After Donald Shearry Jr. fixes dinner for his two children, Donald III and Jada, the young family sits at the table together to talk about homework and what the kids learned that day in school. But sometimes, his children’s growth causes him anxiety, said Shearry, grimacing at Jada’s pants hem, which had risen almost to her ankles this week.
Shearry, 34, works as many hours as he’s allowed at a New Orleans-area McDonald’s. But his earnings, about $600 a month, are typically only enough to pay for his overhead — literally, the roof over his family’s head and the light and water bills. Earlier in the week, he tried to buy some time by loosening up Jada’s belt and letting her school uniform sag a little.
But Jada is 8 and in the midst of a growth spurt.
“She’s getting taller, seemingly by the day,” her father said.
So later this month, Shearry likely will need to make a short payment on his utility bill in order to get Jada new khaki pants.
“I’m in a rob Paul to pay Peter situation,” he said. “I can’t catch up.”
Over the past year, there seems to be a growing consensus, in both the public and private sectors, that the federal minimum wage isn’t enough.
“People are waking up to the fact that a lot of people are left behind in this economic recovery,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a left-leaning nonprofit group that analyzed the low-wage market in the state last year and called for reforms in its report, “Louisiana Needs a Higher Wage.”
Last May, total employment nationally finally surpassed pre-recession levels, after a six-year job slump. Yet the bulk of the job growth was at the lower end, Moller said, with the biggest gains in service industries. It’s this growing population of underemployed people, working but unable to cover the necessities of life, who are driving broad discussions about decent wages, he said.
Nationally, the push for better wages has had broad support, ranging from President Barack Obama, who has called for a national minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, to top executives at Wal-Mart, who raised their employees’ wages last month.
Voters and entry-level workers themselves have taken to the streets in many cities to demand higher minimum wages through statewide referenda and through national campaigns like Fight for $15, which put pressure on key employers in historically low-wage industries such as fast food. As a result, over the past year, minimum-wage workers in 11 states have received a raise, either through referenda or through legislative action.
But in a city like New Orleans, where lots of low-paid workers compete for each job opening, it’s clear that wages are only one issue for the working poor.
No statewide minimum
Workers also are pushing for other changes, such as easier-to-access child care assistance, more realistic food-stamps allotments and expanded public bus schedules to accommodate overnight and late-night workers. Shearry, for instance, is able to feed his growing children with the help of food stamps, but the assistance is enough for only one grocery store visit a month.
Shearry and his friends, many of whom work in fast food, took heart from a lesser-noticed part of Wal-Mart’s recent announcement: that it would offer some workers fixed work schedules. “That’s all I want, some control over my schedule,” said a fast-food worker in New Orleans, who didn’t want her name used for fear of being fired.
Because Louisiana is one of five states that has no statewide minimum wage, workers in the state are governed by the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Louisiana also has more low-wage workers than nearly anywhere else in the country. According to an analysis by the Hamilton Project, an economic-policy initiative of the Brookings Institution, 34.76 percent of Louisiana workers earned 150 percent of the minimum wage or less in 2012, the latest year for which data was available.
Of states that rely only upon the federal minimum wage, only Arkansas had a higher proportion of “near minimum workers,” at 36.79 percent. And last year, Arkansas voters approved an $8 minimum wage that will go into effect in 2016 and rise to $8.50 in 2017. Still, Louisiana is in good company in the Deep South, where only Florida has a wage above the federal minimum; Florida’s stands at $8.05 and increases with the cost of living.
Across the nation, 29 states now have minimum wages above the federal wage floor of $7.25, with the highest set at $9.47 in Washington state.
No state has yet made it to $10.10, which has been pegged as the hypothetical “magic wage”: the amount that should lift a full-time, year-round worker out of poverty. But Massachusetts is now considering an $11 wage. Seattle has passed a citywide minimum wage of $15, and San Francisco will reach $15 in 2018 — an option not available in Louisiana, where cities are barred from setting minimums for private employers.
Bills die in Legislature
Public sentiment statewide seems to support a wage hike. Last year, a Louisiana Public Policy Research Lab survey found that 74 percent of respondents, including 55 percent of Republicans, supported a state minimum wage of $8.50 per hour. But an effort last year by Jared Brossett, then a state legislator from New Orleans, to create a $10.10 state minimum wage died in committee, as did bills that would have raised the wage floor to $8.25 an hour and allowed Louisiana cities to set their own minimum wage.
Since then, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution asking Gov. Bobby Jindal to support legislation raising the minimum hourly wage to $10.10.
The city’s Civil Service Commission last year approved a $10.10 minimum wage for city employees at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. And in August, the Aviation Board awarded a $546.5 million contract to build a new airport terminal to a contractor whose proposal included $2 million for workforce development and small-business assistance for those vying for a projected 13,000 construction jobs.
Brossett, who is now a city councilman, is also continuing to push the issue. In January, he proposed a measure that would require larger city contractors and grant recipients to pay their employees $10.10 per hour and give them a minimum of seven paid sick days each year. The issue likely will go before the full council within the next few months.
Such ordinances are becoming fairly common. Across the country, more than 140 cities and a number of counties have such laws.
Brossett noted that in 2002, the state Supreme Court overturned a citywide New Orleans wage that had been approved by voters. His new ordinance wouldn’t pertain to all workers, only those whose companies do business with City Hall. But he said he feels he’s doing what he can to both fuel the local economy and make sure that fewer New Orleanians are stuck in a life of deep struggle.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “The simple fact is that these laws are necessary because the cost of living continues to go up, but wages for all but the wealthiest have not.”
