If you look at the debate on Capitol Hill, the fight to raise the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour seems little more than a skirmish in a larger fight between opposing politicians. But for me and my colleagues it means something quite different: the difference between poverty and dignity.
When you earn just $ 8.50 an hour – that’s less than $ 18,000 a year – you have to make some very difficult choices.
I have worked at a McDonald’s just outside of Chicago for over a decade now. When I started in 2010 I was young and easy to operate. It paid me $ 8.50 an hour and I often had to work “outside the clock.” For example, if my job was to work at the cash register, I would have to come 15-20 minutes before the shift officially started counting the cash register and then do the same at the end of the shift. It could end up being an hour of overtime without pay.
While working there, I got pregnant and had my son. Being a single mom is hard enough. But constantly working to support it and not having enough to live on can put you in a dark place. When you earn just $ 8.50 an hour – that’s less than $ 18,000 a year – you have to make some very difficult choices.
To afford housing, I moved into an apartment in the basement which was frequently flooded, damaging my things and putting me in constant panic. Almost all of our money beyond rent and utilities has gone into food. But my son is lactose intolerant and needs special milk that costs $ 6 a container. What do you do when you can’t afford to keep your child healthy?
When my boy had a major growth spurt, requiring new shoes and clothes, I couldn’t get him what he needed and take care of myself. For clothes, I use my mother’s clothes. She didn’t want me to feel bad, so she would say she bought an outfit for herself, then say it didn’t fit her.
During this time, my son and I were unable to do much fun. No going to the movies and no “luxuries” like ice cream or toys. We were basically in quarantine: we stayed home all the time out of financial necessity. The only exception? Go to the park because it was free.
Fortunately, things have started to improve. Not because McDonald’s increased my salary out of the goodness of their hearts, but because we gave them no choice. In 2014, after some of us were offered a measly 10 cent raise, we were outraged. At that time, an organizer approached me and asked me if I was aware of the Fight for $ 15 campaign. He informed me of my rights and explained to me that being forced to work outside of the clock was illegal. I informed my colleagues, and they were also outraged.
You might wonder if I was afraid of losing my job if I spoke or protested. The answer is that I was so angry about being exploited and living in conditions of poverty despite having a job that I decided to take the plunge. We started with basic meetings at home, only five of us at the start. These meetings gradually got bigger and bigger, which raised our hopes and showed that we were not alone in this fight. Eventually, I even organized a meeting myself, although I didn’t have any chairs and just a two-seater sofa in my apartment. I’ll never forget when 15 people crowded into my apartment, eating pizza and standing together.
After we waged our fight against McDonald’s and government officials, we began to see real change. Chicago increased his salary to $ 13, then to $ 14, and now it will be $ 15 in July. At the state level, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has taken our side and signed a bill that will gradually introduce a minimum wage of $ 15 over the next several years. I was at the State Capitol the day the measure was passed and I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. We were so nervous but so excited. It gave us the energy to keep fighting – and the confidence that one day we would also win our demand for a union.
Fifteen dollars an hour was a rallying cry from New York’s first fast food strike in 2012, but it’s still not enough. The living wage for someone like me – a single mother in Chicago – is actually $ 32.90, according to a living wage calculator produced by MIT. This means that, by his estimates, I would need more than double what I currently pay to cover the costs of accommodation, food, transport, health care, childcare and other basic needs.
Still, we started out fighting over $ 15. In doing so, we would continue to hear the same arguments from wealthy corporations and their lawyers who have opposed our efforts. First, they claimed that burgers should be more expensive if wages go up. Then they said jobs should be cut.
Here’s the truth: These companies have so much money in their pockets that we were getting $ 8.50 or $ 15. When they pay us a living wage, they can still keep their prices low – the key to their business model and the reason their customers come to them in the first place – while still making huge profits.
It can be done. It should be done. They just don’t want to do it.
Ultimately, we know these misrepresentations were nothing more than scare tactics. From what I’ve seen, the McDonald’s I work at didn’t change the prices of their burgers or cut jobs after my pay nearly doubled. While increases in the minimum wage are sometimes accompanied by small price increases, they are negligible compared to the benefits they grant to millions of exploited workers. And although many studies show that hardly any jobs are lost when the minimum wage goes up, even if we lose a few jobs, it may mean that people no longer have to work two or three jobs because they can survive with just one.
After our organizational victories, my salary rose to $ 14.50. As a result, I was able to organize exciting outings for my son. I took him to something called Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier in Chicago, where he ice skated, indoor roller coasters, and did a bunch of other fun activities we had never heard of. speak. We were finally able to have fun. I had a blast, and so did he. Our lives have been transformed.
The pandemic came and my hours were shortened because customers could no longer eat inside. Thank goodness my salary was higher when this happened.
Then the pandemic came and my hours were shortened because customers could no longer eat inside. Thank goodness my salary was higher when this happened. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like if my hours had been cut back and I was still making $ 8.50.
One of the good things about the pandemic is that it has highlighted the importance of the work that my colleagues and I do. We have been labeled as essential workers. But because the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, tens of millions of us across the country are still being paid as low as $ 7.25 an hour. It is time for members of Congress to act.
My story proves that lives will change when they do.