Faces Behind The Mass. Minimum Wage Debate
It seems the debate over raising the minimum wage is everywhere these days, from President Obama's recent appearances to the halls of the Massachusetts State House.
In Massachusetts, at least, it’s looking likely that a hike in the $8 wage floor will happen, though key details remain to be hashed out. But who would actually get a pay bump?
The issue — to raise or not to raise, and to what level — is complicated by the fact that the spectrum of those working low-wage jobs is diverse. There are fast-food employees trying to support a family, and then there are middle-class teenagers working summers. (A decade ago I was in the latter group, working for spending cash and a tan at a driving range.)
We wanted to meet others — people who would get a pay hike if lawmakers enact an increase in the state minimum wage. Here are the stories of six low-wage earners in the Boston area:
Larry McCain makes you think about the American economy in the 21st century. Trained in machine and tool operations in the 1980s, he says he used to make nearly $20 an hour. But things started to change for him in the early 2000s, and, in his words, he’s “been sliding quite a bit.”
Now the 51-year-old makes $8.33 an hour working as a cabin cleaner at Logan Airport.
“When you fall to a different pay grade you start to appreciate more and more what you have. There’s things I could afford. Now there’s things I wish I could afford, you know? It’s been like a slide,” he said in a recent interview by a Logan baggage carousel. “You know, I had cars, I had a couple of cars, nice apartment, everything like that, but the economy starts sliding, pay starts sliding, and [I] end up here at Logan Airport for $8.33 an hour. So I’ve been sliding quite a bit, but I’m gonna hold on.”
McCain has worked for a contractor at the airport for a little over a year. He says he gets five days a week, but only about 25 hours total; he’d like more hours if they were offered. In the past he’s also worked in landscaping and is hoping to get hooked up with a job this summer.
The father of two grown daughters, the Dorchester native now lives alone in East Boston. He estimated that about 90 percent of his aircraft-cleaning pay goes to rent. He says he saves money with his daily commute: It’s about a mile or so walk to the airport.
Though he’s now in his 50s, the soft-spoken McCain laughed lightly when I brought up retirement. “I can’t even afford to think about retirement,” he said. He said any savings he accrued over the years is gone.
McCain, who attended Wentworth Institute of Technology and has his GED, hopes for another job in his machines trade. But right now he's just looking for a pay raise.
“It would make me a lot happier, for one,” he said of an increase in the minimum wage. “But, you know, a lot of things would change for me. Like my diet would change because I’d be able to afford things that are better to eat. My spirits would change.”
With a hint of indignation, he added later: “We just want to be appreciated and properly paid for what we do, you know? The people in the office don’t do what we do. Let them do our job for a week … they wouldn’t do it for that price.”
Allison Croughwell has the cheerful disposition you hope to encounter before you’ve had your morning coffee.
The 26-year-old has been a barista in Maine and in Salem, Danvers and now Marblehead, Mass. She likes the job’s fast pace and interacting with all the customers, but added it’s “just sort of the type of work I seem to have fallen into.”
Croughwell makes $9 an hour, though a “good week” of tips, distributed among the staff, can raise that total to nearly $11 an hour. (She says tips are good for pocket money, but never incorporated into her budget.) When we spoke recently, Croughwell — wrapped in a bright red sweater, sitting in her current coffeeshop — said she was getting about 22-25 hours of work a week. She was also nannying four hours a week, and receiving food stamps.
Croughwell shares a one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend in Salem, and said almost all of her pay goes to her share of the $1,150 rent.
“If I did not have him … I don’t know where I would be financially,” she said. “And that’s a really tough thing to admit, that I probably couldn’t support myself on my own. It’s my boyfriend Nick who provides for us.” She said Nick, who is a business manager at a Honda dealership in Reading, pays the utilities and usually takes their car, while she walks to work.
