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Helping low-income workers find their voice

Liz Smith-Rossiter relates to workers coping with poverty.

Growing up in Oneida County, her mother was a day care worker who put in long hours but earned little. “We suffered for it as children, growing up in poverty,” she said.

But Smith-Rossiter went on to graduate from Ithaca College in 2007, and came to Buffalo on an assignment for the Working Families Party. She loved the city and decided to stay. After a stint with the state Senate’s Democratic majority, she landed a position with the Western New York Worker Center, which turned into a full-time role as its project director. Last year, the Buffalo resident also got married and completed her master’s degree in public administration at SUNY Buffalo State.

The Worker Center is a project of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health, both of which are based at the Tri-Main Building. WNYCOSH has long had connections with organized labor, but created the Worker Center to respond to a changing workplace, such as an increase in temporary workers who often lack adequate training for hazardous jobs, said Germain Harnden, WNYCOSH’s executive director. “It’s different in the sense that these are unorganized workers.”

As Americans celebrate Labor Day weekend, Smith-Rossiter, 31, reflected on the challenges she tries to help workers overcome through the Worker Center:

Q: What does the Worker Center do?

A: A Worker Center is an organization that brings together predominantly low-wage workers to educate them about their rights on the job, advocate for policies that protect workers, and also encourages workers to organize on their own behalf to improve their working conditions. So we offer support to do all those things. It’s a mix of services and organizing.

Q: What challenges do these workers face?

A: One problem we see over and over again is wage theft, which is the practice of not being paid adequately for your work. It can come in a myriad of ways. It can show up as not getting paid for overtime, or that you’re getting charged for breaks, or that you’re promised a rate of pay and then that not rate is not paid out to you. Or sometimes we see it come in the shape of fees that extract money out.

Another thing we see often is workplace violence, a lot. That can be from customers. These are all preventable. This is why we take this position that companies are the ones who need to be responsible for keeping workers safe. … In certain industries, we still see a lot of chemical exposures and hazards. … It’s 2015, nobody should go to work and think they’re not coming home because of their working conditions.

Q: How do you find the workers whom you help? Is it through other groups you work with?

A: It’s partially that. We also have clinics that are set up for the third Thursday of the month, in conjunction with PUSH Buffalo, where folks can come in and talk about issues that they’re having at work and find a resource to help them navigate what the next step is. [The clinics are held at Our Lady of Hope Church in Buffalo.] Some people call us and tell us what’s going on, sometimes they drop in with an issue.

Q: Do you run into language or cultural barriers with workers who are immigrants or refugees?

A: That’s a challenge. This is also how we’ve been starting to work a little more deeply with refugee resettlement agencies, because we want to go to organizations where there is some trust already built, to orient folks to that, there are agencies in place ,for instance like OSHA, that can be a resource. But if you come from a country where you have distrust in your government, you probably won’t come forward.

It’s also why leadership development is also really important, and that we’re working on that. … That will be a space to sort of ‘skill up’ people, get them more confident in using their own voices, to take agency over their lives. And part of that is speaking up when work place practices are unfair, unjust or illegal.

Q: How do workers put your help into action?

A: It would be more of a knowledge base to know when you’re being exploited, and to have confidence to know and to fix it. And fixing it can look like a lot of different things. It can be reporting it to OSHA, it can be just talking to your boss about it to say that’s not fair, or it can be you want the confidence to speak to other workers about these problems and try to put in place measures to fix it.

Q: Are employers receptive?

A: It’s a mixed bag. We’re not anti-business. Sometimes businesses really want to do the right thing and they just don’t know, and they need more information. Sometimes when workers speak up about it, they change it. We work with a lot of businesses to train businesses on how to put these things in place and make sure they’re armed with information to be good actors in our community, particularly small businesses. And then there are others that are very resistant.

Q: Have temporary workers become a bigger segment of the economy?

A: It’s definitely growing into a big piece of the economy following the crash in 2008. It’s mostly because some employers were really tepid about putting people on long-term because they didn’t know what the financial picture looked like. But then, what should have been a temporary solution of having temporary workers, has turned into a [business] model. I actually know some temp workers who have been in temp status for seven years. That is not temporary. And those jobs of course don’t pay very well, they don’t have benefits. And that has impact on our whole economy when those are the kinds of jobs people get, because people will continue to live in poverty and it’s not helping our larger economy.

Q: How do you measure success with your work?

A: Usually, it’s based on what the workers want. Workers feel satisfied, it’s usually a win. We also feel like we’ve accomplished something when, and this is sort of unquantifiable, when we see the workers feel more empowered in some way, that they’ve come into their own voice a little bit more, or they’ve developed their leadership skills. They come from a place feeling totally powerless and beaten down to feeling that they matter and that their voice matters, and that their safety on the job matters, and a recognition that they should have dignity when they go to work.

Q: What does Labor Day mean to you?

A: We’re part of a movement for better working conditions, and that’s really the nature of what Labor Day is. It celebrates the struggle of workers for improved working conditions and to have dignity at work. And the dignity of labor, of having a job and taking pride in that job. Part of that means that your boss respects your work, and respects you.

Part of honoring the struggle also means that you respect and honor the laws that were put into place to protect workers, and that those laws were not just given out by benevolent politicians. They were fought for, and in some cases, people died for those protections. It’s a recognition of those folks, their struggle and that we’re continuing to struggle for that.