Jon Ohlson at Cosmos Coffee
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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.”

But that’s changed. I tell Pollard that in some cases, workers are staying longer and even aging into those so-called feeder jobs. “It would be really interesting to look into a crystal ball. If we raised the salaries, you’re not going to have as much turnover in those positions. So what about the younger kids coming up? Where are they going to go? You know what I mean?”

I do know what he means.

He and I reminisce over take-out coffee about the newspaper routes we both had as children, routes that are now run by adults in vehicles. Or, some of the other jobs that traditionally were the province of teens, namely, fast food and that of grocery store bagger. Box boy, they called us. Then, there was the primo teen job of them all, the filling station assistant, way back in the day before they all went self-serve. “I had one of those jobs, too,” says Pollard. “At a small gas station on Market Street, privately owned. Filling up gas and changing oil.”

In July, the San Diego City Council approved a series of incremental hikes that would eventually raise San Diego’s minimum wage (when coupled with the state’s wage hikes) to $9.75 on January 1, 2015; $10.50 on January 1, 2016; and $11.50 on January 1, 2017. By 2019, San Diego’s minimum wage would be adjusted annually to keep up with escalation in the cost of living. But on August 8, mayor Kevin Faulconer, painting a picture of fiscal doom for small business, vetoed the measure. Ten days later, the council returned fire and voted 6-3 to override Faulconer’s veto. That’s when the Chamber of Commerce stepped in. They helped mobilize a signature drive that stalled the measure by putting it on the 2016 ballot.

The Chamber’s move may have put the city council’s plan on hold, but the state’s minimum wage mandate will move forward as scheduled. According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, California’s minimum wage (it rose from $8 to $9 per hour in July) will increase again on January 1, 2016 statewide to $10 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A U.S. Department of Labor map dated September, 2014 shows four states that have no minimum wage laws on the books and another three states that actually dip below the federal minimum wage; in those states, the fed’s rate prevails. Twenty-four states have minimum wage rates higher than the federal rate; the rest of the country is even with the $7.25 per hour.

Conservative on the issue or not, Pollard’s own politics align with those of Council President Todd Gloria. “I don’t think the proposal that Todd put forth was unreasonable. It was middle ground. I like that. I like the fact that he took the original requirement and worked it out with the Chamber of Commerce. I don’t know why they came back and decided to blow this out of the water.”

Former-mayor Jerry Sanders is now president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. His office declined numerous requests to comment. But an op-ed piece with Sanders’s byline appeared in U-T San Diego on October 17, and it used terms such as “union goons” and “job killing increase” to make the Chamber’s point: that a minimum-wage hike would drive up costs and kill jobs. “The minimum wage is not designed to be a living wage, as proponents suggest. Rather, it is an entry point into the job market for new workers. Of those who work at the minimum wage,” he wrote, “25 percent of those are teenagers and 50 percent are under 25 years old.”

But a policy brief issued by the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics in June painted a different picture. According to their countywide study, only five percent of those affected by the proposed wage hike are teenagers under the age of 19. Forty four percent are 20–29 years old, 17.5 percent are 30–39, 23.9 percent are 40–54, and 9.5 percent are 55 and older. All told, the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics says that between 135,000 and 166,000 San Diegans would be affected in the coming year by such a wage increase.

Able to buy shoes

“I work in a business in Del Mar cleaning offices. A year and six months working there. Per hour, they pay me $9.25.” Miriam Torres, 45, lives in the realm of workers with wages that are barely above minimum. “Because of the union, I make .25 cents more than minimum wage. I’m not sure exactly how much I pay for union dues because it comes out of my check.” She says she’s happy with the union. “I got 40 hours per week. I got paid twice a month. I got $1100 per month. A little bit less than $600 each check.”

Torres and I meet at a Starbucks on University Avenue in City Heights late on a workday afternoon. The air around us is thick with summer heat and the thrum of agitated discussions. Men, mostly, speaking in East African dialects, occupy most all of the surrounding tables. Torres has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, but she speaks no English and requires the assistance of a translator. Later, she will admit that going to school to learn English, when compounded by the duties of single parenting and holding down a job, has proven too difficult.

