Denver Institute for Faith & Work examines challenges facing hourly-paid laborers
By Carla Foote
There is a divide between hourly workers and business owners. They may interact in a work setting, but often there is no natural social interaction between these two groups.
I reflected on this gap as I was sitting in church one day and looked down the row. I saw Zach and Dave sitting next to each other. It struck me that there are very few places in our society where these two men, a welder and a CEO, are together in community.
Jeff Haanen, founder of the Denver Institute for Faith and Work (DIFW), also addressed this gap between people in his organization’s recent panel discussion. He shared about his unlikely friendship with Rich, an hourly worker who paints cars at an auto body shop.
Haanen shared Rich’s story as he kicked off a panel discussion attended by business leaders in Denver in mid-August 2021. The focus of the discussion was how to show love to the laborers in our city.
Rich and Jeff met at church and developed a friendship. Rich is an artist and has given drawing lessons to Jeff’s daughter. Rich spent 20 years in prison and has carefully walked a narrow path since his release three years ago. He sees work as an opportunity to provide for his family. When asked about his work, Rich says, “I want people to see what we are contributing. When you get in an accident you need someone to fix your car.”
These unlikely connections — Zach and Dave, Rich and Jeff — are possible through a foundation of faith and intentionality, not because of any similarities in socio-economic status.
Such connection is rare in our communities. Hourly workers and professionals are often physically and socially isolated from each other. According to Pew Research, income inequality has grown over the past 50 years in the U.S., increasing the divide between low-income hourly workers and professionals.
Challenges Laborers Face
While hourly workers are an important segment of the economy in the U.S. and Canada, they face challenges that can prevent them from self-sufficiency and flourishing. They feel the financial strain of rising costs of housing and affordable childcare, food, fuel and utilities.
Health care costs and availability also impact hourly workers in the U.S. At the same time, some sectors of the economy are having trouble hiring enough hourly workers to staff their operations.
The panel convened by the Denver Institute on Faith & Work focused on these issues in urban centers in Colorado. Many of these same challenges are felt across North America. Panelists included people representing public policy, business, and the nonprofit sector.
Julie Stone with Gary Community Ventures, a nonprofit focusing on public/private partnerships to solve societal issues, talked about how an understanding of hourly wage workers was part of her growing up experience. Her family owned several truck stops in Wyoming — 24/7 operations which depended on hourly workers. Her first “job” as a child was picking up trash around a truck stop, because her family cared about providing a clean impression.
Stone encouraged business leaders to see the lives of real people behind the labor component of their companies. Labor is not just a cost to be minimized in a return-on-investment calculation, she said.
Labor is not just a cost to be minimized in a return-on-investment calculation— Julie Stone
And she reminded us that it is very easy for people with stable, professional employment to ignore the needs of those families who are struggling in low-wage, hourly jobs. Our faith is about seeing and showing compassion to people on the margins, who have less than we do.
She challenged those in attendance to consider what real love for a worker looks like: “Should my radical love for my own children be any different from my radical love for my employees?”
Sometimes the conversations about the challenges of hourly workers are over-simplified. Business owners might mention a lack of work ethic. Labor leaders might bemoan low wages.
J. J. Ament, CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, said, “We have to be willing to have complicated conversations. There are 1,000 reasons for labor shortages and the struggles of hourly workers to make ends meet.”
Ament encouraged attendees to consider multiple layers to the challenges of hourly workers. He encouraged people to avoid taking a few individual stories about labor and using these stories to infer a trend. In his words, “The plural of an anecdote is not a fact.”
He also emphasized that some employers are reconsidering job requirements to attract and retain hourly workers. People who have been in prison historically find themselves excluded from many jobs. Labor shortages have pushed employers in some sectors to be more open to applicants with a prison record. Also, employers are getting better at defining the skills needed for a job. In the past many jobs automatically required a college diploma, even if it wasn’t necessary for the work.
This created an unnecessary barrier for workers. These adaptations in hiring are based on business realities, not necessarily a compassionate motivation. Such changes provide more opportunities for low-wage workers.
Colorado State Senator James Coleman acknowledged that these complicated public policy issues will not be solved in isolation. Coleman asserted that we need collaboration from people who disagree, to come together to discuss solutions.
He encouraged listening to laborers, who are not always part of public policy conversations.
Our Response as Christians
Love for neighbors is a clear call
for Christians. However, the practical demonstration of love is not always clear in complicated economic and policy conversations. Respect for hourly workers and a commitment to listen and learn is a good starting place.
In his own journey to understand and love hourly workers, Haanen looked back at historical Christian teachings. He found that Catholic social teaching was more robust on this topic than his Protestant background.
In the late 1800s industrial economies were grappling with social issues of fair wages, safe working conditions, and the rights to property. The rise of Marxist ideas was confronting capitalistic systems.
Pope Leo XIII addressed these issues in 1891 in Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor. He wrote out of concern for the living and working conditions for urban laborers. The dignity of each person, created in God’s image, is a foundation of Pope Leo XIII’s teaching.
Employers should respect workers’ dignity by giving them time off, safe conditions, and fair wages. He also asserted private ownership of property as a natural right.
The Pope saw the role of the church as drawing together the classes. “Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. … There is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice,” he wrote.
This historical teaching of the Church emphasizes that the dignity of people should be the foundation for relationships. We are all created in the image of God, and our interactions should reflect that truth. We can show love towards hourly workers and business owners as we participate in daily economic activity in our communities.
Practical steps to show love to hourly workers
Jeff Haanen, founder of the Denver Institute for Faith and Work, offers these practical ideas for showing love to hourly paid workers.
- Recognize the dignity of each person and their work. Make sure that people you encounter in the service sector feel seen and valued. Look a person in the eyes and thank them for their work. It is easy to get impatient when you wait for service at a short-staffed restaurant. The person who is serving you did show up to work today, so thank them.
- Listen and learn. Take the time to be curious about someone’s real life. Don’t assume that you know the challenges and joys people face in their daily work. As you build relationships with hourly workers, keep on learning. This stance of wanting to learn from and connect with people demonstrates active love for them.
- Give power to hourly workers. This step of practical love builds on the previous two. As you recognize the dignity of each person, and listen and learn about their lives, you will realize that you don’t have all the solutions to the issues they face. If you are in a position of leadership as an employer, ask your workers for input. Involving people in the process shows respect for their ideas.
For further reading and reflection: suggested readings
6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S. By Katherine Schaeffer, February 7, 2020, Pew Research Center
Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor by Pope Leo XIII, 1891. This encyclical asserted that both employers and employees have rights and duties, and the church is the only way to bind together the classes.
“God of the Second Shift: The theology of work conversation is thriving. Why are most workers missing from it?” By Jeff Haanen, September 20, 2018, Christianity Today
The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits by Zeynep Ton, New Harvest, 2014.