Ja’lina Ghani. Image via subject.
Ja’lina Ghani. Image via subject.

It took this Clayton County resident five months to find a job after she graduated college. She works as a part-time manager in retail, earning $10 an hour.

Ja’lina Ghani, a 23-year-old resident of Clayton County, Georgia, graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in public health. She had plans of starting a career in the military. However, like many across the country and around the globe, these plans were put on hold indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I have no savings. I need money, and the military thing fell through because they stopped boot camp because of the coronavirus,” Ghani told COURIER. “Then I applied for [a job in] retail because it just seemed like the type of job I could get at the time.” 

She has put virtually her entire life on hold. Not only is her career at a standstill, but so are her wedding plans. Ghani and her fiancé got engaged last year. “I assumed I’d have a better job,” she said, “but now we’ve postponed all planning until we’re making enough money.”

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It took Ghani over five months to find employment after graduation. To do so, she had to settle for a much lower wage. The position initially started with a pay of $9 an hour. She was quickly promoted to a part-time manager position, where she now makes $10 an hour. 

Ghani is among the nearly one in two Georgia workers (45%) who earn less than $15 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project. These low-wage workers are disproportionately women, people of color, and adults over the age of 25. Many of them also live at or near the poverty line, according to OxFam America

For many Georgians struggling in the economic crisis, the choice comes down to accepting a low-paying job with heightened risks of COVID-19 exposure or risk falling behind on monthly bills.

While Ghani said she’s grateful to have a job at this point, she’s frustrated by her part-time status, which makes budgeting tricky. “I only work about 25 to 30 hours a week, so I make at most $800 a month. My car note is $175, and I split the cost  with my fiancé, and my insurance is $100 a month, so that’s pretty much one entire [bi-weekly] check.”

She lives at home with her family because she can’t afford to pay rent. She’s trying to think ahead and save a little for her student loans, which will become due soon. Although she’s able to get by right now, Ghani is still making financial sacrifices. 

RELATED: Georgia Voters Hold the Key to Raising the Minimum Wage. Here Are Five Things You Need to Know.

“Even though I’m a manager since I’m only part-time, I don’t qualify for any benefits, so I have to pay out of pocket for things like health and dental insurance, but I don’t actually make enough money to afford it.”

This is the catch-22 Ghani and many others find themselves in. At the height of a pandemic where the prevailing message is “stay at home to flatten the curve,” low-wage workers often can neither stay at home nor arm themselves with insurance or a living wage to protect themselves.

“If I didn’t have this job, if I didn’t go in, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills that I have to have,” Ghani explained. 

And that’s what she does. She starts her morning at 7 a.m. if she’s opening the store or 11 a.m. if she’s responsible for closing the store that night. From there, she goes about her day at work, taking extra precautions like social distancing and sanitizing her working space when she can. She knows the dangers of working in retail while coronavirus infections spiral out of control. 

“Every day that I go to work, I’m at risk, my family is at risk. I have to be extremely careful,” she said. “I have to interact with people. I have to interact with customers. The company is still pushing you to make sales goals.”

But mitigating those risks is challenging. Enforcing mask mandates, sanitizing surfaces, and cleaning within the store every day is challenging. As a manager, Ghani must monitor COVID-related safety precautions, but there’s only so much she can do. “When you’re working, especially a lower wage job, things are going to slip through the cracks, and people are not doing everything they’re supposed to,” she said. 

There are more than 509,000 confirmed cases in the state, with deaths nearing 10,000. 

These experiences and the severity of COVID-19 cases in Georgia have heightened Ghani’s attention to politics this year. After Georgia flipped blue for the first time in nearly three decades, the state’s upcoming Senate runoff races will determine whether or not the Biden administration will be able to advance its legislative agenda. If either Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue win back their seat on Jan. 5, the GOP will maintain control of the Senate. 

Ghani’s position as a low-wage worker experiencing heightened risks of COVID-19 exposure is significantly impacted by the upcoming elections. A Democrat-led Senate is likely to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 while also creating policies to address business operations during the pandemic and provide some form of relief.

“I’m way more involved than I was before because I feel like you can kind of push it to the side of your head when you’re not in a moment like this,” Ghani said. 

Ghani is looking toward this race, hoping that whoever wins places higher precedence on addressing the virus. She believes that those in power should be “holding companies accountable so that way, everyone can be safe [when they’re at work].”

In the meantime, she’s on the hunt for a second job to supplement her income.

READ MORE: Georgia’s Senate Runoffs Could Have Life or Death Stakes for Many Americans