She Works 2 Jobs. Her Grocery Budget Is $25. This Is Life Near Minimum Wage

Mar 26, 2021
Originally published on March 27, 2021 10:53 am

Joyce Barnes sometimes pauses, leaving the grocery store. A crowd shifts past, loaded up with goodies. Barnes pictures herself, walking out with big steaks and pork chops, some crabmeat.

"But I'm not the one," she says. Inside her bags are bread, butter, coffee, a bit of meat and canned tuna — a weekly grocery budget of $25.

The shopping has to fit between her two jobs. Barnes, 62, is a home care worker near Richmond, Va. In the mornings, she takes care of a man who lost both his legs, then hustles off to help someone who's lost use of one side of his body in a stroke. The jobs pay $9.87 and $8.50 an hour. Barnes gets home around 9 p.m., then wakes at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.

It's been like this all her life. Virginia lawmakers last month for the first time approved five sick days to some home health care workers. Paid vacation is a dream. "Work, work, work" is a ring tone one of her grandchildren set for Barnes: "She said, 'Nanny, when you call me, I know it's you, because that's all you do is work.' "

Barnes can't afford not to. Home and health aides are among the lowest-paid jobs in America. Also on that list are cooks and cashiers, file clerks and janitors, drivers and construction workers. The most common low-wage work is in retail.

During her time off, Barnes also takes care of her brother Lorenzo Bedford, who had a stroke a year ago.
Carlos Bernate for NPR

"It just kind of hit a point where we just couldn't afford food," says Kaede Montooth, 20, who's worked at PetSmart in Savannah, Ga., for a couple of years. "[My partner and I would] sit there and we're like, OK ... we can buy like pasta sides that are $1 and then that's what we get for the week."

Pandemic cutbacks at the store left Montooth working shorter and shorter shifts, at $11 an hour. A second job, looking after reptiles at a state park, now pays the same amount. For a while, it was touch-and-go: picking up pet sitting and Instacart delivery gigs, coming to terms with needing food stamps. Montooth is an artist, coveting a glossy $15 book — but it would cut into the Wi-Fi budget.

When experts study low-wage jobs, workers such as Montooth and Barnes are actually often left out, because traditionally, labor data focus on the "prime working age" of 25 to 54. Martha Ross from the Brookings Institution decided to expand her research to workers 18 to 64, including part-timers — and was shocked at her discovery.

Kaede Montooth works at PetSmart in Georgia and is a member of the retail-worker group United for Respect.
Kaede Montooth

Adjusting for regional differences in the cost of living, Ross found 53 million low-wage workers in America, with median earnings of $10.22 an hour, or $17,950 a year.

"This is a huge swath of our labor market," Ross says. "It really made me think about the kinds of jobs that we're creating."

Ieisha Franceis from Durham, N.C., used to be a nurse's assistant for $12 an hour. But she worried about exposing her older mother to the coronavirus and took a job as a cook at Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, with a pay cut to $9.20 an hour.

"I say it all the time: I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul, and robbing Paul to pay Joe, and they're just going to have to argue about it," Franceis says about the juggle of bills for water, gas, light, groceries and whatever her 12-year-old son needs. "It's hard to have any type of a nest egg."

She wishes politicians in Washington, debating whether minimum wage should be $10, $11 or $15 per hour, lived a day like she does — with almost two hours on a bus, just to get to work.

"I challenge any of them to walk one day in our shoes. ... Get up, do the kids, catch the bus, work our job, get back on the bus, deal with what we have to deal with at home, face these bills. They'll be lost at catching the bus," says Franceis, who advocates for higher wages with the Fight for $15 and a Union.

As a nurse's assistant, Ieisha Franceis worried about exposing her older mother to the coronavirus, and so she took a job as a cook.
NC Raise Up/Fight for $15

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if Congress decided to phase in a $15 minimum wage by 2025, some 1.4 million jobs would get cut, while at least 17 million workers would get a raise.

When asked about why they stay in low-paying jobs, workers often say there aren't many options around them. Franceis and Barnes both also said something else: They love their work, just the pay and benefits are lacking.

Barnes has found a new voice as an advocate for home care workers through the Service Employees International Union. Like many home aides, she talks about taking care of people as a calling — but that love of the work has been tested.

A few years ago, her teenage grandson got a janitorial job. "Nanny, you know how much I get paid?" he asked Barnes. He showed her the paycheck: $10.50 an hour, more than his grandmother made at either of her jobs.

"I looked at him, my whole face dropped," Barnes says. "I said, 'Oh, baby, that's so good.' But all along, I was mad as hell."

If she did get a big raise, Barnes says she would probably cut back on her crazy hours, take a few days off, maybe even make it a vacation. When was the last time this happened? Maybe six years ago, she says, then catches herself, remembering: She took that time off because she'd landed in the hospital.

