Low-Wage Nation

In the battle over the minimum wage, the idea that low-wage earners are just teenagers has been widely debunked. So who exactly are the least-paid among us?

A checked flannel jacket thrown over his Burger King uniform and scrunched-up shopping bags under his arm, Jason Harvey clocks off work at 3 o’clock one drizzly January afternoon and sets out to get groceries for the week. His destination: the Ballard Food Bank.

Using shortcuts he’s learned over the years, it takes Harvey 10 minutes to walk to the food bank from his Market Street workplace, where he earns the minimum wage, which rose slightly in the new year to $9.32 an hour. He finds that neither his salary nor the $120 a month he receives in food stamps is enough to feed himself. Hence his trip to the food bank.

He’s prepared for a longer wait than usual today. “It’s annual paperwork time,” says the earnest, mustachioed 42-year-old. The food bank has asked its clients to bring identification and proof of residence—in Harvey’s case, a rent statement from the Seattle Housing Authority, which provides him with a subsidized studio in a hulking Queen Anne complex. Even on normal days, the wait sometimes runs a couple of hours.

When he arrives, however, the facility’s brightly painted lobby is only about half full, and a cluster of cheerful staffers quickly processes Harvey’s documentation. “Thank you for your patience,” a lanky young man behind the counter says nonetheless.

Harvey is given a number and settles into the lobby to wait to go through the food line. “There is no better food bank I’ve ever been in,” he says. Not only is the environment pleasant, but the groceries ample and various. When Harvey’s turn comes a half-hour later, he makes his way to a large back room that does its best to approximate a grocery store. There are carts, baggers, and sections devoted to different types of goods: meat, dairy, produce, baked goods, even flowers. Harvey, who lives alone and says he struggles with depression, skips the flowers. “I don’t have anyone to give them to,” he says.

He picks out a bag of flour, ground beef, chicken, cottage cheese, a prepared watercress salad, a cilantro-and-chive yogurt dip, a bag of tomatoes, organic milk, and a couple of packages of cupcakes decorated for the holidays just past with brightly colored frosting. He leaves with three heavy bags of groceries, all of them free.

He is both grateful and irritated. “It’s like a slap in the face to rely on charity,” he says. He asserts that such assistance is not meant for people like him, who are not only willing and able to work but in fact holding down a job.

The conclusion he takes from his situation—which involves quite a lot of public and nonprofit aid, including the food bank, food stamps, subsidized housing, and also, because he is a veteran, health care through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs—is that his job simply does not pay enough. His income, in fact, is just a little more than half of the $22,400 he would need to meet his basic needs in Seattle, according to a “self-sufficiency calculator” developed by the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. Harvey quotes from Proverbs: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

So when organizers from the labor-advocacy group Working Washington went to Burger King last spring looking for workers to join the movement pressing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Harvey signed on. He has marched in two fast-food workers’ strikes and spoken about his life at various events.

The movement he has become a part of has now reached a fever pitch. Along with those strikes, the past year has seen the passage of SeaTac’s Proposition 1, which sets a $15 minimum wage for certain workers serving the international airport, and the election of socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who ran on a $15-wage platform. In January, new Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced an executive order raising the lowest wage of all city employees to $15—an action echoed on a national stage last week when President Obama said he would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage of new federal contract employees, albeit to a more modest $10.10 an hour.

Murray has also set up an advisory committee charged with making recommendations about a wage increase for all workers in Seattle. The committee’s deadline is April, at which time the mayor has pledged to submit a proposal to the city council. If he doesn’t, or if the proposal is deemed inadequate by Sawant and her charged-up allies, they stand ready to move on an initiative that would put the $15 question to voters.

The mayor’s advisory committee is now hurriedly trying to gather as much information as it can. One of the questions it most wants answered is who exactly low-wage workers are. “There’s a lot of hunger for that data,” says committee co-chair David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union 775. That’s especially true of data specific to Seattle, of which there is none. An economic impact study on raising the minimum wage, recently funded by the city council, is expected to provide that.

Are they teenagers flipping burgers after school for iTunes money? Or are they adults trying to support themselves and maybe a family too? Are they relying on their parents for their basic needs—or on the government? The answers are crucial to weighing whether or not to implement what would be, should the $15 figure prevail, one of the most dramatic minimum-wage hikes in the country.

