Working for minimum

Politicians have plenty of theories about whether to raise the minimum wage, but rarely discussed are the people who actually earn the $6.75 an hour. SN&R talks with some locals on the front lines of this debate.

Vue and her husband have a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old at home. Her work at the local laundromat and his $14-per-hour factory job still don’t make ends meet.

Vue and her husband have a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old at home. Her work at the local laundromat and his $14-per-hour factory job still don’t make ends meet.

Photo By Larry Dalton

A $5 bill, a single and three quarters.

That’s it, the absolute lowest pay, by law, that any legally employed Californian should earn per hour. Minimum wage: $6.75.

It works out to $14,040 per year—or $1,170 per month, before taxes—if the employee is working 40-hour weeks. That income is just over half of what is necessary to support a single adult living in California, according to an analysis published last year by the independent California Budget Project.

Each year, Democrats at the state Capitol attempt to raise the minimum wage. Last year, it was Assemblywoman Sally Lieber’s Assembly Bill 48, which would have raised the minimum wage to $7.75 by January 2007 but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September. Lieber, D-San Jose, had tried once before, in 2004, but that bill also was vetoed.

It’s been four years since there was an increase. The California Industrial Welfare Commission, which has the authority to adjust the wage, lifted it in both January 2002 and January 2001. Prior to that, in 1996, the federal minimum wage was increased, boosting this state’s minimum. Also in that year, California voters approved Proposition 210, which led to an additional increase in 1998.

And this year, it looks like the state’s lowest-paid workers could receive another raise.

Schwarzenegger said in his State of the State speech last month that he would support an increase in the minimum wage, by $1, as long as no further increases were prescribed automatically.

Meanwhile, two proposed initiatives—one that would raise the minimum wage to $7.75 by January 2008 and another that would raise it to $8.25 by the same month—are in circulation, gathering signatures in an attempt to put the question to voters later this year. Both are sponsored by a group called Californians for Fair Wages, an apparent offshoot from the state Green Party. Telephone calls to that group last week went unanswered.

“Low-wage workers, when they get a little more money, they’re going to spend it. … They’re not going to hoard it,” said Senator Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who has taken up the minimum-wage issue for the current legislative session, answering Schwarzenegger’s call. “That money will turn around and come right back, in services and in taxes.”

But Cedillo’s bill, Senate Bill 1162, which would raise the minimum wage by 50 cents in September and by another 50 cents in July 2007, also calls for automatic increases, despite the governor’s warning that he would not agree to such a mechanism.

“I understand that,” Cedillo said. “It’s an opening position.”

Political debates over the minimum wage usually get bogged down in dates and numbers and theories of economics. Phrases like “buying power” and “economic stimulus” are used. But rarely discussed are the actual workers—those who would be directly affected by an increase in the minimum hourly wage.

There are an estimated 1.4 million California workers who earn within a dollar of the minimum wage, according to the California Budget Project, a self-described nonpartisan, nonprofit research agency that advocates for low- and middle-income Californians. The University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Industrial Relations put that number, in 2004, at 1.65 million, adding that an additional 700,000 workers would be affected indirectly by an increase to $7.75 per hour. These are people who work in retail, low-level manufacturing, food service and agricultural jobs, among others.

Opponents of a minimum-wage increase argue that the economy places a value on certain jobs and that artificially increasing a wage hurts businesses and will lead to job losses. But they also claim that those minimum-wage earners are largely teenagers and single adults and that they are the lowest-skilled workers who cannot hold down more-demanding and higher-paying jobs.

“While the single mother trying to support her child on a full-time minimum-wage job is a better story, the 16-year-old hamburger-flipping student with college-educated and employed parents is a better fact,” Republican Assemblyman Ray Haynes recently wrote, quoting from a brief by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Assemblywoman Lieber has a different view: that most minimum-wage earners are the primary breadwinners for their families and that most are non-whites who don’t speak English fluently.

The California Budget Project, in a brief released following the governor’s speech last month, agreed with that assessment, claiming that almost 60 percent of those 1.4 million workers are over 25 years of age and that more than 57 percent of them are Latino. In contrast, only 32.1 percent of all California workers are Latino, the policy-analysis agency points out.

