When I heard about the death of Maria Fernandes, an exhausted worker who died while napping in her car between two of her four jobs, I felt an immense sadness that quickly turned to anger. Maria was a victim of an economic condition that grinds up low-wage workers, particularly women.
She is not alone. More than 7.5 million Americans are working more than one job. Unemployment soared during the Great Recession and the decent-paying jobs that were lost have yet to return. In their absence, workers must cobble together a living from whatever jobs they can find.
That's unacceptable. I refuse to believe patching together a meager living from several low-paying jobs is the best we can do for workers today. The question is, do our leaders in Washington agree?
"Uniquely American," is what former President George W. Bush said in praise of a woman who told him she worked three jobs to support her family. While her effort was indeed praiseworthy, the statement overshadowed the dire reality of her situation and the millions who share it. Unfortunately, many of our leaders in Washington continue to ignore the needs of working families, struggling immigrants and hardworking public service workers, and their failed policies continue to create more harm than good.
While President Obama increased the minimum wage for federal contractors, extremists in Congress prevented the vast majority of minimum wage workers from getting their first raise in more than five years. This desperately needed policy change would certainly improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Too many of our elected officials support tax cuts for the rich and turn their backs on programs that help the poor and middle class work their way toward a better life.
While the upper class and high-wage earners increased their wealth, policies that favor them took a heavy toll on the average worker, and particularly on women like Maria. The disparity of disposable income between the upper classes and America's labor force is unprecedented and disgusting.
While the death of Maria is unusual, the lengths that women must go to today to support their families is not. Imagine for a moment the desperation women like Maria must feel as they struggle to find a way to take care of their children - without a living wage and while all hope dwindles.
This past Thursday, fast food workers in more than 100 cities demanded better. They struck for better wages, joined by home care workers and union members who want better treatment for all low-wage workers. The action is part of a two-year effort to increase the hourly wage of fast food workers to $15.
With no sensible policy alternatives coming from Washington, many states stepped up to raise the minimum wage. More important, workers are taking it upon themselves to organize to build an economy that works for everyone. We can force change in Washington if we work together.
Maria Fernandes, ultimately lost her fight, but it is not too late to give other impoverished workers a chance to dream of a better life. It's up to us to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.