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She Won the Fight to Raise Minimum Wage. Then Lost It.

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Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our recurring series “Money Diaries” where we ask interesting people to open up about the role money has played in their lives.

At the McDonald’s where I work, on the south side of St. Louis, I make the minimum wage: $7.70 an hour. I do some of everything. I’ve prepped the line, I’ve toasted buns, dropped the fries, helped bag the food, taken care of customers, hollered out orders, cleaned up the restaurant — so I’m an all-around employee. I’m 47 years old, almost 48, a mother of four, a grandmother of eleven, and they all live with me in public housing.

I used to write parking tickets for the city. That was a good paying job. But in 2010, I got really sick. I almost died of a staph infection and when I finally recovered, my job was gone, so I went to work for McDonald’s. Making it on $7.70 an hour is a constant struggle in my mind. My rent is $488 a month. You can figure out the math. If I pay the rent, can I pay the light bill? Should I pay the light bill or buy food? Do I have any little bit of money left for household supplies this month?

Last spring, we fought to raise the minimum wage. We had protests all over St. Louis. And you know what, we won! Here in the city it went from $7.70 an hour to $10. That had a huge impact on my life. Instead of making $580 every two weeks, I was making $780. Four hundred more dollars a month. I was still struggling, but that raise took the edge off. I felt proud that we did it. I loved the fight, too. Most of us out there protesting were fast food workers. We were all family.

But that only lasted for three months. See, the city of St. Louis raised the minimum wage, but the state wasn’t having it – so the state took the raise away. We went to talk to those politicians. We explained the way we just couldn’t make it on $7.70 an hour. We asked them to please consider our situation and let us keep our raise. Why give us something just to snatch back? We asked them, “Let us live off y’all's money for about a month and y’all can live off ours and see if you can make it.” But it’s like they didn’t care. They got up there and voted against the raise, and put a cap on the minimum wage for the whole state.

Every day I take a bus to work — it’s about a 45-minute ride. I have to make sure I’ve got money put aside for the fare: two dollars a trip, so that’s twenty dollars a week. I never miss a day of work, I don’t care if I’m sick, tired, barely able to walk on two feet. I don’t care if my kids are telling me to stay home because I look worn out. I’ve got to work. Without me … well, they all depend on me.

I look at my grandbabies and I think, I don’t want them to grow up like this. I don’t want them crowded in this apartment — we’ve got mice, they run up on the bed sometimes! But I tell you, those mice have got more room to jump around than we do. And in this neighborhood they’re always fighting and shooting at each other in the street. Doesn’t matter what hour, they just turn the day into night. So I keep my grandkids inside with me. I take them to church every Sunday.

Everyone in my family knows that’s my dream. A house for my whole family to live in. Some room, some peace of mind, and a place where my grandkids can play outside.

I dream of having a house where we can all live. Sometimes when I talk to my mom, I tell her I wish I could be one of those people who go to Habitat for Humanity and they help you build a house. My mother always says, “Hold your head up. You’re doing the best you can and one day you’re gonna have a house for your family because you fight hard to take care of all of them.” When we were growing up my mom worked at White Castle and my dad worked at McDonald’s, so she knows what it’s like.

Everyone in my family knows that’s my dream. A house for my whole family to live in. Some room, some peace of mind, and a place where my grandkids can play outside. Now, they’ve cut my hours in half—I’m only working twenty hours a week—and if something doesn’t happen quick we’re going to end up on the streets. They already told me that if I can’t come up with the rent, they’re going to have to send me to court and evict me and my family. I pray every day to God to try to help me, lead me, guide me, show me what to do.

I talked to my boss and then I went and called his boss. I told him I’m suffering, I can be homeless any time. He said, Wanda, I know you’re a hard worker. You do everything we ask of you in this store. I don’t want to see you and your family out on the street. Don’t worry, we’ll kick your hours back up next week. That’s what he told me.

When they took that raise away, I had to hide my feelings from my family. I just didn’t want them to see how much I was hurting. I stopped talking about it in front of them. But sometimes things build up too much and I can’t help but cry. I’ve got a grandson who’s seven and another who’s eight and a little while back they came into my room and seen me crying and they say, “Granny are you okay?’ I wipe my eyes and go, “Yeah, I’m fine, baby.” And they say, “No, you’re not because you’re crying. Well, don’t cry, granny, because we know why you’re crying and one day you’re gonna be able to buy a house for all of us.”

You can learn more about the organization Wanda worked with to raise the minimum wage here. As told to Kathy Dobie exclusively for Wealthsimple. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell. We make smart investing simple and affordable.

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