In the Sacramento area, low-wage earners appear to run the spectrum, from high-school teenagers working part time after school to non-English-speaking grandfathers trying to support their families.

Here are portraits of just a handful of those workers.

“I don’t spend my money on anything,” said Ayala, who rents a room for just $150 from a friend who owns a home. Ideally, someday, he’d like to live on his own.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Vang Mee Vue, 23
Laundromat worker
South Sacramento

Vang Mee Vue’s job consists of washing, drying and folding other people’s laundry. She works at a Midtown laundromat, where she often runs the business alone, taking laundry orders, assisting customers with the machines and laundering large batches of clothes.

Where she went astray, she said, was right after high school, when she didn’t go straight into college.

“I had a little problem,” she said a number of times, hinting but not elaborating. The next thing she knew, she was married with two kids.

She talks about acquaintances who attended college, seemingly disappointed that she took another path.

Vue is 23 and has worked at the laundromat for about two years. She works for minimum wage and usually for more than 40 hours per week, she said.

Vue is Hmong. She was born in Thailand but moved to Stockton when she was 6 years old. Her father passed away soon after the family came to California. She moved up to Sacramento several years ago.

She said she’s working on getting back to school. She used to want to work in the legal field. “But I’m not sure right now,” she said.

Her husband works in a factory job, doing assembly-line-like work and making about $14 per hour, she said. But still, with a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old at home, the two jobs still don’t make ends meet. She said she recently read a newspaper article saying that families shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, which means a family would have to make $19 per hour to afford the average place in the Sacramento area. Vue currently lives in a house with her in-laws in South Sacramento.

“If I was by myself, it wouldn’t work,” she said. “Even just him and me, we would be really struggling.”

She said her husband also has to pay child support for a third child.

When asked how much she thinks her job is worth, she compared it with more dangerous jobs, such as at gas stations, where robberies and burglaries are more common.

“What I make now, it’s not really—it’s OK, but,” said Vue, “I don’t know. It depends maybe on the stress level. There are days something happens; it just bums out your day. … It’s not too bad here.”

An increase of a dollar in the minimum wage sounds good to her, Vue said, especially because she doesn’t see any greater prospects.

“I don’t know what kind of job I could get with this experience and with no degree,” she said. “Probably just another minimum-wage job.”

Karlos Ayala, 22
Theater worker

At a downtown Sacramento movie theater, Karlos Ayala was sitting on a stool behind the ticket-purchasing counter, talking with his manager and another theater employee.

“We get away with a lot here,” said Ayala, who turns 23 this month and has worked at the theater for just over a year. During day shifts and other downtimes, manning the theater involves a lot of standing around. There are other times, though—say, for a Friday-night showing of Brokeback Mountain—when the place is packed, and selling tickets and popcorn gets hectic.

“When it’s really busy, customers can be pretty harsh,” Ayala said.

Ayala comes across as someone with a lot of ambition, but for nothing in particular.

He’s a Sacramento City College student who was headed toward a career in early-childhood development. But he dropped that course of study, he said, when he “got disenchanted” with it and with the people he was meeting within the field.

He’s held a variety of jobs. He worked in a call center administering political surveys, as an intern at a local record store and label, and at Tower Video. There was also that two-week stint delivering organic bread—“the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. The problem was that he’s a night owl, who often doesn’t fall asleep until almost 3 a.m. For the delivery job, he had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. in order to get there on time.

“Most people I know who make minimum wage … just live check to check,” said fast-food worker Freeman. “They don’t really have a lot of money to waste—on things like … food.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Ayala said he doesn’t have many expenses.

“I don’t spend my money on anything,” he said. “I don’t buy a single thing.”

He rents a room for just $150 from a friend who owns a home in Land Park. His car is paid off with help from his parents, who also help him with school tuition.

“I barely eat,” he said. And he doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. Plus, he gets some entertainment, in the form of movies, for free.

So, he saves. But for what?

“I used to think I wanted to go to Europe,” he said. “But I don’t really care about Europe. I mean, I have the Internet at home.”

He said he might want to publish his own book one day. But whatever the goal, he likes the idea that he’ll have money for it when it pops into his head, rather than the other way around.

Still, making more money is an attractive thought.

“Ideally, I’d like to live on my own,” Ayala said, admitting that that would be tough even without spending much money on frivolous things and even with an increase in the minimum wage.

