Over the past decade, Carmen Rojas worked with some of the largest groups in philanthropy to fund employment and sustainability projects in low-income communities throughout the United States. But as she watched the cash flow from big-name foundations to organizations on the street, she also watched as families in these neighborhoods slipped further into the sinkhole of poverty.
“I was frustrated,” says Rojas, recalling why she pivoted away from her 7-year career in the field. “The large resources they did have weren’t [organized] at scale with the problems that low-income communities and communities of color were facing.”
To impact real change, she realized, they needed more than support from the outside, and she didn’t need to look any further than the neighborhood in San Jose, California, where she grew up for inspiration. As she and her friends went on to pursue higher education, the immigrant families supporting them seemed to be caught in a more exceptional kind of need than her peers’ families — even though they should have had similar disposable incomes.
“It really struck me. Their parents were working the same jobs as others but they had more debt, couldn’t afford houses — it was harder for them to become economically stable,” says Rojas, a first-generation Latina and the first in her family to graduate from college.
So when Rojas met renowned labor union leader David Rolf, the two decided to start a collaborative that would help blue-collar workers ensure that they were getting every cent that was owed to them by their employers. It’s called The Workers Lab, and it’s one part think-tank, one part incubator based in Oakland, California.
Carmen Rojas (Credit: The Workers Lab)
By funneling resources into local groups and entrepreneurs who’ve invested themselves in raising wages and ensuring greater wage equity among low-income communities, Rojas, Rolf and their colleagues are trying to churn up the next wave of high-impact — and technologically savvy — advocacy for workers’ rights.
Instead of building support from the outside, though, they want to give workers the tools needed to build and monitor a better workplace from within it.
This month, they’re debuting their first of such tools. It’s an app called WorkerReport, which they’ve put together with the help of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the developers behind SeeClickFix, an app that lets users report non-emergency issues in their neighborhood directly to the government agencies that can fix them. Taking a page out of that approach, WorkerReport gives workers a direct channel to local worker centers so they can document wage theft issues or health and safety violations they think need to be dealt with.
That means taking photos of scaffolding that isn’t fully planked between guardrails, for example, or marking with photos, the time and your GPS location when you’ve arrived at a house cleaning gig if you’re worried your employer isn’t paying you for every hour you’re on the job. Workers can also use the app to look up the rights allotted to them in their industry.
These reports will then get corresponded to workers advocates, who can connect with app users to help determine whether or not what they’re calling out should be looked into as a potential violation by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) or its state-level equivalents.
According to Rojas, the need for greater enforcement of workplace violations is exceptional in the United States. An estimated 42 percent of US citizens make less than $15 an hour, and according to the NELP, that percentage is “disproportionately women, people of color and immigrants.” In a 2008 survey of 4,387 workers conducted by that same organization, one-fourth of interviewees said they’d been paid lower than the minimum wage a week prior to the interview, and 76 percent of the workers who clocked more than 40 hours a week reported being paid below what their overtime rate should have been. The accident rate is also higher in generally low-paying jobs like fast food, agriculture or construction, meaning these workers are at greater risk for crippling medical bills, work absence or physical disabilities, which inches them further toward that poverty sinkhole.
These wage theft and health and safety issues can cost workers on average up to 15 percent of their paycheck — or around $2,364 every year.
WorkerReport is also pertinent in the wake of the #Fightfor15 campaign, which urges U.S. states and the federal government to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. New York and California have already committed to raising their wages, but Rojas wants to know how that’s going to look immediately after the laws come into play. “How are they going to be enforced?” she says. “That struck me as an opportunity for us to find a way to make sure these laws are enforceable, and workers are reaping the benefits of new wage regulations.”
Over the next nine months, two worker resource centers and a wage theft coalition on the West Coast will give WorkerReport a beta run. They’ll be testing the app to see whether workers can reliably adopt it as a go-to resource for information and protection.
One of those centers is the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), based in Oakland, California. Patricia Contreras, a lead community organizer at EBASE, says if it gives low-wage workers a touchpoint for getting informed on their rights, then the app has successfully “put the power of information in the palms of low-wage workers’ hands.” According to Tiffany Ferguson, a spokesperson for The Workers Lab, EBASE and the other pilot groups will be tasked with outreaching to local workers to inform them about the app. “We’re looking to leverage other ancillary exposure means like media coverage and localized grassroots public education campaigns to spread the word as widely as possible within each jurisdiction, but much of that work will be led by the testing partners,” she says.
At a national level, smartphone ownership data shows that this app would be within reach of a growing number of low-income households, according to analysis of Pew Research Center studies. The percentage of smartphone users among people who made under $30,000 a year grew from 22 percent to 50 percent between 2011 and 2015 — about the same percentage point increase as ownership spikes in higher income brackets.
Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy fellow at NELP, is reasonably optimistic about the app, saying it’s coup will be that direct channel it provides to groups that stand for workers. A previous OSHA employee at the federal level, she knows how overburdened and slow to respond the United States’ national enforcement arm can be.
“If you combined federal and state OSHA resources, it would still take about 120 to 140 years for representatives to inspect every workplace in the United States,” she says. “If workers are hoping OSHA will come in every now and then [to check for wage or health and safety violations], that probably won’t happen.” But if they are hoping to get in touch with the people in their community best suited to help them, WorkerReport can make it happen in a matter of screen taps.
Johnny Magdaleno is a Next City equitable cities fellow for 2016-2017. He is a journalist, writer and photographer who focuses on human rights issues. When it comes to cities, he's interested in social equity, sustainability and policies that help or hinder disadvantaged communities. His reporting and writing have been featured by Al Jazeera, The Guardian, NPR, Huffington Post Live, VICE, VICE News, the Christian Science Monitor, the United Nations, CityLab and others.