At stake is a sizable sector of the economy. To be sure, the number of local workers earning precisely the minimum wage is probably tiny. Despite the absence of city data, figures for King County, compiled by the state Employment Security Department, are illuminating: They show that, in 2012, only 1.5 percent of all jobs paid at the absolute bottom of the pay scale.

Yet looking solely at minimum-wage statistics is misleading because it discounts workers who earn only a dime more than the lowest pay, points out Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley. An analysis by Employment Security prepared for Seattle Weekly shows that 11 percent of all jobs in the county pay less than $12 an hour. A full 20 percent pay less than $15.

Interviews over the past two months with roughly a dozen low-wage workers, many of them earning the minimum wage or close to it, reveal no one type of person. Some workers are young, ambitious, and clearly headed for better things. Others seem stuck. They’ve been in the work force for a decade or more. They have adult lives and responsibilities. Yet they’re still earning as much as if they were getting their very first job.

Harvey had a plan when he joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in Medford, Oregon. First of all, he would get the heck out of town. He needed to, because his life in Medford until then had been horrific. He had been physically and sexually abused by his stepdad, at one point being hogtied with rope and left on the floor as punishment for stepping on a kitten. His stepdad, who also abused Harvey’s sister, was eventually convicted of two counts of rape, according to court records. The children went to foster homes.

The Navy also promised vocational training—Harvey would study electronics for six months and learn how to work the communications and navigation systems on ships. That plan played out, and Harvey earned a spot fixing equipment on the U.S.S. Conquest based in Seattle, Navy records confirm.

But Harvey’s past caught up with him. Troubled by emotional problems, not fitting in well among his peers, he would sometimes find his way to the far corners of his ship, by the engines, to be alone and cry.

Two and a half years into his service, he broke down completely after what he says was a sexual assault he suffered while off-duty and heading home from a Seattle nightclub. In the days following, he took acid and ended up in a Navy psychiatric ward. “That was basically a suicide attempt,” he says. Navy records say he was discharged due to “misconduct-drug abuse”; Harvey says the Navy took the circumstances into account and afforded him an “honorable” separation.

His future was uncertain. The Navy training, it turned out, was not enough to qualify him as an electrician in the civilian world. He didn’t have the wherewithal to go back to school. He spent some time homeless, living for a while at the Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square. He got a start on a new profession in the food-services industry by participating in the training program for the disadvantaged now known as FareStart (then run out of Belltown’s Josephinium Hotel).

But the jobs he stepped into afterward never paid much more than the minimum wage. His best one was at Dick’s Drive-In, where he handled the cash register among other duties. “Dick’s took care of us pretty good,” he says. He earned a couple of dollars above the minimum wage and had medical and dental insurance as well as a 401K.

He indulged in some luxuries without worrying about it. He spent $50 on a Ride the Ducks excursion. He bought video games for his Sony Playstation. He went to one of the fancier restaurants near his Queen Anne apartment for a special duck dish that he had to order 24 hours in advance.

He lost the Dick’s job after four years, however. He says he got into a bad habit of failing to follow the double-check protocol that Dick’s requires of cashiers putting money into the till.

He landed at Burger King, where he has worked for the last eight years stocking supplies, taking customers’ orders, and doing whatever else needs to be done. He seems to like the job fine. “I’m not doing the greatest work,” he says. “But at least I’m doing my best to participate in society, to actively be part of the world that I’m living in.”

When he says things like this, speaking over lunch at the V.A. cafeteria one December afternoon, he seems self-aware and astute. At other times, his acuity seems clouded by the damage he has suffered and the resulting depression. Another day, I ask him how old he is. He gives his birthday instead of a direct answer. “I’m not very good at math right now,” he says.

In his current job, the days of occasional luxuries are gone, as are employer-provided health and dental insurance. A few years ago he was at the Millionair Club, a nonprofit that provides day-labor jobs and other services for the poor, when he ran into a social worker who told him that he qualified for medical care at the V.A. He has become well acquainted with the facility on Beacon Hill, where he takes a weekly meditation class.

He does not qualify for V.A. dental care, though, and so he does without. His three front teeth are but stubs.

Why, after all these years at Burger King, does Harvey still earn the minimum wage? You might think that he would have received some raises along the line. According to SEIU’s Rolf, raises aren’t so common in the fast-food industry. “We’ve heard that a lot,” he says. “A lot.”

