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.