I wanted you to sit with her name for a second. To plant that seed and wait for the name to take root and sprout a even just one or two questions in you’re head, who is Maria Fernandes? Why are you mentioning her? I will not leave you thirsting for knowledge nor make you do a quick Google search. I will tell you that Maria Fernandes was a mother, wife, friend, and low wage worker who passed away in her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform as she caught a quick nap in her car before heading to her third shift at her third job.
Yea, I hope that shocked you a little bit. I hope you feel a slight squeeze in your stomach, feel a little uncomfortable as you remember the last time you ran into Dunkin’ Donuts before work and were a little snappy to the person behind the counter because your coffee was lukewarm or they gave you the wrong donut. I hope you feel extra sick knowing that Nigel Travis, the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, made over $4 million dollars in 2013 and Maria Fernandes barely made $8.25 per hour. I know I did when I first heard of Maria Fernandes and read articles about her passing. Beyond that, I feel uncomfortable, because of all the other Maria Fernandes’s of the U.S. that we don’t know about.
The mental and physical health risks of low wage work are deep and vast. From the simple mental and physical toll of the stress of working multiple jobs while juggling a family and still not having enough to pay bills to the purely physical issues of having to report for duty no matter how sick you may be and not having enough to cover medical bills, the hidden costs of low wage work far, far exceed any monetary benefits low wage workers receive. A 2009 report called “The Poor Pay More: Poverty’s High Cost to Health” by George Kaplan, founder of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, found that “Men and women in families with incomes over four times the federal poverty line can expect to live more than 6.5 years…than those living at the poverty line or below. A 25-year-old man in the higher-income family…can expect to live 7.8 years longer than a 25-year-old man in the poor family …this disparity is roughly equivalent to the impact of heart disease, the most common cause of death, has on overall life expectancy in the U.S.”. The cost of low wage labor far exceeds not having enough for groceries or rent, it very literally takes a toll on one’s health and wellbeing. As shown in the case of Maria Fernandes, too many people are forced by the current socioeconomic system to risk it all for the meager means our current system is providing.
I am in mourning for Maria Fernandes. I am in mourning for all the hundreds of thousands of low wage workers who are sacrificing sleep, family time, health, and happiness just to be able to make rent and buy some groceries. I am in mourning for an American social system that had a safety net for the poor among us. A system that recognized the value of fair pay for decent labor. A system that only fifty years ago, sought to truly eliminate poverty by improving social programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Head Start. How is it that in the land of milk and honey so many people can’t afford neither milk nor honey? How do we continue to tell the impoverished to “just get a job” when not even three jobs is enough? And, most confusing to me, how are we silent in the face of a socioeconomic system that leads to tragedies such as Maria Fernandes?
I know mourning is traditionally a silent activity, a personal period of reflection. But in the case of Maria Fernandes, and all others like her, silence is not honorable, it is cowardice. Speak up.
No one can survive on $7.25.