What $15 an Hour Looks Like
Illustration by Sho Watanabe

What $15 an Hour Looks Like


In July, Emeryville, California, passed the highest city-wide minimum wage in the country. Here’s how workers’ lives changed—and didn’t.

On a crisp November morning in Oakland, 50 people dressed in red T-shirts burst into a McDonald’s, bringing breakfast orders to a halt. From behind the counter, several cashiers gaped at the scene, where an orderly line of customers had been replaced by a rowdy crew that bounced and shouted, calling for the restaurant to raise its wages to $15 an hour. A supervisor whipped out her cell phone and began filming. The chant, directed at the workers, grew louder: “Come on out—we’ve got your back!” After giving it some thought, three female employees walked past their supervisor, clocked out, and joined the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The group, which included striking fast-food workers from across the East Bay, gathered afterward in the parking lot to celebrate. They would hit half a dozen restaurants before the day was over, part of a nationwide movement that has grown to attract low-wage workers across multiple industries. Among the strikers was Shardeja Woolridge, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in the nearby city of Hayward, where she lives with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Woolridge earns $9 an hour, California’s minimum wage; her mom receives disability benefits. It’s not nearly enough. They’ve received eviction notices and had their electricity shut off. The 19-year-old recently enrolled at Berkeley City College but struggled to pay for textbooks. “I can hardly buy my own soap or deodorant,” she says. Behind her, workers hoist a red-and-black banner that reads #fightfor15.

I ask Woolridge what might be different if she made $15 an hour. “Whoa,” she says. “Fifteen.” Her eyes turn to the cloudless sky. “Whoa,” she repeats, her voice trailing off. She could help pay the rent. She could stock the fridge with food. She could afford Wi-Fi. Above all, she could finally stop fighting so much with her mom. “We are constantly butting heads,” Woolridge says. “She doesn’t understand that I don’t have money. I’m like, ‘This is really all I make,’ but she can’t get it.”

The movement for a $15 minimum wage began three years earlier, on a chilly fall morning in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. Their demand was audacious: $15 an hour was more than twice what many of them earned. But more strikes and protests followed, with the movement spreading quickly, driven by workers like Woolridge. What had started as a targeted campaign under the slogan “Fast Food Forward” grew to include low-wage workers across numerous industries.

“Movements are built on big, bold, aspirational demands,” says David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, who led the fight in 2013 for the $15 minimum-wage ordinance in SeaTac, Washington, home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Rolf credits the Fight for $15 with shaping a “monumental shift in political discourse.” It’s not just that Bernie Sanders is championing the cause; during a recent Republican presidential debate, the first question to candidates was whether they supported the increase. The Fight for $15 has become the rare labor fight that is too big to ignore.

 Still, for workers like Woolridge, a $15 minimum wage remains a bold thought experiment. Certain cities have adopted the $15 standard, but their rollouts have tended to be gradual: Seattle’s minimum wage for large employers will reach $15 in 2017, Los Angeles’s in 2020. Yet if we walked one block west of this McDonald’s in Oakland, we would enter the city of Emeryville, where, last July, the minimum wage for many workers jumped to $14.44 overnight. And now that Emeryville boasts the highest citywide minimum wage in the country—one that approaches and will eventually surpass $15 an hour—it has become a testing ground of sorts. When workers at the bottom of the economy suddenly receive a significant bump in pay, what changes? What doesn’t?

*  *  *

Emeryville is a wedge of a city long over-shadowed by its neighbors, Oakland and Berkeley. It once teemed with card rooms, speakeasies, and brothels, serving as a destination for folks who wanted to do the sorts of things that weren’t allowed back home. During the Great Depression, local district attorney Earl Warren—who would later become chief justice of the United States—famously declared Emeryville “the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast.”

Today, that frontier feel is mostly gone. In the center of town, where drunken fans once cheered a minor-league team, sits Pixar’s sprawling campus. Dozens of biotech and pharmaceutical firms are based in the city, and industrial sites have been scrubbed clean and replaced by the sort of retail development that has taken over suburbs across the country. The city’s current reputation, to the extent that it has one, is as the mall of the East Bay. There’s a Home Depot and an Ikea, a Gap, J. Crew, and Forever 21. Though it spans just under two square miles, Emeryville boasts four shopping centers, with The New York Times describing it as a “retail mecca.”

That mecca needs workers. According to the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, in 2014 there were about 22,000 workers in the city—twice the number of residents. “Emeryville was a gritty industrial place that became a boomtown, a major corporate center,” says Jennifer Lin of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, or EBASE, a labor-backed group that supported the minimum-wage hike. But the boom was concentrated at the top: About one in 10 employees in Emeryville—2,227 people—earn the minimum wage. That’s roughly four times the national rate.

