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Life on the minimum wage

“I don’t expect to be rich, I just expect to pay the heat bill.”

A rally by the Fight for $15 minimum wage movement during a 2019 McDonald’s workers’ strike in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
David Santiago/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Jordan is finally getting back on his feet after visiting the emergency room several times over the past year with bouts of severe spinal headaches, dizziness, and a thyroid storm. The ER visits left him with about $2,000 in medical bills. It’s going to take a minute: He makes $7.25 an hour working as a cashier at Dollar Tree.

Before I called Jordan, who lives in Kentucky, to talk about what his life is like making the minimum wage, he explained to me that I’d need to dial him on a Kindle tablet. He can’t afford to fix his broken phone at the moment. “It’s not exactly a long-term solution,” he says. But for the time being, it’ll have to do.

Jordan isn’t the type to ask for much, even for Christmas or his birthday. While he recognizes he could probably go on disability for a while until his health gets better, he’s too stubborn. “I’ve always been taught when I was growing up that unless you absolutely can’t do something, then try to do something,” he said. He lives with his mom and kicks in money for the rent when he can.

I ask him what he thinks would be a fairer wage, one that would make his life a little easier. He says $10 an hour, though he knows that his coworkers who are older and have kids would need more, like $15.

Still, he worries a higher federal minimum wage might hurt small businesses, a talking point often spouted by opponents of increasing the minimum wage. But Jordan doesn’t work for a small business: He works for a multibillion-dollar corporation that has been doing gangbuster sales during the pandemic. The day after we spoke, Dollar Tree announced it would open 600 new stores this year and buy back $2 billion more of its shares.

America purports to be a country of workers — a place where if you try hard enough, put in the time and effort, you’ll make it to the middle class, or at the very least be able to build a solid life. But that version of America doesn’t line up with the reality: As of 2019, 39 million people made less than $15 an hour. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, and 1.6 million workers make that amount or less. Many low-wage workers rely on public assistance to get by. Pew Research Center defines “middle-income” households in the US as starting at about $48,000; a $15 minimum wage at 40 hours a week adds up to $30,000; at $7.25, it’s $15,000.

In recent weeks, I spoke with more than a dozen workers across the country making under $15 about how their wages shape their lives.

Some echoed arguments against a higher minimum wage, or at the very least, expressed concerns about its implications. Jordan said he’s heard warnings that increasing wages too much, too fast could push up prices and cost jobs. The evidence suggests a higher minimum wage would be a net positive for workers, but those concerns are understandable. When you’re living on the margins, it’s scary when your boss starts talking about cutting jobs, or when you imagine the price of groceries you can already barely afford going up even slightly.

Everyone I talked to said that more money in their paychecks would make it easier to pay their bills, add to their savings, and maybe even let them take a vacation. Some workers talked about feeling held back from life transitions, such as moving out of their parents’ homes, or, in one woman’s case, delaying her decision to get a divorce. Others talked about the stresses higher wages would relieve — even something as simple as being able to put some bills on autopay, delete the DoorDash app they use for extra cash, or take a day off.

“It’s completely impossible to live on $8.50”

The political impetus to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is growing. Many cities and states have already begun to gradually phase in wage hikes, and while Democrats failed to get $15 by 2025 into the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in March, the fight for $15 continues.

Minimum wage increases are popular: A recent Vox/Data for Progress poll found 61 percent of voters supported Democrats’ plan to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. But some low-wage workers still have anxieties about a federal wage increase, even though their current situations aren’t particularly sustainable, and though they know their lives and those of their coworkers would be much better on a more livable wage.

When I talked to Anna, 19, who balances a pair of jobs at Red Lobster and Domino’s on $8.50 an hour, she seemed conflicted about the conversation around a $15 minimum wage. (She asked me to use a pseudonym because she was afraid of being fired.) She’s on a “two-year plan” to save up for school to be a nursing aide, and making more would help her save faster. She also recognizes that many of her colleagues who are much older than her and have families are “barely making it” on the low wages they’re paid. “It’s completely impossible to live on $8.50,” she says.

But she’s also heard warnings that increasing the minimum wage would be harmful. She said she worries it would increase automation, because companies would replace workers with robots, or cause inflation, because they would pass on the cost of higher wages to customers.

