Low Wages and Maria Fernandes’ Fatal Nap

Photo Credit: Dunkin' Donuts

Photo Credit: Dunkin’ Donuts

LAKE MACBRIDE— What working person hasn’t taken a nap in their vehicle? Part time and temporary workers with multiple jobs are unlikely to get enough rest, so why not set the alarm clock and snooze after arriving early for a shift, or during a 30-minute lunch break? At the meat packing plant where I worked during summer breaks from college, there was competition for the prime snoozing spots before clocking in the regulation six minutes before starting a shift. One’s vehicle provides a level of security and privacy— it’s also convenient.

The story of Maria Fernandes, who died in her automobile while sleeping between part time jobs at three New Jersey and New York Dunkin’ Donut shops, hit the corporate media in full force last week, and they were atwitter. The best coverage I found was in RT, the Russian 24/7 news channel:

A New Jersey woman who worked four jobs, who sometimes “wouldn’t sleep for five days,” according to a co-worker, died Monday while napping between shifts in her car on the side of the road.

Maria Fernandes died in her 2001 Kia Sportage after inhaling carbon monoxide and fumes from an overturned gas container she kept in the car, according to the New York Daily News.

The 32-year-old Newark woman pulled into a WAWA convenience store lot in Elizabeth, New Jersey for a nap early Monday. She left the car running. The carbon monoxide and gasoline fumes were the likely cause of death, authorities said.

Fernandes was found dead in the car around eight hours later when EMTs responded to a 911 call of a woman found in a vehicle with closed windows and doors. Emergency workers sensed a strong chemical odor upon entering the vehicle, authorities said.

What will the story of Fernandes mean to broader society? Regretfully, not much once the news cycle is finished. Hers is one more sad story in the life of working people.

There is media discussion of Fernandes becoming emblematic for low wage workers, and some connect her death to the current political discussion about the need for an increase in the minimum wage. Advocates will likely use her story to make a case for unionization and other favored topics. But something is missing. Let’s follow the RT story down the rabbit hole:

About 7.5 million Americans are working more than one job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those jobs often leave people short on income compared to full-time work, said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

“These are folks who would like to work full-time but they can’t find the jobs,” Van Horn said. “They wind up in these circumstances in which they are exhausted. More commonly it creates just an enormous amount of stress.”

Workers in the United States are earning an average of 23 percent less than earnings from jobs that were lost during the economic recession that began in 2008, according to a recent report, as wealth inequality in the U.S. has shot to record highs, according to various indicators. Many long-term unemployed are considering abandoning their job search following years of stagnant economic growth.

Maria Fernandes is not a victim of her own choices, except maybe the one to leave her car running while she slept in it. Closer to the truth is that many companies want part time or temporary workers to avoid paying benefits, and this runs contrary to the expectations built for those of us in the baby boom generation. The movement to part time and temporary work is an inexorable march toward stripping costs from business operations— something few in the corporate media have covered as it relates to Fernandes.

That she could work in three locations with the same corporate brand and wear the same uniform in each, yet not work for the same company, gets to a core issue. By its structure, Dunkin’ Donuts and companies like it, are designed to distance themselves from workers, and create gross margin and related profits that flow to the richest one percent of the population. In this case to the parent company, Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc. (NASDAQ: DNKN), led by Nigel Travis. There are layers of distancing from the company, presumably related to the goal of avoiding the costs and troubles of lowly paid workers.

The circumstances around Maria Fernandes’ death captivated attention for a news cycle. One must ask the question what will we do about it, and hope there will be an answer.

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