What I Learned from Working at a Minimum Wage Job

I started to work at an undisclosed bookstore for the winter season.  The first pay check I received was for one 8-hour shift, totalling $61.00.  How can someone survive on that type of wage? I’m lucky to have substituting as my main source of income – I mean it doesn’t pay anywhere near the salary I had as a teacher, but I make a little more than double what I made in a day’s work for the corporation I worked for. I bumped into a retired counselor that was substituting and he happened to mention how little it paid. I would have thought the same had I not experienced an 8-hour shift and received a $61.00 pay check.

I left teaching because of the oppressive and rigid conditions I found in the public education system – crowded classrooms, students manifesting their discontent with a failing system through an increase of unruly and resistant behavior, irrelevant and compulsory curriculum, and a never-ending list of unrealistic expectations.  But what I am finding is the “real world” has even more oppressive and rigid expectations.  The control is to such extent that you can feel the humanity seeping out of you, until all you become is a robot on the conveyor belt assembly line.

I (we) Deserve Better

The corporation I worked for did not allow drinks, not even water, behind the cash register.  After ringing customers up for almost 1.5 hours, my mouth felt dry and I was thirsty.  I was told I could run to the back to drink water when I needed, but the reality was I got so busy there was no time.  Why not allow employees to have a bottle of water discretely tucked away behind the counter – it’s only humane right?IMG_2322

We received two 15-minute breaks, which I was told was quite progressive since some companies only give ten.  Most of the time, I ended up spending my 15 minutes on my feet waiting in the long bathroom lines, (employees don’t have separate bathrooms).  During my 30-minute lunch break, most of the time I found myself scarfing down my food.  Between going to the restroom, warming up my food,  making my way outside so I wouldn’t have to sit in a 10′ x 10′ backroom with no windows, clocking in and out, and putting my items away, I’d usually only have 10 to 15 minutes to eat. No human being should be on such a rigid schedule.

I Can’t Afford It

There was a young lady working at the cash register during one of my shifts – I could see the beads of sweat on her flushed face.  After asking her if she was okay, she proceeded to tell me she was fighting a cold and had been fighting it for eight days.  She had come to work a few days before, though she felt sick, because there was no one else to cover her shift, and she needed the money.  She worked an 8-hour shift and with an hour left of her shift, told her manager she couldn’t do “it” anymore.  She was pale and felt like fainting.  When she got home she took her temperature and it had been 101.7.  She had missed too many days since, and that’s why she was back at work even though she was noticeably ill, still.  Very apologetically, she asked me if she could please run to the restroom, as if she was committing some kind of indiscretion.  She was the other person beside me at the cash register.  I told her she could go as many times as she needed and encouraged her to go to the cafe and get some water and bring it to the cash register area.  I told her she needed to take care of herself – If she had to come sick to work because she couldn’t afford not to, then at the very least, she needed to take care of her needs.  A manager walked up as I was telling her this, and I decided at that moment, that what I was saying was my truth.  I didn’t even second guess myself.  The manager stayed quiet and didn’t support nor reject what I said.  Instead continued with her task.


There was another incident in which a young lady seemed to be having what many of us would call an “off” day.  Those days when we drop everything, trip over the tiniest objects or simply speak jibber-jabber and make no sense.  She proceeded to apologize for her “foolishness” and explained that she was preoccupied with her husband’s deployment – he was leaving the next day for six months.  I asked her why she hadn’t taken the day off, and she stated that she couldn’t afford it.  Her face became reddish and she looked flustered.  I put my hand on her shoulder to show her some kind of solidarity, and she proceeded to hug me and then thanked me for hugging her.

When I was a teacher, I never even gave it a second thought to call in a substitute when I was feeling sick or needed to step away from the emotional and psychological impact supporting students had on me.  I took having those types of benefits for granted.  Now as a substitute teacher, I realize the financial impact that missing a day has.  If I miss a day of work, I am giving up $135 , which is precisely calculated into our budget in order to make ends meet.  Taking a sick day, I just can’t afford it.

Standing Up for Yourself is Not Welcomed

When I first accepted this position, I explained that my schedule would only allow me to work one day of each weekend since I was substituting during the week.  I took this position to subsidize my income during  Thanksgiving and winter break.   I stated that I would be able to work anytime during those school breaks.  The scheduling manager was under the assumption that she would be scheduling me every Saturday and Sunday.  When I tried to explain my schedule limitations to her, she cut me off and told me that many of her employees also worked during the week, that being their second job.  Her voice became louder and she sounded frustrated.  At that moment I became aware we were having the conversation in the common area of the backroom where schedules are posted, not in her office, and when I looked over my shoulder, I noticed that the workers that were on their break were all sitting with their eyes looking down toward the floor, as if they were the ones being reprimanded.

