Parashat Ki Teitzei: September 5, 2014
Shabbat Shalom……. what a short week! It was a short week because Monday was
Did anyone go any barbeques or go to the beach? Did anyone go to the Made in America festival this weekend? Well, my friend, Pastor Cue, he’s a pastor down in skid row, said he spoke to a security person there this weekend and the man told him that working security for the festival was his second job. Actually, he had worked at a fast food chain where he had been for 36 years. Pastor Cue wondered why he needed a second job when he already had such steady work. Then Pastor Cue described to me how his jaw dropped when the man told him that it was necessary because though he had worked there 36 years yet still only made $11/hr.
Imagine that. This individual, who has served America for 36 consecutive years, is still only making $11/hr. and needs to work a second job at a Made in America concert?! Is this what it means to be made in America? Or to make a life in America? For too many people in this great nation of dreams, members of the working poor like this man, the answer is yes.
I have heard that some companies, rather than giving a paycheck to their employees, give them a type of gift card instead. And, how many of us have unused gift cards? (SO MANY, right?) So, the laborers are not always receiving their full wages.1 Workers in the car wash industry have noted that they can work 10 hour workdays, 6 days a week, with minimal breaks, for less than minimum wage. Carwash workers are also subject to health and safety hazards such as constant exposure to water and to dangerous chemicals without protective gear.2
At other companies, hours are erased from their timecards, or workers are denied overtime. Just this morning, a group of teamsters organized around wage theft due to their employers listing them as independent contractors, instead of as full employees. These workers are striving for basic fairness in the workplace that many of us may take for granted.
Labor Day, at its best, celebrates the dignity that comes from working during one’s life. The pride that comes with contributing to society. The stability that routines and daily structures bring to one’s life. The reward that comes with earning a paycheck and being able to provide for the welfare of oneself and one’s household. Labor Day reminds us of the higher purpose of work in the world—the sacred rhythm, sense of self, and selfsufficiency it brings to our lives.
And, while many are uplifted by and grateful for the sacred and incredibly meaningful role that work plays in our lives, we should be absolutely horrified by the state of labor in our country and our community. For many too many dignity does not come from work, rather the opposite– a sense of inhumanity comes from work. For too many, despite their hard work and determination, despite their labor, they are left in low-wage jobs that provide inadequate benefits and offer little opportunity for advancement and economic security.
At a recent Labor Day rally, Councilman Mike Bonin reminded us3 that today, a father will not attend his son’s soccer game because after he completes a full workday at a local big box retailer, he has to go directly to his job as a security guard because he can’t make ends meet on such a meager salary. That tonight, a family will sit down and decide that they should get the car fixed so they can get to work later in the week even though that means they won’t be able to afford food the next day because their low salaries can’t cover both.
These kinds of realities are truths for 10.4 million individuals in this country who are counted among the working poor.4 In California, 1 out of every 2 poor people are poor despite the fact that they actually have a full time job. And, Los Angeles is the working poor capital of the nation with over a million people who work full time yet live below the poverty line.5 These people work—yet, they still can’t make ends meet.
I’m talking about many teamsters and grocery workers, airport workers and steel workers, car washers, restaurant workers, teachers, and so many others. This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tetzei says:
לֹא-תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר, עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, מֵאַחֶי ,ָ אוֹ מִגֵּרְ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְ בִּשְׁעָרֶיָ
טו בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא-תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כִּי עָנִי הוּא, וְאֵלָיו, הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת-נַפְשׁוֹ; וְלֹא-יִקְרָא
עָלֶי אֶל-יְהוָה, וְהָיָה בְ חֵטְא.
“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. 15 You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.”
These verses from the book of Deuteronomy, are very similar to that which is also found in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 13 which says: “The wages of one that is hired shall not reside with you [overnight] until morning.” Clearly, the Torah, shows sensitivity toward the plight of the worker when twice over, it mandates the full, immediate payment of wages to a laborer.
Note that laborers are not limited to fellow Israelites but these rules apply to the resident alien as well. This is a law for all of humanity.
Ancient rabbis reinforce the point that laborers should be respected first and foremost by timely payment of wages in the Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 111a/b. The sages insist that if the laborer was hired for the day, he must be paid that day. Rav adds that if he was hired for the night, he must be paid that night. The rabbis also explain that those who withhold wages transgress 4 negative commandments and one positive command. The withholder breaks the
-to not oppress
-to not rob
-to not have the wages reside by you overnight
-to not have the sun go down on the wages
And the withholder also breaks the commandment:
-to pay the laborer that very day
All of these commandments are transgressed simply by not paying the laborer immediately. The rabbis who lived over 1500 years ago already knew the dangers of these kinds of practices and warned heavily against them. Rav Chisda notes that part of the problem is that the laborer is then forced to go and come back to the employer later.
Rava takes an even more radical viewpoint– he says that sending a laborer away without paying him immediately is theft. The Tanna explains that withholding payment may result in this kind of actual wage theft since rich and poor workers may be too embarrassed to go back later to ask for their wages, and thus they may never get paid.
In medieval times, Maimonides and other great Jewish rabbis insist that we Jews we have an ethical obligation to help those in need become self-sufficient. In this way, Maimonides is pointing to our ethical obligation of bringing justice to workers. In modern times, the Reform Movement’s national justice organization called the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,6 composed of concerned rabbis and lay leaders, insist that not only do we need to ensure that laborers are paid wages and on time, but that their health care is ensured as well.
Consistently, and for thousands of years across ancient medieval and modern times, the Jewish community has noted the host of possible dangers that come from low or withheld wages.
You may be wondering what solutions are there that may help the situation today. First, legislation. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Monday that he would seek to raise the minimum wage in L.A. This will uplift salaries closer to a living wage. Second, organizing. Workers are organizing themselves and others and speaking with their employers about their needs. Faith leaders and concerned lay leaders are holding them accountable. For example, delegations from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) consistently speak with a local managers and owners about fair practices.
Third, lawsuits. Workers are banding together in an effort to ensure that their rights are realized. For example, my dear friend worked as a server in a posh New York event space. The mandatory service charge was often kept from the servers. My friend organized her coworkers and took them to court.7 After four years of organizing and much legislation, the event space was ordered to pay $8.5M.8 Undoubtedly, this sends a message to the employer and to other employers across the country that they cannot withhold wages from laborers.
We can ask, what is number four? What is something that we can each do to help build a just and righteous society that pays workers a living wage with basic benefits? Can we have a difficult conversation with a business owner we know to inquire about practices? Can we attend rallies and speak with our friends and family members about these issues? Can we look at the practices in our own companies and commit to fairness for our employees?
Reflecting upon what this past weekend has meant to us, and the Torah portion for this week, and the rabbinic sensitivities towards justice for workers, let’s hold fast to these values and take time to consider how we can help alleviate the situation.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.
1 Discussion with ROC LA – Restaurant Opportunities Center L.A..
3 Councilman Mike Bonin at the Raise the Wage LA Rally, Labor Day 2014.
5 Councilman Paul Koretz at the Raise the Wage LA Rally Labor Day 2014.