Maria Fernandes was a good-hearted American with a family, ambitions and a rock-solid work ethic.
She also juggled three part-time jobs to make ends meet and grabbed much-needed sleep in her SUV between shifts. She left the engine running during one of those naps, and when a gas container she kept in the SUV somehow overturned, the fumes and carbon monoxide killed her.
While her death might appear to be an accident, the poverty-level wages that kept Fernandes working all hours of the day and night are the deliberate choice of corporations that make billions of dollars exploiting the labor of average Americans. Corporate greed turned America into a nation of haves and have-nots.
And more and more often, economic despair kills the have-nots.
U.S. life expectancy dropped three years in a row, America’s suicide rate is at a record high, millions struggle with opioid addictions, and workers with multiple part-time jobs battle hopelessness.
U.S. life expectancy dropped three years in a row, America’s suicide rate is at a record high, millions struggle with opioid addictions, and workers with multiple part-time jobs battle hopelessness. None of this occurred by chance. Diseases of despair soared as corporations sold out the American worker for higher profits.
CEO pay soared 940 percent over the past 40 years as middle-class workers’ pay stagnated. Corporations shifted family-sustaining manufacturing jobs to low-wage Mexico, hollowing out entire communities. They gutted retiree health care and shifted more health care costs to workers.
CEOs and business groups schemed with their Republican cronies in government to crush the labor unions that fight to get workers decent pay, fair benefits and safe working conditions. As union membership declined from more than 30 percent of American workers to about 11 percent, the bottom fell out of the middle class. Income inequality skyrocketed.
Fernandes held down minimum-wage jobs at three different Dunkin’ Donuts shops in New Jersey. She napped in her car because she had no time to go home to sleep and traveled with a filled gas can so she’d never be late because of an empty tank.
Dunkin’ considered her a model employee but failed to offer her full-time work in a single store—something that would have been life-changing. Fernandes never complained about her grueling workdays or Dunkin’s failure to reward her dedication.
Poverty is what really killed Fernandes. The same is true of low-wage workers who take their own lives.
New research blames thousands of suicides on low minimum wages. It predicts that thousands more suicides could be prevented each year—and the slide in U.S. life expectancy slowed—if each state increased its minimum wage by just one dollar an hour.
Researchers analyzed minimum wage and suicide data from all 50 states over a 25-year span. They concluded a one-dollar increase would cut suicides among adults without college degrees by as much as 6 percent. The increase would be enough to give minimum-wage workers financial breathing room—and some hope.
New Jersey’s minimum is now $11. But about 21 states still use the federal minimum wage, which Congress set at $7.25 in 2009. A person making $7.25 an hour and working 40 hours a week earns just $15,080 a year, below the poverty line for a household of two.
The Democratic-controlled House last year passed a bill to raise the federal minimum to $15 by October 2025. Corporations opposed the increase and got their Senate Republican buddies to kill the legislation. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky refuses to hold a vote on the bill, even though his state has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.
The number of minimum-wage and other part-time jobs exploded with the demise of American manufacturing. U.S. corporations exploited NAFTA and shifted one million manufacturing jobs to Mexico during the agreement’s first two decades alone.
Corporations made a killing because of Mexico’s low wages and weak environmental regulation. But in the process, they stole U.S. workers’ livelihoods and gutted American communities.
The low-wage, limited-hour positions in retail, hospitality and other industries that proliferated in NAFTA’s wake pay much less than those lost in unionized plants and mills.
When Maytag closed a plant in Galesburg, Illinois, and moved the work to Mexico, about 2,000 unionized workers lost their jobs. Forklift driver George Carney began working as a bartender. Factory worker Tracy Warner took jobs as a teacher’s assistant and custodian.
Years later, they continued to struggle. It was nearly impossible to bounce back.
Corporations and their Republican allies made sure workers couldn’t get ahead. Besides holding down the minimum wage, they conspired to deny workers overtime, deliberately misclassify employees as contractors with fewer rights and prevent workers from organizing.
With the odds stacked against them, low-wage workers across America often live paycheck to paycheck and grow frustrated with their futures. Some vent their despair in internet chat rooms with posts like “Killing myself to avoid a life of dead-end jobs and loneliness” and “Is suicide acceptable in place of working a dead-end job?”
It’s no wonder that opioid overdoses spiked dramatically in counties where auto plants closed or that towns hollowed out by NAFTA saw increases in poverty, murders, prostitution, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Health care costs pile on even more pressure.
Corporations shift more and more of the costs to workers through higher co-pays, premium contributions and deductibles. They gutted the retiree health insurance programs that once were a major part of corporate America’s compact with workers.
This has devastating consequences. Over the past year, as many as 137 million Americans struggled with health care debt. Bills prompted some to break into retirement plans or declare bankruptcy.
They pushed Brian Jones over the edge.
Jones called 911 one August day and threatened to kill himself. When police arrived, they found the bodies of Jones, 77, and his wife Patricia, 76. Jones killed her and then himself because of medical debt.
The Joneses died of gunshot wounds. But despair killed them.
Rather than address the spiraling costs of health care, Senate Republicans ignore it. They continue to sit on bills the House passed last year to rein in drug prices and protect health care coverage for consumers with pre-existing conditions.
Reinvigorated unions are the antidote to corporate greed. When they negotiate contracts for members, unions set standards that produce better pay, benefits and working conditions for unorganized workers, too.
Public support for organized labor is on the rise, and workers in fields like technology and education now seek union representation. But workers also need an administration and Senate willing to stand up for them, not slavishly cater to corporate interests.
Although Fernandes had very little, she shared what she had. She bought pizza for homeless people and candy for kids. She bought suits for her boyfriend and her sons—and they wore them to her funeral.
Friends said they hoped her story would lead to a higher minimum wage nationwide. But corporate executives and Senate Republicans refuse to do the right thing, even if that means fueling Americans’ despair and sending more workers to early graves.
Independent Media Institute
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.