Activists ‘Won’t Wait’ for Economic Policy Made by Working Families, for Working Families

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Activists ‘Won’t Wait’ for Economic Policy Made by Working Families, for Working Families

Auditi Guha

“I needed my job but I also needed to be a mom. Without a paycheck, I couldn’t do either."

Safiyyah Muhammad was a single mother working at a major retailer in New Jersey when her son fell sick one morning.

She called her boss and said she was sorry she couldn’t come in because her son was sick. She was stunned when her boss said she could stay home but that she would lose her job if she did.

So she took her son with her on the 45-minute trip to work via two buses. She gave him juice, a toy, put him in a changing room and told him to be quiet as she went back to work.

When Muhammad’s manager spotted her son, she asked what she was thinking, bringing her son to work with her. Muhammad said she felt trapped in an impossible situation.

A young Black Muslim woman, Muhammad told Rewire she had been a full-time employee in good standing for more than a year. She had some vacation but no sick time and said she felt cornered and helpless.

“I needed my job but I also needed to be a mom. Without a paycheck, I couldn’t do either,” she said.

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Muhammad has become involved in women’s and workers’ rights advocacy and feels even more strongly about the importance of paid leave and support for mothers. She spoke publicly for the Earned Sick Days campaign and Family Values at Work in New Jersey, a national network of 24 coalitions pushing for family-friendly workplace policies.

Family Values at Work recently joined the We Won’t Wait campaign, a coalition amplifying the experiences of low-income families, immigrants, and women of color to push for an economic agenda that works for all women.

The national movement kicked off last year with women taking their concerns to Washington to ensure that their voices are heard to define the narrative and set policy. Issues ranged from immigration and paid leave to mass incarceration and voting rights.

Today, Muhammad works part-time as a peer counselor for parents of special needs kids. She is married to a chemist and her five children are between the ages of 14 and 30. Two of her children are in college, and three of them have special needs, including severe autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and ADHD.

Safiyyah Muhammad and her children stand outside the East Orange, New Jersey, city hall after a press conference regarding the city passing paid sick leave legislation in September 2014. (Safiyyah Muhammad)

In her line of work and activism, Muhammad said she meets many struggling young moms who don’t have the luxury of paid time off or family health insurance.

For parents of special needs children, the challenge of balancing time, money, and looking for the right education plan never ceases.

“They are often punished for needing time off to take care of their children or aging parents,” she said. “I hear the same story all the time. It’s a constant narrative in our lives.”

“As parents of special needs kids, we often overlook our own needs over our children’s,” Muhammad added. “It’s a luxury for us to have a full-time job and benefits. Many work part-time to stay home more.”

We Won’t Wait kicked off a week of action on July 4 to denounce the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on women’s rights and freedoms. Women and activists around the nation, like Muhammad, joined the effort and signed a declaration to “advance women’s rights across the workplace, health care, immigration, or criminal justice.” Participants agreed as part of the declaration to contact their local representatives once a week for the remainder of the year, according to a press release.

Alicia Jay, co-leader of We Won’t Wait and managing director of Make It Work, an education effort uniting workers, told Rewire that Make It Work joined the campaign “because we know that women of color and low-income women are not single-issue voters, because we do not lead single-issue lives. Our focus on economic security issues is not separate from immigration and criminal justice reform, voting rights, or health care. None of these issues exist in a vacuum.”

Make It Work hosted a “Work. Resist. Party! Repeat” block party in Las Vegas on Sunday to engage women and families, celebrate the resistance and remind their elected leaders to uphold liberty and justice for all.

“The event was a chance to celebrate our power and persistence in the face of attacks on our rights and freedoms, and an opportunity to be in conversation with our elected representatives to ensure they know what is at stake,” Jay said.

Other organizations that have joined the effort include Caring Across Generations, MomsRising, Black Women’s Roundtable, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United.

ROC, which fights for fair working conditions and wages for restaurant workers, hosted a Freedom Carnival on July 8 in Washington, D.C., that drew 250 people to educate them about the plight of tipped minimum wage workers, many of whom are women and can barely make ends meet.

ROC campaign manager Jessica Yanez told Rewire that tipped minimum wage earners get the short end of the stick. D.C. raised the minimum wage, currently at $12.50, but has a two-tiered system in which the tipped minimum wage is only at $3.33. Workers who rely largely on tips experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of other D.C. workers and are more prone to face sexual harassment and racial discrimination, according to a ROC report titled The Case for Eliminating the Tipped Minimum Wage in Washington, D.C.

Movements like We Won’t Wait provide a way for different organizations and activists to come together to fight for a common cause, rather than work in silos.

“I am proud of the work we are doing here,” Muhammad said. “It’s hard, and I love that this movement is very diverse and it’s bringing people together from all walks of life.”