Those who need the job the most will be the least resistant to unfair policies, conditions, and treatment.  In corporations where the jobs are so rote and mechanical, and people have become so dispensable, there is no tolerance for self-advocacy.  People’s livelihood depends on these jobs, and greedy corporations know it. That, coupled with people’s own sense of insecurity, (un)worthiness, and maybe even lack of strong language skills, sustains a system in which corporations make billions while their employees are becoming part of a growing number of working poor .  There is a nervous anxiety that quietly simmers under the surface, fueled by a sense of insecurity and uncertainty.  Ironically, I’ve come to discover that even formally trained professionals live in this state of fear.

Benefits are Only for Corporations

At the bookstore I worked at, all of the employees, except the managers, worked part-time, working on average 20-25 hours a week.  I worked 10 to 15 hours a week.  Part-time employees receive meager benefits, if any at all.  One personal day is alloted after one year of employment and two in subsequent years.  In addition, an employee can accumulate up to two weeks of paid vacation each year based on length of service, which for a part-time employee would result in very minimal accumulation; the same would apply to sick leave. On one occasion when I called in sick because I had a horrible case of the flu, the manager that I spoke to seemed very irritated, and at some point during the conversation, I started to feel guilt, even a sense of culpability for being ill.  Employees seemed to be uneasy about calling in sick or requesting to not be scheduled on specific days.  An employee shared that once when she called in sick due to vomiting, the manager told her she needed to find someone to cover her shift.  Some employees even complained of having to go to work ill because the manager wouldn’t let them call off their shift.

If a company ensures that most of its labor force is made up of part-time employees, then they avoid the responsibility of hiring people under dignified and sustainable conditions.

IMG_2178In a recent article on low wage jobs in the fast food industry, Ken Jacobs, chair of the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education states, “The median wage for these workers is $8.65 an hour.  Only 13 percent have health benefits through their employer.  The combination of low wages, meager benefits, and often part-time hours means that many of the families of fast-food workers must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs to make ends meet.”  These are the same conditions that many part-time employees are facing across many industries, while the corporations are making billions.  The bookstore I worked for, though it reported a decrease of 8 percent in the quarter that ended October 26, 2013, had a 1.7 billion dollar revenue.

One of the employees at the book store also worked for a major soap company, where she was lucky if she got scheduled 15 hours in a week, and normally would have to call on a daily basis to see if they were busy enough for her to come in.  Her whole life rigidly revolved around her unpredictable work schedule.

There is a Difference Between Knowing the Oppressive Conditions that Exist, and Actually Experiencing Them. 

I grew up with  a working single mother and four siblings, and was fortunate enough to have a grandmother who was there to provide what my mother couldn’t, because she was always at work. Sometimes my mother worked two jobs, but just couldn’t make ends meet.  Medi-Cal, food stamps, and food banks kept us alive.  I spent much of my childhood moving from place to place without any certainty of how long we would live in any given dwelling.   From renting one bedroom for seven: my grandmother, mother, four brothers and me, to living in someone’s garage in exchange for humiliation and degrading treatment.  Move-in specials allowed us to secure apartments for two to three months at a time, but sooner or later money would run out, my mother would lose her job, or the tenants would just get tired of my brothers’ uncontrolled behavior.  All my clothes always fit into a plastic bag – manageable and practical.  Once a month when my mother cashed the government aid she received, we would go grocery shopping and fill the refrigerator with all the food we saw during the Saturday morning cartoon episodes.   We’d enjoy it while it lasted and look forward to the next check.

Most of the time we ate what was available, usually what came in the box of graciously shared government food, which my grandmother stood in line for, every week.  A box of cheese that never melted when we made quesadillas, powdered milk with a grayish hue, rice, canned green beans, bread, and if we were lucky a box of cereal.  There was something so subtly oppressive about all of this.  I felt it but couldn’t intellectually articulate it.  The worry lines that carved deeper into my mom and grandmother’s soul; the abrupt way in which the receptionist at the doctor’s office talked to my grandmother when we were sick; the long hours of waiting at the welfare office or the doctor’s office or the food bank; the way the social worker intruded and inspected our home to approve aid for another year; and how easy it was for us to disappear from one place to another; it all internalized into a sense of unworthiness and shame.  Charles M. Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote, “Poverty is a diabolical predicament that not only makes scarce one’s physical comforts, but drains away one’s spiritual strength.  It damages hopes and dreams, and having deficits among those things is when the soul begins to die.”  The environment of poverty is marked with unstable conditions, and a lack of social and economical capital can make it very difficult, even impossible, to overcome these conditions.  Poverty has been disregarded as the problem of the “other.”  With a critical mass of the United States now experiencing more and more of what the poor have had to endure in invisibility, there is an opportunity to change the negative framework in which the poor are represented and perceived in the larger community.

To whom judges my path,
I shall lend my shoes.

