A key skirmish in the battle over living wage jobs takes place in Elmhurst at 11 a.m. today, when a cluster of community and labor organizations and local pols will gather at the main entrance of Queens Center Mall for a press conference condemning low wages at the shops there.
The event is perfectly timed, coming hot on the heels of the City Council’s recent vote, 45 to 1, to kill a plan backed by Mayor Bloomberg that would have poured tens of millions in subsidies into a new mall at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
Figuring out how to create and retain decent-paying jobs is the single most pressing economic issue facing New York City, and a fight that can’t be put off any longer.
On one side are developers, retailers and the Bloomberg administration, content to continue traditional schemes that throw millions of public dollars at commercial projects in exchange for jobs – often, with little or no concern about the quality or wage levels of the employment.
On the other side are families trying desperately to make miserably small paychecks cover food, shelter, transportation, clothing, education and other necessities.
In too many cases, it just can’t be done.
Most of the 3,100 jobs at the mall pay at or only slightly more than the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, according to a report being released today by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Make the Road New York, a community organization.
The groups call Queens Center Mall a poverty wage center – a place where people work endless hours for years, but never earn enough to support a family.
Juan Cucalon, a 28-year-old cashier at Victoria’s Secret in Queens Center Mall, told researchers he got $8.25 an hour – $600 a month, after taxes. After paying $400 a month for his rented room, Cucalon had $200 a month for food and other necessities.
Another ex-worker, Saa’datu Sani, worked at JCPenney from 1999 to 2007. Her pay after eight years was $8.47 an hour, with no benefits.
"The mall has helped create an entire community that is struggling under the weight of poverty-wage jobs," the report concludes.
The pay is so low, in fact, that many retail workers make ends meet by turning to public welfare like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Most galling of all is the fact that Macerich, the Queens Mall operator and a major national manager of malls, got more than $48 million in property tax breaks between 2004 and 2009, according to the report.
That is where the rest of us come in.