What Life is Like for a Low Wage Worker

October 11, 2016

By Briana Vannozzi

“It’s a low blow because you’re going to work every day and then you’re wondering why am I even doing this if I’m still in this situation?” said Nancy Vazquez.

The situation Vazquez talks about is surviving on the minimum wage. She works as a skycap at Newark Liberty International Airport. But between her salary — $2.13 an hour and tips — she’s still unable to afford her own place. The average one-bedroom costs around $1,000 in the state. So she moved in with her sister near Newark’s west side two months ago.

“I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, take my shower, my coffee, I walk out here, down the block to take the bus I’m usually there 10 or 15 minutes. Now I don’t come out so early, things have changed, but this is a low income neighborhood so people are known to be robbed at the bus stop,” she said.

Despite that, she’s got few other options. A car and the maintenance is too expensive. The minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.38 an hour. It’s tied to the consumer price index, thanks to a constitutional amendment put to voters in 2013. That means it’ll go up come January by 6 cents.

“If you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, which most people don’t, you’d make around $17,000 a year. That’s just around the poverty wage for a family of two,” said Carl E. Van Horn, director of John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

Van Horn directs Rutgers’ Center for Workforce Development. He explains most low income earners are holding down two jobs, 60 to 70 hours a week, to stay afloat.

“These are folks that are working hard all the time. So, these are not people who want to be on public assistance. They’re out there working. They’re not sitting at home watching soap operas. And many of them need to travel long distances by public transportation, by car if they can afford a car,” he said.

It’s estimated nearly 1 million low income workers would benefit from a wage hike. The United Way of Northern New Jersey says that $17,000 threshold is way off. By their studies, a single adult living here needs to earn $13.78 an hour — or $28,000 a year — to meet the most basic of needs.

“On my own there was a food struggle. You know, you have to constantly deny yourself of things. Even I wear a lot of hats because I’m not doing my hair all the time so you’re constantly denying yourself things,” Vazquez said.

Vazquez says she works alongside a lot of four-year college educated employees, all making the minimum or a coveted $10.10 an hour.

“You know they say put yourself through school, go to work there’s going to be changes so we do all this and there’s no changes so where do you go from here?” she said.

“What we’re talking about here is giving people — when you raise the minimum wage — an opportunity to take care of themselves as best they can and to live a survival wage really. This does not lead them to prosperity. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to take vacations. What it does really is help them have the basic necessities of living,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn says taxpayers are funding the basic necessities for the workers. Because they so often need to rely on public assistance and rarely have paid sick days or an emergency fund.

“You’re servicing these people, they’re getting on flights you can’t get on. You know a nurse’s aide, you’re giving out health care that you don’t have, fast food, you’re dealing with food that you go home and you can’t even feed your kids. It doesn’t matter what job title it is, minimum wage, you can’t make a living for yourself,” Vazquez said.

To make a living, so they’re not so vulnerable to life.

RELATED: What a Minimum Wage Increase Means to Small Businesses