Life proves difficult for minimum wage workers

United States minimum wage graph/courtesy of the US Department of Labor
United States minimum wage graph, courtesy of the US Department of Labor

Living life on a minimum wage is no easy task for Arizonans.

Ask Christina Munoz.

For Munoz and her family, Arizona’s minimum wage isn’t a livable wage. “No one can live off of $8 an hour or even unemployment checks. A livable, minimum wage would be like $10-$12 an hour, not $8. There is so much I could do with that extra money,” she said.

Although the recession ended five years ago, Arizona is still feeling the effects of the severe impact it took on the state. With Arizona’s new minimum wage and wage increases at major employers such as Wal-Mart, there is a movement toward recovery and higher pay but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Last month, the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced that half a million of its workers would be receiving a pay increase of $9 an hour by April and $10 by February of 2016. 

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and 29 states pay a higher minimum wage. Arizona is one of them, increasing the minimum wage to $8.05. But for many people, $8.05 is simply not enough.

For more than 15 years, Munoz cleaned houses in Tucson. She supports a family of three and she recently got laid off.

“When I was working, money was always tight. I lived life paycheck by paycheck with no extra money for new clothes or vacations. I got no other support other than myself, even from the state, they said I made too much to get help for things like food,” Munoz said.

When Munoz first started as a housekeeper she made minimum wage and slowly made her way up to $11.50. Now Christina uses unemployment checks to get by.

“The company I was cleaning for told me that they were going to start doing things differently, and told me I was going to be laid off,” she said. “I think they just didn’t want to pay me more than minimum wage and that’s why I was laid off.

“Money is tight but life isn’t impossible. There is not any money for the fun and unnecessary things in life, but that’s okay for right now,” Munoz said. “Luckily, I don’t have credit cards or a car payment so I try to save and budget as much as I can.”

Dr. Dennis Hoffman, professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says that although the minimum wage is not a livable wage there is larger consequence employers face when increasing wages.

“The minimum wage is not intended to sustain a family, let alone help lead a comfortable lifestyle,” Hoffman said. “Earning minimum wage is a great job for someone in transition, but not to live a lifetime on.”

According to Hoffman, there are two types of minimum wage earners. The first is a family member trying to support their family. They are most likely a young family and sit at the lower socio-economic level. The second is an individual in between jobs, they are most likely going to school and using the job to transition into something better. A college student is a good example of this.

“If you impose a wage increase the possibilities of losing your job is greater because many times employers can’t have both competitive prices and competitive wages,” Hoffman continued.

“Employers need to be vigilant of the effects about how many jobs are lost when you prompt a pay increase. I suspect Wal-Mart won’t have the lowest prices anymore because of their new wage increase,” he said.

Hoffman said that Wal-Mart’s new 10 percent pay increase is a signal that Wal-Mart believes that they need higher quality workers and they can retain them at the lower level.

“Sure, Wal-Mart’s pay increase will spark changes in Arizona. Businesses want to stay competitive. We’re getting signs in the marketplace that people are starting to switch to more of a balanced market,” Hoffman said. “Since 2009 people have been scared, they want to keep their jobs, but if you don’t give raises and treat your people right they leave.”

So, are people going to be better off with higher wages? Hoffman says absolutely, but only if those people retain their jobs.

He says that if people have to work harder and work more hours, then an increase of pay isn’t worth it. “Imagine wait staff as an example,” he continued, “their normal work station probably looks like four or five tables but after the wage adjustments there are now seven or eight tables and an increase of hours.”

Some people think differently. Thomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change, said that Arizona’s minimum wage does not promote a way of life. “One cannot live on minimum wage in Arizona,” Robles said.

“In Arizona it takes a minimum wage worker an average of 86 hours per week just to afford basic housing,” he said. “To live in a small apartment, buy groceries and live a simple life.”

Robles said that if employers raise their wages for their employees, it benefits everyone. “That money trickles down and it will benefit low-wage families and the economy,” he said.

Robles also believes that a reasonable living wage would be somewhere in the double digits. “That increase provides a wealth of benefits to low-wage families,” he said.

Although money is tight and jobs are scarce for Munoz, she remains hopeful. “My main goal is to provide for myself and my family. I just need to find a higher paying job to make my family live a life I’ve always wanted them to have.”

Rosie de Queljoe is reporter for Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact Rosie at dequeljoe@email.arizona.edu.

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