From L to R: Kyona Kelley, Porche Vann, Yeshera Douglas protest for higher wages outside a Little Caesar's in Fayetteville. Kyona Kelley, Porche Vann, Yeshera Douglas outside store
From L to R: Kyona Kelley, Porche Vann, Yeshera Douglas protest for higher wages outside a Little Caesar's in Fayetteville.

As President Biden calls for a $15 federal minimum age, some in North Carolina are struggling to make ends meet.

Each week, Porche Vann reports for work at a Little Caesars in Fayetteville. She works 7-to-8-hour shifts on her feet with little rest, averaging 40-to-50-hour weeks. Yet she still struggles to secure housing, pay bills, and make ends meet. 

That’s because Vann only makes minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.

“It’s made me feel worthless,” she says. “It makes me feel as if I’m disrespected every day that I have to go and work a job that I’m working really hard for—I put a lot of effort into it, I go above and beyond—and I feel like I’m just worth a couple quarters.”

Vann is not alone. According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2019, 82.3 million workers age 16 and older in the United States were paid at hourly rates, representing 58.1% of all wage and salary workers. Among those paid by the hour, 392,000 workers earned exactly the federal minimum wage of $7.25. About 1.2 million had wages below the federal minimum. 

For many of those workers like Vann, working a minimum-wage job can feel like playing a game of catchup they can never win. At the current minimum wage, an employee working a 40-hour week would only earn $290 gross. That’s before taxes and other deductions.

“When apartments look at my paystubs, they’re like, ‘you wouldn’t be qualified,’ and it hurts hearing that because it’s not my fault that I’m getting paid this much,” Vann says. “A lot of apartments and houses here in Fayetteville want you to make three times the rent, and at $7.25, there’s no possible way to make that even with overtime.”

Frustrated and discouraged, Vann decided to speak out about the struggles of minimum wage workers, joining Raise Up and the Fight for $15 movement. With the help of the organization that advocates for raising the minimum wage to $15, Vann and several of her coworkers staged a one-day strike on Feb. 9.

“I felt like I needed to stand up for the people I was working with there,” she says. “There are some people who had it worse than me. It really broke my heart because some of them have children, and it’s like, ‘wow, they’re trying to make a living off $7.25,’ and I knew I had to do something.”

Vann’s story is all-too familiar to state Senator Natalie Murdock. Murdock, who represents Durham County, grew up with the example of her grandmother, a Guilford County school cafeteria worker who helped organize a strike for higher wages.

“At the time they were making less than $3 per hour,” Murdock says. “(The strike) lasted for months, and they were able to get the wages raised. Her story shows that there’s an ability to get those wages raised, and it’s in my DNA to fight for what’s right for workers.”

In January, Murdock co-sponsored a bill with Senator Don Davis, an eastern North Carolina Democrat, requiring state education officials to study raising the salaries of non-certified public school employees, such as maintenance and cafeteria workers.

“The bill will study what it takes to get these workers to $15,” says Murdock. “Those bus drivers and custodians oftentimes really interact with those students and leave a lasting impact on their lives. It is our belief that all of those staffers deserve $15 because they contribute to the wellbeing of our children.”

Murdock’s bill came after Durham County Commissioners voted to increase the minimum wage of the county’s classified school employees to $15. So far, increases like these—carried out at the city or county level—have not accounted for any growth on the minimum wage in North Carolina.

The current federal minimum wage was set in 2009, and the 12-year period since then is the longest without an increase since the minimum was established under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages. President Joe Biden has proposed an increase of the federal wage to $15 as part of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage say it will slow economic growth and hurt small businesses, possibly even resulting in job loss for those who can’t afford to pay all workers a higher wage. 

But during a pandemic, when many low-wage workers like fast food and grocery store employees are forced to put their health at risk to stay afloat, advocates say raising the minimum wage has become far more than an economic issue.

“We have too many workers not only living paycheck to paycheck, but also extending themselves with payday loans and credit cards,” says Murdock. “The pandemic has shown us you really need to have emergency savings, and all jobs don’t have paid leave, so if you’re an hourly worker, that’s why you’ve seen so many workers going to work sick.”

Vann says that working a job deemed essential, while not receiving commensurate pay, has been demoralizing for her and her co-workers.

“It’s depressing knowing that even though we come out every day, putting our health at risk, we’re still at the minimum,” she says. “And then when you hear certain jobs that have upped their pay for their workers, and you look at fast food workers, you’re like, ‘what about us?’

As the debate to raise the minimum wage continues, workers like Vann can’t help thinking how a change in policy could make a major difference in their lives.

“I don’t think that I would struggle as much,” she says. “Right now I am struggling check to check, so I feel like if we could get a raise to $15 as the true minimum, I wouldn’t have to stress and worry as much. It’s a struggle, especially when the prices in the world have gone up tremendously, and $7.25 is still the minimum wage. I make less than a two-topping pizza.”