One of those workers is Ty’Ler Wright. The 23-year-old has worked at Pak ’N Save, the city’s largest grocery store, for three years. She applied for the job largely to help her mother, Sonya, who also works there. Growing up, Wright, who has two younger siblings, watched her mom negotiate payment plans to remain a step ahead of bill collectors. The family moved several times before finally renting a house in West Oakland, a few blocks from the Emeryville border. “She never asked me to help her pay, but I had seen her struggle,” Wright says, standing next to her mother in the store’s parking lot after a shift. “I was not about to be in someone’s house and not help out.”

 Wright was hired as a part-time courtesy clerk, collecting wayward shopping carts and cleaning bathrooms for $8 an hour. It didn’t take long to realize the job didn’t do much to help the family. Her weekly checks were as low as $150, the money gone practically as soon as it arrived. Still, she stuck it out, landing a full-time schedule and rising to become head of the dairy department. But her wages stayed at the state minimum, which grew to $9 an hour last year.

This spring, news that Emeryville workers would be getting a raise spread quickly at Pak ’N Save. “We were all very excited,” Wright tells me, smiling widely. Though it was a warm afternoon in August, she was bundled up in a gray UC Berkeley hoodie to ward off the chill from the refrigerator aisles. “It feels like we’re actually making money.”

It was less than two months since the raise, but Wright had already noticed a “major, major change” in her life. The obvious difference was financial: After taxes, her weekly
checks now come to nearly $500. She can pay her bills, help her mom out, and still have what she calls “rollover money” to put in the bank. This has lightened everyone’s load. “My mom is way more relaxed,” she says, gesturing to Sonya, who smiles and nods.

The future looks different, too. “With $9, I was thinking, ‘Do I really want to do this for much longer?’” says Wright, waving at a co-worker. “Now, we’re at the top.

*  *  *

The movement to raise the minimum wage has swept through the Bay Area like no place else, with each day seeming to bring news of another city that has implemented an increase or is seeking to do so. Recently, the mayors of eight cities in the South Bay—the heart of Silicon Valley—announced that they were contemplating a regional wage that would eventually reach $15 an hour. “Two years ago, if you had said you wanted a $15 minimum wage, it was unthinkable,” says EBASE’s Lin. “Now, it’s virtually unstoppable.”

 In the East Bay, Emeryville was nudged along by Oakland, where voters overwhelmingly passed a measure last November to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour. At the time, it was the nation’s highest, supported by a coalition of labor and community groups called Lift Up Oakland. After the vote, coalition members sat down with Emeryville’s elected officials. Ruth Atkin, the mayor at the time, asked the organizers how they had settled on $12.25. “I knew about the Fight for $15, so why not go higher?” Atkin recalls, speaking to me at an Emeryville food court in September. Someone in the coalition explained that $12.25 was what they thought they could win.

Being an elected official in Emeryville isn’t glamorous; it’s a part-time gig, with politicians receiving only a modest salary. Atkin is a social worker by day, working for Contra Costa County on healthcare-related issues. She figured a minimum wage should get a family near financial self-sufficiency and settled on a benchmark of 138 percent of the federal poverty line—the threshold at which the family would no longer qualify for expanded Medicaid. “I literally took out federal poverty charts by income and did the math,” Atkin says. The result was roughly the figure that Emeryville already used in a living-wage ordinance for city employees. “At that point, we said: ‘Let’s just have our living wage be the new minimum wage.’”

The debate over the proposal was relatively muted. Most concerns came from small-business owners worried that they couldn’t absorb the rapid wage hike, which amounted to more than 60 percent. Eventually, a compromise was hammered out: Companies with more than 55 employees would pay the $14.44 rate, while smaller businesses would start at $12.25 and move to $16 over several years. The California Restaurant Association, a powerful trade group, came out against any sort of raise, arguing—as it has elsewhere—that minimum-wage increases lead to job losses and price hikes. But neither Atkin nor the four council members found that argument persuasive. “Look at the cost of living in the Bay Area,” she says. “It’s even hard to make it at $15 an hour.”

Atkin is right, of course. I spent several days hanging around Ikea, one of Emeryville’s largest employers, which uses a janitorial contractor to clean its store. The janitors are mostly Latina immigrants who, prior to the increase, earned $9 to $10 an hour. One woman had cleaned the store for nine years without a raise. Though quick to note that she appreciated the extra pay, the woman told me she actually didn’t feel any relief, because her rent had recently gone up by $400 a month. Rents in Oakland, where many Emeryville employees live, are rising faster than anywhere else in the country, with the median one-bedroom apartment now fetching $1,980. Given this context, many people I spoke with didn’t feel that they were getting ahead, only that they weren’t falling behind quite so quickly.