“I ran a day care before. I always had a day care. But I couldn’t continue working because I have a child in special education. He had a lot of problems at school. He would leave school. And I had to be at his school. I started working other hours at other day cares. And I started working at night, too. I live in Oak Park, off 54th Street. I drive to work in my car. I work from 6 p.m. to 2: 30 a.m. Sometimes when I’m working at night, if I get two hours of sleep, that’s a lot. I have to make food for my children, take them to school, and I pick them up from school. I have appointments. But I haven’t been working. I’m on Worker’s Comp. I hurt my arm. I was pulling something out of the trash and I stretched a tendon. After that, I was working with restrictions, but the company I cleaned for said I could no longer work there with restrictions, so now I collect disability.”

I ask if she’s feeling better. Yes. Torres has three children. “I’m not married. I am separated. I have been separated for 10 years.” She and the interpreter giggle. She says she has Section 8 housing, a rental assistance program administered by the Housing Authority of the County of San Diego. “Sometimes I work for people so I get a couple of extra hours. Day care. My children stay by themselves in the house when I go to work. My oldest boy is 16. Sometimes, my sister takes care of my youngest boy.”

Torres sometimes gets her family’s groceries from the food bank, a local hunger relief organization. “And sometimes, we go to places that are giving out free food. Now that I’m working at the union offices, they pay me a lot more. The union pays me more than what I earn as a janitor. I’m working for the union. They give me work while I’m out on disability.” She says it’s only a temporary assignment. “I’ll go back to being a janitor when I am able. The union is paying me $14 an hour. I’m now able to buy shoes for my kids. Things that they need. I made more money running my day care. That’s one of my goals, to return to that. And I’m taking classes. Computers — I’m taking classes in computers.”

Thinking about school

“I live in La Mesa. Only about a five-minute drive down to here. Usually I ride my bike. If it’s late, or if it’s early morning, I’ll drive.”

Jon Ohlson is 18. He works at Cosmos Coffee. “I’ve worked here for just over a month, actually. This is my first job. Honestly? I was able to stretch not having a job. I didn’t necessarily need any money, and I got a pretty generous allowance from my parents. But they started pushing, like, it’s time to get a job now, and I was on the same page. I wanted some extra spending money. After I applied at Cosmos, I didn’t hear back for, like, two months, actually. I filled out an online application first. Then, I went in with my resume. I got a call about, yeah, two months later. I went in for an interview. I did apply online to Sprouts, but I never heard back from them. They pay minimum wage, too,” he says, “for entry-level baggers or cart retrievers.”

Ohlson says he earns $9 per hour working at Cosmos as a barista. “I get on average 30 hours a week. I’m thinking about starting school the following semester.” He says his teenage friends work minimum-wage jobs at grocery stores, retail stores, and movie theaters. “Things of that sort. Security, through Elite, at select events. On average, it’s minimum wage. I get paid every two weeks. I worked 60 hours [in the last pay period], and my paycheck was $455 after taxes. I also make tips here. On a good week? Tips are, like, one hundred dollars. Tips are pooled. According to what days you worked, you get tips drawn from that day.”

There will be difficulty

Peter Brownell

Peter Brownell

“I don’t think that the modest raise proposal that passed the city council is the silver bullet that’s going to fix the San Diego economy, or that it’s going to raise low-wage workers into the middle class.” Peter Brownell, 42, is research director for the Center for Policy Initiative in Mission Valley. “We do research and policy work on issues that impact low-wage workers and their families in the San Diego region.”

The Center has been among the most vocal of proponents for the minimum wage increase. Brownell, tall and reed-thin with a sandy chin goatee, is wearing a purple button down shirt in sharp contrast with the sky-blue and lime-green walls of his narrow office. It is a cluttered and cramped space that is relieved somewhat by a picture window.

