“I haven’t celebrated my birthday in four years. I haven’t been able to take that chance, I just can’t risk taking that day off. I’ve had deaths in my family and I can’t risk going to the funeral to lose hours.”
Every day, millions of Florida residents wake up and go to work at their low-wage jobs, where they toil away, earning less than $15 an hour. Some workers, in fact, make as little as the state’s $8.56 minimum wage while tipped workers earn a dismal $5.44. The state’s minimum wage has increased by just over a dollar in the past 12 years, which is actually ahead of the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. The last time the United States increased the federal minimum wage was 2009.
Nationwide, 42% of working people make less than $15 per hour, according to a 2018 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.
These low-wage workers—both in Florida and across the country—are disproportionately women, people of color, and adults over the age of 25, and many of them live at or near the poverty line, according to OxFam America.
To better understand what it’s like to survive on such low hourly wages, we spoke to two Floridians about the kind of financial, emotional, and mental hardships they endure just trying to make ends meet. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Alex Harris is 24 years old. He works at Waffle House in Tampa, Florida, making $5.44 per hour as a tipped-wage worker. He has worked in the fast food industry for nearly seven years, and also has a part-time landscaping job.
Faith Booker is a 32-year-old single mother of five in Lakeland, Florida. She works full time at McDonald’s, where she earns $9.70 an hour, and part time at Burger King, where she earns $8.56 an hour.
COURIER: What is it like being a low wage-worker in Florida?
Harris: Oh man, it’s tough. I’m barely making it. I eat at my job because it helps me save money. I have to work two jobs just to get by and sometimes I’ve got to borrow money. I go to work for Waffle House from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then I go to work for my dad doing landscaping construction from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. That happens five days out of the week.
Booker: I’m currently working two jobs, pretty much at minimum wage, and it’s just hard struggling to pay bills and feed my kids. It’s really hard. Me working two jobs—that’s taking time away from my kids. I barely get to see them because I’m always at work.
What tough budgeting decisions do you find yourself faced with?
Harris: Eating every day. Being hungry and starving, but having to sit there or go to sleep or drink water until it’s time to go to work. Even at my job you get one meal, so there have been some days where I just went without eating because I don’t have the income. I want to go and eat—I just don’t know if I would be able to make that money back. I don’t know if I’m guaranteed to get enough tips—I know everybody’s going through the [same] struggles. Some nights, I went [to work] and got $150 in tips; some nights I went and walked away with $5. I just don’t want to take that gamble of trying to go and get something to eat and then being short on rent because I’d rather have a place to stay than to have food in my stomach.
Booker: I’m pretty much a single mom with no help from their dad. My kids always come first, so if I have to pay like half of my rent to make sure my kids have the necessary items that they need, then I’m going to make sure that they have that.
How has life changed during the coronavirus pandemic?
Harris: My hours haven’t really changed, but when I first got hired at Waffle House, a lot of people told me they used to make like $200, $300, $400 a week before the pandemic. Now that I’m working there, sometimes I walk away with little to nothing within that week. In my neighborhood I’ve seen a lot of eviction notices on the door. That affects me. It scares me every day. I’m afraid that one day [my employer is] gonna come and tell me, ‘Alex we don’t need you right now.’ I don’t really have nobody to fall back on, so I know that’ll be it for me.
Booker: I have worked through this entire pandemic, and I try my best to work and stay safe—that way I don’t catch COVID and bring it home to my kids. We don’t get the paid sick leave that we need as far as working through this pandemic, so it’s pretty much just wearing gloves and washing hands more thoroughly.
How does it feel to have to be away from your kids this much?
Booker: It makes me feel horrible. I have days where my kids are crying or they’re complaining about me having to go to work, but they’re getting to a point where they pretty much understand, like, if momma don’t work, then y’all basically will pretty much go without. It’s hard some days leaving them and not being able to spend as much time with them as I would have been if I was just working one job, making more money.
What sorts of things or experiences have you missed out on because you work so much?
Harris: I haven’t celebrated my birthday in four years. I haven’t been able to take that chance—I just can’t risk taking that day off. I’ve had deaths in my family and I can’t risk going to the funeral to lose hours. My mother is struggling, my dad is struggling—I can’t really call them and be like, ‘Hey, you think you can help me?’ I have friends that deal with depression and anxiety, and you have to work through it. We’re not in a position where we can say, ‘We’re so hurt, so we’re going to take the day off from work to get our mind together.’ We’re not in that position, so we have to just go through it. Like, one of my loved ones can die today and I might be lucky to take one day off. If I take two or three days off, then not only am I going to be grieving over the death, but I’ll be homeless as well. Just with that mindset, I’ve lost a lot.
What do you wish people who oppose raising the minimum wage understood about what it’s like to be a low-wage worker?
Harris: I just wish they understood our struggles. There’s always somebody doing worse than you. Even when we get minimum wage to $15 an hour, there’s still somebody in the world that needs to be helped. There’s still somebody struggling. Just because you yourself might be in a better situation, it’s about trying to better the generation that’s here to set up a more successful future for the next generation.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
Harris: Have an open mind to vote ‘Yes’ on Amendment 2.
[On Nov. 3, Floridians will have the chance to vote on Amendment 2, which would update the state’s constitution and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. The amendment requires a 60% supermajority vote to pass.]
Harris: People should have the opportunity to be able to have one job to generate all the income that they need and also to have unions as well, so you can have people who fight and stand up for you and stand up with you. You’ll be shocked how many people you lose to malnutrition, the amount of people you lose to not getting the right amount of sleep, to not being able to eat. Understand that everybody goes through a struggle.
Booker: My experience is just pretty much struggling. I wouldn’t want people going through this. Get out and vote for Amendment 2 if [you] can. The extra help is very much needed.