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No Thanksgiving holiday for low-wage workers [Commentary]

As most Americans doze off in front of the TV after a few too many helpings of turkey and pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, some 20 million others will be heading out to work. Called on by their employers to work on the holiday, most feel they cannot say no — they need the money or fear reprisal.

Working on Thanksgiving and other holidays is not new, but the numbers of Americans doing so is climbing, and this trend is at least as much about dwindling workers' rights as it is about depressed wages. For the first time in its 155-year history, Macy's will open its 850 stores at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, requiring about half of its 175,000-person work force to report for work just hours after the retailer's annual holiday parade.

Macy's is far from alone. Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us and other chains will be open on Thanksgiving, getting a jump on Black Friday. All told, at least one-third of America's 15 million retail workers, whose typical wage is barely $10 per hour, will be toiling on turkey day. They are among the 59 million Americans earning less than $14 per hour, and the 60 percent of U.S. workers whose inflation-adjusted wages have either fallen or not increased since 2000.

The United States has the distinction of being the only rich country that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation, holidays or sick and family leave. Desperate to earn money, too many Americans must turn to low-paying jobs with few if any benefits. These workers have little control over their hours, few opportunities for advancement, and scant job security. Nearly 14 percent of Americans are either unemployed or underemployed, enabling businesses to hold down pay as workers scramble to take jobs at any wage.

As the Thanksgiving "holiday" shows, growing inequality is not just about wages or wealth. It is also about the quality of jobs. Good jobs are dwindling, even as our economy bounces back. Meanwhile, most new job growth is in bad jobs — or temporary, part-time and contract work where wages and benefits are being cut. Secure, full-time jobs have gone the way of non-working holidays in the name of corporate competitiveness.

Add in the decline of labor unions and relatively weak labor laws, and the result is a situation where corporations have ever more power — including asking employees to work on holidays — for wages that barely sustain workers and their families. At the same time, corporate profits last year rose to a record share of gross domestic product.

It's no secret that America has become more and more divided between haves and have-nots over the last 35 years.

In fact, most low-wage workers say that they struggle to make ends meet and face a host of financial worries, according to an Oxfam America survey of Americans earning less than $14 per hour. More than half have turned to food stamps or other government safety net programs in the last four years, three-fourths carry too much debt, and two-thirds worry about being able to afford basic necessities like housing and healthy food.

No doubt for some, working on Thanksgiving is nothing more than a chance to earn some extra cash. But for a growing number of Americans, it's not a choice at all. For far too many, holidays and benefits and decent wages are perks of the past while today's economy increasingly extracts concessions from those least able to afford it. Toiling on turkey day is yet another sign that our economy is heading in the wrong direction for too many Americans.

Andrew L. Yarrow is senior research adviser for Oxfam America, where he focuses on issues of America's working poor and inequality, and the author of "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century. His email is andrew.l.yarrow@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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