If you watch the debate on Capitol Hill, the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour seems like little more than a skirmish in a larger fight between opposing politicians. But for me and my co-workers, it means something else entirely: the difference between poverty and dignity.
When you're making only $8.50 an hour — that's less than $18,000 a year — you have to make very hard choices.
I've been working at a McDonald's just outside Chicago for over a decade now. When I began in 2010, I was young and easy to exploit. It paid me $8.50 an hour, and I was often forced to do work "off the clock." For example, if my job was to work the cash register, I had to come in 15 to 20 minutes before the shift officially began to count the register and then do the same thing at the end of the shift. That could end up being an extra hour of work for no pay.
While working there, I got pregnant and had my son. Being a single mom is hard enough. But constantly working to support him and still not having enough to live on can put you in a dark place. When you're making only $8.50 an hour — that's less than $18,000 a year — you have to make very hard choices.
To afford housing, I moved into a basement-level apartment that frequently flooded, damaging my things and putting me in a constant panic. Almost all our money beyond rent and utilities went to 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, necessitating new shoes and clothes, there was no way I could get him what he needed and also take care of myself. For clothes, I use my mom's hand-me-downs. She didn't want to make me feel bad, so she would say she bought an outfit for herself and then claim it didn't fit.
During that time, my son and I were unable to do almost anything fun. No going to the movies and no "luxuries" like ice cream or toys. We were essentially quarantining: We stayed home all the time out of financial necessity. The one exception? Going to the park because it was free.
Fortunately, things started to improve. Not because McDonald's raised my pay out of the goodness of its heart, but because we left it no choice. In 2014, after some of us were offered a measly 10-cent raise, we were outraged. Around that time, an organizer approached me and asked whether I knew about the Fight for $15 campaign. He educated me about my rights and explained that being forced to work off the clock was illegal. I informed my co-workers, and they were outraged, too.
You might wonder whether I was scared to lose my job if I spoke out or protested. The answer is that I was so angry about being exploited and living in poverty conditions despite holding down a job that I decided to go for it. We started with basic house meetings, just five of us at first. Those meetings slowly got bigger and bigger, which raised our hopes and made it clear that we weren't alone in this fight. Eventually, I even hosted a meeting myself, though I had no chairs and just one two-seater sofa in my apartment. I'll never forget when 15 people crammed into my apartment, eating pizza and standing in solidarity.
After taking our fight both to McDonald's and to state officials, we started to see real change. Chicago raised its wage to $13 and then $14, and now it will be $15 in July. On the state level, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker took our side and signed a bill into law that will phase in a $15 minimum wage over the next few years. I was at the State Capitol the day the measure passed and will never forget that moment the rest of my life. We were so nervous but so excited. It gave us the energy to keep on fighting — and the confidence that, one day, we would also win our demand for a union.
Fifteen dollars an hour was a rallying cry that grew out of the first fast-food strike in New York City in 2012, but it still isn't enough. The living wage for someone like me — a single mom in Chicago — is actually $32.90, according to a living wage calculator produced by MIT. That means that by its estimation, I would need more than twice what I'm paid now to cover the bare-bones costs of housing, food, transportation, health care, child care and other basic needs.
Still, we started by battling for $15. As we did so, we would keep hearing the same arguments from wealthy corporations and their advocates who opposed our efforts. First, they claimed burgers would have to be more expensive if wages went up. Then they claimed jobs would have to be cut.
Here's the truth: These corporations have so much money stored away in their pockets whether we get $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 go to them in the first place — and still have massive profits.
It can be done. It should be done. They just don't want to do it.
In the end, we know these false claims were nothing more than scare tactics. As far as I saw, the McDonald's I work at did not change its burger prices or cut jobs after my salary almost doubled. While minimum wage increases sometimes come with small price increases, they are negligible compared to the benefit they give to millions of exploited workers. And though many studies show that essentially no employment is lost when the minimum wage goes up, even if we lose a few jobs, maybe that means folks no longer have to work two and three jobs because they can survive on one.
After our organizing victories, my wage increased to $14.50. Suddenly I was able to arrange exciting outings for my son. I took him to something called Winter Wonderfest at Chicago's Navy Pier, where he ice skated, rode indoor roller coasters and did a bunch of other fun activities we had never heard about. We finally were allowed to have fun. I had a blast, and so did he. Our lives were transformed.
The pandemic came and my hours got shortened because customers could no longer eat indoors. Thank goodness my wage was higher when that happened.
Then the pandemic came and my hours got shortened because customers could no longer eat indoors. Thank goodness my wage was higher when that happened. I can't even imagine what my life would be like if my hours had been reduced and I was still making $8.50.
One bright spot of the pandemic is that it highlighted the importance of the work my colleagues and I do. We were labeled as essential workers. But since the federal minimum wage hasn't gone up since 2009, tens of millions of us across the country are still being paid as low as $7.25 an hour. It's time for members of Congress to act.
My story proves lives will change when it does.