But when asked how much his time—and the job he performs—is worth, Ayala is modest. He says he should be making between $7.50 and $8 per hour. “Starting people out on minimum wage is fair, but the minimum wage isn’t fair,” he said.

Rob Freeman, 33
Fast-food worker

In total, Rob Freeman has worked for Taco Bell stores for almost four years. But he still calls the gig his second job.

For his “day job,” he works installing heating and air-conditioning systems. But that job is off-and-on, depending upon the demand caused by extreme weather. During a two-week stretch in mid-January, for example, Freeman only worked one short day shift, installing an outside condenser—a quick, easy job. He makes $8 per hour in that job.

Taco Bell, where the 33-year-old assembles cheesy bean-and-rice burritos, jokes with customers as he takes their orders and mans the drive-through window, provides Freeman a reliable paycheck. He makes just over $7 per hour there.

“Fast food is stressful. It’s fast-paced,” he said, speaking somewhat derogatorily of his job. “I don’t really like work, period.”

What Freeman, a strong-looking man who wears his pants low but appears to remain in high spirits, would rather be doing is concentrating on writing. He writes skits and screenplays, he said, and hopes one day to sell something to Hollywood. Lately, he’s been making music with some friends—rap mostly—and trying to afford studio time so they can lay down some tracks.

But he also has to take care of his three children—the 1-year-old and 7-month-old at home with him in his rented apartment, and his 12-year-old.

“Most people I know who make minimum wage … just live check to check,” Freeman said. “They don’t really have a lot of money to waste—on things like … food.”

Freeman was waiting, in mid-January, on his next check to be able to pay for the registration on his car.

“I’ve got a perfectly good car that runs good and everything, but it’s not registered, so it’s just sitting there,” he said.

Does he think $6.75, or close to it, is a fair wage for his time? No.

On a recent weekday morning, while refilling coffee mugs, Gladys was asked how an extra dollar an hour would help her. “It would be nice,” she said. “The cost of living goes up all the time.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Other jobs, people that aren’t working as hard, at least not physically, and they’re getting paid 15, 16 bucks an hour—or even 13. I don’t think it’s right,” he said.

At Taco Bell, Freeman says, he won’t be allowed to make more than $8 per hour unless he becomes management. And maybe, he said, he’ll pursue that.

“Since I’m there, I might as well,” he said. “I need something to fall back on … to be realistic.”

Gladys, 42
Diner waitress
West Sacramento

In total—subtracting out the months she couldn’t work because of a bout of rheumatoid arthritis—Gladys has worked at Eppie’s for three-and-a-half years.

She’s a waitress at the diner, which is just off Interstate 80 in West Sacramento. According to a manager there, even the dishwashers are paid more than minimum wage. Waitresses are paid $6.75 only because they receive tips, the manager said.

On a recent weekday morning, Gladys (who didn’t want her last name printed) was seating customers and refilling coffee mugs, when she was asked how an extra dollar an hour would help her. It would amount to less than $140 per month gross for Gladys, who works a four-day week.

“It would be nice. More money helps. The cost of living goes up all the time,” she said.

Gladys lives in a rental with her husband, who is a checker at a large discount grocery store, and three of her four children, ages 9, 12 and 13. There’s always a mouth to feed and new clothes needed, she said.

Gladys said she’d had some vocational training, for a career as an admitting clerk or a central supply clerk, “but I never got anything out of it,” she said. “Kids interfere with everything.”

Instead, Gladys has always worked minimum-wage jobs—at Margie’s Diner in Yuba City and at a Pretzelmaker store.

“But I did get raises there,” she said.

At Eppie’s, the money is pretty good, she said. She can sometimes make as much as $15 per hour because of tips.

And she doesn’t think just anyone deserves more than the current minimum wage.

“If they’re a good worker, then yeah,” she said, shrugging. “But if you’re not—if you’re lazy, then it’s like …”

Parker Anderson, 20
Espresso-cart barista

“I’m 20 years old,” Parker Anderson said, laughing, explaining why he spends his money the way he does. “I spend my money on clothes, video games, food.”

Anderson, who studies graphic design at American River College, works part time at a drive-through coffee cart in a parking lot on Fair Oaks Boulevard, in the Arden/Carmichael area. He works three to five days per week, he said, for just a few hours per shift.

