Monthly Archives: November 2013

Wage theft, a public health crisis

Today, I had the pleasure of hearing UC Berkeley (go bears!) professor Meredith Minkler talk about her work as she accepted the Tisch Research Prize for Civic Engagement.

A leading practitioner and proponent of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), Minkler spoke specifically about her work with restaurant employees in San Fransisco’s Chinatown.

In CBPR, community members play a key role in shaping the research approach and goals, bringing critical local knowledge. This approach brings community members and researchers together as equal partners who co-learn from each other through the process of the the research.

For example, initially, the research team was interest in questions of worker health and safety. However, the community members involved in the project quickly pointed out another pressing issue: wage theft.

In their subsequent research, they found 58% of this population had experienced wage theft – such as businesses taking employee’s tips. 65% reported working overtime for no pay. Every year, workers lost an estimated $10,450,000 to wage theft.

Minkler began to see this as a significant, neglected public health problem.

And it is.

While particularly challenging for workers who are undocumented or who are not native English speakers, the problem of wage theft is endemic to the food service industry. There are certainly a lot of great restaurants who treat their employees well, but in my experience there’s an unspoken darker side to the industry as a whole.

Working with San Francisco’s Chinese Progressive Association, Minkler conducted and presented research and brought public attention to this issue. They fought for, and won, a wage theft ordinance to protect workers. They even got enforcement provisions included, “giving the law some teeth,” as she said.

And that’s all fantastic. It’s a great example of the value of CBPR. Not only did community members help researchers understand their community – where to reach people, how to ask questions, what needs there are – community members were able to act on the data because it was something they cared about. It shows what can happen when research serves a community rather than the other way around.

But there’s still so much more to do on this issue.

The partnership is now looking for ways to reward businesses who do treat their workers fairly and to further penalize those which don’t.

The wage theft ordinance is great, but it’s only a piece of the battle.

Until workers feel safe speaking out against unfair conditions, until it’s easy for them to get the resources and support they need, until business stop thinking they can get away with wage theft, there will be more work to do.

And yes, this is a public health issue. Because workers who lose wages work more and live on less. Because the stress of just trying to get through the day in the face of such financial insecurity has been shown to have severe negative health effects.

Because there are more people suffering around us than we probably know.


In physics, there’s an accepted level of uncertainty – no, a required level of uncertainty – that governs how the universe works.

You cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle.

When you work out the math, σx and σp (standard deviation of position, x, and standard deviation of momentum, p) have an inverse relationship. The more precise one measure is, the less precise the other.

It’s important to note that this is not just a mathematical trick. This uncertainty is actually built in to the universe.

I mention this because so often in life, as people, we are striving for absolutes. Searching for truth, justice, right and wrong.

But I’m not so convinced those absolutes exist.

That’s not to say everything is entirely uncertain. There is much we can know that helps define the edges of these amorphous topics. But we can’t define them as absolutely as we might like.

In his book, We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, my colleague Peter Levine talks about people having moral maps, networks built from opinions and experience.

The metaphor of a map or network can be very helpful, but I find it somewhat insufficient. My morals aren’t fixed points on a map, they’re constantly shifting and changing, blurs of energy that can’t quite be defined.

No matter how perfect your measurement, you cannot know the position and momentum of a particle. Similarly, no amount of reflection or thought can absolutely define my morals. The uncertainty is built into the universe.

And I embrace that.

Generation DNE

Almost 15 percent of those aged 16 to 24 are neither in school nor employed.

The Boston Globe seems to think that indicates an “amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer.”

But to me, those numbers tell a different story.

A story of kids who were promised the world, but then saw it all fall away. Kids who never had a chance in a system that locks you in to your assigned social standing. Kids who give all they can only to find that it’s not enough.

We shouldn’t be blaming the victims here.

To be fair, life’s not easy for just about anyone. If you lose your job over 50, you can expect to be unemployed for about 53 weeks, compared to 19 weeks for teenagers. But at least people rightly call that age discrimination, not a generation of [insert disparaging remark here].

I sometimes joke that I belong to Generation DNE (Does Not Exist), because I used to be in Generation Y, then Millennials became a thing. I’m still unclear as to whether I fall into that category or not.

