Workers see $15 wage as ‘peace of mind’
Seattle workers making less than $15 an hour say a proposed raise would allow them to pay off bills, keep the lights on, get an apartment with a bedroom for their children and have more peace of mind.
Seattle Times staff reporter
An estimated 102,000 workers in Seattle, or about one in four, now make less than $15 an hour. They are disproportionately women and minorities. Many prepare and serve food. Others are bunched in health care and retail sales.
What many of these workers have in common is a monthly struggle to make ends meet.
Those earning the state minimum wage, $9.32 an hour, make a little more than $19,000 a year. At $12.50 an hour, they bring in $26,000. That’s if they work 40 hours a week, and many work less.
The Seattle City Council is poised Monday to adopt a historic plan that would raise the minimum pay of Seattle workers to $15 an hour over the next three to seven years. The plan largely follows the compromise reached May 1 by a committee of labor, business and community leaders appointed by Mayor Ed Murray.
It would require businesses of more than 500 employees to pay $15 an hour by 2017, or 2018 if they offer health care.
Small businesses would have five to seven years to phase in the hike to $15, and could count a portion of employees’ tips and benefits toward the higher minimum wage for up to 11 years.
Who are the workers who would benefit, and what would it mean to their lives? The Seattle Times reached out to some of them through an online questionnaire and through some of their unions, which have organized strikes and marches for higher pay.
We also plan to profile a number of businesses in coming weeks and explore what the dramatic pay raise for their workers would mean to them.
What these five low-wage workers told us: A raise to $15 an hour would make their lives less stressful.
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
William Thielen’s voice-mail message warns callers that they might not reach him.
“I do work seven days a week and hold two different jobs. I’m not always able to pick up the phone when you call.”
Thielen was a manager at a small airfreight company, earning about $54,000 a year, when the recession hit. Business plummeted and in 2009 he lost his job of 12 years.
Unemployed for two years, the single 53-year-old now juggles two part-time jobs, one as a house cleaner for a friend’s business, the other as a clerk at QFC.
In January, after a year and a half at the grocery store, he got a 30-cent-an-hour raise, to $9.62. But after one paycheck, his hours were cut from 24 to 21 a week. Instead of a slight raise, he lost about $20 a week in pay.
He makes $16.50 an hour housecleaning, but works only 17 to 20 hours a week. Combined, he calculates, he’s earning about $27,000 a year.
While he was unemployed, Thielen fell behind on his mortgage payments of about $1,100 a month for his Capitol Hill condo. With expenses mounting, no income and in danger of losing his home, he declared bankruptcy.
He was able to work out a home-loan modification that slightly lowered his monthly payments, but now his homeowners association is pressing for $10,000 in back dues and late fees. The only payment plan it would accept, he said, was paying off the entire debt in one year.
“Between the mortgage and the payment plan, there would be nothing left to live on,” he said.
Thielen could qualify for federal disability payments because of a chronic medical condition, but said he’s always worked. He doesn’t have any credit cards. He jokes that a social life is something he used to have. When his father died in January, he couldn’t afford the trip back to Montana for the funeral.
He’s aware of criticism of the proposed $15 minimum wage, that no city has tried to raise it so high, but he agrees with advocates who say more money in the pockets of workers will mean more money for local businesses.
“We won’t know until we try,” he said. “I’m getting by, but it’s a day-to-day thing.”
LINDSEY WASSON / The Seattle Times
On a recent afternoon at Seattle City Hall, a group of home health-care workers filed into City Councilmember Jean Godden’s office to lobby on behalf of Mayor Ed Murray’s $15 minimum wage proposal. Mostly women and minorities, the caregivers, all members of SEIU 775, each talked briefly about their lives and what a $15 minimum wage would mean.
The last, Cynthia Vaughn, 58, spoke softly about caring for an older, disabled client.
“I am his hands and feet sometimes,” she said.
Vaughn’s husband ran a small computer-repair business, but the family’s income dried up during the recession. Vaughn took a job as a home health-care worker starting at $8.98 an hour. Four years later, she earns $12.05 and works about 40 hours a week.
The work is physically demanding. Her responsibilities for her client include showering, dressing, cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, helping with his physical therapy, driving him to doctor appointments and giving daily medications.
Vaughn herself walks with a cane. A car accident in 2012 has made it painful for her to walk or stand for long periods. She knows about the high turnover in the home health-care field — in part because of the low wages and difficulty of the work — and that she won’t be able to do the job much longer.
Vaughn juggles her bills every month. She decides which have to be paid immediately and which can wait. She negotiates payment plans when she can’t cover the entire amount. She also tries to put aside a small amount each month for the orthopedic shoes she needs to stay on her feet. A pair costs about $220.
Despite her own health issues, Vaughn says her heart is in caring for others. Her goal is to earn an advanced nurse practitioner’s degree and run her own care facility. In lobbying for a $15 minimum wage, she said, she hopes not only to give herself more financial stability, but to raise the quality of care and the professionalism in the field.
Telling her story to Godden, her voice broke as she talked about the many elderly and disabled people subsisting in poor care centers because they can’t afford better.
