On the South Side, low-wage workers are struggling to escape poverty

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

South Side of Syracuse residents are struggling to make ends meet and many face poor working conditions. As well, for many low-wage workers in Syracuse, the biggest hurdle is finding reliable work that lasts.

One Saturday morning, Nincy Estanis roamed the parking lot of Stop N Shop, a grocery and drug store on Onondaga Avenue. She scanned the concrete for coins, looking for loose change between cars and behind a set of dumpsters. Last March, the 46-year-old South Side resident quit her job at a local restaurant, citing dirty conditions and poor air quality.

“It made me sick,” Estanis said. “I stopped because I couldn’t have it anymore.”

Estanis, who lives with her parents on the South Side, has been searching for new work ever since. For years, she hopscotched from one restaurant to the other. She said she has worked extra hours without pay, falling victim to wage theft in hostile work environments.

For many low-wage workers in Syracuse, the biggest hurdle is finding reliable work that lasts. Several workers said earlier this month that they are unable to rely on steady full-time hours in adequate work environments. A report published in January by the Occupational Health Clinic Center at the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center found that low-wage workers in the city of Syracuse are at risk of injury and illness from “poorly controlled workplace hazards.”

Low-wage work, which places an employee at or around the poverty level of $24,250 income per year, occupies a growing proportion of the workforce in central New York. It can lead to increased stress, financial pressure and physical injury, the report found. From janitors to dish washers to fast food employees, low-wage workers sit in the bottom quarter of the income scale, making about $545 per week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.


Jeanette Zoeckler, a project manager at the Occupational Health Clinic Center who studies social and behavioral aspects of work and health, led the report from the Occupational Health Clinical Center. The state operation based in Syracuse serves 26 counties, is affiliated with Upstate Medical University and funded by the New York State Department of Health.

Zoeckler and 11 colleagues surveyed 559 low-wage workers in three phases since 2013. The results, while anecdotal, offer a glimpse into the world of low-wage workers in Syracuse, the 29th poorest city in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Thirty percent of workers make $15 or less per hour, per the report.

“The central question was that low-wage work in itself is a hazard,” Zoeckler said. “Generally, long-term health of low-wage workers is in peril. They won’t drop dead on a heart attack today, but there’s a chronic disease component of this.”

The prevalence of low-wage workers in Syracuse contributes to the particularly high poverty levels. In the city, 40,500 residents — or 31 percent of the population — lived below the poverty line in 2015. In New York state, 75 percent of low-wage workers are of color, 33 percent have children and 27 percent are the sole providers of income in their household, per the report.

Low-wage work has over the years become more prevalent in the Syracuse area than in other economies nationally, said Don Dutkowsky, a professor of economics in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. As wages stagnate across the U.S., workers are left to cling to their jobs paycheck to paycheck.

“The problem of low-wage workers is real,” Dutkowsky said. “It’s a trap for them. These jobs are precious to people, but they may not pay the best and moving around is not easy.”

On the South Side, Zoeckler said workers are asked to work overtime more so than in other Syracuse areas. But many do not receive extra pay, she said.

In call centers throughout Syracuse, Zoeckler said employees may not have access to reliable transportation. Others have been sexually harassed, pressured to meet quotas or stalked by bosses, she said. Poor lighting and dust compounds the issue.

“We don’t mind if teenagers have to get a job flipping burgers,” Zoeckler said. “But for these people, they’re trying to raise their families, pay bills. And some are frightened they won’t be able to get another job. There’s a narrative of like, ‘OK, my kid is having flu and asthma, and now you’re saying I can’t stay home and take care of them?’”

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