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Another Voice: Low-wage workers widely exploited in Buffalo

By Nicole Hallett

In December 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a “Buffalo Billion II,” which is focused on bringing smaller manufacturers to Western New York. “We’re making strategic investments today to foster … job creation across Western New York,” Cuomo said when announcing this latest initiative to bring jobs to Buffalo and Erie County. Yet, this focus on job creation obscures a sad reality – many of the low-wage jobs that do exist in the region are exploitative and dangerous.

I conducted a survey for Open Buffalo in 2017 about low-wage employment in the City of Buffalo and Erie County. We asked participants about their pay, benefits, hours, and working conditions in order to study the problems faced by low-wage workers in the region. The survey’s findings paint a bleak picture of the challenges many workers face in their workplaces, including pervasive wage theft and unsafe working conditions. These findings suggest that our local and state governments should focus on the quality – not just the quantity – of jobs.

For example, almost one in six low-wage workers reported making under the minimum wage ($9.70 at the time of the study) and more than a third reported not being paid overtime in violation of law. One in six reported working off the clock for no pay and more than a quarter reported that they had failed to receive their pay on time. In all, 58.9 percent of low-wage workers reported at least one pay-related violation at their current job. For low-wage workers, these violations can mean the difference between having just enough and not enough to provide for their basic needs. The minimum wage is already low enough that a full-time job does not guarantee an escape from poverty; wage theft only exacerbates this problem.

The results on health and safety were equally troubling. A third of low-wage workers who reported handling dangerous materials or operating dangerous equipment as part of their jobs reported that their employer did not provide adequate safety or protective gear. Over a quarter of those same workers reported not being properly trained to avoid accident or injury. Fourteen percent of workers reported actually being injured or suffering an accident on the job. Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed reported at least one health and safety violation. An injury on the job can be devastating for a worker already living close to the poverty line. This is particularly the case for low-wage workers who, the survey found, often do not have important protections such as health insurance and paid sick leave. For these workers a single injury or illness can lead to economic devastation.

The survey also pointed to troubling disparities among populations. Almost universally, women, people of color and non-citizens reported higher rates of exploitation in the workplace, suggesting that this is not just a poverty issue, but an equality issue as well. Though the survey did not tease out the reason for such disparities, experience suggests that employers exploit vulnerable workers because they can. (The one exception: men reported higher rates of injury and lack of safety training, suggesting that men may sometimes be vulnerable as well).

The Buffalo resurgence will only mean something if everyone benefits. Right now, many low-wage workers are being left behind. Our survey documents the problem; now we must call on our elected officials to work on solutions.

Nicole Hallett is an assistant clinical professor of law and director of the Community Justice Clinic at the UB School of Law.

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