Boston 3d most inequitable city

Underpaid workers launch 'Fight for $15'

BOSTON HAS SERVED as a moral beacon for the nation on key social justice issues. We have taken great strides to ensure quality healthcare for all, led the way on legalizing gay marriage, raised the minimum wage, and ensured earned sick time for employees – all with the eyes of the nation upon us.

So it’s with dismay that we must acknowledge just how inequitable our largest city is when it comes to wealth.  The top 1 percent continues to grow richer while low wage workers suffer and struggle at disproportionate rates.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Boston is the third most inequitable US city, with the top 5 percent of households earning 15 times what the bottom 20 percent make. In real dollars, that means those in the top 95th percentile took home $239,837 in income, while those at the bottom 20th percentile made just $15,952 in 2013.

Thousands of underpaid workers from across industries are planning to take to the streets of Boston on Tuesday to demand a real living wage of $15 an hour. The “Fight for $15” secured some major victories last year, but there is much work that remains to address Boston’s troubling place on the leaderboard of wage inequality.

Take for example 76-year-old Annie Mae Bell, a personal care attendant who lives in a housing cooperative in Roxbury. Even though most people her age would have retired, Annie Mae works 30 hours a week making $13.38 an hour because she can’t afford to retire. Annie Mae and other personal care attendants have clawed their way to $13.38 by forming a union and negotiating for pay improvements, but they’ve set their sights on $15 an hour as the next milestone. Meanwhile, some private agency home care workers are paid even less – sometimes as low as the minimum wage of $9 per hour.

For the last 12 years, Annie Mae has cared for a 70-year-old Jamaica Plain woman with cerebral palsy. Annie Mae does grocery shopping, brings her client to dentist and doctor appointments, cooks breakfast and lunch, and does cleaning and laundry.

This winter, Annie Mae spent four consecutive nights in Jamaica Plain with her client because she knew it would be difficult to travel to and from the home in the snow. Without her, the client would have been stranded and may have faced hospitalization or worse.

Even though Annie Mae wasn’t even paid for the extra time she spent with her client, she didn’t see any other way. “It’s a hard task,” Annie Mae shared recently. “We have to put the love of the patient into whatever we do.”

For Annie Mae, like many other low-wage workers, a day away from the job is a threat to their livelihood. When she can’t make it to the office – that office being her patient’s home – she misses a crucial day of pay.

Annie Mae says that a living wage would mean she can treat her own family with the same care that she providers her patients. She can’t afford a gift for her grandson’s upcoming graduation from Newbury College. She told him she couldn’t spend much, and he said that he understands.

Annie Mae has had two knee replacements and she walks with a cane. But she said she’ll be in Forsyth Park on Tuesday to rally for a living wage for all. She is looking forward to joining her allies in the fast food industry, higher education, transportation, healthcare, and affordable housing to call for a better wage here in our great city and across the Commonwealth.

“We’re all in this together,” Annie Mae said.

It’s workers like Annie Mae who are the heart of the Fight for $15 movement and they’ll be advocating to ensure their hard work is recognized as they begin negotiations for a new contract this month.

There are several bills on deck at the State House to lift up low-wage workers and to address the wage inequality gap. Those include bills to require a $15 wage at big box stores and fast food chains, a bill to secure $15 an hour for 20,000 homecare workers employed through private agencies, and another to help tipped wage workers get to a minimum wage by 2022.

These bills are important next steps in the Fight for $15, as is the historic mobilization that will occur on Tuesday.

It’s fitting that Boston will be the launching point for two days of massive wage inequality protests across the globe. Our message is clear: we’re not going to let this low wage crisis continue. And we are taking to the streets of Boston to demonstrate that economic justice for all is a priority.

Meet the Author
Veronica Turner is the Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents 50,000 healthcare workers throughout Massachusetts and nearly 400,000 workers across the East Coast. 1199SEIU is one of a number of organizations working together in the Fight for $15 as part of the Wage Action Coalition.