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.”

The Latino survey respondents raised seven common themes:

  • Exploitation related to immigration status
  • Wage theft, discrimination, and harassment
  • Unsafe, unhealthy working conditions
  • Poverty wages
  • High cost of living
  • Lack of access to health insurance
  • Lack of safety net for immigrants

Workers also reported rampant violations of workplace rights: 43% reported wage theft; 28% reported workplace discrimination; 20% reported work-related injuries or illness, and 25% of those workers said that they did not report their injury or illness at work for fear of losing their job.

Approximately 45% of workers surveyed had no health insurance from any source. Further, only 19% receive paid sick time from their employer.

Hickey acknowledges it’s much harder for recent immigrants to advance their position than it is for people who have been living and working in Dane County for 10 or more years.

“We found that those longer-term folks did have a stepping stone process where they started in entry-level industries — restaurants, janitorial work — and over time were able to take advantage of opportunities to move up, mostly into manufacturing,” Hickey explains. “When we compared surveys, the longer-term workers who tended to be more in the manufacturing sector earned about $3 to $4 more per hour than the newer workers, and were much more likely to have health coverage and benefits like paid sick leave.”

That’s not surprising, Hickey notes, because those workers who have lived in Dane County longer often have better English skills and have created a broader professional network.

So, what can be done to fix the situation for Latino workers, including both documented and undocumented people?

The report highlights 10 recommendations to address the most pressing employment issues facing Latino immigrant workers in Dane County. Those include:

  1. Enact comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level so immigrants have a better path toward full citizenship.
  2. Give Latinos a more powerful voice by finding ways to better engage this community in the political advocacy process.
  3. Make it easier for Latino immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, to get driver’s licenses, a policy supported by the Madison Police Department and many other law enforcement organizations, because the required exams and road tests lead to more safety for everyone on the road.
  4. Allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition. At least 20 states have tuition equity laws for qualifying students. Wisconsin was among them prior to the Walker administration.
  5. Enact stronger penalties for employers found guilty of wage theft. Currently, all a violator has to do in most cases is pay back wages.
  6. Increase the state and/or federal minimum wage. According to the report, the hourly wage needed to meet the cost of living in the Madison area is double the wage of most of the workers surveyed.
  7. Provide equal treatment for all workers, regardless of immigration or work authorization status.
  8. Provide health insurance to all workers, regardless of immigration status.
  9. Improve workplace health and safety by increasing funding for OSHA enforcement.
  10. Better educate workers and employers about labor laws, workers’ rights, and protections.

While the updated report shows local working conditions for Latinos haven’t greatly improved over the past 15 years, Hickey says what has gotten better are the local resources available for Latino workers to help them improve their employment positions.

Among them are the Literacy Network, which provides workplace literacy training; the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, which offers ESL and GED classes, entry-level construction training, forklift driving courses, and CNA classes, among other opportunities; Centro Hispano of Dane County, which offers a variety of programs aimed at youth and families on academics, careers, finance, and more; and the Catholic Multicultural Center, which also provides computer and ESL classes.

“We view this report less as a dispassionate academic study and more as a call to action,” says Hickey. “The conditions and treatment that Latino workers are enduring here in our community are unacceptable. It is well past time for something to be done to address them.”

A full online version of the Struggling for a Better Life: the State of Working Latinos in Dane County report is available here:

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