The Perception and Reality of the Wealth Distribution in America is Skewed

If the minimum wage kept pace with the earnings of the 1%, it would sit at $22.62 per hour – “212 percent higher than the current wage floor.”  In the video below Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, professors at Business School of Harvard and Duke Business, respectively, demonstrates the inequities of wealth distribution in our country,  thus shining light to the failings of our economic system at a structural level.  We are living during a time when CEOs earn 380 times the average worker, not the lowest paid worker.  Which means, the average worker has to work one month to earn what a CEO makes in one hour. Economic greed and structures that privilege a few have now created the greatest disparity this country has ever seen between the haves and have nots.  America’s 1% has 40% of all the nations wealth, and the bottom 80% only has 7% of the nations wealth between them.  We don’t even have any long-term financial leverage on these insidious structures.  The top 1% own 50% of the country’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. While the bottom 50% of Americans own .5%, that’s less than 1%, of these investments.  Which means they aren’t investing – they are just scraping by.  And worse, the system of investment that we thought would give us piece of mind for our children’s college fund or our retirement fund, is just another oppressive structure that proliferates low-wages, outsourcing of jobs, human and land exploitation, among other things.


Solidarity Leads to Liberation

We all play a role in maintaining these structures.  The people in power who benefit from the existing structures are not interested in changing them.  There are those who understand the link between their privilege and the oppression of others, but the idea of renouncing the aspects of the privilege that bring comfort and security is too fearful, even when it represents the liberation of others.  Some are ignorant to the purpose and systems of the structures they function in.  Still, there are some who are willing to endure the oppressive aspects of the structures to maintain certain privileges.  Unfortunately, there are also those whose sole source of survival is dependent on the system which has caused their oppressive conditions to begin with.

Gandhi believed the rich could not accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the poor in society.  This is not to say, that it is only up to the poor or any group who finds themselves under oppressive circumstances to fix or recreate the failing structures – it will take the awakening of all to do so.  However,  at the core of any revolution, the voices of those who are the most effected must be the loudest, for only they know intimately the humiliations, idiosyncrasies, and ramifications of their struggles.

“The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of ‘handouts’ from government or from churches, but when they, themselves, are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.”  Archbishop Oscar Romero, El Salvador

Both rebellion and solidarity must be engaged for liberation to work.  Liberation doesn’t just happen when those who are oppressed decide to stand up and fight.  It happens when we all come together and understand that the good of the individual can only be sustained within the good of the whole.  As a society and global community, we face incredibly difficult sociopolitical and economic times ahead of us.  The real question we need to begin asking ourselves is, “How much of our privilege and individualism are we willing to give up, in order to work toward the well-being of the whole society?”  It is only in solidarity that we will be able to overcome so many of the inequities that ill our society.  We are not isolated beings, just as our liver, lungs, and heart are not isolated organs.  If one of our organs is debilitated or harmed, the rest of our body will suffer.  We have forgotten our connection to one another, hence we have been deceived by the pervasive doctrine of individualism without respect or regard for community.  Solidarity has been historically undermined by power structures that benefit from controlling people’s attitudes and beliefs toward common welfare with propaganda and other devices of separation and marginalization.

We are disconnected, but not separate.  The struggle is to awaken our collective consciousness; corrupt structures cannot operate if people refuse to participate in them.  The organization and mobilization of people has always caused transformational change. But where do we start? Once we can begin to recognize common struggles and understand that all forms of oppression intersect at one point or another, we can begin to draw inspiration for a vision of the kind of world and life we want to (re)create.  There have been several recent studies compiling empirical evidence on resistance campaigns that have taken place in the last century around the world.  The purpose – to show what works.  Among some of the findings: (1) “The more violence, the less revolution;” (2) mass movements must be made up of the nine key sectors of society; (3) enough of the population must stand in solidarity with the movement, enough that it can’t be ignored; (4) and we must protest what we oppose and build alternative systems.  For more information, refer to Popular Resistance listed under sources.

Find the issues that concern you, connect to people that are actively involved in organizing and mobilizing around those issues, and take action, however small it may be.  Seek opportunities for solidarity among people working on various issues.

We need to be ready for the next wave of mass resistance. Movements are not linear nor do revolutions happen in one cataclysmic event. Rather, they are a series of waves of different sizes, rising and falling. 

“Every wave on the ocean that has ever risen up and refused to lay back down has been dashed on the shore, but it is the very purpose of a wave to rise up, because once it rises up above the horizon it finally has the perspective to see that it’s not just a wave, that it’s a part of a mighty ocean. And the sharpest rock on the wildest shore can never break that ocean apart; they can never wear that ocean down, because it’s the ocean that shapes the shore. That’s what we’re starting … With wave after wave after wave crashing against that shore, we shape it to our vision.”  Climate Activist, Tim DeChristopher

When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion.  – Ethiopian Proverb


The Working Poor – Invisible in America, David K. Shipler

Occupy: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity, Noam Chomsky





History Teaches That We Have the Power to Transform the Nation, Here’s How.



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