The stereotype of the typical minimum-wage worker is a teenager in need of spending money. I found few such people in Emeryville. Many of the workers were older; the younger ones were either paying for school or, more commonly, supporting their families. That usually meant parents caring for children, but not always. Sometimes teens were helping their parents, or parents were helping their parents, or a sister was helping her brother.

Next to Ikea is Emeryville’s newest shopping center, the Bay Street Mall, described as a million-square-foot “urban village.” On a clear weeknight, I caught up with Oscar Echevarria, one of the workers who kept the village humming. It was near midnight when he finished his shift as a busser and exited California Pizza Kitchen, crossing the deserted mall. His day had begun at 7 am with his other job at Chevys Fresh Mex, located several blocks away, where he worked as a janitor. Between the two jobs he had a couple hours off, so he went home to eat and shower. His workweek sometimes exceeded 80 hours.

We met up a few days later at a local café. The Mexican-born Echevarria, who is 46 and slender, was in good health. He was also exhausted. There were deep lines under his eyes, and he apologized for being several minutes late, explaining that his workload at Chevys had been particularly heavy that morning. The conversation turned to Mexico, where his wife and three children lived. He had a green card and had petitioned to bring them north, but was still waiting for a decision. “That’s where all my money goes—back to Mexico,” he said, pulling out his most recent paycheck, for $765.63. “Before, I never made more than $500.”

I asked if the minimum-wage increase had led him to consider cutting back on his hours. Echevarria laughed at my suggestion. But as he explained his situation, his eyes welled up. In 2008, his father was kidnapped for ransom back in their village; two weeks later, he was found dead. Since the tragedy, Echevarria has supported his mother as well. He rented a room for $250 a month in a Berkeley apartment that he shared with four others and kept his expenses to a minimum. After his father’s death, he petitioned for his mother to join him, too. “It’s not safe in Mexico anymore,” he said.

A few months later, on a rainy afternoon in late December, I spoke to Echevarria outside Chevys. He explained that he no longer worked at California Pizza Kitchen—he’d been fired after an argument with a co-worker—and was looking for a second job. “It’s not enough, just this,” he said, motioning to Chevys. With so many people relying on him, he’s hoping to find another job in Emeryville paying nearly $15 an hour.

*  *  *

 It’s important to remember how recently cities like Emeryville have increased their minimum wage, an experiment that is still playing out. Over several months, I spoke with perhaps 50 minimum-wage workers, many of whom were just getting used to seeing extra money in their paycheck, or had finally begun a long-term project of digging out of debt.

The increase promises to ripple upward as well. Even in low-wage workplaces, there is an understood hierarchy that a $14.44 minimum has mostly demolished. A cook at P.F. Chang’s complained that he was now earning the same as the dishwashers. One Ikea employee reported grumbling among co-workers who were upset that they now made the same wage as new hires. I wouldn’t be surprised if th
e coming year finds employers raising wages again, using the new minimum as the floor.

What is certain at this early stage is that many workers in Emeryville are now earning more than they ever did before. Daniel Mercado came to the Bay Area from the Philippines two years ago with his wife and daughter. He cleaned a hotel in Manila, earning the equivalent of $12 a day. “I couldn’t save anything—too many expenses,” he says. “America was the great hope.” They moved in with his sister’s family, and Mercado was hired as a janitor in Emeryville. His daughter found minimum-wage work, too, at a McDonald’s. But his economic situation wasn’t all that different from what it had been in Manila. He soon learned a new English expression: living paycheck to paycheck. “That’s how it was,” he says, smiling wryly. In the land of hope, he was going into debt.

I interviewed Mercado in late October, nearly four months after the wage increase went into effect. (At his request, I have changed his name and not revealed his employer.) He had almost paid off his credit card and, for the first time since arriving in the United States, was starting to save money. So far, he’d put away about $1,500. It’s a modest amount, but enough to get his gears turning.

George Orwell once wrote that poverty “annihilates the future,” making it hard to plan for, or even think about, tomorrow. With a bit of breathing room, Mercado has begun to consider what comes next. Someday he’d like his daughter to go to college. A car would be nice, so he wouldn’t have to take multiple buses to work. And his own house—which he acknowledges is merely a dream for now. Mercado raises his hands to his sternum. “We are not rich,” he says. “Just in the middle. But it’s a lot better than being poor.”


Gabriel Thompson is the author of three books: Working in the Shadows, There’s No José Here, and Calling All Radicals. He has written for The Nation, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and other publications.

Co-published with The Nation. In July, Emeryville, California, passed the highest city-wide minimum wage in the country. Here’s how workers’ lives changed—and didn’t.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Gabriel Thompson is the author of three books: Working in the Shadows, There’s No José Here, and Calling All Radicals. He has written for The Nation, New York magazine, The New York Times, and other publications.

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