Grateful recipients of food and toys at the annual event sponsored by San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council and United Way of San Diego County. Photo courtesy of the Labor Council

Navy Veteran Neal Nevells made $1,300 per month working as a security officer guarding the headquarters of one of San Diego’s marquee biotech companies. But despite receiving a pay raise and positive feedback on the job, he was fired for simply going to the doctor.

When Nevells had a paycheck coming in, his rent was more than $1,500 — not including utilities — and he needed food stamps so he and his daughter and nephews wouldn’t go hungry. Because of his experience, he is now helping to organize a union to combat the lack of job security, unstable hours and low wages in an industry with a history of taking advantage of workers.

Last December, Nevells was one of 650 families who received a holiday turkey, fixings, and toys for his family through the annual Food & Toy Drive put on by the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council and United Way of San Diego County.

Nevell’s story of wages that don’t keep up with the cost of living, unpredictable hours and a lack of job security are injustices that are typical of families who receive help at this event, where workers donate food and toys to help one another during the holidays.

The Unions United partnership between United Way and the Labor Council was founded to help workers — both union and non-union — who fall on hard times. It is funded by union members and other donors who give in support of their fellow workers and community members. It provides emergency assistance, including food, utilities, rent and mortgage payments for families in need.

This year, the partnership supported healthcare workers who went on strike, construction workers facing gaps in employment, and communications workers, school employees and machinists who were laid off.

In addition to these workers, Unions United has seen increasing demand born of low-wage jobs that fail to pay their workers enough to support their families. Janitors, home healthcare workers, and security officers like Nevells are among the workers whose families are regularly in need.

In 2019 we have a thriving economy with local unemployment at a 20-year low. Yet we have not seen a decrease in the number of families who require our help. Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, and the concept of a “steady job” has eroded, with workers and their families enduring erratic schedules, layoffs and precarious job conditions.

Nancy Sasaki and Keith Maddox

This has left programs like ours experiencing a consistent demand for help — even in good economic times.

A strong economy should have safeguards to aid working people impacted by layoffs. It should not create jobs that leave working people facing durable poverty, food insecurity and homelessness.

A strong economy should benefit the workers whose labor fuels it. We shouldn’t see working families lining up at food pantries, or needing help to make rent year after year.

Unions United brings union members together — from firefighters and teachers to iron workers and stagehands — to provide a network of support for their fellow workers who are experiencing hard times.

The challenges workers face are particularly striking during the holiday season —  a time where we are called upon to support one another in the community. It is a reminder of how much work we have to do to raise wages and address the rising cost of living in our region.

We cannot do it alone. Our leaders in both government and business, and our fellow community members, must also come together to create a more just and equitable economy for all working families.

Nancy L. Sasaki is president and CEO of United Way of San Diego County and Keith Maddox is executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council.

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