I told her that the evidence on minimum wage increases doesn’t really support that, that wages going up for a lot of people doesn’t necessarily mean a bunch of jobs would disappear or that there would be some other disastrous impact on the economy. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews has a great breakdown of the evidence here.) But it’s hard to be definitive: Economic theories and estimates can’t erase fears that even in a scenario of very few losers, you could be one of them. Especially if, because you’ve been paid so little, you haven’t been able to build up savings to fall back on.

“Every time I get some money, something happens”

Dave Mayton likes his job as a Domino’s delivery driver in Pennsylvania — after all, he has “a million and one pizza jokes” — but trying to survive on $7.25 plus tips is tough, especially with the pizza company’s pre-tipping system. “Domino’s suggests these really ridiculously small amounts. Like 49 cents is an adequate tip to deliver a pizza,” Mayton says.

He emphasizes he doesn’t want a “pity party,” he just wants to be able to more comfortably get by. “Eating, paying for health insurance, all the bills that normal people have — those don’t go away just because you don’t make a lot of money, those things all exist,” he says.

What many minimum-wage workers say isn’t that they necessarily want to live in luxury (though that would be nice), but that it would just be good to be able to, well, live. It’s hard to pinch pennies at every corner, or to have to be so sensitive to every single price fluctuation. Pennsylvania, where Mayton lives, has the highest gas tax in the country, so he drives to Maryland to get gas — it’s about a 30-mile round trip.

According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 isn’t enough for full-time workers to cover their basic expenses in any state in the union. A single person without kids making the federal minimum wage and working full-time, with no time off or vacations, makes about $3,000 above the poverty line. The minute you start to add in dependents, they fall below it.

Mendy Hughes, an associate at Walmart in Arkansas and mother of four, laid out the myriad strategies she employs to save. She puts off bills in order to buy food, which often amounts to a swing through the drive-through after work, or Lunchables and TV dinners — things she can afford. She figures she’s put more money into her car than it’s worth, but she doesn’t have enough for a new one. The stimulus checks she’s received during the pandemic helped, but she spent them fast. “Every time I get some money, something happens, it seems like,” says Hughes, who is a member of United for Respect, a worker advocacy group.

Hughes isn’t alone: Nearly 4 in 10 households say they wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings, or a credit card charge they could pay off the next month.

She says she makes about $11.85 right now. In a world where she’d make more, Hughes imagines being able to afford more food, save for emergencies, and maybe take a day off of work. In September, Walmart said it would raise wages for 165,000 workers in its bakery, deli, and auto care roles. And this February, the company announced it would increase pay for 425,000 workers in its digital and stocking areas from $13 to $19 an hour. That still leaves out hundreds of thousands of its associates, including Hughes, a cashier. “I don’t think that’s right,” she says. “Why give raises to some but not all?”

Walmart, which clocked a record $152 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2020, pays $11 an hour for entry-level positions, though it says its average is above $15. Its CEO, Doug McMillon, said that its February pay increase for some workers was meant to create a “ladder of opportunity” and that the increases were geared toward people “who have been with us for a longer period of time.” Hughes has been at Walmart for more than a decade.

“I want to know how much the people make who say $15 is too much”

Many workers are skeptical of their employers’ intentions — after all, business is business. For low-wage workers, the tactics their bosses use to get around paying them more, or to incentivize them to do more, can be particularly painful.

Dora Gutierrez, a certified nursing assistant in Texas, works three 12-hour shifts a week at a local hospital. She started at $9 an hour, but thanks to her union, she’s now at $13.68, though she believes $15 would be “awesome” and help her even more. Her husband is a disabled veteran, so she balances work with taking care of him.

During the pandemic, Gutierrez says the hospital has offered extra pay — but only for people who were able to work more hours, which she couldn’t. “If I’m going to pick up extra shifts, I’ve got to find somebody to take care of my husband,” she says. “They want you to go kill yourself before they’re going to give you anything extra.”

Laura, who works for an industrial supply company in Texas and asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of retribution from her company, expressed some similar sentiments. She makes $11 plus commission, which doesn’t sound bad “until you realize it’s a small town and you realize there’s not much to sell,” she says, especially during the pandemic. “They’ve done everything in their power to where they don’t have to pay benefits,” she says, explaining that they’re careful to keep her and her coworkers’ hours just below full-time. Until recently, she had a second job, and she feels fortunate that her mom is able to help pay her rent — for now.

