For the fourth straight year, working families will approach the holidays feeling burdened and anxious. Millions of Americans are still looking for work or trying to make ends meet with eight dollar an hour jobs, which means Thanksgiving Day meals and holiday gifts are unaffordable luxuries.
Sadly, neither employers nor lawmakers seem inspired by the holiday spirit to lend these families a helping hand. Just the opposite. Federal lawmakers cut food stamp benefits by $5 billion at the beginning of the month and are now debating whether to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed set to expire at the end of December. A popular fast food chain recommended their workers sell their gifts or seek public assistance in order to better make ends meet.
Even if families are able to afford a Thanksgiving dinner, they probably won’t be at home to enjoy it. In what is now a standard and sad holiday tradition, the same high-growth corporations in the restaurant and retail industry paying their workers poverty-level wages are also the ones most likely to be open for business on Thursday.
Workers will be expected to forgo the traditional holiday meal, don their uniforms and head to work, just so their employers can hit their key December revenues and deal-crazy shoppers can attack the shelves (and each other) a few hours earlier.
Income and wealth inequality is a popular rallying cry nowadays, and for good reason. But how and where the different halves of our society will spend the Thanksgiving holiday is also revealing. The disparity between the celebrating-haves and the working have-not’s points to the significance of a public policy issue – job quality in the growing, low-wage service sector – with which we have not adequately reckoned.
The retail and hospitality industries depend on meeting consumer demand at all times and with the lowest possible labor costs. This means workers in these sectors are on the clock whenever others consumers are not working – evenings, weekends and holidays – and are expected to be on call the rest of the time. Yet, these workers are also the least likely to be armed with benefits like paid sick days, vacation time or child care assistance (which many other workers take for granted), which makes navigating these nontraditional shifts and erratic schedules even more difficult.
Consumers seem split on the morality of asking workers to be available on Thanksgiving. Thousands may sign online petitions asking stores to remain closed. But just as many, if not more, will surely be standing in line Thursday night, aiming to take advantage of whatever bargain they can find this holiday season. Stores would not open unless consumers wanted to shop, and evidently they do.
Corporations may think this is what a strong economy looks like: stores’ lights are on, they’re serving customers, products flying off the shelves, and hitting December sales projections. But they’re wrong. A strong economy is founded on good jobs and secure families. A strong economy is where workers have enough to afford the basics, parents can care for their kids and families can enjoy a holiday meal together. The reason that retail shops are worried about their end-of-year revenues is because families don’t earn enough to buy their stuff. Stores and restaurants need consumer demand. Only when workers have enough money in their pockets to spend can they support local businesses, who in turn can hire more workers
Our greatest obstacle to job creation and economic growth is then the fact that half of all American families lack basic economic security. This is why the wages and schedules of retail and restaurant workers matter to all of us.
Restoring our middle class and powering growth means ensuring workers in the highest growth, lowest paid service jobs can still support themselves. If consumers will continue to eat out on Friday nights and shop on Thanksgiving and seek out the lowest prices, it’s up to voters to make sure we build an economy where prosperity is widely shared. That means supporting policies that make work pay and ensure all workers access to leave and sick time. It means raising the federal minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage, passing the FAMILY Act and allowing retail workers to seek collective bargaining. It means workers being able to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner with their families without worrying about losing their job or being unable to afford the next meal.
We know what a strong economy looks like and we know how to get there. Until we recognize that we’re in this together though, we’ll keep returning to the same dilemma every holiday season and all the months in between. And working families, businesses and our economy cannot afford that.