What it's like to live on low wages in North Carolina
Graphic via Desirée Tapia for COURIER

“Day to day, it’s a struggle; month to month, it’s a struggle.”

This is the second installment in a state-by-state series exploring minimum wage and what it’s like to be a low-wage worker in the United States. Read the first installment here.

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are stuck in low-wage jobs, including nearly 50,000 who earn at or below the state’s $7.25 minimum wage ($2.13 for tipped workers). These low-wage workers are disproportionately female, 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

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North Carolina is one of 21 states where the minimum wage matches the federal rate, which has not seen an increase since 2009. An estimated 1.3 million North Carolinians would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, including 750,000 women.

To better understand what it’s like to survive on such low hourly wages, we spoke to Ieisha Franceis, a 41-year-old mother and grandmother in Durham, North Carolina, about the kind of financial, emotional, and mental hardships she endures just trying to make ends meet. 

Franceis was earning $13.50 an hour as a certified nursing assistant before she decided to quit and return to Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers as a cook and crewmember. She now earns only $9.20 per hour. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

COURIER: What is it like being a low wage-worker in North Carolina?

Franceis: It is definitely not easy, basically living check to check, trying to save as much as you can from one check to put with the next check, hoping that nothing comes up to where you just deplete all your funds before you get paid again. To be able to cover day-to-day expenses is hard. I’m a mother, but I don’t receive any food stamps. [I’m] trying to keep food in the freezer for my son, making sure I’ve got a little stuff here for my grandson because I get him every weekend—it’s not easy at all. 

It’s definitely a struggle to pinch pennies. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. It’s a struggle. Day to day, it’s a struggle; month to month, it’s a struggle.

What are some of the tough budgeting decisions you’re faced with?

Franceis: I was just faced with one of these. It was: ‘Do I pay my full light bill or do I pay some of the light bill?’… So I was like, ‘okay, this light bill is x amount of dollars, but I need this for the house.’ So I basically had to decide how much of this light bill I’m going to pay and how much of this money am I going to actually use to buy food. Literally that’s what I was faced with.

How has life changed during the coronavirus pandemic?

Franceis: The pandemic has affected my pay an extreme amount. I used to work at Freddy’s six years ago. I went back into nursing and I was working at a nursing home … making $13.50 an hour. But I could work any overtime I wanted, so I was getting like $22 an hour in overtime pay. I was seeing checks that were like a grand. But the pandemic came and because I do have a family, it was just too much of a risk for me to take, so I decided that I was going to leave and go back into fast food and that’s what I did. But I went from seeing checks that were $1,000 or more to seeing checks that are $500-600.

What sorts of things or experiences have you missed out on because you work so much?

Franceis: There are a lot of things that I was able to do that I’m no longer able to do. For instance, my grandson is one now, and every time you blink your eye, they’ve grown an inch or two. I can’t buy him clothes for him just to have at my house anymore. My daughter’s in college—I used to be able to send her $300, $400, or $500 if she needed it. I can’t do that anymore. 

Even though they’re not playing football right now, I can’t provide for my 11-year-old. He has to have the stuff that goes under the eyes, the tape for the shoes, and it was no problem for me to buy those things before. My son is definitely not a little boy, and his stuff is not cheap. If he was going into the Pop Warner season, I would not have been able to afford to do the things that I’ve been doing for him for football. 

What do you wish people who oppose raising the minimum wage understood about what it’s like to be a low-wage worker?

Franceis: I wish that they could trade places just for a day—live a day in the life of somebody who is making low wages. Just live one day and live their actual life through that day and make all the decisions that they have to make financially through that day. Look at their bills, try to pay their bills with the money that they get. Try to buy food with the money that they get. Just switch places. 

Everybody who’s opposed to the minimum wage being $15 an hour is definitely making more than $15 an hour. So switch places. Everybody from up top come on down and sit where I sit with my day-to-day. Go to my job, work my job, put in the work that you have to put in at my job the way that I do and see how you feel that you’re not being paid your worth. 

Ieisha Franceis. Image courtesy of Fight for $15.

As someone who has publicly advocated for a minimum wage increase, is there anything else you want people to know? 

Franceis: What I want people to know is that they definitely need to vote this election and any other election forthcoming, because there is a bill that is sitting doing nothing at all that can actually get North Carolina to $15 an hour. 

[North Carolina Democrats introduced several bills last year to raise the state’s minimum wage, but were met with staunch opposition from the Republican-controlled legislature.]

Franceis: If we get the right people in there, they can actually get it done, so it is very important that people vote this election and continue to vote. 

And for low-wage workers such as myself, essential workers such as myself, we have to keep fighting, because the minute we stop—the minute we don’t do anything—then it’s no longer on their radar. They no longer have anything to worry about. So we need to continue to be that constant worry to these people who don’t think that we deserve to make $15 an hour. We need to be the constant reminder that we are the people that run your business. I say it all the time: Business gets so caught up in doing business, that they forget about the people that actually run their business. So we as the people that actually run their business, need to keep making ourselves seen and heard and not let it rest.

READ MORE: ‘I’m Barely Making It’: Florida Workers Share What It’s Like to Live on Less Than $10 an Hour