About 8 percent of US workers had more than one job as of early 2018, and women and low-wage workers were likelier to hold multiple jobs. People working more than one job tend to earn less than people with just one job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 5.8 million workers are working part-time for economic reasons — their hours were cut, or they can’t find full-time jobs. They’d rather work 40 hours, but they can’t find work that lets them do that.

“I want to know how much the people make who say $15 is too much and minimum wage is livable, or how much they’ve ever made,” Laura says. “I’ve tried to have this discussion with people that I’m living off of $11 an hour and it’s barely livable only because I’m not having to pay my own rent, and they call me stupid because they say I should get a different job or manage my money better.”

For some workers, it’s hard not to wonder whether those extra hours are worth it. For others, not going above and beyond means not putting food on the table.

DeSean Smith, a student who’s currently working at a grocery store in Philadelphia to help pay his tuition, says he’s just tired of working so hard for $9.25 an hour. “It’s like saving one grain of rice a day,” he says. “You know the company’s making X amount of money, and for the amount of work they ask employees to do — coming in on off days, coming in early, staying late, dealing with customers — I’m not doing it for fun.”

Neither is Cindy Casey, who manages a Burger King in Georgia. She told me she works some 60 hours a week to try to make enough to keep her and her family afloat, since she’s their main source of income. She makes $14 an hour in a full-time role and then puts in an extra 15 to 20 hours a week of overtime just to pay her bills, and she feels like she’s expected to be on call 24/7. “I’m exhausted all the time from working so much,” she says.

And even though she’s managing the franchise where she works, she still can’t afford the health insurance the company offered. “It’s so ridiculously expensive,” she says.

“It feels like it’s keeping me from moving on in my life”

For some low-wage workers, their pay isn’t just an issue of what is (or isn’t) in their bank account and whether they can (or can’t) pay their bills. It also delays life transitions, harms their health, and causes stress and emotional distress. Saving for a down payment on a house or a security deposit on your own apartment when you’re making $8, $10, $12 an hour isn’t an easy task.

Some of the younger workers I spoke with were still living with their parents, and acknowledged that unless and until they got higher-paying jobs, they wouldn’t be able to strike out on their own. “I would have liked to have moved out and be living on my own right now, but I know with the money I’m making now, things would not be much better for me,” says Adam, a Walmart worker in Virginia in his late 20s. “It feels like it’s keeping me from moving on in my life.”

He told me he wished there were a Costco, which pays $16 an hour, in his area.

For many people in the US, getting their own place on the current minimum wage is outright impossible. According to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there isn’t a single state in the country where people making the minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment at fair market prices while working full-time. Even taking into account states and cities with higher minimum wages, the average minimum-wage worker would need to work 79 hours a week to pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment and 97 hours for a two-bedroom.

Sarah, a former library worker in Colorado, says she was “terrified” that she wouldn’t be able to keep a roof over her head when figuring out whether to separate from her husband, who had been the breadwinner in her family. She’s now divorced, but it’s been a big adjustment to her lifestyle. Until recently, she lived with a roommate on a street “that in my previous life was where all the one-step-away-from-homeless people lived.” She’s now moved to another part of the country to try to get a fresh start and has picked up some gig work to try to make more money.

“To me, the big visual is the refrigerator, and how much is in there, and my own daughter coming over and saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, you don’t have anything,’” she says. “There’s not really a lot for anything extra.”

James, a Papa John’s delivery driver in Florida, works the night shift so he can take care of his mother and grandmother, both of whom have health problems, during the day. This is his first job in the service industry, and it’s changed the way he thinks about the minimum wage — he didn’t realize how hard it was to get by on so little, or who low-wage workers really were.

“I went into this thinking that people that work for minimum wage in the service industry are, generally speaking, a kid in high school and a retired person looking for something to do in their free time, and that’s not the case,” he says. “I think there’s a misconception in this country about what being a minimum-wage or near-minimum-wage worker is.”

When talking about what wages they felt would be fairer, or how making more would change their lives, all the workers I spoke with said they’d of course like to make more money. But many of them also emphasized they didn’t want to come off as greedy — they didn’t want to seem like they had some sob story, or that they weren’t aware there weren’t others worse off than themselves. They just wanted to do, well, better for all of the work they were putting in.

“We don’t want to be poor, either,” Mayton, the Domino’s driver, said at the close of our conversation. “I don’t expect to be rich, I just expect to pay the heat bill.”

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