This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
“Your sister in the hospital,” our mother said, noticeably fatigued. “She got a real high fever, and they just gave her medicine to make her go to sleep.”
Our mother’s rehearsed tone could not suppress her worry.
Jesus, I thought. Can emergencies ever happen in normal times?
I stood bracing myself against my car while focusing on the strip mall across the street. Dollar Tree, Big Lots, Soaring Dragon Chinese Food, Little Caesars Pizza, and a vacant spot that used to house a K-Mart when I was a child growing up in the ‘80s.
When I was a child, I wanted to work at K-Mart. The K-Mart that my parents used to go to was close to Toys-R-Us. I loved looking at the toys through the window, which felt magical to me. My oldest cousin worked at K-Mart. I enjoyed his stories about his co-workers and the customers. I could tell by the way he talked about his job that he liked it. I wanted to have a job just like that. Also, K-Mart was in the same shopping center as the McDonald’s where my sister, Keisha, worked. I liked to ride along when it was time to pick up Keisha from work.
After a long pause, still leaning against my car, I said, “OK. Ma, I’m on my way.”
When I walked into my sister’s hospital room, in November 2018, she was barely awake, but she smiled when she saw me. Her diagnosis: bilateral pneumonia and sepsis. I sat for hours talking to our mother while our brother got our niece and nephew from their schools. When Keisha woke up, she made sure that her children were fine, then asked about work. I told her we could think about work later, but she insisted they know she would be back next week.
Keisha could not afford to miss too many days of work. At the time she was paid by the hour and needed to work 60+ hours a week to make ends meet at home.
My family and I (along with millions of others) understand how a person can work beyond full time just to try to beat the ATM at a game of “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.”
If many minimum wage earners are considered essential, why can’t they afford essential things?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, 73.3 million workers aged 16 and older in the United States were paid hourly rates, representing 55.5 percent of all wage and salary workers. Among those paid by the hour, 247,000 workers earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. About 865,000 workers had wages below the federal minimum.
Over 1 million people in the United States work for $7.25 per hour or less. Read that again.
The federal minimum wage was set at $7.25 an hour in 2009. In 2022 the minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. People who work 40 hours a week at the minimum wage make $290/week before taxes. So, I am not surprised that those who work to earn this amount of money struggle to purchase the basics. I am, however, surprised that many of the humans who earn $7.25 per hour have been crowned “essential workers” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
If many minimum wage earners are considered essential, why can’t they afford essential things? It seems contradictory that as a nation we do not honor the humanity of workers based on the need and function of the job performed. As a culture, we punish those we call essential by making life’s essentials unaffordable. Childcare is a luxury. Healthcare is a luxury. Clean water is a luxury. Food security is a luxury. Adequate housing is a luxury. Clothes are a luxury. Education is a luxury. Breathing clean air is a luxury.
Why have we not learned how to pay people for their work? This makes me think of the story of the Prodigal Son. This Bible story details how the Prodigal Son went and hired himself out and was sent to feed the pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the food meant for the pigs, but “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). This detail in the story demonstrates for me how long Christians will overlook societal issues to get to the “main point.” Rarely do we pause to deal with the fact that the Prodigal Son was not paid for his labor, but rather we focus on God’s grace after he returns home, where a life of privilege awaits him.
When my sister Keisha returned home from the hospital, we talked about her career goals. At one point, I thought that her hospital stay and serious illness would compel her to seek employment in a different industry. It became clear to me during the conversation that Keisha really likes working in the food industry. And that is fine. However, my sister deserves a living wage for the essential service and hard work she provides.
Essential workers, like the Prodigal Son, have reached a breaking point.
Currently, dining rooms are closed due to staffing shortages. Daycare centers, preschools, and public schools are reevaluating ratios due to staffing shortages. And some businesses have increased hourly wages as a result. I have seen signs here in Georgia at multiple restaurants, hotels, retail shops, etc., advertising $12/hour starting salaries. But is it too little too late? Have our essential workers already walked away? Based on the number of “Now Hiring,” “Open Interviews,” and “Help Wanted” signs posted, our nation’s essential workers are certainly responding (or not, depending on your perspective). Essential workers, like the Prodigal Son, have reached a breaking point and are demonstrating an essential consequence of underpayment.
Our federal government needs to increase the minimum wage to reflect the cost of living in this nation and the Church needs to petition, push, pray, and protest until this increase happens. States such as Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California have all raised their minimum wages to over $13 per hour. Despite this progress, a staggering 15 states still have a $7.25 minimum wage, according to 2022 data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
I am not suggesting we need another program to help (or blame) those who work for minimum wage. This is beyond feel good soup kitchens or insulting programs that tell people they need to make do with poverty wages or that instruct them how to balance a budget. I am suggesting that the government require companies to pay essential workers a living wage, and I am further suggesting that the Church do more than pray. Christians must undertake actions that will lead to the outcomes for which they pray. And, essential workers deserve sufficient funds.