On a beautiful spring morning, Ricardo Chavez spent a little of his free time to speak out for some fellow janitors that he has never met.

"We have a union," said Chavez. "We have paid benefits, but my brothers cleaning the Best Buy store next door don't have these benefits."

Chavez, who came from El Salvador in 1988, works in the company's Richfield headquarters, where he cleans offices. The cleaning company he works for pays higher wages and benefits, but cleaners at the company's stores are paid substantially less and have no benefits, he said.

There are bills now moving through the Legislature that would change that by mandating such benefits as earned paid sick time and family leave.

Activists chose to demonstrate in front of Best Buy Tuesday because the company is an influential member of the Minnesota Retailers Association, which has been lobbying the Legislature and trying to stop the bills that would help millions of Minnesota workers. The MRA is taking it a step further by pushing a bill that would prohibit local governments from enacting wage or benefit laws, something that has been discussed in Minneapolis.

Yep, those are the same people who usually scream for local control.

Greta Bergstrom, communications director for TakeAction Minnesota, said it is the beginning of a statewide push to finally get some of the benefits of a surging economy to those who have the least and need it the most. Bergstrom said a coalition of organizations, including unions and religious leaders from a wide variety of denominations, are trying to get meetings with companies like Best Buy to appeal to their corporate stature to strengthen benefits for part-time and low-paid workers.

"We're asking them to use their leadership for the greater good," Bergstrom said.

Someone from the company met with a couple of the demonstrators and accepted letters and a petition. The company issued the following statement:

"Best Buy is proud to provide jobs to more than 7,800 people in Minnesota. Our public policy priorities are focused on our competitiveness and ensuring that online-only retailers play by the same sales tax rules as retailers with physical locations."

A boatload of surveys underscores that the economic recovery has been very, very good to those at the top, but not so good at all for those lower on the food chain. Economic disparity has only gotten worse as the stock market has swelled. If workers at the lower tiers are ever to have a chance at making gains, it's now, Bergstrom said.

According to figures released in March by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the number of job vacancies in the state rose to 88,900 at the end of 2014, a 47 percent increase from 2013 and the highest level since 2001. There is roughly one job available for every person looking for work, so employees should have more leverage.

But much of that recent growth in job openings is in four low-wage occupations: food preparing and serving, personal care, sales and janitorial, which combined make up 35 percent of all openings, according to Jobs Now Coalition surveys. Those folks make an average of just over $9 an hour, while the DEED says the wage needed to support a family is $16.34.

If you are a middle-class worker, you might think the low wages and lack of benefits for some workers is not your problem. You'd be wrong.

The Washington Post recently published a story and graphic with eye-popping numbers. According to a report from the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, almost 56 percent of the $227 billion in federal assistance programs goes to working families. In other words, your taxes are helping companies that don't pay their workers enough to live.

"You are subsidizing Best Buy because they are not doing what they should be doing," said Bergstrom.

New Hampshire was the worst offender, where 65 percent of state spending on Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — welfare — went to working families.

In Minnesota, 58 percent of those resources go to people with jobs, the report said.

They would include people like Maricela Flores, who cleans Target stores for a subcontractor for $8 an hour.

"Every day I have to decide whether to buy fruit or whether to buy meat," said Flores. "I am fighting for paid sick days because I deserve to be able to take a day off, attend to my children's and my own health, and go back to work with renewed strength."

The Rev. Matt Bersagel, from Crown of Glory Lutheran Church in Chaska, said that the Minnesota Department of Health has published reports showing "a direct correlation between poverty wages, access to paid sick days and community health."

Bersagel said that "kids with the flu shouldn't have to go to school because their parents have no options." He said a lot of Minnesota companies are paying lobbyists a lot of money to stop any legislation that would give those parents paid sick days.

"You don't have to pay your lobbyists," Bersagel said. "Just pay your people."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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