Brownell points out that the window is precisely where an errant driver accidentally backed through the wall some time ago, pinning the previous occupant of the office behind her desk. Fully recovered, and long since relocated to an office further back in the same building, Brownell says it was she who is responsible for the gaudy color scheme of his office.

“Since the recession, we saw a situation in which the overall numbers of jobs in this region declined. There’s been a transformation in terms that we’ve added jobs back, but a good proportionate share of those [new] jobs replaced jobs that had middle income with jobs that pay lower income. A big share of those new jobs have been in the service and restaurant industry.”

According to the Center’s surveys, those jobs pay the current minimum wage of $9 per hour and at fewer than 40 hours per week. “There’s probably more recent data, but for the food service industry, you’re looking at paychecks that are around $300 a week. That’s on average.”

Brownell is not entirely certain that those workers presently earning slightly over the minimum wage will be impacted by a raise. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to see, over time, an economic recovery that is a little deeper. We’ve definitely seen some increases in the construction industry, and those are better-paying jobs for the most part. I’m hopeful. But I think progress has been really slow. And the reality is that it’s going to continue to be slow. I think there’s going to be some difficulty. Even if the economy picks up, there’s a whole generation of people who are entering the work force such that, when they go to look for their next job, what they’ve got on their resume is low-wage service work, rather than the kinds of jobs they would have been able to get.”

Which would have been?

“Before the recession, they might have been able to get at least some kind of entry-level white-collar job with their college degree or their college experience.”

Mental breakdown

Jessie Thomas

Jessie Thomas

“I started working when I turned 18. Abercrombie. That was my first job. They paid $7.25 an hour.” Jessie Thomas is now 28. In her working lifetime, she has never held anything above a minimum-wage-paying job. We meet up at a coffee shop near San Diego State University. She’s auburn haired and neatly dressed in stylish black slacks and a lacy white blouse. A couple of items of jewelry hang from delicate gold chains around her neck. One is a quartz crystal she borrowed from her sister. The other is a tiny brass Buddha’s head. “I got it for one dollar,” she says, “in Balboa Park.” Thomas is one year into a bachelor’s degree program at SDSU. For money, she punches a time clock as a waitress.

“I work at McCarter’s, in La Mesa. It’s on Lake Murray Boulevard. I started working there in March.” She earns minimum wage. “Plus tips.” Thomas’s take-home pay after taxes averages between $130 and $230 every two weeks, depending on the number of hours she gets — 20 to 30 hours.

“I’ve never gotten a $300 paycheck. It’s always been under that.” If her car was running (it is not at present) she says she would fill her gas tank first, “and then try to budget food for the week. The rest goes to pay bills.” In this case, her student loan. “I’m trying to keep up with the interest.” Thomas grew up in Alpine. “After high school, I took off to Australia and traveled around.” She says she also backpacked through Europe before coming back home to college. Now, she shares an apartment with her mother and her sister near Lakeside. She used to live on the SDSU campus. To make ends meet then, she worked two jobs.

“I was the opener at Starbuck’s, which is 4 a.m., so I would be up at 3 and I would get off there at 12. I would go to my classes, and then I would go to McCarter’s and work to close. Eventually, I had a mental breakdown. It was during midterms. I was averaging three, maybe four hours [of sleep], and at first, I was like, “This is great. You’re kind of on this mental high,” she says of the initial effects of sleep deprivation. “It’s really just self-preservation. But, I was like, I can totally do this. You think, sleep just slows you down, but you crash eventually. I made the decision to think long-term, which is really difficult when you’re living day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Thomas quit Starbucks and took out student loans to supplement the money she’d been earning as a barista. She says she doesn’t want to sound like a typical millennial. “What did Time magazine say? We’re selfish, entitled, and lazy, or something? [But] I feel like my demographic is totally trapped. People think we can do better, or they think that our parents can help us or something. Well, my mom, she’s a hair dresser and she works really hard. And I’m going to school to try to get out of my own hole, and as we all know, you can’t just get a bachelor’s degree. Things have changed a lot. There’s a lot of factors here.”

One of them, she says, is the job market.