A friend has told her about New Orleans, a place like nothing she's ever seen. Barnes imagines what it'd be like, strolling down Bourbon Street, laying eyes on drapes of moss cascading off tree branches — not having to think about work.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Juicy prime rib, a glossy art book, a few days off work without worrying about bills - these desires may feel unattainable to workers earning close to minimum wage here in the U.S. As the debate about raising the federal minimum wage drags on, NPR's Alina Selyukh spoke with people living on less than $10 or $11 an hour.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Joyce Barnes sometimes pauses walking out of the grocery store.

JOYCE BARNES: When I see the people coming out with these baskets loaded and all these goodies, I'm like, oh, man, I wish I could have it like that. But I'm not the one.

SELYUKH: Her weekly grocery budget is $25 - bread, butter, coffee, bit of meat and canned tuna.

BARNES: I wish I had the money to get those big old steaks and those big old pork chops and stuff like that. I don't have a whole lot left after I pay my bills.

SELYUKH: Barnes is 62. She's a home care aide in Virginia working two jobs, one for $9.87 an hour, the other for $8.50 an hour. Each is about six hours a day - caring for one person who lost both their legs, then hustling off to help someone who's lost use of one side of their body in a stroke. Barnes gets home around 9 p.m., then up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.

BARNES: Actually, I have to work like this all my life. One of my little grandkids, she always put my ringtone as work, work, work, work, work 'cause she says, Nanny (ph), when you call me, I know it's you because that's all you do is work.

SELYUKH: She can't afford not to. Home and health aides are among the lowest-paid jobs in America. Also on that list are cooks and cashiers, file clerks and janitors, drivers and construction workers. The most common low-wage work is in retail. Here's 20-year-old Kaede Montooth.

KAEDE MONTOOTH: It just kind of hit a point where we just couldn't afford food.

SELYUKH: Montooth has been working at a PetSmart in Georgia for a couple of years.

MONTOOTH: You know, we'd sit there, and we're like, OK, what can we buy? We can buy, like, pasta sides that are a dollar, and then, you know, that's what we'd get for the week.

SELYUKH: Pandemic cutbacks at the store left Montooth working shorter and shorter shifts, now making $11 an hour. Recently, they secured a second job at a state park reptile center, also for $11 an hour. But for a while, it was touch and go, picking up petsitting and Instacart delivery gigs, coming to terms with needing food stamps - constant financial close calls, like when a mistimed bill left them stranded at a gas station with $5 in the bank or when their cat got really sick.

MONTOOTH: We kind of just had to go, OK, don't do any of these tests. We're going to just take care of her now and pray that, you know, she ends up OK (laughter).

SELYUKH: When experts do studies about low-wage jobs, workers like Montooth and Barnes are actually often left out. Traditionally, labor data focus on the, quote, "prime working age" - 25 to 54. Martha Ross from the Brookings Institution decided to expand her research to workers 18 to 64, including part-timers, and was shocked at her discovery.

MARTHA ROSS: When we did our analysis, we found that 53 million people earn low wages with a median earnings of $10.22 an hour.

SELYUKH: Fifty-three million people. If Congress decides to phase in a $15 minimum wage by 2025, the government forecast estimates 1.4 million jobs would get cut and at least 17 million workers would get a raise.

IEISHA FRANCEIS: It's hard to have any type of a nest egg.

SELYUKH: Ieisha Franceis from North Carolina used to be a nurse's assistant for $12 an hour, but she worried about exposing her elderly mother to the coronavirus and took a job in a burger joint kitchen with a pay cut to $9.20.

FRANCEIS: I say it all the time - I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul and robbing Paul to pay Joe, and they're just going to have to argue about it.

SELYUKH: Juggling bills for water, gas, light, groceries, whatever her son needs. He's 12 years old. She wishes politicians in Washington debating whether minimum wage should be $10 or $11 or $15 an hour lived a day like she does, with almost two hours on a bus just to get to work.

FRANCEIS: I challenge any of them to walk one day in our shoes - one day. Get up, do the kids, catch the bus, work our job, get back on the bus, deal with what we have to deal with at home, face these bills - they'll be lost at catching the bus.

SELYUKH: When I talk to workers about why they stay in these jobs, people often say there aren't many options around them. Franceis and Joyce Barnes from Virginia both said something else, something really frustrating - they love their work; it's the pay that sucks. Barnes, like many home aides, talks about taking care of people like a calling. But that love has been tested. A few years ago, her grandson, a teenager, got a janitorial job.

BARNES: And he was like, Nanny, you know how much I get paid an hour? I was like, no, baby, how much you get? He said, Nanny, I get $10.50 an hour. And I looked at him. My whole face dropped. And I said, oh, baby, that's so good.

SELYUKH: Ten fifty is more than she gets paid at either of her jobs. If Barnes got a big raise, she says she would probably cut back on her crazy hours, take a few days off. I asked her when she last had a vacation and, at first, she said maybe six years ago, but then caught herself, realizing she took that time off because she'd landed in the hospital. A friend has told her about Louisiana.

BARNES: I've always wanted to go to New Orleans. I've always wanted to go there.

SELYUKH: To walk down Bourbon Street and see drapes of moss cascading off tree branches and not have to think about work.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.