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A Lesson on Greed
Lupe’s legs hurt. At 57, she is plump, but daily hard work keeps her arms and back firm and muscular. Her smooth skin is moist from the heat and dampness of the restaurant kitchen. Long thick eyelashes enhance her dark brown eyes. Sleek raven-black hair is streaked with gray. Lupe is a beautiful woman. The tiny crow’s feet that accent her eyes are evidence of years of smiling and laughing. Today, Lupe is not smiling. There is too much loneliness. The co-workers in the restaurant do not extend themselves enough to understand her broken English. Lupe tries to be conversant, but after chronically bumping up against a wall of silence, she concedes and focuses on her dishwashing.
It is a lonely job with no jokes or banter to break up the silence. The hot damp kitchen smells of dirty sponges and sweat. Seven hours of standing over a sink, scrubbing soup pots and baking pans leave her depleted physically and befuddled mentally. Another full dishpan is slid onto the counter next to the sink. “Mendigo!” Erupts from Lupe’s lips. At 57, it is hard to stand for 7 hours. Her joints are tingling and her back throbs. She does not think of the eczema on her hands which is aggravated by the rubber gloves. The eczema will never heal as long as she washes dishes. Lupe is a good worker, the management of the upscale bakery and coffee house do not worry about her shift being covered. The other workers believe that she is illegal, but the only known fact is her status as a Latina woman dishwasher. Payroll taxes are deducted from her pay checks the same as every other worker. Lupe works two jobs to pay her share of expenses in the home she shares with her sister, 2 nieces, and their children.
Finally, the dishes are washed and the restaurant is closed for the night. Lupe walks home on a busy highway with no sidewalks. She focuses on both of her feet staying in the gutter and not straying onto the asphalt. It is not safe to walk home at night but she has to get home. There are many people who are not able to drive for various reasons. The streets with jobs are designed for driving people. The walking people are invisible.
At home, Lupe does not undress. She kicks off her shoes and falls to her bed, too used up to be concerned about smelling like a kitchen. Lupe sleeps for 4 hours and the alarm startles her to a conscious state. She turns on the shower and strips off the clothes from the day before. The water streams over her muscles stiff from yesterday’s shift. Hot rivers flow over her back and the eczema on her hands stings as she lathers her body with soap. She drags a towel across her frame that strains with each motion. Another uniform is put on. This time it is a janitor’s uniform; navy blue chinos and gray shirt with her name on an oval patch over the pocket. Lupe will ride to work with her nephew `Angel who is on the same janitorial crew as Lupe. She greets him at the door with a cup of coffee and a tortilla with beans. They smile at one another, today is a new day. The federal minimum wage was raised to $7.15 per hour. Lupe and `Angel have been earning $5.15 per hour and the big boss refused to pay but he was sued and now he has to pay the back pay times 2. Lupe and `Angel will not be rich but their lives will have more comfort and security. A meeting is scheduled at 10am and the checks will be passed out to all the workers who are able to leave their stations.
Lupe and `Angel discuss what they will do with their back pay. Lupe will get new shoes and a TV set for her room. It would be good if she could work less hours. `Angel is reflecting back and forth between car repairs, or possibly, another car. The increased income will pay for better food and there will be less stress due to lack of money. One day, maybe soon, they will take the children to the movies.
An upbeat energy drifts throughout the big store as Lupe and `Angel clock in. Co-workers are looking one another in the eye and smiling. A wordless happy conversation is emerging. The pay increase will give co-workers an average of $80.00 more per week, and two years of unpaid increase will give each worker a small windfall. Every employee has spent and re-spent the money in their thoughts. It doesn’t matter if the big boss does not want to pay the money. The law has said he has to pay the money and this is a big company. He must pay. It has been in the newspapers.
The meeting is held in the big training room where there are many long, narrow tables with chairs on one side so all attendees look at the speaker instead of one another. Before long, the chairs are filled and employees crowd into the room and lean against the back wall. The room is humming with happy chatter. Conversations about funny customers, silly children and dumb spouses are everywhere.
There is some discussion about the reasons why the company’s owner didn’t pay the money earlier, when the law was changed. It is common knowledge that he is very rich, his family is very rich, and those who know what shareholders are, know the shareholders are very rich. Someone volunteers that other stores with different owners paid their people money when the law was changed and the rich people who own those companies are still rich. Another says that the work they do is important, the rich people would not be rich if the poor people didn’t work so hard. A woman in a small voice said: “It’s OK if I am not rich; I just want to stop worrying the light bill and food.” “Why does he keep this money from us? He cannot spend all he makes.”
`Angel broods; he plays with his car keys and glances at the door. Lupe observes his angst and says: “It will be good, mijo.” The meeting is taking too long to begin. Still, there are only workers in the room. The expected man in a suit carrying a fat envelope of checks has not appeared. Just as Angel has a notion that employers cannot be trusted any more than thieves, several men in suits enter the room, and they are followed by two security officers in uniforms. One is carrying a box. The room becomes silent. One of the men dressed in a suit is the big boss. Many people in the room have never seen him in person. He is recognized because photos of him are in many places around the store.