Most contractors who work for the federal government already must pay better wages because of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that federal contractors pay “prevailing wages” for projects paid for by the U.S. Treasury. Louisiana doesn’t allow prevailing or predetermined wages.
Meeting the competition
In recent months, the private market also has become part of the national wage push, though it’s too early to know what effect that will have on policymakers and workers. Analysts say that, as the labor market has improved and entry-level openings have increased, lower-paying employers have had a harder time attracting workers, especially compared with competitors like Whole Foods and Costco Wholesale, which routinely pay new workers $11 or $11.50 an hour respectively, and Trader Joe’s, which pays $13.29 per hour .
Last month, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, said that by April, its workers will earn a $9 hourly minimum, $1.75 above the federal minimum wage. By next February, Wal-Mart workers will make at least $10 an hour. Other retailers including the Gap, Ikea, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls also have announced wage hikes within the past year, as has insurance giant Aetna.
In New Orleans, leaders of the tourism and convention sector said they knew of no employer who has announced across-the-board wage hikes. But Firstline Schools, a network of five open-enrollment charter schools with 3,100 students, pays “living wages” to its office staff, starting at about $15 an hour.
The network also requires its contractors to follow its model. For instance, a recently issued request for proposals for janitorial services requires that contractors pay $12.34 an hour for janitors and $17.18 for lead custodians — amounts that are at the 75th percentile of the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s wage estimates for that industry.
An RFP that the network recently issued for a contractor to provide child care to Firstline employees specifies that a child care teacher must be paid at least $13.83 an hour and a child care worker must get at least $9.42 with paid health care and 10 paid days off.
“FirstLine’s board and management believe that paying people a fair wage increases worker morale, health and quality of service,” Chief Operating Officer Joseph Neary said, adding that he believes the recently implemented policy will reduce absenteeism, staff turnover, and training and recruiting costs. “We, as an organization, benefit through a more stable workforce and better learning environments for our children.”
Actual pay for work
Many struggling workers want a simple benefit: actual pay for the work they do, said Erika Zucker, of the Loyola University-based Workplace Justice Project, which helped to present a symposium about low-wage work last weekend.
Zucker said that, in addition to bounced checks and unpaid wages, some employers routinely pay less than the federal minimum wage, force employees to work after hours without pay, fail to pay overtime or misclassify employees as independent contractors. Enforcement is limited, particularly in Louisiana, which has no state agency enforcing wage and hour laws, and it is nearly impossible to collect lost wages, she said.
Of the $30,720 in back wages, fees and costs that Workplace Justice Project clients were awarded in court in the past year, only $1,000 has been paid out to workers.
Recently, Shearry participated in a Fight for $15 protest, saying he believes that, if he is working, he should be able to provide for his children. In order to get out of poverty, a single parent like Shearry with two children would have to make $9.10 an hour, working full time, to earn $18,928 a year, a few hundred dollars above the poverty line for a household his size.
Shearry knows that $7.25 isn’t enough to pay his bills. And the 10-cent raise he can get every six months won’t help much. Still, he’s so used to pinching pennies and juggling what he makes that he’s not sure what wage would stop the stress and make him feel stable. “It’s hard to put a penny on it,” he said.
His first request, in fact, would be to work more hours.
Workers with a history in the fast-food business say full-time jobs were easier to get before the Affordable Care Act, which requires companies to make health insurance available to every full-time employee.
Shearry hasn’t heard the reasons behind the limited hours. All he knows is that he is never scheduled for anywhere near full-time work: “nowhere near 40,” he said.
Other people complain about the work, but he loves it, he said, because he’s dealing with food. “Cooking is my passion,” he said.
Eventually, when his children are older or if his schedule is more predictable, he’d like to enroll in culinary school. “That’s my dream and my goal,” he said. “I’m a good cook, and I’m at home in the kitchen.”
But until he’s able to fit school into his schedule, he’ll be working in fast food.
The computer knows best
Parents who work at fast-food outlets often complain that managers don’t take their children into account, that they don’t schedule shifts during hours when the children are in school or when other family members can watch them, or that they’re called into work but then told not to clock in because the store isn’t busy enough.
But Shearry said his managers have been sympathetic. They know he’s a single dad, and so they often schedule him to start work at 8 a.m., usually a busy breakfast time. On those days, he puts his children on the bus and heads straight to work. He’s arranged for the school bus to drop off his children across the street from the McDonald’s, so he can work until 5 p.m., he said.
But often, when the lines gets shorter, by about 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., his managers are notified by a McDonald’s computer system that labor costs are exceeding sales. As a result, he gets sent home early, before his shift is up, he said. “My managers try to work with me,” he said. So sometimes he can take a short unpaid break and, if the sales pick up, he can go back on the clock.
But if the computer printout tells his managers that the sales they’re making can’t justify more labor costs, their hands are tied and his day is done.
“They can’t do what they can’t do,” he said. “It’s bigger than my store. It’s a national thing.”
In December, the National Labor Relations Board issued joint complaints against McDonald’s Corp. and some of its franchises accusing them of labor violations. Though McDonald’s said the complaints represent “overreach” by the agency, the findings could lead the company to change some of its practices, such as the labor-monitoring system, which was mentioned in claims as leading to forced unpaid breaks, delayed shift starts and off-the-clock work.
The Metairie-based regional office for corporate McDonald’s did not respond to repeated queries for comment.
Shearry said he was unaware of what’s happening with McDonald’s franchises elsewhere. Ultimately, he said, he just wants to work more and earn more so that he can do right by his children.
“I know they say that fast-food work is for high school kids,” he said. “But at my store, it’s usually people providing for kids of their own.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed March 19 to correct the date of the “Work in the South” symposium at Loyola College of Law.