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Why the wage strike? Here’s some maths for you

Seattlish’s editors are big supporters of a living wage, because we have all worked for minimum wage at some point, and we all know that it does not pay the rent, which is confirmed to be too damn high. But a lot of people seem unconviced that workers deserve more than $8 per hour (or, in other states, even less). In case you are one of those people (who are you? GTFO. JK, read on, please), I want to show you my own personal math from when I was a minimum wage worker.

When I graduated from college in 2009 (Official Slogan of 2009: No Jobs For You!), I couldn’t move in with my parents, who are also, to put it gently, financially troubled, because they live in a tiny town with no opportunity. So instead, I took an unpaid internship at a local media outlet because it was a better opportunity that I would ever get again. I figured I would be able to find work in a bar easily.

I lived alone because I knew exactly nobody in the city and because I have a little dog. Could I have bunked with some strangers? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have saved me much money — room shares in Seattle range around $600. I’m also a 4”11 tall female who, again, knew no one in the city. Moving in with some random people (with my little dog) didn’t seem particularly safe for either of us. I’d have rather paid out the nose for my rent than put my personal safety and my dog’s safety in danger.

And living in the ‘burbs was out of the question; I had to be at my internship AND my coffee shop job very early, when buses didn’t run. I don’t have a car. Each week, transportation alone cost me about $12 as it was — and I was in Belltown. 

Could I have taken a paid job to move here? Bahahaha, no, because those didn’t exist. Especially not in my field (journalism and media) in a town where, at 21 years old, I knew no one. The job culture, then and now, mandates that most college or post-college students do at least six months of unpaid work, which is a whole other breadbasket of privilege that I don’t feel like digging into. I couldn’t do any interning in college; I was working in a bar to pay my rent there. Unfortunately, that bar experience in a small college town didn’t translate. The only job I could get in as much of a hurry as I was in was one with a corporate coffee shop who’d hire anyone.

This was the best opportunity I had. So I took it. And in the end, it paid off. It was incredible experience that opened the door to every single thing I’ve done since. It was the right decision.

For that year, every week looked like this:

  • Monday: Internship from 7:30am until 3pm, possibly pick up an evening cocktailing shift at a very-sketchy restaurant, or possibly an afternoon shift at the coffee shop.
  • Tuesday: Work at Tully’s (YUP!) from either 5:00am - 1pm, then go home and do internship work OR work at Tully’s from noon to 9pm and go home and pass out and die.
  • Wednesday: Same as Monday
  • Thursday: Same as Tuesday
  • Friday: Same as Monday
  • Saturday: Same as Tuesday
  • Sunday: Same as Tuesday

I did not have a day off for nine months. Then, when I did, because of a holiday at the radio station, I used it to apply for another, higher-paying barista job. Which I did not get. Because 85 people applied to it.


Here is what my monthly math looked like:

  • Rent and utilities: $850/month (the cheapest, shittiest studio in Belltown I could find on Craigslist with a week’s notice to move)
  • Student loans: $300ish/month (they’ve since gone up considerably)

_____________________________

Basic monthly (not including food or anything else): $1,150/month of income.

In 2009, minimum wage was $8.55/hour. With taxes, that means I was making closer to $8 or less. Tips were less than $20/week. I was working about 35 hours per week, though that was with a lot of frowned-upon shift-taking. Tully’s really did not want me to work more than 30 hours per week, because then I might want health care, which I couldn’t afford anyway, and which covered almost nothing, including my annual trip to the OB/GYN.

So, $8/hr x 35 hours per week x 4 weeks + $100 in tips per month = $1,220 income per month. Which means…

$1,220

- $1,150 

________

$70 per month left over.

To cover everything.

Food. Bus fare. Cell phone bill. Dog food (which always came before my food — little dude is the best thing in my life, and never wanted for anything during this time). Medicine when I had a cold for two weeks. Toilet paper. Laundry. Every single thing. That year, I couldn’t turn on my gas stove — the extra gas bill was about $20/month — so I cooked on a single burner. I didn’t have the internet, so I did all of my work for my internship in the stairwell of my building, where I got the WiFi from the cafe next door. 

Money was all I thought about all day, every day. Every day, this was what was going through my head as I was going through bakery dumpsters, looking for day-old donuts for dinner. Hoping nothing would break or go wrong. Hoping I would get enough tip money to even get to my internship. Taking on extra shifts every single place I could. 

But because I was working (at least) 35 hours at the coffee shop (or the shady restaurant where I sometimes worked, where I had to threaten to sue to get a paycheck they owed me) and an extra 15 or more at the internship, there were literally no more hours in the week that I could be working. I just needed to make more money. 

At one point, I had an interview with one of Seattle’s finer adult entertainment establishments to see if I could maybe scratch up some extra money that way, because I was 21 years old and it seemed like a last-ditch possibility. I was told that the start-up cost alone was $200. I think I had $15 in my checking account that day. I cried on the walk home.

The point of all of this is not “poor sad me.” The point of this is that this is the reality of minimum wage. Even if your argument is that minimum wage jobs aren’t meant to be careers, or aren’t supposed to be long-term plans, the fact is that they should at least be able to pay rent and put food on your table that you didn’t steal from your employer. 

This is also why tipping is important — while most restaurant and bar jobs also pay minimum, when I was working behind a bar, I could actually make enough to pay my rent. Fast food and chain coffee shops don’t offer that supplemental income, but they need to

The combination of high rent and low wages isn’t pricing people (both of my generation and of every other generation) out of the city — it’s pricing people out of opportunity. I was very, very fortunate that someone gave me a chance and a white collar job so that I could quit the coffee shop, but that’s just not true for everyone.

This is the bottom line: Anyone who works full time or close to full time should be able to survive without needing to beg, borrow, or steal. 

That’s kind of what we’re all about here, right? Working and making a life and being successful?

So if you see that your area restaurant or fast food place is picketing, please don’t cross the line. Consider writing to your lawmaker, or your favorite restaurant, or your local media outlet to say that you support the right for workers to make a living wage, regardless of education level or any other bullshit. If you work, you should be able to at least get by.

You can afford to pay an extra 60 cents for your burger so that someone who works can afford to eat, right? Right. 

—hbo

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