When we delved into minimum wage hikes, Croughwell revealed a unique perspective, partly due to her prior work experience. She considers herself liberal and said “it would be phenomenal” to make $11 an hour, but she finds herself “erring on the side of moderation.”
“It’s a tough thing for me to grapple with,” she said, “because I think that for independent businesses, raising the minimum wage is going to be a very difficult task. And I fear that we’re going to lose small bookstores and small coffeeshops.”
Croughwell wants to finish her bachelor’s degree and get a nursing degree. She wants to be a midwife. She says she’d be more inclined to return to school if she had more money.
“I feel kind of stuck sometimes, like I can’t get out of this $9-an-hour barista environment,” she said. “And I like it for what it is, but it’s not what I want for myself.”
The living room shades were drawn behind a muted television. Sitting on the edge of a leather couch, her hands clasped in front of her, Ines Miranda made plain the motivation behind her work: “The most important goal for me is for my kids to have an education so they can do better than I do,” she said in her native creole, through a translator.
Miranda, 43, emigrated from Cape Verde, off the West African coast, to Brockton in 2006. Back home, she was a first- and second-grade teacher. Here — held back in part, she says, by her poor English — she cleans a nursing home in the city.
Miranda makes $8 an hour, the state minimum wage. Up until October she had a second cleaning job, making $16.50 an hour working part-time in the evenings in Canton. She lost the nighttime position when a new contractor didn’t offer her a job. It’s hit the family hard.
“I cry a lot, because even though it was part time, I used to make more money in that part-time [job] than I make right now with 40 hours,” she said.
Miranda is the only wage-earner in the house. She has two kids, a 14-year-old son and a daughter who’s studying criminal justice at UMass-Dartmouth. Miranda’s 82-year-old mother and a young niece also live in the home.
In addition to her own pay, Miranda says her mother receives $300 a month in Social Security, and they get $140 a month in food stamps. Sometimes there’s not enough money for the $800 rent, so she asks for an extra week or two to pay. Sometimes there’s not enough left over for the grocery store.
When that happens, “we survive with whatever we have at home,” she said.
The income from her second job also went toward her daughter’s myriad expenses at college. Miranda laments the cost of books.
I asked Miranda to imagine she’s in charge, and to set the state minimum wage. She laughed at the silliness of my question, then said: “It’s difficult, but I was used to the $16.50.”
Emmanuel Sebit has had a turbulent life. With his home nation of Sudan embroiled in conflict, he was placed in a refugee camp in Kenya when he was 9. Sebit came to the United States in late 2012.
“Thank God the U.S. came to help me, to bring me to America to have a new future and new life,” he said in a recent interview.
But Sebit, who’s 21 now and an engaging conversationalist, is worried about that future here.
Employed by a contractor, he makes $8 an hour as a baggage handler at Logan Airport. He gets about 30 hours a week. He adds it’s a physically taxing job without paid sick time.
“It’s better here [in America], you know? I can sleep, I can have peace of mind,” he said. “Where I came from it’s really tough. You have nothing, you don’t work. … There’s no life there. When I think [of] where I came from, and I think of the life I’m in now, it’s better.”
But he's forthright about his current challenges. "Every day you have to struggle,” he said.
Sebit’s mother and two younger sisters are also in the U.S. The four were living together in Boston, but he says his family members moved to Maine for cheaper housing. He’s now in Lynn, staying with a man he met in church who opened up his home after hearing Sebit’s life story.
The man, who's in his 50s and works night shifts for the U.S. Post Office in Boston, accepts $500 a month from Sebit, and handles all other costs. Though their schedules rarely overlap, Sebit said his housemate is “a best friend to me.”
Sebit says the government helped him get a job as a dishwasher in downtown Boston, but the transportation costs from Lynn were too expensive, so he switched to working at Logan. He talks of school, but says there’s not enough time to study and earn money for himself.
Sebit occasionally finds himself having negative thoughts about his future.
