Jewish Journal


January 1, 2004

Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle


Susan Hallett, a JFS social worker, lives in a dilapidated apartment with her daughter, Reyna, 13, and son, Brandon, 10. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Susan Hallett, a JFS social worker, lives in a dilapidated apartment with her daughter, Reyna, 13, and son, Brandon, 10. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

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?"  

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