“No one should live a lesser quality of life,” she said.
MARCUS YAM / The Seattle Times
After five years of working at Domino’s Pizza on Rainier Avenue, Crystal Thompson is still making minimum wage. The state wage is adjusted each year to the cost of living, so her pay has gone up from $8.55 to $9.32, but her job responsibilities have also grown and now include prepping food, answering phones, dispatching drivers, cashiering and, depending on her shift, opening and closing the store.
“I think I deserve a raise,” she said.
Thompson, 33, lives on Rainier Avenue South, where the historic buildings of Columbia City give way to rundown apartments and convenience stores. Her apartment building has a heavy, locking gate at the entrance.
Thompson and a roommate split the $850 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment. In May, they received a notice that rent was going up $50 a month in June.
Thompson gets her schedule for the coming week on Sunday night. The shifts vary from day to day, and while she often works a 35-hour week, she sometimes gets only 25 hours. She doesn’t own a car, but takes the bus. When she has to work nights, her aunt comes to the apartment and takes care of her 7-year-old son. He sleeps on the living-room couch.
Thompson participated in the fast-food workers strike organized by local unions last August. In May, she marched again. It was her day off and she didn’t face any sanctions. The first time, she said, her hours were temporarily cut. The manager told her that business was off.
A different manager, who has been there only a few weeks, said he has no problem with his employees participating in such marches.
With a pay hike, Thompson said, she’d move to a better neighborhood, one where her son could ride his bike outside and have his own room. She’d have money to give him when his school was having a book fair. She’d be able to send him to summer camp.
“If I had $15 an hour,” she said, “I’d have a little more peace of mind.”
LINDSEY WASSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
In 2010, Sarah Evanson-Isaac, 37, began what she describes as a “free-fall.” A philosophy major who graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college, and completed almost two years of law school, she found herself divorced, with a young child and $200,000 worth of student-loan debt.
She went from renting a two-bedroom apartment to subletting a basement where the heat never climbed above 55 degrees. She looked for shared housing on Craigslist, but found it difficult to get responses with her child.
What followed, she said, was two years of homelessness, staying with family, staying with friends, living for a time in a transitional shelter on the Eastside. Because she’d been in school so long, and taken time off when her daughter was born, she had no recent job experience and had trouble finding work.
Evanson-Isaac said she’d always loved to cook and try new foods. A friend suggested Fare Start, the Seattle program that trains disadvantaged people for careers in the food industry.
“There were ex-cons, alcoholics and drug addicts. What we had in common is most of us were homeless and we were all trying to rebuild our lives. It was transformative,” she said.
She graduated Fare Start in May 2012, but found that the best-paying jobs required evening and weekend shifts, times that, as a single mom, she couldn’t work. Her first job was in her grandmother’s assisted-living facility, where her daughter could sleep until she got off work at midnight. Her second was as a chef’s assistant in a sorority where she could work days. She drove a car for Lyft during the summer and worked as a temp for the University of Washington’s food services.
Through all the moves, jobs and schedule changes, one of Evanson-Isaac’s goals was to keep life as stable as possible for her daughter. She was able to keep her in the same elementary school for all but half of a year.
In April, she landed a job as a deli clerk and cook at PCC Natural Markets. She loves the work and the company, which she said shares some of her values of sustainability, social justice and health. The job pays $12.70 an hour, almost two dollars more than her previous job.
In May, she and her daughter moved to a two-bedroom apartment, and no longer have to share a bunk bed.
Carlos Villa Trujillo
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Carlos Villa Trujillo worked for eight years as a janitor for a cleaning service with a contract with REI. He was hired at $10 an hour and still made $10 an hour when he left.
Villa Trujillo, 44, took a new job at a company making fiberglass boats. It came with a pay raise to $15 an hour but, he said, involved regular exposure to toxic fumes. After eight years, he worried about the long-term effects on his health and decided to return to working as a janitor.
In his current job, with a unionized company, he cleans offices for Amazon for $12.60 an hour, working nights. He sees his 9-year-old daughter before she leaves for school in the morning. He sees his 12-year-old son before going to work in the afternoon. His family shares a small house on Beacon Hill with his sister and her daughter, but he’s trying to save money to rent a place of their own.
So far, he said, the two-bedroom houses he’s looked at go for $1,000 a month, almost half his pay.
Villa Trujillo said he puts $10 worth of gas in his truck at a time because that’s all he can afford. The truck just broke down.
“There goes my paycheck,” he said.
At Amazon, he empties trash cans, vacuums, dusts, mops and does dishes left behind by employees during the day. He recognizes the gap between their lives and his. They’re young. They have nice cars and nice clothes. They crowd into the restaurants in South Lake Union as he is getting to work.
He knows the difference that making $15 an hour could mean to his life: Clothes for his children. After-school care for his daughter. Enough money to fix his truck. Savings for their college funds.
“$15 is not a lot, but it’s better,” he said.
He gestured to his chest. “It’s not so stressed. Now, everything is so tight.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes