Susan Chandler, an associate professor in the University's School of Social Work, was approached in 2000 by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada with an interesting request.
The Nevada nonprofit organization, which promotes progressive ideas on issues like welfare or immigration, wanted Chandler to conduct a living-wages study on Nevadans.
Not only would the study benefit the public good, it would also allow Chandler the opportunity to reanalyze the economic situation in the 1990s and its hidden pitfalls.
“A lot of people were alarmed that here we were in this huge economic boom but none of the benefits of the boom was trickling down in the middle and working classes,” Chandler said. “The split between the rich and the poor was beginning to widen.”
Chandler researched living wages in Nevada, how much a person needed to make to subsist on the most basic needs and how many jobs in the state could provide those earnings. She studied and interviewed different kinds of families in different areas throughout the state.
Her studies resulted in the report “Working Hard, Living Poor.” Chandler concluded that the minimum wage jobs offered in the state, which are supposed to cover the most basic expenses a family would need, didn’t. The publication was used to lobby for an increase in the minimum wage and in legislation as a basic guideline for living wage regulations, according to Chandler.
“It helped in determining living wage ordinances and improving the social safety net,” Chandler said. “What was really great was so many working people benefited from it.”
Chandler said “Working Hard, Living Poor” enriched her current research on female casino workers in Reno with School of Social Work associate professor, Jill Jones. The research focuses on the welfare of female workers who are employed in casinos, with the emphasis on economic globalization.
“Casino jobs are jobs of globalization,” Chandler said. “People come from all over the world fleeing worse economic situations, war or to reunite with their families.”
Chandler and Jones wanted to increase awareness of what female casino workers must endure daily. They interviewed many casino employees, asking about their work, about their family lives and their activities in the community. The two discovered that much of casino work requires a surprising stamina.
According to Chandler, maids must clean 15 to 18 rooms a day, lifting mattresses or scrubbing bathtubs on their hands and knees. The physical demands of the job take a toll on their health over time. Cocktail waitresses and dealers must also breathe in smoke all day long, not to mention handling harassment from customers.
Immigrant workers must also cope with language barriers and adapting to a new environment.
Even so, the pay rate for maids and other casino workers remains hardly sufficient. Many casino workers must work two full-time jobs to cover their expenses. Ultimately, the research the two social work professors are conducting comes down to one thing, Chandler said.
“This is really about justice,” Chandler said. “Why should somebody work 80 hours, two full-time jobs just to pay basic bills? It’s against everything this country stands for.”
Chandler and Jones discovered that the women whom they interviewed were finding ways to improve their situations. Many of the women participate in unions for a better work environment and better wages.
“We discovered that these women have a strong sense of workplace justice,” Jones said. “They are courageous in their struggles to achieve the humane work conditions they deserve. Our appreciation of women in casino work has grown tremendously as a result of the study.”
The study is in its eighth year, and has resulted in many articles and scholarly presentations. Chandler is hopeful that a book based on the study will be finished soon.
Chandler has been striving toward reaching a vision in her teaching methods and in her research: the possibility of a better world. From her research to her lectures, to her participation in a myriad of organizations, Chandler's passion and her sense of humanity is evident.
Among many of Chandler’s research interests is African-American history, which led her to study for a doctoral degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote her dissertation on African-American social workers in the World War I era. From there, her interest branched into several areas of social work, including lower-class workers and immigrants.
Chandler also feels a strong drive to pass on her knowledge to future social workers. Chandler is currently developing an online undergraduate class.
The class will be called Because a Better World is Better and the curriculum will be based around social movements. The idea developed from one of Chandler’s favorite classes, Diversity in Social Work Leadership, which she offered two years ago.
“The students in that class were able to accomplish so much,” Chandler said. “They developed their leadership skills by organizing and participating in many events. We became very close as a group.”
Chandler’s unconventional teaching methods encourage many students to understand the material in new ways. Christiana Bratiotis, a former student of Chandler’s, said she learned much more than what was in the curriculum.
“Susan is not satisfied in a classroom that is mundane, ordinary or mediocre,” Bratiotis said. “Instead, she inspires creative thought that challenges notions of the conventional. She required that we brought the best of ourselves to each session.”
Outside the classroom, Chandler also volunteers her time in several organizations. She is a member of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Sierra Club, and also edits a history column for Affilia, a journal of women in social work.
“She’s a remarkable teacher, scholar, activist and individual,” said Chandler’s research partner, Jones. “Her work has always been imbued with what we discovered among the women casino workers in our study: a need to make the world a better place.”