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Report: Latino workers face uphill climb in Dane County

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Latinos are an increasingly large portion of the working population in Dane County. What’s unfortunate is their wages and benefits are not keeping up with their growing numbers.

That’s according Struggling for a Better Life, a report released late last month by the Latino Workers Project (LWP), which seeks to capture the reality for Latinos living and working in Dane County.

The report, an update of Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job released in 2001, documents the dramatic increase in the Latino population (101% in 10 years) and the Latino community’s continuing struggle with substandard working conditions and persistent barriers to moving forward economically, says Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers’ Rights Center of Madison.

“The Latino community here in Dane County is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Hickey. “That’s a large consumer base, but also an increasing small business base. You’re seeing a lot of Latino entrepreneurs who are starting small businesses, which provides a lot of energy and drive in the community. So, a crucial part of our community is growing and when their wages are depressed, when their benefits are depressed or nonexistent, that really does affect everyone.”

Hickey notes the lower wages many Latino workers take home reduces the amount of consumer spending that goes on, it forces people to rely more on public and private social services, and it keeps people from buying homes and making other purchases they otherwise would make if they had the economic capacity to do it.

Although progress has been made since the original iteration of the report was released in 2001, many of the issues that dominated the lives of Latino workers then continue to plague the community today and, in some cases, have worsened, Hickey notes.

According to the latest report, the percentage of Latinos living in poverty has increased since 2000. On average, Latino families earn only 59% of the median income in Wisconsin. Workers surveyed for the report spoke about being trapped at the bottom of the wage scale with no way of getting ahead, and traditional avenues workers once had for challenging low wages and inferior benefits, such as collective bargaining, have been weakened.

Additionally, low wages make life particularly difficult in Dane County, where the cost of living is high. The average wage of workers surveyed was half of what is deemed necessary for a modest standard of living.

“We hear all the time that what’s needed is more education so people can move up to better paying jobs,” says Hickey. “There’s certainly some truth to that but these essential jobs that need to get done — the janitorial jobs, the restaurant jobs, the dairy worker jobs — those need to be living wage jobs, too. Those things have to get done and somebody has to do them.

“So, if someone is going to be working 40 hours, they should earn enough to rent a modest apartment here in Madison, pay their basic bills, maybe have enough so in their spare time they can go to school or take English classes so they can move up to a more interesting and engaging type of employment,” Hickey adds. “No one who is working full-time should be living below the poverty line.”


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