Remarks by Rose Roby
St. Petersburg City Hall
Saturday, September 27, 2014
Thank you for coming. I’d like to speak a little about the short life and unnecessary death of Maria Fernandes. She died last month, 32 years old, poisoned by gas fumes in her car as she napped between her four jobs. That’s right, four jobs. According to her friends, she often went five days in a row without sleep because there was no room for sleep in Maria Fernandes’ life — not a real sleep, in her bed for 7-8 hours. That was a luxury she couldn’t afford. So she caught some winks here and there between assignments and last month she pulled into a parking lot, wearing her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform so there would be no need change before going to her next shift; but this time she never woke up. Dead at 32.
It’s easy to shrug off the death of Maria Fernandes as an unfortunate accident. But what were the circumstances that led to this so-called accident? An inability to live a life of comfort and dignity, having to work almost non-stop! Maria Fernandes needed to keep working to survive and she did. She worked day and night, shift after shift until she finally worked herself to death at the age of 32! The fumes released in her car, the combination of gasoline and carbon monoxide that killed her, were indeed an “unfortunate accident” but the circumstances that led her to being in that car, catching a little bit of sleep between jobs were no accident.
The system is currently designed, quite deliberately to force low paid workers into doing desperate things to survive. It’s designed to allow the rich to get ever richer off the fruits of our labor as they sit on their butts and watch their stocks rise.
Maria Fernandes had to work four jobs just to get by while the politicians and the pundits on Fox news explain that the poor are poor because we’re lazy and the rich are rich because of their hard work. Well, it’s time that we call them on that lie! Maria Fernandes’ death at 32 years old in a parking lot while she got a little sleep between her four jobs is proof of that lie!
I spent about 20 years as an administrative worker, in and out of various offices until I started working for a big Wall Street employer. I was there for 10 years and worked myself up from the lowest level of office peon to the highest level of office peon. I was finally earning a good salary for an administrative worker after many years of working jobs that barely paid over the minimum wage.
In 2008, Wall Street’s esteemed financial institutions were on the precipice of becoming what is now known as “too big to fail” and inside the walls of these businesses was a changing climate. A climate where illegal behavior was becoming more and more out in the open. A climate where drugs deals were literally taking place out in the open right in front of the water cooler! A climate where more and more women were having “consensual” relationships with their male bosses and nothing was done to conceal this.
And for that tiny number of us who didn’t “consent” well, we were going to be out on our butts, blackballed forever from the only profession we had ever known. The only thing on our resume that we could sell was suddenly rendered toxic.
Anyway, the upside of getting blackballed is that it becomes a good moment to think about going into an entirely new profession. I decided to go to culinary school and pursue what I once had thought was an impossible dream of becoming a chef. Culinary school and my experiences within the NY City restaurant industry were an eye opening experience.
In the 9 – 5 cubicle world, class lines are somehow more smoothed over and soothed. In the restaurants, everything is laid out in the open. You have two distinct worlds that clash, sometimes violently, day in and day out.
The kitchens in New York, even in the most elite restaurants, are dominated by undocumented Mexican workers who often do the most heavy lifting, and most of them aren’t even making the minimum wage. Florida has the same dynamic.
Then you have the young people who come out of culinary schools and a lot of them are being fast-tracked to the big time — the elite world of the sous chefs and the executive chefs — in large part because the trust funds they live off of give them the luxury of “proving” themselves to the chefs by working either for free in exchange for mentorship, or working at wages so low they wouldn’t provide a non-entitled person enough to survive.
I was surprised to see wage theft done openly from restaurants that were routinely celebrated for their high-level cuisine. I was disgusted at the way the hard working immigrant workers, some of whom were brilliant chefs in their own right, were rendered invisible by the well-to-do trust fund kids who could afford to work at near slave wages because they were being financially supported by their parents.
The culture that was celebrated within the restaurant world was one where staying awake and on your feet for sometimes up to 16 hours at a time was considered not merely a virtue but a requirement of being able to “make it” in the field. After a while it started to get to me. I was in constant pain. I was getting burned and getting cut all the time. The “Faster! Faster!” screams from the chefs didn’t make me better, it made me clumsier. I pushed myself and pushed myself until I finally came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t physically able to keep up with the demands.
Because I’m human, I kick myself for that sometimes because I think maybe I should have tried harder and tried to make it no matter what — isn’t that the American way? But why was I working in restaurants where 12 – 16 hour shifts were the norm? The reality is that no matter how busy a restaurant is, the speed, endurance and frenzy that the industry demands of its workers isn’t necessary to be a great restaurant that serves quality food.
It’s only necessary if you want to make obscene amounts of profit off the backs of your workers. Some of whom are subjected to wage theft because they live in fear of deportation and some of whom accept low, low wages in exchange for the opportunity to be lifted into the celebrity realm of the cooking world — a chance to join that elite few.
We don’t need to work people to the point of injury and even death! We don’t need to make people work four jobs to get by! We don’t need to allow corporate lobby groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to control our elected officials and sell out our workers.
Statute 218.077 (2), that allows the State to forbid local municipalities from raising their own minimum wage, was bought and paid for by ALEC. Just like Stand Your Ground and countless other racist and anti-worker legislations that have been bad for our communities.
Last week, after thousands and thousands of people came out for the People’s Climate March and demanded that we put planet over profits, Yahoo, Google, Yelp and Facebook all severed their ties with ALEC! That’s right, major corporations are leaving ALEC in droves, over 90 in the last 2 years, because ALEC is becoming toxic to their brand and our nation. These corporations can see the tide is turning even if our politicians do not.
Today I ask our City Council to take a stand. To take a stand for Maria Fernandes so that her death won’t be in vain. To take a stand for the hardworking people of St. Pete who deserve a living wage! To take a stand against ALEC and its corruption of our democracy!
That’s why 15 Now asks that the St. Petersburg City Council call for the repeal 218.077(2) and institute a living wage of $15 an hour as its minimum wage. Thank you.
(See further remarks here)