KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They march, chant and raise their voices in protest together on the streets: $15 and a union!
Then, fighting against what they say is their own and others’ poverty, they go home.
Krystal McLemore, 24 – who earns about $500 every two weeks working at Taco Bell for $7.85 an hour – goes home to a small, third-story apartment for which she pays $550 a month and that she shares with her boyfriend, DeAnthony Davis, 29. He works at Domino’s pizza for $5.50 an hour plus tips.
Together, they are raising four children younger than 9, including an 8-month-old. For their meals, the two fast-food workers and the kids rely on food stamps.
Richard Eiker, 45, goes home to a tidy, one-bedroom apartment in Raytown filled with books on science fiction and Japanese anime. He has worked at various McDonald’s restaurants as a janitor for more than 20 years. He makes $11 an hour.
Before his 70-year-old mother fell ill and needed to be in a nursing home, he and she lived together, pooling his pay and her Social Security money.
Now he’s on his own. Making $15 an hour would be a godsend.
“It would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about my car being repossessed,” Eiker said. “It would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about which bills to pay one week or which bills to pay the next week. It would mean, you know, that I wouldn’t have to be trying to survive on $40 cash, period, for two weeks.
“I buy groceries when I get paid and hope I have enough food to last until I get paid again. Sometimes I don’t, so I go a day or two without food … or my blood pressure medication. Sometimes I take it every other day instead of every day to make it last a little longer.”
Of course, the two demonstrators have heard the criticism: $15 an hour for fast-food work? It’s too much. It’s kids’ work and not worth more money. If you want better pay, get a better job. Go back to school.
Sharpest of all: If you’re so worried about being poor, why did you have so many kids you can’t afford?
But such criticism, they think, not only reveals how little others understand the realities of poverty but also is off the point.
“What I feel,” McLemore said, “is that the kids have nothing to do with the jobs we do. It’s not about kids. It’s not about education level, or background. It’s not about what you choose to do with your life.”
McLemore said she was born and raised in poverty. When, as a teenager, she became pregnant for the first time, she didn’t have much support and left high school to try to care for her son.
“Some of us don’t have the privilege of growing up in the higher classes,” she said. “Those of us born in the lower class, it’s a struggle for us.”
Regarding her children: “I don’t believe in abortion,” she said. “Every child is a blessing, whether it’s one or 1,000.” So, at home, after work, she goes online to try to earn her GED diploma.
“Why don’t I go back to school to get an education?” Eiker said. He brings home just short of $600 every two weeks. After bills, he said, he has next to no cash left and no savings.
“How do I afford tuition?” he said. “Or books? How do I get gas for my car when even now I have to worry about buying food?”
Opponents to the low-wage demonstrations counter that the “$15 and a union” movement is not actually about helping the working poor but instead is a guise, an excuse by labor unions to bolster flagging membership and collect dues.
Increasing wages, they argue, not only will hurt the independent franchise owners who run thousands of fast-food restaurants on small margins, but also will hurt consumers who will have to pay more.
To McLemore and Eiker, the low-wage worker protests are about fair treatment.
To them that means being paid what they see as living wages and getting benefits from businesses such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart and Yum Brands, which controls KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
It doesn’t make sense to them, they said, that employees of businesses with rich corporate owners are living in poverty, meaning that taxpayers frequently subsidize necessities like food, housing and health care.
Besides food stamps, McLemore’s children receive Medicaid. She and Davis have no health insurance. A recent car accident resulted in a hospital bill of more than $26,000, which they said they have no way of paying.
It’s not a teenager’s job any longer. At his McDonald’s, Eiker said, teens do work shifts at night, but nearly all of his co-workers during the day are adults. The National Employment Law Project reports the average age of fast-food workers is now 29, with 40 percent age 25 or older. More than 26 percent are parents raising children.
“We’re speaking out for what we believe in, and what’s fair,” McLemore said.
“Going out on strike is a big thing,” Eiker said. “We’re trying to change things. After 20-some years I’ve worked, I haven’t seen any change. I don’t want to go another 20 years.
“When’s it going to change? That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”