“If you send out a hundred resumes, you get about 10 call-backs. And less than that ends up in an interview. What’s interesting is that when I first took off to Australia, and then I backpacked through Europe? This was between 2004 and again in 2009, right after the economy tanked. It’s so interesting to look back at those times compared to now. [In 2004] when I came back and I tried to find a job it was, like, no problem. Back then, I could get a job anywhere. But then, I spent two years unemployed after 2009, and I became so depressed. I couldn’t get a job at a makeup counter. A new Jack in the Box opened up in Santee, and I was right on that. I didn’t get anything. I’m stuck in this weird position where potential employers either think you aren’t going to stay long, or that you’re over-qualified.”

No shows, no work

“I work part-time for AOne Show Services, and I work for All Team. What I do for AOne Show is staff guest events. What we do is we greet the guests, and we give basic, you know, information. Depending on the hours you work, you would also do light security.”

Sherone McCaster

Sherone McCaster

Video:

Sherone and the minimum wage

Sherone McCaster talks about her experience trying to make ends meet while earning $9 per hour as an usher at Qualcomm Stadium.

Sherone McCaster talks about her experience trying to make ends meet while earning $9 per hour as an usher at Qualcomm Stadium.

Sherone McCaster meets me at the Urban League offices off of Market Street in Southeast San Diego. She is wearing a black and white striped top with black slacks. Her hair has been straightened and lies flat on her head. She is friendly and forthcoming. She smiles frequently. She plays with her hands while she tells her story. “When Comic Con was here? We made sure nothing came up missing, that no one was stealing anything. For All Team, what I am is a traffic-control director, which is, basically, directing traffic for the Charger games.” She stops and demonstrates. “This way, this way, follow me,” she laughs.

“I live in Southeast San Diego, off University Avenue. I call it East Dago. I don’t have any kids.” McCaster, 41, says she has a boyfriend, and then makes a sour face. She says she does not live with him. “I am presently in a program called RTP Re-Entry Program, which I am placed in a sober living. I pay my rent, my back rent, plus fees every week.” McCaster says she has previously been incarcerated. The sober living arrangement is part of her probation. She is required to work and to pay for her keep. She says she is lucky she got the jobs she has.

“For AOne Shows, I’m on my feet for eight hours, depending on what type of show it is? For Comic-con I was on my feet 8 to 16 hours. For All Team, it’s split shift. From 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and then from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. I earn minimum wage for both jobs. Nine dollars. AOne Shows is show-based. Meaning, if there’s a show that they have the contract with, then I’ll get hours.”

In other words, no shows, no work. “And All Team is, if the Chargers play here and they get that contract, it’s the same. I’m like totally disgusted when I see my check from All Team. Oh my gosh, $36? $40, maybe? Plus, they take out for taxes, too. AOne Shows? I get paid all right. For three or four days, however long the show is, I get pretty good money. Oh, sometimes, I’ll get like a hundred and forty-something dollars for two days. For me that’s pretty good, I guess.”

She’s looking for work that pays better and has regular hours. “I’d like to be a receptionist. File clerk. I’d like to do a lot of things. However, my background isn’t the best. I have done three prison terms. They were all for fraud or identity theft. I can get an interview, but when they do the background check, that’s when it’s, you know, not good at all. Crime? It just wasn’t paying off. You get older. There’s no retirement, no 401k. Nothing. Is there enough money coming in to keep me from going back to crime? Well, I’m not on drugs any more. I’m a graduate of Second Chance Strive. I’m happy with my life. I have over 600 days clean and sober. I graduated from the House of Metamorphosis, which is an extremely hard program. I’ve come a long way. I built my self-esteem back up, my self-worth. Even with these two part-time jobs? I’m managing. I’m hoping that I get this job at a pizzeria in Little Italy. Actually, that starts at $10 an hour. I can’t make pizza, but I’m willing to learn.” She laughs.

Back to nannying

Molly McDonald

Molly McDonald

Video:

Molly and the minimum wage

Molly McDonald talks about her experience trying to make ends meet while earning minimum wage.

