Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Queer Argument for a Minimum Liveable Wage: QEJ Testimony to the NY City Council

(The following testimony was written by Brandon Lacy Campos and Amber Hollibaugh and presented during a hearing on a bill to establish a minimum liveable wage in New York City).

LIVING WAGE Hearings in NY City Council
Queers for Economic Justice Statement
October 22nd, 2011

In a time of economic crisis such as the one now happening in the United States, the need for a living wage just to be able to survive, is critical. This Living Wage bill begins to frame crucial and basic economic standards which would generate a salary that allows people to not remain in poverty even as they work to maintain a living.

Too often invisible in this mix of vulnerable workers needing a living wage are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender workers. In the popular media framing about LGBTQ communities, we are too often presented as very affluent, with high disposal incomes and as a community largely unimpacted by the current recession. Yet the reality is that a majority of LGBT people are workers who are LGBT and immigrant, LGBT and HIV+, LGBT and older, LGBT and homeless, LGBT and working class. Also missing in the way we are presented is the reality that as workers, we have our own biological and chosen families to try and support. That is simply left outside of the discourse altogether, so that the need to care for our children, our parents, our partners, our extended chosen or biological family members remains hidden. And while there has been heartbreaking analysis of the enormous economic setbacks suffered by Black and Latino communities from this recession, which agrees that Blacks and Latinos have seen their communal assets and joblessness revert to almost to pre-Civil Rights era levels, the devastating impact on queer and trans communities who are often a part of these communities of color, has largely gone unnoticed and undocumented and as such, there have been few remedies proposed to alleviate the economic burden on this group of overly impacted workers and their families.

In a 2010 report documenting adult LGBT homelessness by The Center for American Progress, it states, “Besides disporportunate rates of homelessness as youth, a root cause of lower incomes and poverty among adult gay and transgender Americans is the high rate of workplace discrimination they face. This discrimination includes unequal pay, barriers to health insurance, unfair hiring and promotion practices, and verbal and sexual harrassment that create hostile and unsafe working enviroments. Studies show that 16 percent to 68 percent of gay and transgender individuals experience this type of discrimination at some point in their lives”. This forces LGBT workers to take any job that is available, regardless of its pay or protections. To be very clear, LGBTQ families are uniformly less well off than their straight counterparts and LGBTQ individuals are more likely to work in non-unionized and unprotected classes of labor due to the extensive stigma and discrimination that remains regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. A similar study as quoted above by the Williams Institute in 2009, clearly outlines not only the economic reality of queer families but the impact of poverty on LGBTQ communities. According to the Williams Institute report, it states “the misleading myth of affluence steers policymakers, community organizations, service providers, and the media away from fully understanding poverty among LGBT people or even imagining that poor LGBT people exist.” Add to this reality that LGBTQ workers are often found working in jobs that are “tip” labor, entry level retail, home care workers, as sex workers, or involved in other street economies, all of which are unprotected as a class of workers who are either explicitly excluded from the right to organize or are effectively excluded by the nature of the work, and you are left with an inherently unstable economic base that is absolutely beholden to minor shifts in the economy and which have been eviscerated by the current economic climate.

Finally, New York City is home to a large consumer economy rooted in LGBTQ and marginalized communities. A network of bars, cafés, restaurants, clothing stores, personal services, boutiques, salons and sex work businesses services the city’s middle and upper class gays. These businesses employ thousands of working class queer and trans people, and many are people of color and immigrants. They are almost invariably nonunionized, with few labor protections. As many of these staff face racism, poverty, homophobia and transphobia, employees are often forced to stay at low-wage, low-security workplaces with poor conditions and abusive treatment. Similarly, many working class queer people of color are employed in the city’s HIV service sector. These low- and moderate-income queer people at gay businesses and service nonprofits have been particular vulnerable through the financial crisis, the rising anti-immigrant hysteria and the constriction of New York’s consumer businesses and nonprofit sector. These working poor LGBTQ people are often without strong employment alternatives, or access to adequate social safety net services. They are instead left vulnerable to homelessness, HIV and AIDS, and violence.

Without the structural support of worker collectives, such as unions who support and advocate for LGBTQ workers rights, LGBTQ workers cannot rely on legal remedies to mangae fairly any resulting labor disputes. The means to advocate as a worker remains effectively out of reach and impossible for many LGBTQ workers. The result is that many LGBTQ low wage workers cannot afford challenging unfair labor practices, low wages or hostile work environments for fear of losing their jobs altogether.

We punish people in this country for being poor and we punish homosexuality and gender non-conformity. When both are combined, it does more than double the effect: it twists and deepens it, gives it sharper edges, and heightens an LGBT workers’ inability to duck and cover or slide through to a safer place. It often forces LGBT workers to live more permanently outside a stable economic reality than either condition dictates.

One notable exception has been a recent program created by the Office of the Mayor of Washington, DC that recognizes that poverty and unemployment rates have reached such devastating levels in the transgender community that direct government intervention has become necessary. The Mayor created the first ever job training and placement program for transgender individuals. Unemployment and poverty rates in NYC are no better than those in DC, and when adjusting for race, they are worse.

A liveable minimum wage is the first step towards truly undermining unfair labor practices that rely on a combination of fear and underpayment to maintain a pliable underclass of workers that neither have the resources nor space to address or redress workplace human rights violations, including intimidation and firing for organizing for better work environments including a just wage.

By enacting a minimum liveable wage for all New Yorkers, the New York City Council would be providing significant support to LGBTQ individuals and families, create fairer work environments, and alleviate the effects of the recession on a hard hit population. In an atmosphere that is actively hostile to collective bargaining and the recognition of the human right to organize labor unions, this is a positive, pro-active, and just step towards supporting the queer and trans community.

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