Since President Obama called on lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour during his recent State of the Union address, economists and pundits have argued about whether it would hurt the economy and small businesses or stimulate growth by boosting spending power and pulling low-wage workers out of poverty.
Debate over outcomes aside, an increase would affect more than 20 million workers, including high school students, single parents, young adults and senior citizens in the Augusta area. The Augusta Chronicle asked a sample of minimum-wage workers to talk about how they make ends meet. These are their stories.
William Nicholson spent 25 years growing his construction and remodeling business.
He worked on houses in Georgia from Roswell to Athens and watched as a passion turned into a comfortable career.
But in 2010, the darkness he tried most of his life to suppress derailed all of that.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manic depression made Nicholson, 54, unable to work. His marriage fell apart. After 10 years of sobriety, he couldn’t go a day without drinking and bad decisions pushed him into homelessness.
“It got me down to the real bottom,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson relocated to Augusta last year for a nine-month drug and alcohol program through the Salvation Army and was later offered a part-time job at one of the organization’s warehouses.
The job has given him purpose and stability, he said, but his recovery has come with limitations. He said he is grateful for a chance to have the part-time work, but at $7.25 an hour, it’s almost impossible to get by.
“I’m slowly dwindling away here where I can’t make ends meet,” he said. “We desperately need a raise to the minimum wage, but maybe it should be gradual. Maybe a dollar raise this year, another next year. That way it gradually works into the business system.”
While in recovery, Nicholson receives rent assistance from CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority, which helps the homeless afford housing. To save on insurance and gas, Nicholson bought a motorcycle to get to work, thinking it would be cheaper than a car.
Still, he said, getting by is difficult and getting ahead is impossible. There is no money to invest in a house or save for the future.
“It’s very difficult to save any money,” he said. “I pay rent, groceries, gas, and there’s not much left after that.”
He would like to get back into his love – construction, but he doesn’t have the tools or connections he used to.
“It’s kind of standing still,” he said. “I might need to wait until the economy gets a little better, until I find the right company or something. With all my life’s ups and downs, I’m maintaining. But it’s hard to get by.”
When the dismissal bell rings at Lucy C. Laney High School, Samantha Torres’ workday is just beginning.
She waits on the curb outside school for her ride, where Torres slides in her aunt’s car with a Wendy’s uniform stuffed in her backpack.
Every day from 4 to 9 p.m., except Wednesday and Thursday, Torres works the register at the fast-food restaurant on Walton Way and Gordon Highway. Sometimes she makes sandwiches. Her sidework includes cleaning and making drinks. At the end of the night, she has to scrub toilets.
Torres, 17, is not afraid of hard work and is thankful for her job. But at $7.25 an hour, she has to put in a lot of time while juggling school for her paycheck to cover all her expenses.
As a high school senior, it’s easy to feel like she’s missing out.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart,” Torres said. “I have three projects I should be working on today, but I’m here at work. I feel like I’m at work all the time, and I miss out on a lot of stuff. But if I take off, then I don’t have money.”
Torres, who lives with her disabled mother and three younger sisters, splits her paycheck among food and clothes for herself and sisters. The rest goes into a savings account that she hopes to use to buy a car.
After graduating from Laney this spring, Torres plans to enroll in Aiken Technical College to study phlebotomy.
“I was thinking about going to a university, but it costs too much,” she said.
She said she wants a career in nursing so she doesn’t get stuck in low-paying job the rest of her life.
Torres said she fears a raise in the minimum wage would pull costs of goods up with it. But she said she does not believe her current wage reflects the level of work she does. With a higher hourly rate, Torres imagines she could work fewer hours and have time to be a kid.
“It would help a whole lot,” Torres said. “Maybe I could work less and have more time to focus on school.”
The Army veteran stands along Wrightsboro Road and rocks a cardboard guitar as if he’s Jimi Hendrix, trying to lure customers into the parking lot for a $9.99 dinner special.
With headphones plugged in his ears, he zones out and dances to get the attention of passing cars. For a few minutes, Lamar Evans, 24, doesn’t feel like he’s on the nightshift at Little Caesars Pizza.
“It’s kind of fun to listen to my music, dance around and get paid to do it,” Evans said. “But, yeah, I do want something more.”
After leaving the Army in 2011 having served as a military police officer, Evans returned to Augusta and applied for security jobs, hoping for a fresh start on life. What he found, however, was trouble finding full-time work or getting in for an interview at all.
He turned to applying for minimum wage jobs at Bi-Lo, Wal-Mart and Burger King.
“Anything would do,” he said.
Evans found part-time work at Popeyes restaurant in 2012 and another part-time position at Little Caesars last year. When he can get 40 hours per week between both jobs, Evans said he usually earns about $1,200 a month, enough to “pay bills, barely eat and get gas in the car for one or two days.”
There’s no extra cash to unwind with a movie or a night out until the last paycheck of the month. And every week, his hours are at the mercy of the scheduling manager.
“At the end of the day, if I’m not getting my hours, I’m not getting my money,” he said. “When they give me a lot of days off, it hurts. And I want to work.”
Evans said with a military background and clean credentials he had hoped to achieve more, but he found the job market was tough. His goal is to attend massage therapy school to become a masseuse.
The problem is getting time away from work to dedicate to school without falling behind on bills. And with a 5-month-old son to care for, he can’t afford a break.
He said he believes a raise in the minimum wage could help workers such as himself get ahead by going to school to prevent low-paying jobs from becoming a career.
“It will happen, I’ll go to school, just don’t know when,” he said.
Missing one shift at work is so unthinkable for Anthony Bridgewater, on several occasions he has rented a room at a hotel near his job at Kmart in North Augusta so he could walk there the next day.
Bridgewater, 26, shares a car with his mother, a correctional officer, who typically carpools with a coworker to her job in Trenton, S.C.
However, on days she needs the car, Bridgewater said staying home because he doesn’t have a ride is out of the question.
“I can barely make ends meet with what I got, so I’m not missing any work,” he said.
Bridgewater has worked as an electronics associate at Kmart for about a year, enjoys what he does, but said minimum wage leaves almost no chance to get ahead.
The electricity bill at home can balloon to $300 some months, water costs about $100, and after groceries and gas, there is little left.
“Once you pay those bills, you can’t pay anything else,” he said.
Bridgewater said he dropped out of Cross Creek High School in the 12th grade when neighborhood gang violence was too risky to be around. He trained with Job Corps in Kentucky and earned his GED but returned to Augusta in 2010 to help his mother.
Without a college degree, Bridgewater said he has been limited to retail and fast food jobs, even with his good work ethic and clean background. However, he has learned he is talented at sales and dealing with people and wants to capitalize on that.
“I thought about going back to school, but (it) isn’t for me,” said Bridgewater, who studied criminal justice at Augusta Technical College but did not complete a degree. “I see myself opening my own business one day.”
To earn extra cash, Bridgewater cuts lawns and chops dead trees for neighbors, but he said a higher wage would help, too. He said his position at Kmart requires people skills and product knowledge that is not found in everyone, and it would be nice to be compensated more for his abilities.
“It would help. It would help a lot. I would be able to get a bill, maybe two, done and still have a little spending money. It would be easier to save up. Because now, you’re kind of stuck.”