Though she grew up in Central Oregon, Meliton had gone to Salem for school. She recently returned to Bend to help her family pay the bills and now, she and her husband live with her parents and siblings—10 adults and two children all told—in a three-bedroom house. All 10 adults are employed, and each one’s income is needed to keep the extended family afloat.
Even with that safety net of sorts, they cannot afford to take time off work to deal with serious health matters. Because their employers do not offer paid sick days, Meliton was forced to return to work the day after having a miscarriage, just as her mother has had to hurry back after each of her four surgeries to remove cysts in her left breast.
“She would be lying in the hospital bed saying, ‘Mija, I have to go back to work,’” Meliton recalls.
The only downtime Meliton has is when one of her patients passes away and she has to wait to be assigned another. During these gaps in work—which can last anywhere from a week to a few months—she does not collect pay. Because Meliton is a “DREAMer”—a non-citizen who, thanks to a deferred action immigration status, can go to school and be legally employed in the United States—she does not qualify for unemployment benefits.
But she is also a dreamer in the conventional sense of the word. She dreams of a world in which her parents can afford to live in their home without help from their children, a world where she and her husband can find their own place and start a family, where her 17 and 19-year-old brothers see a reason to stay in school and she can afford to put them through college.
“They dropped out of high school because they saw no hope in the future,” she explains. “We’re not asking for millions, we’re asking for a fair shot.”
That’s why Meliton is placing her hopes in the Fair Shot for All campaign, an Oregon movement to improve access to economic security by increasing the minimum wage to $15 and hour, mandating paid sick days, eliminating racial profiling and criminal history disclosure on job applications.
“Racial profiling affects a lot. You walk into a interview and they see you and think you’re not from here,” Meliton says. “We want to cover our eyes and not see the truth but it happens every day.”
A statewide coalition of labor, immigration and social justice groups called Oregon Strong Voice is hoping to open people’s eyes to economic injustice and the solutions they say can be found in Fair Shot Oregon’s campaign.
Bruce Morris, coordinator for the Bend-based Central Oregon Social Justice Center, says that local activists will be traveling to Salem March 10 to lobby the legislature to support Fair Shot’s objectives: raising the minimum wage, ending profiling, ensuring all Oregonians earn paid sick days, making it easier to save for retirement, and removing questions about prior convictions and arrests from job applications.
“With many communities still struggling in the face of long-standing economic inequities, it’s time to fix what’s broken about our economy and create real opportunity for every Oregonian,” Morris says. “The goal of our campaign is simple: we are calling for Oregon’s elected leaders to address longstanding economic inequities and fix the outdated, broken rules that shape our work, wages and planning for the future.”
Morris points out that even with Oregon’s relatively high minimum wage, a worker earning that rate takes home just $18,925 a year. Currently, he says, about 32,000 Central Oregonians are struggling to make ends meet with minimum wage work. And when every penny counts, low-wage workers can’t afford to miss a day when they, or a family member, get sick. So for the 71 percent of low-wage workers without paid sick days, that means coming to work with the flu or gambling with food, utilities or rent.
Currently, he adds, more than 26,000 people in Deschutes County are living in poverty. Which isn’t surprising considering that, according to the Oregon Labor Market Information System, about 15 percent of all Central Oregon nonfarm payroll jobs paid less than $10 an hour and nearly half paid less than $15 an hour in the first quarter of 2014.
Fortunately, Morris says, there is growing public support for many of Fair Shot’s goals. He notes that a majority of Oregonians, by a 16-point margin, support raising the minimum wage to $15 and that 67 percent of Oregon voters support requiring employers to provide seven days paid sick leave.
“No society or community is sustainable over the long term if significant segments of it do not have access to a dignified life and have little or no hope of ever getting there,” Morris says.