“I want to have a job where they respect us where we work, [where] we have the same benefits as other people," he said. "It’s not about having a lot of money. We just want to live in the way other people live.”
Sebit, who also gets food stamps, believes if he were to get a raise or more hours at work, his family could afford to live together in the Boston area again.
He only found himself in the job last year, after a layoff, but Tom Hardy is already a defender of service industry workers — and a critic of some of the business' pay practices.
“We make our living and pay our rent through the generosity of our customers. That’s literally it,” the 24-year-old bartender said.
When we spoke on a snowy February day in a trendy Jamaica Plain cafe, Hardy was tending bar in Cambridge, making $2.63 an hour — the state’s tipped minimum wage. (He’s since moved to a bar in Boston's South End.)
He talked about how, some weeks, his paycheck wouldn’t meet a certain threshold and so everything would go to taxes. “Sometimes I don’t even open it,” he said, referring to the enveloping holding his check.
But Hardy certainly takes home money. I guessed he was typically making $13 an hour with tips (just under the average hourly pay for area waiters and waitresses) and he said my guess was “a lot lower than our usual average [pay].”
“The thing about being a tipped bartender is your wages are never guaranteed,” he went on, adding that pay depends on shift hours, the type of business the bar gets and even if a big sports game happens to be on TV.
“Generally you cross your fingers, because the busier shifts are usually pretty consistent, but because schedules vary from week to week, you have to adjust to that,” he said. “You really have to keep tabs on your finances.”
Before becoming a bartender, Hardy was a videographer for a human services nonprofit, until his job was cut amid reduced government funding. He does freelance video work, and entered the service industry a year ago. "I've really grown to love it,” he said of his new field.
Hardy said he’s able to pay his housing bills — he lives in JP with three other 20-somethings — and make his student loan payments, but he’s not “putting too much away” for savings.
I asked about any negative effects if the tipped minimum is raised. He said he’s heard that menu prices could be raised, but that it’s worth it. “People are still going to go out,” he said.
Jordan Pomare isn’t the type of teenager who’d be content with a retail job.
Instead, the senior at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School works as a peer educator at Project Right, a nonprofit in her Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.
“It keeps me in contact with my community,” she said of the job. And when people say hello to Pomare on the street, it tells her “you actually made a connection.” She added that it was a peace walk coursing through her community that made her want to get involved.
The well-spoken 17-year-old has worked at Project Right for four years. She has a schedule that’s flexible around her schoolwork — normally 10 hours a week, she estimates, and then full time in school vacation weeks — and changing responsibilities.
“Dodgeball is my day to play nurse,” she said of a recent day leading an exercise program at the local community center, “which is pretty much, if a kid gets hit in the face with a dodgeball, I’m the one they come cry to. I’m the one with the ice packs.”
Pomare makes $9 an hour, which she uses to buy everything from clothes and school supplies to gas, “if my mom ever lets me drive.” She stresses the importance of teenagers learning to work, and said she doesn’t “want to be a [financial] burden” on her mother.
She’s also saving for the various costs associated with college. Pomare, the youngest of four siblings, is seeking to be the first member of her immediate family to get a four-year degree.
“I’m going to whatever school gives me the most money,” she said. “Whatever school wants me to most will have me.” She counted and said she’s applied to 16 colleges.
As a teen worker, Pomare’s views reflect some of the complexity of raising the minimum wage.
At first, she says it’s needed. “If [adults] were working my job at $9 an hour, I don’t think they’d have enough to actually get all those things [rent, bills] done and be content,” she said.
Though later, she said: “Some teenagers, they don’t need $11 an hour because that’s just giving them money to run out and do whatever they want, pretty much.”
She wondered aloud about a need-based system, but when I prodded she admitted it’d be difficult in practice.
Pomare does, however, see a potential impact for her community at large. She said an increased minimum wage could serve as an impetus for residents to stay on the straight and narrow path, and make her Boston community a safer one.