Why Should I Be Grateful for Minimum Wage?

When I was sixteen, my mother told me to be grateful for any job that I could get. As a woman of color, I was raised to believe that opportunities were scarce and that I should make the most of any one that I could find. It didn’t matter that my mother spent the majority of her life working sixty hours a week, and co-workers often made fun of her for having an accent. She told me that if I did it right, it would all be worth it in the end.

It didn’t help that I was sixteen years old and the economy had just crashed. I also had a weird name, and every time I saw a rejection with my name on it, I cursed my mother for it. I thought about going by a different name, perhaps Allie or Tessa — something that would seem relatable. But I kept seeing prompts and the words thrown around such as “equal opportunity,” and I fooled myself into thinking that these companies embraced diversity with open arms. It wasn’t until I grew older that I realized that these companies hadn’t embraced diversity willingly; it wasn’t until the law stepped in to make discrimination illegal that people like me had a fighting chance.

Yet even with the law on our side, the competition was not. In this world of high unemployment rates and housing market crashes, employers didn’t need a reason to not hire me. But I put in applications anyway because I didn’t have any other choice.

I got my first job at eighteen — two years after I began putting in applications. I took a job at a movie theater, and during my interview, the general manager joked that I’d get my next raise when minimum wage went up. He didn’t mention that the minimum wage job wouldn’t be enough to cover rent, let alone living expenses. He also didn’t care that my working schedule was at his beck and call. Sometimes, I worked — and earned — thirty hours’ worth of work. Other weeks, I made just enough to pay for my lunch for that day.

“You just need to bide your time,” he said. “People with seniority get first dibs.”

I remembered what my mother had said — just be grateful for any job you could get. So, I bode my time. I stood on my feet during my shift and came home smelling like buttered popcorn. I couldn’t afford to live on my own, but it was a job — and for that, I was grateful.

A year later, I took a job at a casino restaurant. My hours at the theater had been reduced to practically nothing, and I was desperate to pay bills. My mother had lost her job and kicked me out, and I frantically tried to find a way to pay for a place to live. Still, I didn’t qualify for full-time. The manager told me that I needed more experience in order to move up, so I began as a bus girl before I moved on to hosting and taking orders from customers. At nineteen, I talked customers through their gambling addictions and smiled politely when old men hit on me. I had customers defecate on the casino staircase, too afraid to lose their slot machine in the middle of a winning streak. When I complained about the smell to a coworker, he laughed and said, “People poop on the staircase all the time. It’s part of the job.”

I wondered if this was the experience that the restaurant manager had spoken of; did I need to have the experience of smelling defecation and looking over my shoulder in order to be worthy of promotion? Until I was, I wouldn’t be able to afford a place to live.

The managers reminded us that there were people dying to get work. All we had to do was mess up once, and we’d be replaced by someone eager to take our place. And again, I was grateful.

I took a second job at a coffee shop. I woke up at five o’clock in the morning for a shift that began a quarter to six. When I was done, I left work to head to my night classes at the local community college. When I wasn’t in school, I worked nights and weekends at the casino. Both jobs paid minimum wage, but I worked enough hours that I could at least afford an apartment. Still, in the end, I slept in my car — too tired to care, too broke for it to make a difference.

But in the years that followed, a miracle happened: I finished school. I got better work. Before I knew it, I was able to quit the low paying jobs that were making me miserable and move into something that didn’t. I got an apartment, got promoted, and got to make something of myself. I remembered what my first manager had said: “You just need to bide your time.” Bide my time I did, and even though it was hard, I felt grateful that it was behind me.

Then the pandemic hit.

Before the pandemic hit, I was on the verge of a promising career, but now, I need to find a job. Bills are piling up, but this time, they’re my own. I need to pull my weight, but now, I need to do it on my own. Former colleagues and friends tell me, “Just be grateful for any job that you can get.” They tell me to bide my time, and they tell me that I should be grateful.

Except I’m not sixteen years old anymore. I am almost thirty. I meet the proper qualifications, I have the right amount of job experience, and I have seen this game played out enough times to know how it ends.

I read a statistic in the news the other day: fifty-five percent of people in my age group have lost their jobs or been furloughed. It’s even worse for people of color. Meanwhile, the economic impact on the older generation — the generation of my mother, my former boss, and the colleagues that tell me to be grateful —has been less than half of that.

A part of me wants to laugh at the irony; we were told to bide our time, but now, there’s no jobs to go around. Another part of me wonders if it’s an attempt to drag us down with them as they die at record high rates while people in my demographic have managed (so far) to stay healthy. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that our generation can’t afford to buy housing, and we’re delaying milestones like getting married and having kids. We’re susceptible to anxiety and imposter syndrome, and that voice in our heads — the one telling us to be grateful — prevents us from negotiating for raises and asking for promotions.

Employers tell their employees that they should be grateful — and then they turn around and use the economic downturn as a free pass to underpay and overwork their employees. Companies require college degrees for entry level positions, and for the people that are in these roles, they are told to be grateful in order to steer talented people from looking elsewhere for opportunities.

Am I grateful? Should I be? Perhaps I would be if CEO’s weren’t making record profits instead of reinvesting in their employees. Perhaps I would be if it felt like the people in charge actually cared about us. But if our leaders and bosses can’t be grateful enough to pay us a living wage, then why should we be grateful to them?

Tessa Clare is a Filipino American author living in Portland, Oregon with her partner and two cats. Her debut book, The Divinity Bureau, premiered in the top forty in three categories on Amazon, and her writing has appeared in USA Today, Medium’s Editor’s Top Picks, and many other publications. She is currently working on a travel memoir about her experiences as a first generation Filipino American reclaiming her heritage after a decade of estrangement from her immigrant family.

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