But it’s decent money, thanks to tips. During busy morning shifts, when a queue of cars waits for lattes, mochas and Americanos, he can make up to $12 per hour. More often, factoring in the tips, his hourly wage works out to just about $9 or $10 per hour. Still, a minimum-wage increase would affect his paycheck. And it would affect how much it costs the cart’s owner to employ him.

Often, the clean-cut, energetic Anderson is the only person in the cart and is responsible for closing it down in the evenings. Anderson has worked there for about seven months. Previously, he worked at a Mr. Pickles sandwich shop, making $8 per hour, he said.

The lifelong Carmichael resident still lives at home, with his parents, and doesn’t have many expenses, he said.

Heather Oglesby, 18
Fitness-club greeter

Ask Heather Oglesby about her goals, and she doesn’t hesitate.

After tips are factored in, Anderson’s hourly wage works out to just about $9 or $10 per hour. Still, a minimum-wage increase would affect his paycheck and would affect how much it costs his cart’s owner to employ him.

Photo By Larry Dalton

She wants to do special-effects makeup. In Hollywood. And in order to move closer to that goal, she’s aiming to transfer to school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“For Halloween, I did my ex-boyfriend as a zombie. It took three hours,” said the personable Oglesby.

But, for now, the 18-year-old American River College student from Carmichael works two jobs in order to afford to live on her own. Well, not on her own. With two roommates.

“We split it three ways,” she said. “But it’s still difficult.”

At Ettore’s restaurant and bakery, Oglesby makes $7.25 per hour. And at California Family Fitness on Fair Oaks Avenue, where she greets people coming in to work out and scans their membership cards into the gym’s computer system, she earns minimum wage.

“Have a good workout,” she said to an older man walking into the gym on a recent weekday in January.

That week, when she said she was scheduled to work 43 hours, she was asked whether her time is worth more than $6.75 per hour.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say $1 more,” she said. “Because you can live fine off of $7.25 an hour if you get the hours.”

That’s why she took on the second job, because the first wasn’t offering enough hours.

Oglesby’s only jobs have been for minimum wage, or close to it. Through her high school’s Regional Occupational Program, she first worked at a Dollar Tree store, where she later became employed.

“They didn’t pay me anything at first. I worked there for credit,” she said. During a Christmas season, the store hired Oglesby as a regular employee. She then worked there for eight months, she said.

“I was a cashier. It was dealing with some of the worst people in the world,” Oglesby said of the Dollar Tree job. “There was this schizophrenic lady who would come in all the time, and she would touch everything in the store.”

Emily Bass, 17
After-school-program worker

Since she was 2 years old, Emily Bass has been visiting the YMCA. When she was just 12, she began working there as a referee, overseeing basketball games and other sports. So it makes sense, she said, that at 17 years old, she works there part time. Bass is a senior at Woodland High School, who still lives at home with her parents and sits on her hands as she answers questions—mildly timid but no more so than the average suburban teenager. She works at the club for about three hours each weekday evening, staffing the desk at the busy recreation center and answering phones and questions. She is paid just slightly more than minimum wage. On the weekend, she referees sports games for another three hours.

The YMCA is a unique employer because it is a not-for-profit organization that receives its operating funds largely from grants and individual donations. Officials at the Woodland branch said that if the minimum wage were increased, they would have to find more funding in order to grant raises.

Bass doesn’t spend her money on anything grand, she said.

“I really like to go shopping, but that’s not where all of it goes,” she said. “I spend it on lunch, or on school stuff. Like yesterday, I bought myself a new backpack.”

But she’d like to save a little for after high-school graduation.

“I’m going to college next year, and I don’t have a lot of money,” she explained, saying that she’d already been accepted to San Francisco State University but didn’t know where she would attend.

Most of her friends work and make minimum wage, she said. A few work at the YMCA with her. One friend works at RadioShack, she said.

“A dollar more is good. I mean, more money is always good, right?” she said.

Her job at the YMCA isn’t very difficult, she said. But still, her time is probably more valuable than the minimum wage.

“It’s worth more than $6.75,” she said. “But I don’t know. I really like my job, so I’d do it for pretty much anything.”