks.
--- Mayn Yingele, by Morris Rosenfeld, 1887
This Yiddish song describes the life of a 19th century sweat-shop worker. But it is also a poem for 21st century Nevada.
A new study, Working Hard, Living Poor, by University of Nevada, Reno professor Dr. Susan Chandler and social worker Alicia Smalley shows that 16-hour work days and persistent debt are common among Nevada workers.
The study seeks to define a "living wage" in Nevada that would take into account the basic costs of living in our communities: rent, food, utilities, health care, child care, taxes and meager savings. This definition of "basic needs" does not include vacations, recreation, dental insurance, savings or caring for extended family. The study finds that for a family of four the basic cost of living in Nevada is $3,000 per month.
A "living wage" is the amount a couple or a single parent needs to earn to cover basic living costs. For a family of four - 2 parents and 2 children - a living wage is about $36,000 a year. That means each parent needs to make about $8 per hour. For a family of three - a parent and two children - it's a little over $30,000, or $14.57 per hour.
Unfortunately, the actual prevailing wage in Northern Nevada is nowhere near that. The report finds that 57.3 percent of current Nevada jobs pay less than a living wage for a three-person family. Of the fastest growing occupations in the state - mainly service jobs like cashiers, sales people, and waitresses - 87 percent paid less than a living wage.
America was founded on the principle of working hard and benefiting from your labor. It turns out many working Nevadans are not seeing many benefits. At least not the Nevadans at the bottom of the wage scale.
Why are working Nevadans poor during this period of unprecedented prosperity? It's not as though our tourist industry can't afford to do better for its workers. After all, the average CEO salary has increased 525 times in the last 25 years, according to Business Week. Casino executives are doing well indeed.
The disparity between earnings of the lowest and highest workers in Nevada is shocking. A Station Casino janitor in Las Vegas would have to work 459 years at his $7 per hour pay to make the annual $6.6 million salary of the casino's CEO, Frank Fertitta, Jr., according to Dr. Susan Chandler. The CEO, on the other hand, would have to work about 4.5 hours to make the janitor's annual salary. I mean, how embarassing is that?
I found several examples of workers on the edge of poverty in researching my book on casino and hotel workers. It's a familiar story. People come here from around the world, ready to work hard. They appreciate having a job. But they simply can't make ends meet on the prevailing pay-scale. They sacrifice the present for the future. They swap time spent with their families for an
extra job to feed and clothe them. They forego health insurance. They cram two families into two bedrooms. They cannot save up for a house or a college education.
I'm convinced that none of this is good for Nevada or our children. There must be a better way.
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which put out the report, recommends two sensible courses of action to help boost our workers out of poverty:
1. Increase the minimum wage. Federal and Nevada minimum wage is currently $5.15 per hour. Ten states have already increased their levels through legislative action or ballot initiative.
2. Enact living wage laws. Over 50 of these have been passed around the nation. Such ordinances require local governments and private businesses that benefit from public money (through contracts, tax breaks, grants, loans or bond financing) to pay their workers a living wage.
These changes would strengthen Nevada's families and our communities.
Mrs. B., a Hilton laundry worker, spoke at the press conference when the living wage report was released. She explained that when her daughter was born she had to take a second full-time job and leave the baby with her mother. Each day she came home from her first job, watched her sleeping baby for an hour, and cried. Then she went out to her other job.
Kit Miller is a local photographer, filmmaker and author of the book "Inside the Glitter: Lives of Casino Workers."