Making ends meet on the minimum wage


Tyrrell Brown poses for a portrait in Forest Heights, Md. Brown works for minimum wage at a Family Dollar store and his earnings largely go toward his infant daughter, who he cares for with the baby's mother. (Michael Laris/The Washington Post)
February 24, 2013

Tyrrell Brown is constantly thinking about money.

“All the time, every day, right now,” said Brown, 24.

He makes minimum wage as a cashier at the Family Dollar in Forest Heights, in Prince George’s County near the District boundary. He pulls out his phone for an accounting of his weekly take-home pay: $176.63, $187.95, $252.42, $229.99.

It’s a reminder of all he has done, and can’t yet do, on $7.25 an hour.

“I’m thankful,” Brown said. “Without the job, I could see myself not being the father I am.”

But even with the job, the income of his girlfriend, Janise Creek, and support from their parents, they can’t afford to get their own apartment with their daughter Jayla, who is 8 months old, has two front teeth and is always eating. Or to get his Jeep running. Or for him to get back to the criminal justice courses he left to get a paycheck when Janise got pregnant.

“Who can live off this little bit of money every week?” he said.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address for raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour. Many congressional Republicans oppose the idea; House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) says it could reduce employment. But polls have shown at least two-thirds of Americans support an even bigger hike.

A majority of state senators in Maryland are co-sponsoring a bill to raise the minimum wage in the state further, to $10 per hour by 2015. Both the Obama and Maryland proposals include automatic future raises to keep up with the cost of living, an idea Obama noted he and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, agreed on during last year’s campaign.

“The value of the minimum wage shouldn’t be eroded, and it has been,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), a key sponsor of the Maryland bill. “If we’re going to have a minimum wage in this country, or the state of Maryland, it needs to be a wage people can live off of.”

Tens of thousands of people make the minimum wage in Virginia and Maryland, from warehouse workers in Manassas to book sorters near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. The District sets its minimum hourly wage $1 higher than the federal level, so it is currently $8.25. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said this month that he might ask the D.C. Council to raise it, even without a hike in the federal minimum wage.

A full-time minimum-wage worker makes about $15,000 a year. That’s above the poverty line of about $11,500 for an individual but just below the line for a two-person household. Raising the wage to $9 an hour would increase pay by about $75 a week; taking it to $10 would increase it nearly $120 a week.

But some business owners have balked, saying that their businesses need the flexibility to set wages as personnel and circumstances allow.

One of those is Michelle Kwon, Janise Creek’s boss.

The Korean immigrant went into business 15 years ago, first selling coffee in Arlington and now cheese steaks and lattes in a low-end mall in Hillcrest Heights, just south of the District in Prince George’s.

Creek, 21, began working as Kwon’s food-court cashier before she and Brown had Jayla. Kwon started Creek at $8 and raised her pay over time to $9 an hour.

But the idea of starting all of her employees at that level doesn’t compute.

“How could we pay $9 an hour minimum wage? That’s fantasy,” said Kwon, 50.

Creek deserves the higher salary, Kwon said. But she’s seen a stream of young workers who don’t.

“If they’re good, I keep raising their rate,” Kwon said. “Mostly 9 out of 10, they can’t stay. They try to steal or do something bad. For me, giving them $9 for minimum wage is a waste.”

Although food prices are up, she’s kept her prices flat, which is eating into her profits. Already, her neighbor in the food court, a Peruvian chicken place, has gone under.

Kwon said a starting salary of $8 or $8.25 is reasonable, but a hike to $9 would be too much for employers. “They are going to hesitate to hire people,” she said.

A major study by economists at the University of California at Berkeley compared adjacent counties that have different minimum wages across the country, focusing on restaurant jobs. It found higher minimum wages did not prompt job cuts.

But other studies have shown other changes can result. Employers may cut hours or benefits or raise prices or accept lower profits. Employees may work harder, or stay in their jobs longer, saving their bosses money.

Kwon said she will do what’s necessary, whatever comes.

“Even though I don’t make good money, I do money management,” Kwon said. “When the economy’s slow, whoever will do money management well will win. That’s my business philosophy.”

Janise Creek puts salt and pepper on fries for customers, joshes with regulars, pushes florescent pink donuts. She checks her cellphone during dead time.

She used to make minimum wage at McDonald’s when she was in high school, and she feels the difference.

“I had to work extra, extra hours to get a decent check,” Creek said. Now, working 40 hours a week with two days off, she has a little space to breathe. She also gets help from family and lives part time with her mother and part time with Brown’s family. The couple have Medicaid for health insurance.

“We’re doing good right now, because we both have support from both sides. It’s tight, but I enjoy my life,” she said.

But there is a lot more she wants. She wants to go to Prince George’s Community College to study child development and become a preschool teacher.

“They always down-talk it because it’s a community college. I know people who have gone far, whether it’s a community college or not,” she said.

But the bills keep coming. Sometimes Kwon drives her home when Creek runs out of money on her SmarTrip card.

Creek and Brown alternate paying Creek’s aunt to take care of Jayla while they’re working. That’s $150 every two weeks. There are the expected costs, such as Jayla’s clothes, and the cost of getting ahead, such as the $270 Creek needs for driving school.

“By the grace of God, I have a good man,” she said. “We split everything. . . . If he buys diapers one week, I buy the wipes one week.”

Brown tries to get as many hours as he can at Family Dollar, which means a maximum of 37 to 39 hours a week helping customers and restocking shelves lined with dog-paw-shaped lollipops and Winnie the Pooh baby blankets. But sometimes he doesn’t even break 30 hours.

When bills hit at the same time, there is no cushion. After paying his dad $150 in rent, the child-care bill, $55 for his cellphone and $26 for diapers, he had $20 left last month. He gave that to Creek.

“I wouldn’t tell her it was my last $20,” Brown said. “I gave it to her so she could get to work and get something to eat. As long as they eat first, I’m fine with it.”

When things like that happen, he said, he’ll try to make it through the day on a $1 bag of chips or some cookies or, if he has $3, a chicken sandwich, some fries and sweet tea at McDonald’s.

Brown doesn’t want to keep reaching out to his parents for assistance.

“I look at it as I’m the man of the relationship. I should work for mine,” he said.

What he wants is a job that makes more money. Upping the minimum wage would be a start, he said.

He hopes to become a special police officer, a security officer with a gun, and get a place for the three of them, a place with freedom, space and privacy.

“I mean, it’s a dream,” he said. “I know I’m going to get there someday.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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