Molly McDonald talks about her experience trying to make ends meet while earning minimum wage.

“You want my real first name? Or the name I go by? My dad always wanted me to have a professional name, in case I wanted to become a judge, but my mom calls me Molly.” Her given name is Michelle McDonald. Both of her parents are lawyers. Is McDonald looking at becoming a judge? “No.”

McDonald is 25. She lives in Talmadge Park with her father. We meet up at a coffee shop in nearby Kensington. She wears dark glasses through the interview, and she sniffles. I wonder if she is weeping. “No — I’m coming down with a cold.”

“I lived with my dad from May until about August, and then I moved out. I moved back, like, two weeks later. It’s okay. We get along really well.” McDonald moved back home to save money. “It’s very hard to find a place that I can afford, along with [paying] my other bills.” She ticks off a credit card, auto insurance, her phone bill, and groceries. “Internet. Rent. My dad helped me pay for college. I have to pay him back, but it’s not with interest. And I’ve almost got him all paid off. My most recent minimum wage job? I was a day-spa manager. Facials and waxing and massage. I was the receptionist there. In Mission Hills. I was making $9 an hour. Every two weeks, I got a paycheck that was, maybe, $530. When I was working as a nanny, I made from $14 to $15 an hour. My dad told me nannying wasn’t a real job before, so that’s why I went out and got a real job, and then it didn’t pay as much. I’m going back to nannying.”

McDonald “worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office when I first got out of college. That was after a really crappy job as a copy editor at a literary magazine. I graduated with a certificate in editing and publishing [from Chico State University], so I did that. It was interesting for a while, but after a few months of that I just wanted to shoot myself. It was a small literary magazine in Coronado. They paid me $12 an hour. Now, I want to go back and get my master’s degree in psychology and be a guidance counselor. It would take me about three years, because I have to work. How much will it cost? With everything, probably about fifty grand. And I already spent close to $80,000 on my undergrad.”

The rent, the bills, the food

Emmanuel Wimer

Emmanuel Wimer

December 4th McDonald’s strike

December 4th McDonald’s strike

“We’re planning to strike the McDonald’s on 54th Street at El Cajon Boulevard on December 4,” Emmanuel Wimer says. “We’re going to shut down the morning shift. I’ve already got people signed up.” Wimer’s energy ramps up as he speaks of the coming strike, as if he’d secretly downed a couple of those five-hour energy drinks and they’re starting to kick in. “We’re ready.” All but one employee, that is, a guy Wimer describes as being 60 but looking 80. “He’s a fry cook. He’s been working at McDonald’s for 30 years. At different locations. They cut him down to two days a week because he was complaining about his high blood pressure.”

Wimer says the old guy is certain they won’t be getting any raises any time soon. Wimer is 24, and, I come to see, something of a self-made labor organizer.

“I founded the club Students in Power at City College.” Wimer says the group meets on campus each Tuesday. “I made it so that there would be no leaders. It’s a true collective. An activist club. The members come from within the student body. It’s been going for about a year. We work with broader issues like police brutality,” he says, “and the Fight for Fifteen.”

Close-cropped, athletic, and dressed in a powder blue Charger’s jersey, Wimer explains that Fight for Fifteen is a nationwide protest for higher wages — namely, $15 per hour — that is targeted at the fast-food industry. He works at two fast food outlets, a Del Taco and a McDonald’s.

“I live in City Heights. I’ve been going to City College for about two years now [studying] Chicano studies. I’m about a 3.0,” he says of his grade point average.

We meet at the McDonald’s directly across from City College. “High school just got out. That’s why the cops are here. I get about 24 hours a week at McDonald’s. I get nine bucks an hour. I been there for about three months. My paychecks for two weeks are about $400, $300, somewhere in there. I live with my mother. I’m helping out my mom pretty much. I cover the rent, the bills, the food.” It’s just he and his mom sharing a one-bedroom. “My sister’s 26. My brother’s 12, and he lives with my aunt. She lives in La Mesa.”

