Life below the line

In the debate over I-688, we tend not to look too closely at the people it's intended to help—the state's minimum-wage earners.

TWO MCDONALD'S WORKERS, two people in very different circumstances: Aleah Lee is 17 years old and lives in material comfort with her parents in Federal Way. Her mom is a bail officer at the Kent jail, and her dad a retired ironworker. Lee works after school for $5.50 an hour so that she can afford extras, like her own phone. In contrast, 42-year-old Rebecca Brown is supporting a family of three on her $6-an-hour salary, including her unemployed husband and their 4-year-old granddaughter. Brown can't afford to buy a burger for lunch, even with the 50 percent discount she gets with her job.

Each of these two represents one archetype that adversaries in the debate over I-688, the minimum-wage initiative, like to highlight. Proponents of the initiative, which would raise the minimum wage to $6.50 per hour in two steps by the year 2000 and subsequently tie it to an inflation index, stress that it would help primary wage earners, while opponents largely portray the potential beneficiaries as teens looking for pocket change.

Depending on which archetype you go with, it becomes more or less important that the federal and state minimum wages have been dropping in buying power. Both used to stick close to the poverty line for a family of three. Today, the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour—which, because it is higher, supersedes Washington's minimum of $4.90 for most jobs—amounts to annual earnings of $10,700—several thousand dollars below that line. The proposed increase to $6.50 would in turn supersede federal law and bring the local minimum back up to the poverty level.

Because of the booming economy, few jobs now pay as little as the minimum wage. But many more pay slightly over. According to recently revised figures by the state Employment Security Department, 212,000 jobs statewide—or 8 percent of the total—pay less than $6.50 and might therefore be affected by the initiative. (An unknown number of those jobs fall into exempt categories.)

Lee and Brown, who work side by side at the bustling McDonald's beneath the ferry dock on Alaskan Way, demonstrate along with their co-workers that people in such jobs include both teens and family breadwinners—and everyone in between, from a formerly homeless young couple to an ex-drug dealer on work-release from jail to a single man in his early twenties. Some have no job experience at all and some have been working at low-paying jobs for years.

Because she is supporting a family, Brown's attempt to make do on her salary is most poignant. An unassuming, thin woman who completed the 11th grade, Brown has worked a variety of jobs around Bremerton, where she lives, including cashier at a stationery store. Her husband, who was laid off a year and a half ago from a job as a mechanic, has had a hard time finding a new job because his toolbox was stolen. He stays at home with their granddaughter, whose mother is unable to care for her.

Brown has come to Seattle to work, she says, because employers here "are paying more than any place in Bremerton." The $6 an hour she now earns is 50 cents above the starting wage at this particular McDonald's.

Yet even if she could get 40 hours per week of work—and last week she could only manage 32 because business was slow—her monthly income of about $1,100 wouldn't add up to her basic expenses. She ticks them off: rent, $530; utilities, $160; phone, $60; food, $350­$400; ferry to work, $50. Total: $1,150­$1,200.

She says that somehow she manages to "stretch" her income. She pays rent in three installments over each month. Her understanding landlady only occasionally charges the $15 late fee.

Extras are more of a problem. She recently put two new back-to-school outfits for her granddaughter on lay-away. She'll get the clothes in a month and a half—"as long as I don't eat lunch," she says, meaning a lunch bought at work. Today she brought soup from home that she heated in a microwave.

Brown has had to forgo other items for her granddaughter, like school pictures for $12. "There's nothing I can do," she says. "I told her maybe we'll go to Kmart or Wal-Mart later [to get photos taken]." Asked whether the girl felt bad, Brown gets teary for the first time. "I felt worse than she did," she says.

GARRETT OCCIANO, 23, doesn't even try to manage a household on his McDonald's income, even though he's single and, as a manager, makes $7.50 an hour. "You can't live on your own, not with the check I get," he says. A high school graduate who has been working for McDonald's since he was 16, Occiano has been sharing motel rooms with four co-workers on Pacific Highway that rent for between $300 and $400 a week. The rooms typically have two beds; Occiano and two friends take one, a couple takes the other. In a few days, however, Occiano and his friends will move into a two-bedroom apartment in Federal Way, each roommate paying $100 a month.

The couple with whom he lives are Kevin Jones, 27, and Jennifer Stroude, 18, who moved to Seattle a month ago from California. Until they got this job a few weeks ago, Jones says, they were "sleeping under bridges, in cars, on the docks, basically anywhere." Though both make $5.50 per hour, this is Stroude's first job ever, while Jones has worked an assortment of jobs in fast food, construction, and data entry. Living off their salary is "not that easy," he says, "but luckily there's two of us."

Thirty-one-year-old Anna Vance may be the most grateful for her job. A single parent since she was 20, Vance has sold drugs for most of her adult life and was eventually sentenced to 19 months in jail. She now lives in a house for convicts on work-release, paying $387.50 for rent and board, while her two kids live with her sister. "It's time for me to get them back," she says.

Acknowledging that she can't support her kids on $5.50 an hour, Vance says that she's "too old to work here." Nonetheless, she notes that the job is "a great opportunity of me to learn a little bit of skills. I'll probably stay here for six months and then maybe go to be a cashier at someplace like Safeway."

This diverse sampling of workers who would be affected by I-688 isn't surprising. Data from both sides of the I-688 debate show that about 30 percent of workers who would be affected by the initiative are teenagers, between 20 percent and 30 percent (depending on whose figures you use) are primary wage earners in married couples or families, and the rest are single individuals or members of two-income households.

Yet if there's truth in the images used on both sides of the debate, a more important truth—revealed in both the data and the McDonald's group—is that the vast majority of these workers are independent adults who support their households at least in part. Even an analysis used by initiative opponents—a study conducted by the conservative Employment Policies Institute—shows that only some 30 percent of such workers live with parents. And, contrary to opponents' arguments, these folks generally don't have a spouse putting them on easy street; the same analysis shows that they are more than twice as likely to have a family income of less than $20,000.

Still, though I-688 would help these people to some degree, studies show that minimum wage increases do little to reduce poverty overall, in part because many poor people are unemployed or work intermittently.

This is just one of the complex issues surrounding I-688. One of its novel and controversial aspects is its call for automatic annual increases according to a localized version of the Consumer Price Index. Opponents say this provision would give employers no flexibility in economic downturns, and they predict lay-offs and further price increases as a result. Proponents counter that it would help employers by raising the minimum wage incrementally rather than in big jumps. They point out as well that the gloom-and-doom predictions that typically accompany minimum-wage legislation have never come true.

On one thing, at least, both sides agree: Even $6.50 per hour is not a "livable" wage. The obvious question, then, is why bother with an initiative that will leave its purported beneficiaries little better off than before? Proponents say the raise to $6.50 is the most they dare ask, and opponents argue that the minimum wage is meant to be a "starting" wage rather than a living one. Yet, as the examples above and various credible studies make painfully clear, the vast majority of minimum-wage earners are trying to make their own way, and live on what they earn. There can be little doubt that when you look at the lives of these workers, any impact—however apparently small its number—is significant. With $1,000 to $3,000 extra each year, for example, folks like Brown might be able to afford school pictures for their kids—and possibly even an occasional Big Mac.

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