Thomasine Wilson is tired of fighting for $15.00.
“Give me $15/hour this year, this legislative session,” said the homecare provider, who previously survived on less than $9 per hour, in an interview.
Democrats tried, but Republicans denied.
In 2019, Virginia lawmakers had an opportunity to incrementally increase the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2024. But in a full floor vote, all 19 Senate Republicans voted against the Democrat-sponsored measure.
In the House, Democrats put forward two other proposals. One shot for $15/hour by 2023, increasing the minimum wage according to inflation thereafter. Another sought a more modest hike to $10.10 per hour beginning in 2020, pegged to inflation beginning in 2022. But nine Republicans in the House Labor and Commerce Committee said no to both.
Maybe the magic number was nine — the number of Republicans in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. But there, again, those GOP lawmakers squashed yet another bill that called for increasing the minimum wage to $11.25 by 2024.
The result? $7.25 an hour is what minimum wage workers can expect to earn in 2020 and beyond. That figure — left untouched for a decade — is the lowest amount allowed by federal law. It is about one-quarter the hourly-income one adult with one child needs to support their family, according to data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Though they passed up four opportunities to increase the minimum wage to varying degrees in 2019, the Republican-controlled General Assembly had little trouble giving themselves a pay bump in 2016, two years after Wilson started fighting for $15.
“I’ve been five years fighting for $15, and we still gotta fight, why do we have to fight still?” Wilson said, squeezing in an interview as she drove to work. “Don’t get your raises until you give me mine — that would be a great trade-off.”
Instead, wage workers like Wilson have other tradeoffs on-the-mind. “I really hate the tradeoff should I pay the rent or pay my car insurance, because I need the car to get to work,” she said.
Wilson, who lives in Richmond, described a number of these painful day-to-decisions that face people living in poverty. “Am I going to keep my lights on and be able to see in the house while I’m trying to cook on this gas stove — I have to pay for gas. Am I going to eat today or wait and eat tomorrow? Should I eat a sandwich or should I eat a meal today?”
One of the toughest choices facing homecare providers like Wilson is whether or not to go to work when they’re sick. She works in close contact with elderly people, sick people, and others with weak immune systems, feeding them, helping them get up and down the stairs, in and out of bed, and other tasks that require touch.
“If people have a weak immune system and you come to work sick, you could actually kill that person. But you’re trying to come to work because you need the money to pay your bills. You can’t stay home. And when you don’t go, you don’t get paid.” Most hourly workers don’t get paid time off.
Health insurance? “That’s not even in the picture,” Wilson said.
Making life even harder, most hourly income earners don’t get paid every week.
“If you’re making minimum wage, pay that person every week so they can get to work. A lot of things you can’t do because the money has to be saved up to a point,” Wilson said.
Wilson is a smart lady, so I had to ask — why do this work? Why not pursue a career with benefits and better pay?
Wilson put it plainly: “Somebody has to do the work. It’s like you have a baby at home, it needs a babysitter,” she said.
She doesn’t want to switch jobs. She likes what she does, and she’s good at it. “If you have someone with excellent skills, excellent recommendations from every job they’ve been on, that means that person is good at what they do.”
“Some jobs I’ll never do because I’m not interested,” Wilson said. “Some jobs you’ll never do because it’s not your thing. But somebody loves doing it, so compensate them appropriately.”
The solution is not for Wilson to find another job, she said, it’s for lawmakers to have a little compassion for people and change the law.
“You said Virginia is for lovers, I always say lovers of what? … but the law can change to change people’s lives all across the board in Virginia.”
From minimum wage gas station work to General Assembly Delegate
Hala Ayala (D-51) is among House of Delegates members who would have voted to change the law had Republicans allowed any of the minimum wage bills to move to a full floor vote. She knows all-too-well what Wilson’s struggle is like.
In the mid-1990s, Ayala was trying to work her way through school and support a sibling with mental health challenges. At the age of 22, she worked at a gas station where she made the minimum wage, $5.25 per hour at the time. Then she got pregnant, and complications led to her nearly dying in childbirth. It meant she had to take more and more time off work, so she was let go.
Neither her nor her fiance “had the financial resources to raise a kid,” so she found herself on public assistance. She wanted to continue her education to lift her family out of poverty, but she couldn’t afford it. She became dependent on welfare. “That just kind of beat me up,” Ayala said, “I felt embarrassed about being on welfare … people look at you differently.”
Ayala said there were “times where I didn’t buy food for myself, but just enough for my son, you know, and you get embarrassed by those things.”
In what could be spun as a conservative, idealistic rags-to-riches story, Ayala eventually landed a gig as an administrative assistant in the U.S. Coast Guard, which started her on a career path that would take her to the Department of Homeland Security.
“It was just by luck. I mean I’m convinced of that. I was at the right place at the right time,” she said. Her past experience struggling to make ends meet inspired her to run for office, where she’s been a leading voice on issues like raising the minimum wage.
Ayala doesn’t see poverty or meeting basic needs as a red or blue issue, but as a humanitarian issue. But ultimately, she said, Democrats have been stuck in a 20-year stronghold in the General Assembly. And on issues like raising the minimum wage, she can’t help but wonder how some GOP lawmakers can “sleep at night knowing the people around you, and especially some of these Republican representatives who are representing the very constituencies that are suffering the most — how can you sleep at night?”