CARACAS, Venezuela – On many days, Ramon Medina has no choice but to skip work to make ends meet.
Like around half of Venezuelans, he earns the minimum wage — the equivalent of around $3 a month — so whenever his cellphone buzzes with a tip, he sneaks away from his job as a hospital orderly for the chance of taking home a government-supplied food bag on which he depends to feed his family.
He’s not the only one hustling. On any given day, he estimates a third of his co-workers at Vargas Hospital in Caracas are also stepping out for a lucrative side job or spending hours in line to buy flour and cooking oil at bargain-basement prices impossible to pass up. That leaves few back in the hospital caring for sick patients, the 55-year-old said.
“You do what you can to help out,” he said of his job, but added, “People are discouraged.”
Along with four-digit inflation, widespread shortages and a recession deeper than the U.S. Great Depression, Venezuela’s economy is now being ravaged by a new scourge: mass absenteeism.
In recent weeks, newspapers and social media have been filled with reports of work stoppages at the Caracas subway system or the state-run oil company as workers scraping by on meager paychecks can’t be bothered to show up for work. Private companies complain they can’t find enough workers to punch the clock, exacerbating a standstill in what few assembly lines are still running.
The crisis is spiraling out of control even as President Nicolas Maduro is seeking a second term in a snap election his supporters recently set for April 22, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and other countries who say he’s flouting Venezuela’s democratic tradition. Yet, Maduro has turned the economic crisis to his advantage, analysts say.
Douglas Barrios, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University, said that in 2012, before the country sank into recession, the country’s monthly minimum wage equaled $300, on par with those of other Latin American nations and enough to support a family with rent and food.
That has since dramatically changed, he said, noting that today it takes a worker nearly two weeks to earn enough to buy two pounds of powdered milk.
Normally, voters would turn their backs on a government under such circumstances. But Maduro is locking in support by making voters dependent on discounted government food bags and by announcing wage hikes before energized live audiences on nationally televised broadcasts.
“You support us and you have access to food,” Barrios said, explaining what he sees as the government’s strategy. “If you don’t support us, you go figure out how to make ends meet.”
The government has accused opponents of waging an “economic war” on Maduro and point to recent sanctions by the Trump administration banning lending to the government as further proof of sabotage. Far from throwing in the towel, it says it is expanding social programs like the food parcels to protect the poor.
“The revolution guarantees the people are protected,” Maduro tweeted this week.
Jenny Mejia, 24, said she’s not fooled. She recently walked away from her low-paying job at a lunch counter to sell bottles of shoe glue stacked on a table along a busy street in Caracas. It takes her about a week to earn the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage.
“With Maduro, more hunger is assured,” said Mejia, who receives the government food bags but vows she won’t support his re-election bid.
Socialist Venezuela’s battle with absenteeism isn’t new. The late Hugo Chavez in 2001 signed a decree that came to be known as the Law of Labor Immobility that makes it but impossible for employers to fire a worker without their consent.
But the problem has grown worse as the economy has unraveled and price distortions have become more pronounced. For many Venezuelans, the choice is going to work for a few pennies a day or scavenging for the declining number of products sold at controlled prices and reselling them on the black market for several times their official value.
Venezuela no longer publishes labor statistics, but workers in Caracas’ busy subway estimated that as many as 70 percent of their colleagues don’t show up some days. The country’s state-run oil firm PDVSA — virtually the only source of hard currency — is losing workers due to low wages and a lack of safety, said Venezuelan economist Francisco Monaldi, a Latin American energy policy expert at Rice University in Houston.
“Those who can, leave the country,” Monaldi said. “Others simply do not show up to work.”
Companies juggling to stay in business have no choice but to remain flexible.
At Danubio bakery one day recently, some of the 300 employees squeezed past one another preparing pastries, cakes and lasagna. Many said bus fare eats up their paychecks despite earning 30 percent more than minimum wage.
For many, the two meals a day they get at work make it worthwhile.
“Coming to work is a kind of relief,” said Andrew Kerese, who runs the successful family business with five bakeries across Caracas. “Here people have breakfast and lunch.”
However, many long-time employees have fled the country and called Kerese from abroad to tell him they’re not returning. Others struggle getting to work because the buses are full or don’t run, or they can’t find spare parts for their cars. Some days, word spreads of a market selling discounted flour, so everybody leaves to get in line.
Antonio Golindano’s daily journey into work at the bakery starts at 4 a.m. The 71-year-old has tied on his apron and sifted flour there for four decades. But he said the hardships make it harder for him every day.
“I do the impossible to come and fulfill my duty,” he said. “It is my obligation to come to work.”