Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle


For Vera Haim, teaching Jewish children about their
religion, history and culture gave her life a deeper meaning. For 17 years, the
53-year-old Israeli-born educator taught at Jewish nursery schools throughout Southern
California, most recently at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. Nothing made
Haim happier than helping young students develop self-esteem and a curiosity
about their roots.

But her dream job held the seeds of a nightmare. Earning
just $15,000 annually and with no health-care benefits, Haim landed in dire
financial straits after she and her husband divorced last year. Unable to
support herself, she had to move in with her 31-year-old son. In short order,
she left Kol Tikvah and nearly doubled her income by opening a home day-care
business in her son’s house.

“I think babysitters make more per hour than nursery school
teachers, especially at Jewish schools,” Haim said. “You work so hard with
those children, but what you get paid is nothing, nothing.”

She and other Jewish day-school teachers are not alone in
their frustration. From social workers caring for Holocaust survivors to cooks
preparing kosher meals for the elderly, many Jewish communal workers complain
that low wages make it nearly impossible for them to buy homes, take vacations
or live a comfortable middle-class existence. Some even must work two jobs to
eke out a living.

A study by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish
Education found that nearly two in three people working at Jewish nursery
schools failed to receive company-paid medical benefits.

Not everyone at Jewish organizations or synagogues has to
pinch pennies. Top agency executives and rabbis make upward of six figures,
with some Westside religious leaders earning $300,000.

The focus on Jewish communal workers’ wages and benefits
comes at a time when labor issues have assumed increasing importance. Thousands
of supermarket employees throughout the Southland are striking to protect
medical benefits. A short, nasty strike by MTA mechanics earlier this year
crippled Southland transportation. And rising health care costs are putting
tremendous pressure on employers and employees in all sectors of American society.

Locally, Jewish agency executives and rabbis said they would
like to pay their employees more but simply lack the means to do so. With
donations flat and workers’ compensation and health-care costs skyrocketing,
salaries for low-wage workers appear unlikely to improve anytime soon.

That infuriates Jon Lepie, a consultant to the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 800. He said nearly
20 percent of the 450 full- and part-time unionized workers at The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service (JFS) and five other
agencies earn less than $20,000 a year. To cite but two examples, a full-time
nursery school teacher assistant at the West Valley Jewish Community Center
(JCC) makes less than $16,000, while a SOVA driver delivering food to the needy
from the food bank makes about $12,500.

“It’s a shonda that Jewish agencies should pay anybody less
than a living wage,” Lepie said.

Even nonexecutive Jewish professionals lag behind their
counterparts. Unionized registered nurses and licensed clinical social workers
at Jewish agencies earn, on average, $47,795 and $38,474, respectively. That’s
nearly 10 percent and 33 percent less than they could make at other local
nonprofits, according the Center for Nonprofit Management, which recently
surveyed 419 area nonprofit organizations.

Workers at Jewish agencies and synagogues are by no means
the only ones struggling. Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County
Economic Development Corp., said good jobs are vanishing both locally and
nationally, especially in manufacturing.

“There’s this ongoing concern that you’re going to end up
with this two-tiered society, with a few skilled people with high wages and
many more low-skilled workers with low-wage jobs,” he said. “You’re seeing the
great middle-class disappearing.”

 

Some Employers Fall Short

Rabbi Mark Diamond said he thinks Jewish institutions should
do more. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern
California said Jewish law mandates that workers receive fair wages and
benefits.

He said synagogues and Jewish organizations should serve as
“community exemplars.” That some fall short upsets him, especially since so
many Jewish leaders loudly proclaim support for unions and workers’ rights.

“Before we point fingers, we need to look inward and make
sure we’re treating our workers and staff in the Jewish community with fairness
and equity,” Diamond said. “I’m aware that not every synagogue or organization
lives up to the ideals of Jewish tradition.”

Joe Paulicivic, director of human resources at Catholic
Charities of Los Angeles, said nonprofits like his don’t pay “big fat” salaries
for a less nefarious reason: low administrative costs mean more money goes to
the needy. Catholic Charities, which serves an estimated 1 million people
annually in Southern California, pays its social workers slightly more than
Jewish agencies. However, its cooks earn less, comparisons show.

Low wages notwithstanding, many temple and Jewish communal
employees express high job satisfaction. They enter their chosen professions
not to grow rich but rather to make a difference. They also like the
family-friendly work environments and time off for Jewish holidays, including
Shabbat, said Marla Eglash Abraham, associate director of the School of Jewish
Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los
Angeles.

But with Jewish day-school tuition at about $15,000, two
weeks of Jewish camp going for $1,500 and synagogue membership costing about
$2,000, some communal professionals “who want to raise Jewish families and for
whom this is important by and large don’t have access” to Jewish institutions,
Eglash Abraham said.

Such is the case for JFS social worker Susan Hallett. A
single mother of two with a master’s degree in social work from California
State University, Long Beach, she earns just $36,500. Her salary is so low that
her son and daughter qualify for Healthy Families, the state’s health-care
program for children of the working poor.

Hallett wanted her children to go to Hebrew school but
couldn’t afford the fees. She figured her status as a Jewish communal worker
would entitle her to a discounted rate. But after a supervisor told her
otherwise, Hallett said she gave up on the idea of her daughter and son getting
a bat and bar mitzvah through a synagogue.

She said she could make much more working at a hospital,
given the demand for qualified social workers. But caring for Holocaust
survivors gives Hallett such satisfaction that she has no desire to leave the
agency. Her bosses also give her flexibility to leave work on short notice if
she needs to take her children to the doctor.