The big boss is a tall, athletic man with a good tan and silver hair. His fine suit, silk tie and perfect haircut exemplify the disparity between worker and executive. The workers in the room are now subdued. Some people shift a bit, being more aware of their status. Many are becoming anxious and doubting now that their hard earned remuneration will become real. Lupe suddenly grasps the reality that this greedy man with everything may know a way to escape paying her and her coworkers what they are owed. What the law said they deserved. Lupe starts to consider the fact that she may not get her money. She thinks about washing dishes every night and examines the rashes on her hands. She discreetly wipes tears from her eyes, emits a little choke, and looks toward `Angel to see if he noticed. `Angel is scowling at the man in the front of the room. He does not see Lupe crying.
The big boss speaks with a southern accent. Educated worldly people would not be overawed by his presence, noting grammatical errors and a way of talking down to his hardworking employees. This audience, however, arises from generations of sharecroppers and slaves, and now, immigrants. This audience unconsciously shrivels in the presence of this tall, white, manicured man. The employees, for the most part, have accepted dominance and suffering all of their lives. It is in their blood, and their strength is in their tolerance, not resistance. The self-indulgence of this business owner allows him to take advantage of this good quality of tolerance, and worse, view his motives as a good. To the big boss, this is business, and therefore acceptable.
Since the man in the suit entered the room, all eyes have been on him and all chatter has subsided. He stands tall over the podium and has a small microphone clipped on his suit. “Good Morning,” he says. The workers, who are trying to predict the outcome of this meeting, give a timid and polite response. The big boss is not smiling and jovial as anyone would be if they were passing out money. The workers are beginning to sense their expectations will not be met, one way or another.
“I have several important announcements to make today. Y’all know the federal minimum wage went to seven-fifteen an hour and I will be paying y’all that starting next payday. Y’all also know that I don’t agree with that. My position was that if y’all didn’t like it, y’all could work someplace else. But I lost, and I have to pay y’all seven-fifteen an hour.” A wave of sighs of relief washes over the room. The big boss pauses and lets everyone reflect on the good fortune of the pay increase. “Now then,” he continues. “Let’s talk about the matter of the back pay. I have the checks ready.” He looks over at another man standing next to a box on a table. Another wave of sighs rolls around the room. The workers giggle little laughs of relief and pat one another. The big boss gives them a moment and continues: “Everyone here is going to get a check for the amount of the back pay the government says I owe y’all. So, if y’all want to go to the back of the room and get your checks, go on then.” The back of the room has been organized with a table with sections of the alphabet for each employee to line up per their name. “I want to ask y’all to take your seats again when you get your checks because I have another announcement.” The distribution of the checks moves quickly. There is a check for everyone and it is very efficient.
Very soon, the checks are distributed and people are in their seats examining the checks. They show one another and each person coos in their joy for their co-worker. There are many exclamations about how many hours each other worked and it is, for a few minutes, an interlude of extreme pleasure.
The big boss clears his throat before he speaks: “I just need a few more minutes of your time.” All eyes are on him, and a sense of respect and appreciation is transpiring. The workers give him the respect and admiration that he is momentarily entitled to. “Now then, I really did not want to give you this money. The fact is that I still don’t want to give you this money, so I’ll tell y’all what I’m going to do. These checks here are good checks. Y’all know I’ve got plenty of money and these checks are good. BUT, if y’all take these checks to the bank and cash them, I’m going to fire you. I think I have said all I need to say today. Y’all get back to work. Bye now.”
The big boss left and the employees are murmuring and trying to understand what has just happened. Lupe is completely confused. Even though `Angel understands what has happened, he cannot explain it so Lupe understands. Lupe only understands that `Angel is angry and so they must have been duped.
That afternoon, as they are driving home, Lupe finally understands how the big boss took advantage of all of the workers. Lupe’s face turns from complete bewilderment to an almost calm face of comprehension.
`Angel and Lupe do not cash their checks for two days. Then Lupe goes to `Angel and says. “I am going to cash my check, and you should cash yours. If we cash the checks and the big boss fires us, then he will have to pay somebody else, so maybe he won’t fire us. If we don’t cash the checks, then he gets to keep the money he owes us and maybe he will fire us, but he won’t fire us today. We work hard; maybe we can use this money for more time to get a better job.” `Angel laughs: “Yes, Lupe, that is a wonderful idea. He should not be able to keep the money he owes us. You know Lupe; he could not fire everybody if everybody cashed their checks. We should tell other people what we decided.” “Yes `Angel, if good hard working people let greedy people take their money, they will continue to do so. Maybe we will teach him we also have a value.”