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Labor Day picnic offers chance to reflect on challenges facing American workers

On the national Labor Day holiday, dedicated to honoring the American worker, we know those workers have reason to be both encouraged and anxious about their pursuit of a paycheck.

That can be especially true for workers who come to northeast Indiana from a different cultural background. 

At the annual Labor Day picnic at Headwaters Park, visitors roll in by the hundreds, to sample free food and beer and a get the chance to relax with familiar faces.

"You get to be normal and you get to have fun and you get to just let your sleeves down," said Kevin Dixie.

The national unemployment rate is under four percent, a big rebound from the pain and suffering of the Great Recession a decade ago.

"The base line with me and our organization is always liveable wages," said Darryl Esterline, the president of northeast Indiana’s Building Trades.

He has a connection with the AFL-CIO, which runs the picnic.

He says having a job doesn’t fix all workplace problems.

"There once was a day where one income could support a family, that’s getting fewer and fewer and farther in between," Esterline said.

At the site of the picnic, there are a couple of food tents set up off to the side, run by members of the Burmese and Hispanic communities.

The idea of celebrating Labor Day for some of the outside ethnic groups can get a little complicated.

Roughly 20,000 Burmese now call Allen County home.

Many work in local factories, and officials say because of the language barrier they can be taken advantage of.

"To be honest with you, and to be frank with you, we see a lot of like discrimination against the Burmese workers here, and that’s why we are trying to help them," said Aung Myint, an advocate for Burmese workers.

Bill Klemme does outreach with Hispanic workers.

He says many of them want something better, but feel trapped in the jobs they have.

"They say they’re happy staying put with the job they have right now, because when they look elsewhere, it might pay a little bit more but it’s not good working conditions," said Klemme, who is a board member with an agency called Workers Project, which works to boost social affiliation between employees from similar backgrounds.

Hispanics and the Burmese aren’t the only ones dealing with workplace challenges. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all U.S. workers make less than $520 a week– adjusted for inflation, that matches average earnings from 18 years ago.

And there is evidence that many people are logging longer hours at work than before.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American worker is spending 47 hours per week on the clock.

Jacob Burbrink

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