“They’re getting a raise every year,” counters Mark Escamilla, managing owner of FOR Northwest, a Burger King franchise that encompasses 37 regional locations, including the Ballard restaurant. He’s referring to minimum-wage workers who receive the annual cost-of-living adjustment built into state law. In January, that raise amounted to 13 cents an hour. Beyond that, he says his franchise regularly hands out raises—and promotions—according to performance. “Half of our restaurant managers started as entry-level employees,” he says. “They’re moving up the career ladder and taking care of their families in ways they didn’t know existed.”

But Harvey’s career has gone the other direction. While his hourly wage has not gone down, his hours have, dramatically—from nearly 40 a week to 28, due to cuts implemented throughout the franchise early last year. Harvey says he was told at the time that the reason was a looming provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to provide health insurance for staffers working at least 30 hours.

Escamilla, however, maintains that the cuts derived not from Obamacare but from a change in ownership that moved the franchise toward a part-time model. (Escamilla was part of the old ownership group as well.) “It gives us flexibility,” he says. During busy periods, restaurants can tap into a pool of part-timers, whereas under the old full-time model, staffers would have to work overtime, according to Escamilla. His franchise is not alone. Part-time staffing has become pervasive throughout the fast-food industry, and is one reason why workers’ incomes are so low, according to Jacobs, the U.C. Berkeley researcher.

Escamilla, however, suggests that many of his workers don’t mind the scant hours. “A lot of people work part-time for many different reasons,” he says. “Some are students. Some are housewives.”

Being neither, Harvey has over the years tried several strategies to boost his income. Watching television one day, he saw an advertisement for booklets that would teach him how to invest in real estate. He sent $350 for the materials. “I didn’t really understand the information, so like a knucklehead I opted for the coaching. That put me two or three thousand in debt.” The telephone-based coaching did not alleviate his confusion.

Another scheme had him going to a Bellevue hotel for a three-day class in stock investing, at a cost of $2,000 that he charged to his credit card. “It was really informative,” he says. In the end, though, he realized he didn’t have enough money to do anything with the information.

As the “income inequality” movement has taken hold, labor economists and union organizers have taken pains to show that the stereotype of minimum-wage workers as teenagers no longer holds true. A website called Raise the Minimum Wage, a project of the National Employment Law Project, points out that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “three-quarters of minimum-wage earners are 20 or older.”

When you look more broadly at workers who earn just a little over minimum wage, teens make up an even smaller part of the picture. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., analyzed statistics for those making $10 an hour. The think tank found that, as of 2011, teens constituted only 12 percent of such workers—a big drop from 1979, when 26 percent of workers in that pay bracket, adjusting wages for inflation, were teens. Economists speculate that a range of factors have driven teens out of the low-wage pool, including an influx of older, better-educated workers as higher-paid manufacturing jobs disappeared and the recession hit.

Nevertheless, if you delve more deeply into the detailed minimum-wage statistics that exist on a federal level, you see that a big chunk of workers, while adults, are still quite young. Half are under 25. That doesn’t mean that earning a pittance is no big deal, since many young adults have left home and are fending for themselves. “The point is that most are relying on this [income] as their primary source of funding,” says Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist who has done leading research on the minimum wage. But it does indicate that some workers are still at the beginning of their work life, with time to move up the pay scale, perhaps far up.

Donna Pak came to the U.S. from Korea six years ago when she was a high-school freshman. With her was her sister, then in fifth grade, but not her parents. They had lived a middle-class life in Incheon, near Seoul. Her father worked on technology systems for local government. Her mother owned a nail salon. Still, the family felt that the U.S. would offer an easier path for the girls. “In Korea, it’s really hard to be successful,” says Pak, now a 20-year-old with long, reddish-brown hair and only a slight accent. “People are so competitive. You have to spend a lot of money for private tutoring.”

The sisters arrived to live with their grandparents, who had immigrated long before and tended a small farm in Shelton on the Kitsap Peninsula. The rural locale was a shock. Pak was dreaming of New York–style big-city life. But she found the people friendly and lacking in the racism she feared. She did well at school, both in Shelton and in Tacoma, where the family moved her senior year. She graduated with a 3.9 GPA and was accepted into the University of Washington. She is now majoring in biology there, with hopes of becoming a dentist.