Still, Hallett said life is a struggle. She saves almost
nothing and has $10,000 in credit-card debt and more than $20,000 in student
loans. Hallett lives in a dilapidated two-bedroom Sherman Oaks apartment with
dirt-stained carpeting, a couch without legs and a makeshift chair fashioned
from a milk crate and a pillow. The whir of passing cars and trucks from an
adjacent four-lane thoroughfare is constant.

“I just scrape by,” she said. “I still have to call my mom
from time to time to help me financially. I’m almost 40. Give me a break.”

 

Kitchen Workers Struggle

Hallett has it good compared to some of the men and women who
work at the JFS-operated Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen. Most of the cooks who
prepare the meals; kitchen assistants who chop the vegetables, scrub pots and
lug out the trash, and the drivers who deliver food to seniors’ homes make less
than $19,000 for full-time work.

One helper in his late 30s said he earns so little that he
must work a second job as a dishwasher to support his wife and three young
children. Some nights he gets home from his restaurant job at 4 a.m., sleeps
for a couple hours and then drags himself out of bed to begin his shift at the
Hirsh kitchen at 6:30 a.m.

The man, who requested anonymity, said sleep deprivation has
taken a toll on his marriage. Irritable with fatigue, he and his wife fight
often, a situation exacerbated by having five people living in a one-bedroom
apartment. He said he constantly puts drops in his eyes to flush out the
redness.

“When I was in Mexico, my friends said, ‘Hey, let’s go to
America. There’s easy money there,'” said the helper, who cannot afford health
insurance for his children and takes them to the emergency room whenever they need
medical attention. “After coming here, I’ve learned differently.”

A Hirsh kitchen cook in his late 20s also needs a second job
to support his family. Although he enjoys his time at the kitchen and at a
supermarket, his 63-hour work weeks leave him precious little time with his
wife and two daughters. He speaks wistfully about spending weekends in the park
with his family, something he rarely does because of his hectic schedule.

Paul Castro, JFS executive director, said he sympathized
with the plight of the Hirsh kitchen workers. He said he wished he could pay
them and other JFS employees more, but that the money simply isn’t there.

As difficult as the kitchen workers might have it, they at
least have health insurance, sick days and paid vacations, unlike many others
in the food service industry. JFS also pays them more than the minimum wage.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Castro said.

 

Trying to Do Right

So is Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Senior Rabbi Steven Z.
Leder said the synagogue provides fully paid health care and pensions for its
employees. The rabbi recently invited religious school teachers and their
spouses to his home for a Chanukah party. In the spring he will host an all-day
barbecue in Malibu for temple workers and their families.

As much as Wilshire Boulevard Temple does, though,
sometimes, good intentions run up against hard economic realities.

The temple, like many businesses and institutions, doesn’t
provide health insurance for employees’ family members, forcing workers to make
difficult choices. At a minimum of $231.87 per month to cover a  spouse and
$424.32 per family, some employees opt to take their chances.

That’s what happened to a temple maintenance man. After his
uninsured wife fell ill, he found himself near financial ruin as medical bills
mounted. Upon hearing of his plight, Wilshire Boulevard Temple executives
raised thousands among themselves to help defray the woman’s medical expenses.

“Everybody’s a part of the family here,” Leder said. “We
take care of each other.”

Similarly, Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah said he does
what he can to improve the lives of his workers.

Jacobs considers himself progressive in the best sense of
the word. Employees at his synagogue attend High Holiday services for free. Two
years ago, the rabbi won the Walter Cronkite Freedom and Faith Award for
recognition of his interfaith and civil rights work. An active union supporter,
Jacobs said he played a role in ending the recent janitors’ strike.

Like many synagogues, though, Kol Tikvah has struggled in
recent years. That has led to painful decisions. To cut costs, the synagogue
reduced the hours of four full-time teachers and made them part-time employees.

In the process, the educators lost their health insurance.
Now, none of Kol Tikvah’s 40 nursery and religious school teachers receive
medical coverage through their jobs, although they get paid sick days and
vacation.

“I think what we need to do is somehow figure out on a
communitywide basis how we’re going to take care of our teachers, how we’re
going to take care of our social workers,” Jacobs said.

One communal agency is trying to address that. The Jewish
Free Loan Association (JFLA) recently launched a program that loans up to
$10,000 to Jewish day-school teachers buying their first homes. The educators
can use the money for closing costs and emergency repairs.

Mark Meltzer, JFLA executive director, said he hoped the
loans would increase teacher retention by making it easier for them to own
property in the neighborhoods where they teach. He also wants to expand the
program to include all Jewish communal workers. But with the median housing
price in Los Angeles County at a record $339,000, JFLA’s largesse might not be
enough, he said.

“Unfortunately, teachers and most Jewish professionals need
family or spousal assistance if they ever hope to buy in this market,” Meltzer
said.

One nursery school teacher assistant at West Valley JCC
needs financial help from her two grown children just to get by. The
middle-aged Iranian immigrant loves working with young children, even
performing such mundane tasks as giving the children snacks during recess.

But her $16,744 salary makes going out to dinner, taking
vacations and going to movies an unaffordable luxury. She said she’s relieved
she works during the day, because she doesn’t have enough money to keep her air
conditioner running. The woman, who requested her name not be used, said her
situation has deteriorated since her husband retired two years ago.

After 18 years at Jewish schools, she said she deserved more
than $7.83 an hour.

“It’s hard, but my husband and I have managed,” she said.
“If we need help, our children will help. What can we do?”