Wimer only gets nine or ten hours a week at Del Taco. “From them, I make about a hundred and twenty at the most. Maybe like a thousand a month total between both jobs,” he says. He has no car. “I take the bus and the trolley. My health fee at City College is waived because my mom’s got SSI. I pay out of my own pocket for books.”

He says he has close to $2000 saved up. He thinks the rent for a one-bedroom in their neighborhood is $750 per month. “I eat where I work. At McDonald’s we’re allowed to have a small Value Meal at our break. My mom doesn’t really cook. She has a lot of respiratory conditions. She’s on a lot of medications.”

In the past, Wimer has worked other minimum-wage jobs collecting signatures, as a canvasser, and mowing lawns. “I’ve been working fast food for about five years. At McDonald’s I’m the maintenance person. I clean the trash, the floors, the tables, the fryers, I wash the clothes. Fryers are full of grease. I’m pretty straight with that, but for most people, it’s hectic. It’s hot grease. We usually don’t have all the safety equipment. The district bosses, if they see us they yell, Where’s your face shield? And I’m, like, it’s in the back in two pieces. At Del Taco, I’m a cashier.”

Video:

Strike for minimum wage at McDonald's

Fast food workers rally in San Diego to call for a higher minimum wage.

Fast food workers rally in San Diego to call for a higher minimum wage.

Wimer also worked a carnival job. “At first, I picked up trash. Then I helped put together rides like the Ferris wheel, and I am afraid of heights. You’d be surprised when people are putting together a ride. They’re just dropping a big nail in a slot. It isn’t like, bolted. It’s just a bunch of guys who put things together and drop a nail in. It paid eight bucks an hour. Minimum wage. It was up and down California. They came to town, and I needed a job. The second year, I worked the games. They’re totally a rip. When you learn the scams, you’re like, “Oh, okay.” They pay ten percent commission. I grew up poor my whole life. We’ve been homeless a lot. I’m hoping the Fight for Fifteen will change things. A $15 minimum wage would change my life. And my mother’s too.”

I was tired

After a month of missed connections, Karen Wilson (not her real name for fear of reprisal from her employers) and I finally connect by phone. She says she has spent the morning thus far in an attempt to apply for health coverage. “My COBRA [health insurance] ended October 31.” Wilson is 59. “I used to work in retail sales. I got laid off. I started doing merchandising.”

She explains that merchandising means stocking retail shelves with beer, wine, and spirits. “The hours vary. Sometimes I’ll go weeks with no jobs. Other times, I get three jobs in one week. I go into a store, like a Vons or a Ralphs or a CVS, and I do what’s called a re-set. We go through the liquor section and we rearrange the bottles according to a schematic. Lifting? Yeah. I do a lot of lifting. The shifts usually start at 10 p.m. and they end at 6 or 8 in the morning.” She says she does not get full time hours. “When they call me, I’ll go and make the extra money. They pay $10 an hour and mileage.”

Wilson also has a second job. “I’ve been working as a caregiver, and those jobs are in the day time.” She works through an agency that pays her $9.75 an hour. “I pay union dues to them of $25 a month. They provide us with medical and dental. But, there’s an 18-month wait to get coverage.”

So far, she’s still outside the window. She works an average of 140 hours per month. “I go into homes and see what needs to be done. I help with appointments, medications, cleaning, anything. I took a class that went on for three months in order to get certified.”

With opposing hours, Wilson says sleep is sometimes a luxury. “When I’m really, really tired to the point I can’t stand up, I come home and sleep. You gotta make do.” She estimates her income at $1200 per month before taxes. “I bought a condo right after my divorce.” Wilson lives with a roommate at the foot of Mission Hills, on the side facing Pacific Highway and the airport. She gets money from her divorce settlement, but it’s not enough to cover her mortgage, health insurance, and car payment. “I’ve had a couple of accidents.” she said. “One, I was driving to work at 6 a.m. And I wasn’t concentrating. I was getting off the freeway, and I clipped one of those cement barriers. It almost totaled my car. I was tired.”

