As an English Language Learner teacher at Hyde Park Middle School, Mario Wolthers knows sending a sick student home isn’t easy.
“Just today I had a kid, and you can tell visually he just wasn’t feeling well,” he says. “I asked him, ‘If you’re not feeling well, why didn’t you stay home?’ He told me his mom wasn’t going to be home and his dad wasn’t going to be home, so they sent him to school.”
He asked the student if he could call his parents to pick him up. “But they couldn’t leave work,” Wolthers says. “I’ve heard that story told over and over again.”
In these situations, the parents lack paid sick leave so have to choose between making the necessary income to survive or picking up that sick child.
These stories were all too common at a Thursday forum put on by Make the Road Nevada, a nonprofit that works to address economic obstacles hindering immigrant and working class communities. The group is advocating legislative policies to provide paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage and more affordable housing.
People got a chance to tell their stories to members of the Legislature including state Sen. Yvanna Cancela and Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, both Democrats from Las Vegas. The organization also invited Irene Cepeda, a candidate for Clark County School District Board of Trustees, noting the overlap between economic issues and education.
Though presented as separate issues, they’re deeply interconnected — the lack of livable wages or employment opportunities affects housing and rent affordability, and without sick leave, people miss out on income to make ends meet.
The politicians heard how people try to make ends meet, including working temporary jobs such as at conventions and festivals.
One woman, a survivor of the Route 91 mass shooting last Oct. 1, said it’s been difficult to accept jobs because of the post-traumatic stress she has from being at the concert. “I was traumatized, and it was hard to go back to work,” she said through a translator. “But if I don’t work, I can’t get money.”
For those who do find steady employment, that doesn’t mean it comes with a livable wage. Nevada’s minimum wage is $8.25 if the employer does not provide health benefits, and $7.25 if the employer does. A recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows people need to make at least $18 to afford a two-bedroom rental — or work a 90 hour week at minimum wage.
People living paycheck-to-paycheck “don’t have a chance to save anything,” Cancela said.
About 44,000 workers statewide earn less than $8.25 an hour, according to Make the Road Nevada. Jose Macias, an organizer with Make the Road, adds many people work multiple jobs to survive.
“There have been increases to everything,” Diaz said. “We’ve seen increases to grocery bills and rents. We haven’t seen increases in paychecks.”
While wages remain stagnant, rents for apartments in Las Vegas are growing faster than the national average.
If a landlord raises the rents, people are forced to find a new place to live — they might even be evicted, which happens about 34 times per day in Nevada according to Make the Road.
One woman said constantly having rents raised means her family has to move often. “It’s not to places we want to live,” she said in a translation. “It’s places we have to live. Sometimes, they have broken refrigerators or other problems. But we don’t have a choice.”
If people are already having a difficult time surviving on their wages, their problems are exacerbated if illness strikes, like when flu season hit Southern Nevada especially hard in the last year. People at the forum said the lack of paid sick leave means when they miss work they suffer the financial repercussions — including missing rent for the month.
About 49 percent of the workforce in Nevada doesn’t have paid sick day according to an estimate by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. A typical family is estimated to lose 3.5 days because of illness.
This is the first time, but not the last, Make the Road is talking about these issues and how they overlap.
They are hoping a new slate of bills in the 2019 legislative session will address these issues. However, it’s not the first time lawmakers have looked at these problems.
In 2017, legislators approved a bill requiring businesses with 25 or more employees to provide full-time workers with paid sick leave. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it saying it would be a “substantial cost to businesses, particularly small businesses.”
Diaz says there should be a way to create a plan for paid sick leave that would be fair for both businesses and families. Four states — Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Oregon — have already passed paid sick leave legislation.
Legislators passed a minimum wage hike in 2017. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.
Anticipating Sandoval’s veto, the lawmakers in 2017 also endorsed a constitutional amendment to gradually increase the wage $1.15 per year until it reaches $14 per hour. If they approve it again when the Legislature meets next year, it will be on the ballot for voters to approve 2020.
Whether the state raises the minimum wage more quickly during the 2019 legislative session will depend on who is elected governor, Cancela said.
“It’s just a question of whether or not we will have someone who will actually support a proposal to increase the minimum wage, regardless of what the number is, “Cancela said. “What we have is way too low.”
Democratic candidate for governor Steve Sisolak has said he supports a modest increase in the minimum wage, provided it isn’t raised enough that it hurts business.
Republican candidate for governor Adam Laxalt has said he is “certainly opposed to raising the minimum wage.”