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Weekly Alibi Get on the Bus

By Jessica English

AUGUST 11, 1997:  Do you think you could survive on minimum wage--now at a mere $4.75 an hour--or even if you were earning $5 or $6 an hour? According to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group for low- to moderate-income families, that's not nearly enough to keep an individual--let alone a family--sheltered, fed and clothed. Still, there are many people in Albuquerque who are doing just that.

On what acting president Beatrice Gutierrez calls the "tour of shame," the ACORN members gathered on July 29, stopping at three publicly-subsidized businesses who they say underpay their employees: Bueno Foods, Motorola and surprisingly, the city's own John Marshall Meal Site. ACORN, the same organization that petitioned to have the minimum wage raised in Albuquerque last year, organized the bus tour to bring to light the faults in the city's current business incentive programs that allow these companies to reap thousands--or even millions--in tax abatement while their employees are grossly underpaid and forced to seek assistance like food stamps or AFDC. The problem, as Gutierrez stated in a news release: "We shouldn't have to subsidize jobs twice, once through a corporate tax break and a second time through food stamps for the same company's workers."

The first stop for the big yellow school bus--carrying members from tenant rights groups, unions, workers' rights, kids and state senator Dede Feldman among others--on the ACORN tour was Bueno Foods, best known for putting delicious green chile on our tables. But ACORN says the company's factory workers, of which there are about 240, earn barely enough to put food on their own tables, with starting wages at $4.75 to $5 an hour. Yet, over the next 20 years, Bueno Foods, located at 2001 4th Street SW, will receive approximately $1.3 million in local tax abatement from Industrial Revenue Bonds. During their low-key protest, a security officer and an official, who refused to give his name or state his position, informed ACORN that they had to get off the company's private property. The demonstrators left peacefully, moving on to the next stop.

The following day, Weekly Alibi spoke with John Cordova, Bueno's spokesperson, who said the company is fulfilling all its requirements for the bonds and that the workers receive health benefits, sick leave and paid vacations. "Bueno Foods is ... a family-owned business started in the Barelas neighborhood," he said, explaining why the company receives breaks. "(Bueno) took advantage of benefits available to them."

At stop two, the John Marshall Meal Site on 1500 Walter SE, ACORN targeted the city, which they say runs these senior citizen meal preparation sites by employing temporary workers at wages just barely above minimum.

Janet Blair, Mayor Martin Chavez's press officer, said that's not right. According to Blair, employees at the meal site, which is funded by state grants, are now considered part-time and permanent. Blair says they receive benefits, have first dibs on full-time city jobs and receive 5 percent raises each year. Starting wage for an entry-level position is $5.45, with the opportunity to make $9.11--over a nine year period. "(The Chavez administration) has worked very hard to improve their situation," she said. "It is not wonderful ... but it is not as dire as one would imagine." The city does, however, employ a sizable temp workforce, but the Human Resources Department did not have figures available by Alibi press time. Finally, the bus pulled up to Motorola on 4800 Alameda Blvd. NE, where employees peered from their swollen smoky office windows at the demonstrators. ACORN says Motorola receives millions in breaks and big-money city contracts. Although they pay their full-time employees well, they hire a large temporary work force, which earns only $5.25 an hour.

Beverly Montano, an ACORN member who worked for Motorola for eight and a half years, said she was fired after she got carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of her job, which Montano said happens to a lot of Motorola employees. "They'd put them on a leave of absence, and then they'd just send a letter (of termination)."

Because the markets Motorola serves are cyclical, Motorola Ceramic Product Facility acting site manager Wayne Pascal says the company needs to hire temps so they do not need to layoff their permanent employees when things are slow. He would not, however, address allegations that employees were fired because of health conditions resulting from the Motorola work environment.

Though the companies contend these poverty-wage employees are needed to save money or workers elsewhere, ACORN says they could, and should, pay all employees a livable wage ($7.73), especially when tax breaks make them huge profits. ACORN continues to attempt to convince our elected city officials--who were invited on the bus tour and did not show up--that business incentives need to be revised to ensure the jobs created do not put workers at poverty level.

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