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Comments

QueenMe Dec. 17, 2014 @ 4:21 p.m.

I personally think the current unemployment problem, in our country, was caused by the knuckleheads/elected officials, who thought it was such a terrific idea to allow so many jobs to go overseas. AND, the reference to the "men with East African accents," in the article also reminded me, WHOSE brilliant idea was it to bring all of these unskilled foreigners over and put them on public assistance, courtesy of the taxpayers??

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JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:21 a.m.

elected types don't "allow" jobs to go overseas...they drive them there through burdensome regulation, retarded work rules, etc. the unions also had a hand in that. they spent the last 70 years driving the cost of even no skilled workers past their value to an employer. GM is the best example of how a union can BITCH-SLAP a company.

illegal alien workers...you're right. lose the bulk of them and by the law of supply and demand the wages will rise

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Ponzi Dec. 17, 2014 @ 9:37 p.m.

The U.S. does not have an illegal immigration problem, it has a quasi-legal immigration problem. H-1B, O Visa's, Student Visa's, so many other special interest "Visa's" that various groups qualify for have taken jobs that qualified U.S. citizens should have filled. H-1B visa's number some 200,000 per year. The U.S. has recently had job growth of close to 200,000 per month. Most of those jobs are service jobs and retail sales. But, 200,000 plus another 300,000 other visa's are issued each year to foreign nationals. America has been up for sale for two decades. Even if we "create" 2,000,000 jobs a year, the U.S. has "legally" admitted some 500,000 plus foreigners who have, invariably, filled many of those jobs. This "visa" immigration, or so-called "legal" immigration is unsustainable. It is WHY college educations are unaffordable for U.S. citizens because we are drunk on the money from wealthy Asian and Arab families sending their wealthy students into our colleges, pushing out U.S. citizens. Jobs for computer programmers and engineers going to cheap Indian imported labor (not outsources, but brought here on the guise of temporary - but they become permanent.)

Want a simple job like assistant manager at Trader Joe's? They require a bachelors degree. Yep, to push carts, ring sales and stock shelves you need a college degree these days. Thank you "free trade" but you are not cheap.

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JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:28 a.m.

wrong. we (colleges) are drunk on money from student loans granted to folks that cannot afford the loans they take. the same kids that cannot buy lunch without a co-signer are granted TENS OF THOUSANDS IN LOANS FOR SCHOOLING. all those consumers of college have driven the cost up...not foreign students

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Bob_Hudson Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:04 a.m.

"while another 14 percent have completed bachelor’s degrees.."

I always wondered where the Women's Studies and English lit majors got jobs.

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JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 11:09 a.m.

so many folks in this story are making poor decisions that it's hard to feel bad for them. the gal at SDSU can get her general ed out of the way FAR cheaper at a community college. going into debt for those classes is a dreadful bad idea and she has NO ONE to blame but herself if she does so.

if you work a job that can be taught to someone in a week or two it is NEVER going to pay well...WHY WOULD IT?

karen wilson bought a condo we learn she cannot afford. really? good god, boo hoo. sell it.

miss mccaster...THREE convictions for fraud and identity theft? were the first and second incarcerations not miserable enough...you needed a third stay in jail on our dime to drive it home that a common thief is not popular amongst the honest. now you gripe that you cannot find employment alongside those who can and have lived without being serially sociopathic. the core of christianity is forgiveness but you'll understand i am sure if you grant us the time to wrap our heads around THREE convictions

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RickBurgoon Dec. 18, 2014 @ 12:11 p.m.