Not entirely familiar with the complex American college admissions process, she didn’t realize that she could apply for financial aid. Her parents were having some financial difficulties, and she worried about all the money they were sending her. So she looked around for a part-time job. She landed one at a sushi stand in the food court of downtown’s Century Square. It paid the minimum wage, plus tips.

She took on a 20-hour workload at first, heading downtown after her morning classes to serve sushi, work the till, and clean up. She would return to campus in time for two more hours of classes. Eventually, though, she decided to take a couple of quarters off so she could work more, save money, and give her parents a break from supporting her. When I meet her, shortly before Christmas, she is working 26 hours and living solely off her income.

“I’ve changed a lot,” she says after work one day. “I learned it is really hard to earn money on my own.” Before, when her parents supported her, she said she would spend freely. Now, she says, “I think three times before I buy something.” This winter, a $300 coat caught her eye. It was brown and plain but finely cut, the kind of high-quality clothing she had always wanted. ”I just fell in love,” she says. She thought about it not just three times but constantly. She let it go.

Pak talks about her newfound frugality in positive terms, although it has not been easy. She says she can make her wages last if she pays for little more than her $110 monthly cell-phone bill and her $500 rent. She shares a one-bedroom apartment in the University District and pays slightly less than her roommate by sleeping in the living room, her bed pushed against big windows overlooking University Village. Occasionally she’ll trek down the hill to the shopping center for a Trophy cupcake or some other treat. But she eats mainly the complimentary food provided at work; the rice, eggs, and Spam she buys at the store; and the food her grandparents always press upon her when she visits.

“It feels really great to do things with my own money,” she says. “I feel pretty independent.”

That’s not to say she wouldn’t appreciate a raise. “I’d love it,” she says when asked about a possible $15 minimum wage. Yet she muses that maybe “it’s a little too high” for some businesses to afford.

Her outlook could be tied to her age and bright future. It’s worth noting, though, that even among her peers, some feel their minimum-wage jobs to be oppressive.

In a downtown drugstore, I meet a 22-year-old who attends night classes at Seattle Vocational Institute to become a health-care technician. She knows she’ll earn $19 an hour when she graduates, precisely double the $9.50 an hour she makes now, and she’s already mapped out a way to get even further ahead. She reckons a state job will offer her a chance to get more schooling for free.

For the time being, though, she says she works a grueling 60 hours a week to pay for school and help support a family, from Sudan, that includes a remarkable 21 siblings. Her dad has passed away. Her mother, whom she says “doesn’t speak a lick of English,” is on welfare. “The less you make, the more hours you got to work,” says the woman, who asks that her name not be used for fear of antagonizing her boss. That’s why she says she’s all for raising the minimum wage.

Still, it’s not people like this Sudanese go-getter that one tends to worry about the most. It’s workers like Harvey, with little prospects for the future. Remember, half of minimum-wage workers nationally are under 25, which means that half are 25 or older. (Take note: Those figures refer to the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, so they’re only a guideline to what might be happening here.)

Such longtime, low-wage workers feed into what researcher Jacobs calls “a big concern about economic mobility.” Studies show that a big chunk of the working poor stay poor over time, and their children often follow in their footsteps. The reasons are debated. Liberals tend to focus on stagnant wages; conservatives on workers’ low skills, lack of education, and sometimes dysfunctional backgrounds.

Regardless of why, such workers often can’t make it without government assistance. Last fall, Jacobs co-authored a study of fast-food workers that found that more than half receive food stamps or some other public benefit. Jacobs says that “the thing that stood out the most” is that this was true even among full-timers.

If it’s a frustrating situation for a single, unattached person like Harvey, imagine what it’s like with a child in the mix.

This is how single mom Kourtney Washington describes a typical day in late December: She’ll work her $9.50-an-hour job at a downtown 7-Eleven from 2 to 10 p.m. Like many low-wage workers, she has no car, so she’ll then walk to the bus tunnel to catch a bus to Rainier Valley.

She’ll get home around 11, at which point she’ll tidy up her house, maybe do some laundry, and fix the next night’s dinner for her 9-year-old daughter, which will be served by a babysitter. She’ll fall asleep close to 3 and wake up with little time to spare before catching a bus to take her back to work. “I feel like I work to do nothing,” says the 29-year-old, taking a break outside the store, located at the hectic junction of Third Avenue and Pine Street.

