I continued my minimum wage tour yesterday with roundtables in Atlanta and Tampa. Although the cities keep changing, the powerful stories I’m hearing from their residents remain – unfortunately – much the same.
I met more workers who, despite working full-time jobs, are struggling to get by on wages at or just above the federal minimum wage. They face painful choices. Do I put food on the table or buy the school supplies my kids so desperately need? Do I pay the rent or the utilities this month? Do I fix the car so I can get to work or the furnace so my family can stay warm?
As you know from my previous posts following low-wage worker round tables in Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia, I believe these personal stories are the most powerful evidence that President Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage is the right thing to do. While the workers I’ve met describe similar struggles, the details each individual offers about his or her life reveal inspirational and eye-opening truths about the men and women who serve us our food, care for our children and elders, clean our offices and homes, and sell us retail goods.
In Atlanta, I spoke to Trion who earns $7.25 an hour as a cashier. Trion has a 5-year-old daughter with asthma. Sometimes, after paying rent and other expenses, Trion cannot afford to pay for her daughter’s medicine. She shared her anxieties about the possibility her child could suffer an attack that would require a visit to the emergency room. The President’s proposal to raise the minimum wage would free Trion from choosing between medication and meals for her daughter. Jane works at a homeless shelter, which pays a little more than her previous minimum wage job. Her lights have been turned off four times in the past year, and she has had to rely on friends and a sympathetic landlord to support her through these periods. Not paying Jane enough to keep her lights on is no way to treat someone who gets up every day to go to work, stays positive, and strives to contribute to those around her.
Later in the afternoon, I traveled to the Corporation to Develop Communities in Tampa. As I have at each of these roundtables, I asked the workers in attendance if they had ever had to skip paying a bill for a month or more. I also asked if they had ever chosen between buying food or putting gas in their cars to get to work. Nearly every hand in the room went up in response to both questions. Darrell told me, “I’ve had to rob Peter to pay Paul so many times; Peter doesn’t even talk to me anymore.” That kind of humor helps us cope in the short term, but the lives of minimum wage workers are no joke. Their cumulative experiences struggling to get by on so little day after day illustrate the unfairness of today’s low minimum wage and the importance of an increase.
And I can’t forget Cory and the feelings of guilt that tear at him when he goes to work at a restaurant on a day when he’s sick. He knows he’s putting customers and co-workers at risk, but he simply can’t afford to miss out on a day’s pay. Or Gail, who is earning the minimum wage working at the mall, and who spoke passionately about raising a daughter with special needs by herself after her husband’s violent death two years ago. While Gail is fortunate that her current employer understands when she must leave work to tend to her daughter’s health issues, leaving work also means leaving behind pay. Raising the minimum wage is not just about the money, she said, it would “let me know that society cares, that the government cares… that they want me to contribute to my community.”
These stories of hope and resilience and courage are all the argument I need to keep on fighting for a raise in the minimum wage.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.