What it's like to be a low-wage worker in Pennsylvania
Graphic via Denzel Boyd for COURIER

“It’s really stressful, because being in the service industry, you rely so much on tips to make your money and it’s very inconsistent.”

Every day, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania 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 $7.25 minimum wage while tipped workers earn a horrifyingly low $2.83. The state’s minimum wage matches the federal rate, which has not increased since 2009. The same is true in many other states, where low-wage workers struggle to get by.

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. 

To better understand what it’s like to survive on such low hourly wages, we spoke to two Pennsylvanians 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.

Sorting Fact From Fiction: Sign Up for COURIER’s newsletter.

Nour Qutyan is a 27-year-old student in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She works part-time at a microbrewery in the city, where she earns $2.83 per hour plus tips. 

Larissa Mednis is a 23-year-old living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is currently unemployed after leaving her last job at a restaurant over safety concerns. While there, she split her time as a server and host. She earned $2.83 per hour plus tips as a server, and $11 per hour as a host. 

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

Nour Qutyan: It’s really stressful, because being in the service industry, you rely so much on tips to make your money and it’s very inconsistent. Plus, there’s not a lot of accountability for when people do wrong, including managers and owners, so there are a lot of instances of sexual harassment and discrimination that I personally have experienced at probably every single restaurant I’ve ever worked at. 

Larissa Mednis: I did have to budget somewhat strictly, but for the most part it was okay. I’m still pretty young and I have some safety net from my family, which isn’t something a lot of young people living on their own have. I knew if I was really in an emergency, I would have family that could back me up in some way. But I was essentially living paycheck to paycheck for the most part. Most days before payday I was probably coasting on less than $100 in my bank account and just keeping my fingers crossed. 

What tough budgeting decisions do you find yourself faced with?

Qutyan: It’s hard to predict your finances because you don’t know how much you’re making. It’s not a steady income. It’s not like you know ‘I have a paycheck of $800 a week, so I know that in two months I can afford this thing.’ Sometimes you make more than you were expecting and then sometimes it’s bad and you make less than you’re expecting. I’ve just tried to get in the habit of having a cushion of some sort and having a savings account for when things don’t work out, and that does happen. It’s also really offensive … with all the work that we’re doing, we’re still making only $2.83 an hour.

Mednis: I primarily bike for transportation, but last November, my bike was stolen. I was not really in a financial situation where I had an extra like $100 or $200 to buy another bike. I was taking the bus to work, but it definitely decreased my transportation abilities [until I could] afford to buy myself another bike a few months ago. 

Most of the time when I was in school I was also just working part time for $8 or $9 an hour. During those times I was kind of food insecure and [used] friends’ meal swipes at dining halls somewhat frequently. When I was working in a restaurant, obviously there’s free food sometimes, so I did rely on that on occasion as well.

How has life changed during the coronavirus pandemic?

Qutyan: It’s been especially hard with coronavirus because a lot of people have been laid off. I’ve been given fewer hours and tips have gone down a lot.

Mednis: In the beginning, the restaurant I worked at shut down, and we were all told to apply for unemployment benefits, and I got them with relatively few issues. We reopened for takeout maybe about a month after the initial shutdown, sometime in April, and so I came back to work for that. We were still paid our base server wage, $2.83 an hour, and then we were given tips on top of takeout orders. For the first weekend or so, people were making a decent amount of money, just because of the resurgence of orders and because we had been closed, but once business tapered off, we weren’t making nearly as much money per shift. 

I quit at the end of June because I was just fed up with it for a lot of reasons. I wasn’t really making enough money to justify being there and also risking my health. It just didn’t add up to me.

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

Mednis: If I’m working five evenings a week—including pretty much every Friday and Saturday night—I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. But there were definitely experiences I missed out on. Sometimes just being super exhausted at the end of a shift or not being able to financially justify having certain experiences—that has happened on occasion. 

Larissa Mednis (Photo via subject)

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

Qutyan: l think a lot of people still don’t know that our hourly wage is $2.83 and that hasn’t changed since the ’90s. They also don’t understand we’re typically not given other benefits like health insurance or things like that. Tipping is a legacy of slavery. It came from freed slaves not being paid fully for their work, but instead getting tipped. The history of tipping is really harmful and I would point out that tipping is something that’s very American. If you go to other parts of the world [and see] other restaurant workers—they’re paid hourly like it is their profession. There’s this weird culture in the United States where restaurant jobs are belittled … This is a job that you can really make a career for yourself out of and it takes a lot of work. A lot of people probably think it’s easy when it’s really not.

Mednis: First of all, I wish they understood the fallacy of saying that ‘We can’t afford it in our society’ for some reason. Considering that we could be changing our tax structure so that the wealthy, and especially corporations and billionaires, actually pay taxes, it’s kind of crazy. Everybody knows that Trump only paid $750 in federal taxes recently, but many corporations just don’t pay taxes and there’s so much money in the system that could be going back to the working class. 

Second of all, working a service job, whether it’s a full-service restaurant or a fast food or fast casual place, whether you’re a server or you’re a cook or a busser—it’s hard work. I think that it’s downplayed very often by people who have never experienced working in that environment, who don’t understand how difficult it can be to do customer service and the skills that go into it. You have to be very good at working in a fast-paced environment and in what I would say is a high stress environment on occasion. 

I’ve worked in a full-service restaurant as well as fast casual and fast food dining, and all of those were difficult quite honestly. There are a lot of things I liked about them, but I think it would have been more of a sustainable field for me if I was making a higher wage.

Both Qutyan and Mednis are members of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Pennsylvania (ROC PA). For more information on the nonprofit organization advocating for restaurant workers, visit here.

READ MORE: We Did the Math. It’s Nearly Impossible to Survive on Minimum Wage in Pennsylvania.