A large woman whose dark hair is tucked into a black cap, she’s talkative and warm when she smiles, as she does to a co-worker who passes by. She’s not in the best of moods, though, having just popped out of the 7-Eleven to complain to a couple of beat cops about a drugged-up customer who threatened to throw coffee in her face. It’s not an unusual occurrence, she says.

Washington is luckier than some. She lives in a house that was left to her by her mother, who recently passed away. And Washington’s babysitter, a 20-year-old from the neighborhood, tells Washington to pay her what she can. The young woman is apparently content to eat Washington’s food and watch her cable TV. Still, Washington says the money from her bimonthly checks quickly evaporates. “One check pays all my bills. With the second check, I put $150 on my daughter’s school lunch account. After I put money on my Orca card, I have about $10 left.”

Christmas, a week ahead, offers neither a chance to splurge nor a respite from her monotonous schedule. She is scheduled to work, meaning that her daughter will spend much of the day with the babysitter. Washington has bought a couple of outfits for the girl, but frets that’s not enough. Her daughter is obsessed with Monster High dolls, a freakish twist on the Barbie, and Washington really wants to get some for her. She figures that’ll probably have to wait until the January sales.

A few weeks later, when she walks into a Starbucks to meet me, declining coffee in favor of the Red Bull in her hand, there’s no sign of her warm smile, and her manner seems flattened. She tells me that she was able to get the dolls for Christmas due to some money sent by a half-brother. Otherwise, things have not been good. She says she was fired by 7-Eleven. She claims it was because she refused to work New Year’s Eve, wanting instead to attend a special all-night church session. A manager at the store—who gives only her first name, Frey—says that account is inaccurate, but declines to elaborate on what she says were “a lot of reasons” for Washington’s dismissal.

In any case, Washington says she quickly found work as a cashier at a Renton gas station, which pays a similar hourly rate. But her bus commute is even longer and more complicated, getting her home close to midnight.

A bigger problem is that she’s getting only 25 hours a week. The drop in pay has put her on food stamps, so she’s looking for something else. But even her job search is a logistical challenge, as it is for many of the working poor who can’t afford a critical tool for the task: a computer. As she notes, even minimum-wage jobs these days require you to apply online. Consequently, on this January day, Washington is headed to the downtown library to use a computer there.

First she stops at a Belltown office of the state Department of Social and Health Services to get a record of her food-stamp benefits, which she needs to get help from a nonprofit that might contribute toward her utility bills. When she’s called to the DSHS desk in the grimly utilitarian office, she’s told that there’s some confusion about how many jobs she holds. Her record still has her working not only at the gas station, but at a charitable fundraising company for which she did a short stint in the fall. If she doesn’t clear up the matter immediately, she will lose her food stamps. Her job search, for the moment, will have to wait.

Harvey’s big release is karaoke. He likes to sing and dance and hear people applaud for him. He likes taking on the persona of different singers. “This is about being who I want to be,” he says, gearing up for a night at Hula Hula, a tiki bar at the bottom of Queen Anne. “This is about being free.” He’d like to go once a week, but he can usually only afford to go once or twice a month.

On this January Tuesday, he’s saved enough money for drinks by cooking for himself over the past week instead of grabbing food on the run, which he does when he can’t face washing the dishes that frequently clutter his kitchen. To prevent spending too much money at the bar, he’s gotten a head start at home, downing whiskey and root beers.

As on most nights he goes, he sets out for the club early. He likes to be the first to sing, saying it makes him feel like he’s getting his “fair share” of singing spots.

The place is practically empty when he arrives and sidles over to the bar. “Long Island Iced Tea?” the bartender asks, knowing what this regular likes. Harvey takes his drink and heads to the table closest to the stage. “This is kind of a high-class neighborhood,” he says as he waits. “I don’t completely fit in, but it’s near where I live. Whether they like me or not, it’s a night to have fun.”

And he does. When the singing starts shortly after 9, he’s the first from the crowd to follow the D.J.’s opener. He makes his voice sound eerily high-pitched to belt out Prince’s “Kiss.” When it’s his turn again, he goes the opposite direction with a rasping rendition of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. When he’s not singing, he’s encouraging others. “Bring it!” he yells. “You got this!”

The last song I hear him sing is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.SA.,” a patriotic song that matches his U.S.A.–emblazoned bomber jacket. “It matches my life too,” he says when I comment on the fact, reminding me that he served in the Navy. “I believe America should be the land of opportunity. It always has been and it always will be.”

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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