clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Faces of minimum wage: Chasing the American dream in fits, starts

Editor’s note: Minimum wage workers protest nationwide, pleading for hikes at federal, state and local levels. Businesses fear potential harm from such a mandate, predicting layoffs and higher prices. In Chicago, some aldermen sought a $15 minimum; a city panel held hearings and proposed $13 by 2018, and the City Council on Dec. 2 approved an ordinance bumping the minimum to $13 by 2019. In Illinois, the debate went to voters on the Nov. 4 ballot with a nonbinding referendum seeking support for a hike to $10 from $8.25 per hour. It was approved by 67 percent of voters statewide and 87 percent in the city. The Chicago Sun-Times talks to area low-wage workers and small business owners in a series of stories. We invite you to follow our Faces of Minimum Wage series for more in-depth coverage in words, photos and video.

Victor Guzman immigrated from Guerrero, Mexico, at age 14, following parents who’d left their two children behind years earlier to chase the American dream in Chicago.

That dream was yet elusive when Guzman, now 22, joined them in the Southwest Side Hispanic enclave of Little Village, where he attended eighth grade at Little Village Academy, then graduated from Curie High School in 2010 to enter the work world.

“My parents came because they wanted to give us a better life,” Guzman says. “It was hard growing up without my parents. My sister and I were left with my grandmother.”

A young man slight of build, with an intense gaze, Guzman works at McDonald’s.

He moved out from his father’s apartment in April to live on his own for the first time.

“In Mexico, that situation is really bad. There’s a lot of poverty,” Guzman says of his home country. But when he arrived in Chicago, he found his parents still in poverty.

They both worked long hours — his father at a metal factory, his mother at a burger packaging factory. “I had depression in high school my first year because my parents worked all the time, and I used to be alone at home. I was so lonely,” he says.

It’s when he learned the cost of the American dream.

After graduating from Curie, his first job was joining his mother at her factory.

A year later, he’d land a job at a McDonald’s downtown, where he’d earn Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 hourly. Three years later, Guzman now earns $8.75 hourly.

His monthly rent with utilities at the three-bedroom apartment in Chinatown he shares with two roommates is $450. He pays $100 monthly for a Chicago Transit Authority pass.

Guzman’s take-home pay: $900 to $1,100 monthly. That’s with a 31-hour week at McDonald’s and four days work at a factory he gets from a temporary placement firm.

“McDonald’s doesn’t pay me enough — $8.25, or $8.75 is a kind of a hopeless minimum wage,” he says. “In order to make enough to survive, on my days off I go to a temporary agency. I wait there until they call me to see if there’s any work opportunity.”

Guzman gets excited talking about his plans for his future, which he ties to hopes he’s held for an increase in the minimum wage, be it at the city, state or national level.

He says when Chicago passed its $13 minimum wage ordinance this month, it brought him that much closer to realizing his dreams of obtaining an associate’s degree.

Guzman has attended Harold Washington Community College off and on since 2011 — saving enough money to take classes for a semester here and there, leaving when money ran out.

“After high school, my parents told me, ‘We cannot afford for you to go to college. If you want to go to college, you have to take the responsibility. We can help you with the rent, that’s it.’ ” Guzman recounts.

“I saved up the $2,000 to go full-time that first semester. But what I was making at McDonald’s wasn’t enough to pay for school. The books, even used ones, were like $100. So I left that next semester, saved up more money, went part time for like $600 the semester after that, then left again the next semester, and came back again.”

Guzman, who dreams of one day teaching or maybe working as a researcher in academia — literature is his favorite subject — last attended classes this past summer.

He sat out this semester and has saved enough money to start school again in January.

“I can’t afford to take more than two classes at a time, but two classes is something, and something is better than nothing, right?” he says, with an impish laugh.

The city’s ordinance, affecting some 400,000 Chicagoans, increases the minimum wage to $10 an hour on July 1. It then gradually will rise to $13 an hour by 2019.

Chicago is the latest victory of the Fight for $15 national wage hike campaign that began Nov. 29, 2012, when 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked off their jobs.

Efforts of the movement here failed to match earlier $15 minimum wage victories in SeaTac, Washington; Seattle, and San Francisco — a goal pushed by the group’s allies in the Chicago City Council progressive caucus.

The state’s minimum wage remains the same. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

“I started out in the kitchen preparing burgers, then they moved me onto the cash register,” Guzman says of his McDonald’s career. “Right now, I work everywhere in the store because I know how to do everything, clean the lobby, the machines. And when we run out of pickles or something, they send me to another store to go and get more.”

“You have to be really fast, because customers want their food ready in one minute,” he says of the job. “We work really hard, making burgers, frying chicken, fries, running from one side to another, running to get more lettuce or more tomatoes.”

His income fluctuates with his scheduled hours at McDonald’s, where he works 3 to 11 p.m. five days a week, but he can get sent home early if customers are scarce.

Chicago was the second city to organize a Fight for $15 strike after the initial one in New York, and on April 24, 2013, Guzman joined his co-workers on the picket lines.

“I got involved with Fight for $15 last year, when one of my co-workers told me a group was trying to unite workers to fight for better pay and better conditions. I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is what we need!’ ” he says.

It was after that first strike that he got a 25-cent raise, then a 15-cent bump, then 10 cents.

“I like to work. I like McDonald’s. But we deserve a living wage,” he says. “These corporations are making a lot of money and can pay us more but don’t want to do it.”

For his parents, pressures on the road to the American dream led to divorce.

His sister in Mexico maintains hope she too will be able to come to Chicago someday.

And for Guzman, it’s been a rocky road.

He hadn’t had to pay rent while sharing an apartment with his father, aunt and uncle the past five years, but he wasn’t getting along with his father. It was when the family was facing eviction that he responded to an ad to share a place with strangers.

He now chases his own American dream and says he’ll keep fighting for a $15 wage.

“At minimum wage jobs, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach my goal to finish college,” he says. “But my hopes are that one day I’m going to be in a better situation.”