Lets see.... Name one male CEO with a nose piercing and pink fingernail polish.... Gee what company pays six figures to a high school drop out who couldn't keep her legs closed (OMG we can't judge, right? but we must pay...) with more kids than she and her illegal immigrant husband can afford? Golly, once we now add millions of non-English speaking workers in California (hey Jerry Brown, roll out the red carpet...as you sit in your 24 hour security detail guarded mansion so you need not be bothered with the unwashed masses...but tell the rest of us that we must show compassion...) who will ONLY ever be able to secure minimum wage jobs, all these kids will be promoted to management, right? My dads mom raised 10 kids and the kids began working to help as well...my dad at the age of 10. But they all went to school or joined the military. There was no Section 8 housing, or free food, or welfare.
Now the best part...how many of the people in this article voted for Obama and Brown and Dems...only to now be told that the problem with America is white people who wear greasy baseball caps, the police and the GOP.... I have pity for those who join the system and have a tough time. I have NONE for those who drop out, pierce themselves, have kids faster than a rabbit on Viagra and cant understand why they cant get a job, or who get out of High School and travel to Australia and backpack across Europe...my first trip to Europe was in my 30s after I saved for it and earned it. Gee...earning it, respecting our laws, our language and our Nation, staying in school, understanding that sex does, gee, make kids who cost tens of thousands of dollars, and working to achieve success. What a concept...

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Rabid_Koala Dec. 20, 2014 @ 4:04 p.m.

How truly sad, I am just overcome with compassion for these poor victims of our cruel society. They are all victims according to the author, who seems to think that these poor, oppressed "workers" are worth more to a private business than the market will bear. This, of course, has to be rectified by government fiat, at the expense of the employer who has to live with the law of supply and demand as it relates to his or her business, but not the oppressed employee.

In the case of "Kara Jones", it would seem that she has yoked herself to a lifetime of minimum wage jobs due to her poor life decisions. Dropping out of high school to give birth to her first, then making three more? Then she marries an illegal, er, undocumented alien? How many more bad decisions will she make in life?

l would submit that there should be NO minimum wage, as it artificially excludes those at the very bottom of the food chain from gaining that first experience as an employee. Who would want to take a chance hiring a young kid at an inflated $15 per hour? I bet they would at $5 per hour. If they are any good, they will either make more or find a better job.

Mr. Good sounds like a shill for the Marxist left, and the Reader has dirtied itself by giving him a platform for his anti capitalist propaganda. I used to think the Reader was a decent publication, but those days are apparently long gone.

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AlexClarke Dec. 23, 2014 @ 6:19 a.m.

The problem is that we do not appreciate hard work nor do we value it. We talk a lot about low wage jobs not worth anything but we subsidize the very employers who do everything they can to keep from paying a decent wage or providing benefits. We have made public colleges unaffordable and have sold the notion that a college education is the end all be all of employment. We are destroying the middle class and working toward a two class system in which anyone who works by the hour is poor. We send good jobs to third world countries with no regulations or protections. Who cares if factories pollute the air or water or that workers die young? We have fallen into the trap of being the world's police and paying no attention to America first.

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jnojr Dec. 24, 2014 @ 7:24 p.m.

What, exactly, is "hard work" worth? One guy could spend days digging a ditch. That's pretty darn hard work! Or we could use a bulldozer and get it done in an hour. So why, exactly, should we pay the "hard worker" $15 an hour or whatever for dozens of hours instead of $100 for one hour?

It's the result of your labor that has monetary worth. Not you, and not your effort. What do you produce? Hamburgers and cups of coffee just do not generate enough revenue to pay you a comfortable living. If you want to do well, you need to learn how to do something valuable. And on top of much better pay, you'll have some pride instead of a hand held out, as well as a job that's enjoyable and challenging instead of plodding drudgery.

Lots of community colleges, ROP, continuing ed, etc. out there for free or cheap or heavily subsidized. Get cracking today for a better life tomorrow.

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jnojr Dec. 24, 2014 @ 7:18 p.m.

Not making enough? Quit. Go get another job that will pay you what you're worth.

Wait, what's that? Nobody will pay you more? Clearly, it's a conspiracy to hold you down! Don't listen to racists telling you to get an education or job training! You just keep on drinking and using drugs and getting piercings and paying for iGadgets and cable bills, and above all, don't you dare stop having kids! The world owes you a living, and by God there's a union that will help you to get it! You deserve to enjoy your life. Greedy, selfish employers just need to pay you more. What a terrible country this is!

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