THE BLOG
12/20/2012 03:12 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

Pursuing the American Dream From a Brooklyn Homeless Shelter

If you've been watching the news, you know that low-wage workers have been standing up to their employers and fighting back for their rights. These men and women, who work hard for low pay in airports, supermarkets, car washes, and fast food restaurants are taking to the streets and to the airwaves about the need for better wages, benefits, and respect.

One such worker is a young woman named Pamela Flood, who works at a Brooklyn Burger King, making $7.25 an hour. Ms. Flood also works at a Brooklyn CVS, where she makes $7.60 an hour. In addition to holding down two jobs, she's also maintaining a 4.0 average while studying to be a medical assistant. Ms. Flood sounds like an American success story in the making. She's working hard while going to school to better sharpen her skills and build a better future for herself and her three children. Day after day, she works, studies and cares for her family; and at night she tucks her three children, ages 5, 3, and, 1 into bed at a Fort Greene homeless shelter.

It doesn't make much sense, does it? The American dream -- which President Obama perfectly articulated in his post-election press conference when he stated, "I've got a mandate... to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class" -- is that you work hard and your efforts are rewarded with a fair, honest wage. Why, then, is it that workers like Ms. Flood are forced to rely on public assistance? It's simple -- the corporations that own Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell and others would rather pay their CEOs millions of dollars a year while hard-working store employees are underpaid. This type of "trickle down" economics didn't work in the 1980s, and it has proven equally unsuccessful is 2012 as we see major companies actually cut-back employee hours in an effort to avoid providing health care.

Two weeks ago, I joined some of my colleagues in escorting fast food workers back to their jobs one day after they bravely stood up, and walked out to protest their low wages and working conditions. Together with local clergy, and community groups like UnitedNY, Make the Road NY, and New York Communities for Change, we stood to support workers because we knew that a strong show of support would be necessary to prevent retaliation against workers by store management. (Still, at least one Wendy's employee was fired for her participation, and later rehired after pressure from her council member).

We live in a political climate in which a narrative is being spread concerning low-income people, and those who depend on public assistance. It is important that we put a face on the 8.7 percent of New Yorkers who are unemployed, and the great number who are under-employed -- individuals who want to earn a sufficient income to provide for themselves and their families, but are offered only contingent or part-time work that doesn't offer any benefits, much less a livable wage. These multi-billion dollar fast food restaurants, many of which are located in low-to-middle-income communities throughout New York City, need to be held accountable for the way they treat their workers. For too long they have gotten away with paying their workers only slightly above minimum wage, offering no more than part-time work, and easily firing any employee who challenged the status quo. With new federal standards regarding mandated health care, this will only get worse.

The brave workers who walked off of the job did so because they know they cannot afford for the current working conditions and wages to remain the way they are. They know change is necessary, but it is up to us to help force that change.

Let's face it -- we know that in situations like these, the eyes of the nation are on us. There is no other city quite like New York. This type of notoriety places us under a microscope when issues of economic inequality are raised. This is, after all, the city that has consistently rejected Walmart. But it is especially here that we see the gap between the rich and the lower and middle-class get increasingly wider. It is imperative that we set the national example and make it clear that companies seeking to do business in New York City cannot be allowed to treat their workers like second-class citizens. Workers like Ms. Flood should not have to take on two jobs, only to have to rely on public assistance to make up the difference for paychecks that always fall short. We as a city are better than this, and we must step up and raise our voices to help raise up low-wage workers.