Growing up a disillusioned radical in northern California, it seemed to me that Gen Y disappeared when They realized we weren’t going to sell out. When They realized we were angry. When we knew unequivocally that the future wasn’t as bright as The Man would have us think.

So we got edited out of existence and They went on to try subdue younger generations. Tried to make them pacifist consumers who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at scurrilous affairs.

But it didn’t work.

Whether it’s because the economy crashed, we’ve been fighting two wars, or the fact that OH MY GOODNESS HAVE YOU NOTICED HOW MESSED UP THE WORLD IS, they too realized that life isn’t the idyllic adventure advertisers would have you believe.

But, I suppose, you can’t just edit generations out of existence indefinitely, so rather than being ignored, Millennials are being disparaged. Being told they are worthless, wrong, and a waste of space.

But that won’t work, either.

‘Cause those of us who are maybe a bit older, who were lucky enough to start building careers and paying down our student loans before the economy tanked – those of us They thought could be disappeared with a generation name change…we’re still here.

And we know it’s not the kids’ fault. We know they’re doing what they can. We know they are right to be angry and that their voices and opinions matter. And we know that The Man is trying to silence them just as The Man once tried to silence us.

And we won’t stand for it. We’ll stand with our younger peers. And we’ll know – the more They disparage, the more scared They are.


No place for hate

Something happened over the weekend which has happened to countless people countless times.

A group of people yelled racial slurs at another group of people.

I know this happened to at least one group of people, but I’d venture a guess it happened to more.

But even if it only happened to one person,
that would be one person too many.

I want to say that I am shocked.

I honestly can’t comprehend what goes through a person’s mind when they spit hate.

And I don’t understand what could happen to a person
to make them end up that way.

I almost feel badly for the haters.
How did they end up so broken?

No one should end up that way.

I want to say that I am shocked,
But I am not shocked.

This happens too often.
It’s too deeply part of our society.
Too accepted, ignored, or explained away.

No one should have to experience such hate.
But so many people do.

In stores, on streets, in images passing by.
So many people do.

Systemic is one of my favorite words.
Or perhaps, I should say, my least favorite.

It conjures images of deep growing weeds.
Choking off flowers.
Burrowing deep.
A tangled web,
Seemingly impossible to irradiate.

Hate is systemic.

It’s almost easier
to shake your head.
To silently sigh.
To shrug and say, “What are you gonna do?”

Hate is too deep. Too complicated. Too messy. Too impossible. Too easy to ignore.

So what are you going to do?
What am I going to do?
What are we going to do?

There are no magic wands. No silver bullets. No simple solutions.

But I will be dissatisfied
for as long as hate runs deep.
And I will speak up
for as long as hate runs deep.
And I will keep fighting
for as long as hate runs deep.

What are we going to do?
Whatever we can.
For as long as it takes.
Working for a tomorrow,
just a little better than today.

Fiction Friday: The Villain

A continuation of Fiction Friday….

Daphne walked confidently down the street, a slight smile playing on her lips.

She felt rejuvenated. Full of life. Vim and vigor as they say.

She was on top of the world. She could do anything. Be anything. It was exhilarating.

And such a shock after long years of empty grey. Of trying to fit in. Of pretending that everything was okay. But everything was not okay. She was not okay. And she hadn’t been for a long time.

But things were different now.

She watched people walking past. Caring about their little lives. Bustling from here to there. Fools, all.

And none of them knew.

Shivers of excitement coursed through her veins as each passing person shared a nonchalant greeting. Treating her as they’d always done. Just another friendly neighbor. Another average Joe.

She was bursting to shout what she had done. To tell them all. To show them all how meaningless their little worries were.

She couldn’t believe none of them knew. The emotions were pouring through her so strongly it seemed impossible no one would notice.

But then she’d spent so many years fitting in, burying her true thoughts, showing the right emotions she never felt. She was practiced at staying calm. At exuding normalcy. She was better then them.

And none of them knew.

Daphne basked for a moment in the morning sun. She had the whole day ahead of her.

What should she do?