Low-wage workers fight for increase
Monday, June 26, 2017
At 53 years old, Rosa Ramirez of Elgin has been working minimum-wage jobs to support herself and her family since they moved to the United States 20 years ago. For 22-year-old Ryan Foster, his low-wage income is essential to pay loans and get through college.
Though on opposite ends of the career spectrum, both suburban residents have joined the fight for a minimum-wage increase.
Cook County last October passed ordinances to raise the minimum wage to $13 per hour by 2020 and require paid sick days. Some towns have adopted the mandates, but others have decided to opt out.
For Ramirez and Foster, the difference could be a matter of quality of life.
“Maybe I’d be able to afford to have other things and not always feel under stress that I’m not going to be able to make ends meet,” Ramirez said through a translator. “I would be much happier.”
For nearly two decades, Rosa Ramirez of Elgin has worked long hours at countless minimum-wage jobs trying to make ends meet.
Through various temporary staffing agencies, she has found factory work creating every type of product imaginable: electronics, clothing, soap, football helmets, automobile parts, cooking utensils, and the list goes on. For the past six months, she’s been working at Elgin Die Mold in Pingree Grove.
In all the positions she’s held, Ramirez has never made more than $9 per hour, she said. And at those wages, a 40-hour week isn’t enough to pay the bills and feed her family.
As a single mother of two, Ramirez often takes double shifts and holidays because she needs the extra money. She works eight to 12 hours per day, six days a week, and she rarely calls in sick because she can’t afford to miss a day’s pay.
“I always have to work overtime,” Ramirez said. “Minimum wage isn’t enough to support myself and my family.”
When Ramirez heard Cook County towns — including a portion of Elgin — could be raising their minimum wage, she was thrilled. Having been involved in the fight at the state level for years, she spoke at local city council meetings to support the cause.
Much to her disappointment, Elgin and many other suburbs have opted out of the Cook County ordinance mandating a higher minimum wage.
Ramirez said elected officials should learn about the hardships of earning minimum wage before making decisions that affect workers’ lives. “They didn’t do what they needed to do for the workers,” she said.
She wakes up for work every day at 3:30 a.m. and often doesn’t get home until after 5:30 p.m., she said. Her jobs require physical labor, which leaves her exhausted and often causes long-term injuries. She says she avoids going to the doctor because she’s afraid of the medical bills.
“I hope that someone understands that workers need a raise,” she said. “Thirteen dollars is something to fight for.”
For several years, Ryan Foster has worked low-wage jobs while paying off student loans and living with his parents in Oak Lawn. He joined the fight last year after realizing Illinois’ minimum wage of $8.25 per hour isn’t enough to bring even a full-time employee above the poverty line, he said.
“For people to be making minimum wage and still be considered poor and still need government assistance — that’s what fuels me to do what I do,” Foster said.
He recently left his job at Jimmy John’s in Hickory Hills, where he started four years ago as a regular employee making $8.50 per hour. Before he resigned, he was paid about $10.25 as a manager, while also working in the store and as a driver.
Foster, who has his associate degree, is driving for Lyft and hopes to get a job at a dental office. He plans to take online courses next semester and begin studying computer science at Loyola University in January.
In Foster’s eyes, gradually raising the minimum wage will help students and young adults like himself be more successful as they pursue higher education degrees and venture out on their own. But he said it will also benefit adults who work several minimum wage jobs while trying to support families.
“There are people who aren’t given equal opportunities. It’s just hard for them to get out of that hole,” Foster said. “I fight for them, too.”