Giving Thanks: It’s Hard Work

It’s that time of year again–the time that we’re supposed to give thanks for what we have (and depending on your personal traditions, eat a lot of turkey and/or watch a lot of football.) So I thought I’d take a look at what the American worker has to be thankful about. I wish the list had been a little longer, but there’s always next year (or 2008.)

Do you have a job? Especially if it’s an honest-to-goodness full-time permanent job, you can certainly give thanks. Over 2.79 million workers don’t have a job, and that’s just counting the ones now collecting unemployment benefits. (See CNN News article.) And if you went without a job during the year, but found a new one right away? Give thanks for that: the average worker now takes about 20 months to find a new job, and that doesn’t even take into account whether the new job is comparable to the old.

Does your job pay more than the minimum wage? If so, you can thank your lucky stars, since you haven’t been able to thank your members of Congress nor your President for raising the minimum wage since way back in 1996. (If you’re in Florida, you can thank your fellow voters for passing a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage by $1.00. See Orlando Sentinel article, registration required.)

Still getting overtime? This may be the last year that some of you can give thanks, due to recent changes in overtime regulations likely to affect six million workers. You can thank the members of Congress that collectively voted on six different occasions to protect your interests, but may not feel the same way about Congressional leaders who kept stripping provisions undoing the damage from bills on their way to the President. (See Washington Post article.)

If your job provides you with income adequate to support your family, be thankful, as one in four working families is officially low-income and, of those, more than a quarter are officially in poverty. While no working families should have to get their Thanksgiving meal from an organization serving food to the needy, unfortunately that will not be the case. (See Bob Herbert’s New York Times article.)

Do you have health care provided by your employer? If you have any coverage at all, you’re already better off than 40% of the American workforce. You may not be feeling very grateful if your premiums and copay went up and your coverage went down this year, but the average worker has seen health premiums increase three times more than income over the last four years. You probably didn’t know you should also be thankful just to survive each day of work, but 6,000 workers were killed on the job last year, while 50,000 died from a work-related illness, and 6 million got sick or injured at work.

Are you spending time with your family on Thanksgiving? Are you getting paid for that holiday time? More than two out of ten workers aren’t. Getting to spend enough time with your family is increasingly becoming a luxury for workers–working couples with children worked 10 hours more each week in 2002 than they did 25 years ago–so treasure that day off.

If you’re disabled, but still working and not having to challenge discrimination on the job, that’s something to be thankful for: employers win all but 2% of disability discrimination cases against them in federal court. And if you’re anybody but a white male with a management job, thanks are due as well: White men are twice as likely to get management jobs as equally qualified black men; three times as likely as equally qualified black women.

Chances are good that if you’re reading this, you’re not a CEO, but just in case, there’s something you have to be thankful for: a generation ago, CEOs made 40 times more than workers; today they make 400 times more. And if you were able to outsource some of your company’s jobs overseas, you probably have a raise to be grateful for: CEOs at the fifty companies that outsourced the most jobs in 2003 got an average raise of $4 million this past year.

If you have successfully challenged workplace discrimination recently, you can now anticipate just how very grateful you will be come April 15, when you no longer have to pay taxes on your attorney’s portion of your award or settlement. (We’ll see if the Supreme Court gives everyone else who has already paid taxes on their attorneys share in cases won or settled before October 22, 2004 something to be grateful for.)

If your case has survived long enough to win before a jury, you probably don’t know just how lucky you are, considering that those with employment discrimination cases have fewer cases settled before trial, win fewer cases, and face more appeals and reversals, compared to other people who file lawsuits. If your case is on appeal, however, don’t count too many blessings just yet: 44% of discrimination cases won by workers are reversed on appeal, but only 6% of cases won by employers are reversed.

You can be thankful you live in America (unless you live in a European country where you work 500 hours a year less than the average American and have legal protections against unfair terminations.) In America, you can write your member of Congress, the President, or even the news media. (See the Workplace Fairness Action Center to write letters quickly and easily, and sign up to receive future alerts from our Action E-Network while you’re at it.)

Your elected leaders are supposed to be thankful that their constituents vote for them, and to show their gratitude by being responsive to the needs of voters. Whether you believe that’s true or not, it won’t be true if they do not hear from you. Express your gratitude for living in a free country: make your voice heard!

Maybe if enough working people do so, there will be more to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.