In February, Kara Jones (not her real name) finally broke out of a six-year stretch of being unemployed and landed a job at a Burger King fast food drive-thru in City Heights.
“Now?” She says. “I’m a burger cook.” She and her husband have four children. They range in age from one to seven years old. They all live with Kara’s dad in Lemon Grove. Kara herself is 25. She earns minimum wage. Her dad gave her a used car, his own gas-guzzling Ford Explorer. It’s better than nothing, she explains, and practical if only from the standpoint that it can convey the entire family. Every day she works, Kara picks up her mom over in Otay Mesa and brings her back to Lemon Grove. Her mom handles daycare for the two youngest children. Her mom and her dad are divorced. They are not friendly. It makes, Kara admits, for an interesting dynamic.
Kara declines to use her real name for fear her husband, who is undocumented, will be deported to Mexico. He works at a printing shop. “He cleans off the boards that they use. He’s 30. I’ve known him for, like, eight years. He gets $200 a week from his job. Cash. Under the table. He works more than 40 hours a week. His boss knows he’s undocumented. If he got deported, I don’t know what would happen. We talk about that. It costs too much money to get him legalized.” She thinks around $4000 in legal fees. “Before that, he did gardening, plumbing, and construction. It’s hard for him to get a job,” Kara says.
“I had two interviews in six years,” she explains of her time off work, “but they never called me back.” Before that? “I lived in L.A. I worked at a trophy place. You know, where they actually make trophies? They had these little tubes I would cut, and then put them together. Just like a puzzle.” She giggles a little. “And before that, I did daycare.”
Life on minimum wage for a family of six: for an hour or so, Kara and I talk about what that looks like. Dressed in jeans and an oversized sweat shirt, her long brown hair is pulled into a pony tail. She is personable, alert, and she does not complain about her Dickensian lot in life except once: she’d like more time on the job clock. As it stands, she gets roughly 15 hours a week. “They said I can’t go over 60 hours in two weeks, so I guess I can’t go over 30 hours for one week. Why? She [the manager] hasn’t told me. She said we’re not allowed to go over on our hours, or else she would get in trouble. I have asked her for more hours, and then she just goes and hires more people. I think there’s one lady besides me that gets less hours. Everyone gets more hours than me.”
The lowest salary allowed by law, is how one of Karen Russell’s characters described the minimum wage in her novel Swamplandia. In real life, minimum wage is more often described as entry-level pay for an entry-level job by the employers and policy makers in favor of maintaining a low hourly rate of pay. But that paradigm appears to have shifted in recent years. Now, more and more people who don’t fit the description of an entry-level worker occupy those so-called entry-level jobs. For example, over one-third of minimum-wage workers have some college in their backgrounds. The Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley found that a full 30 percent of the countywide minimum-wage work force at present can claim some college time, while another 14 percent have completed bachelor’s degrees and eight percent have completed associate’s degrees.
Kara finished the 11th grade, but she dropped out of high school to have her first baby. She would like to go back and finish. “I’ve always wanted to do forensics, or immigration.” Is she looking for a better job? “Not right now, no.” She usually works from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., “but sometimes I come in at 9 a.m. I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if you call that dinner,” she says, putting some weight on the word dinner. “They put me on breakfast, and I didn’t know how to make anything, so I just kinda had to follow how everybody else was doing it. It’s a stress job. I make food to order. There’s not really a time limit, but the drive-thru? We have to be [finished in] under three minutes. So, um, it’s kind of hard when they come in and order, like, 20 Whoppers.” She giggles again. “There’s two clocks. They start running when they start ordering in the drive-thru. They have speakers. We can hear them. That’s when we have to start making food. But sometimes, they cancel it, and then we have to go back and start the whole order over again.”
Burger King paychecks come biweekly. “Last week, my check was pretty big for me. It was $370. That was for working two weeks. Usually, it’s around $240 to $270.” She says those totals are after taxes have been taken out. “We receive assistance from the government. Cal Works.” She says assistance checks cover the rent. “Sometimes my dad has to help out with food. I eat at work sometimes. I try not to spend so much money on fast food. When there are days we don’t have enough money to go to the [grocery] store, we get pizza. Little Caesar’s pizza, because it’s cheap.”
Not designed for careers
“When I was a kid? Jack in the Box was not a career. So I’m sort of stuck on that idea.” Brian Pollard took a shot at a city council seat and lost in 2013. He has since re-invented himself as a community activist in Council District four, the neighborhoods that comprise Southeast San Diego. Traditionally, Southeast has the highest rate of unemployment in our area. “I don’t think those kinds of jobs were made for careers, but more as feeders into bigger jobs, better jobs. And I think that’s what’s going to be the sticking point for many of the voters. People my age remember when those jobs were created back in the ’50s, the ’60s, and the ’70s. Those were never designed to be full-time career jobs.”