Faces of minimum wage: Trying to escape string of low-paying jobs

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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, a plan Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embraced. In Illinois, the debate goes to voters on the Nov. 4 ballot with a nonbinding referendum seeking support for a hike to $10 from $8.25 per hour. As the issue comes to a head, the Chicago Sun-Times talks to area low-wage workers and small business owners. In a series of stories in coming months, we bring you their stories. We invite you to follow our Faces of Minimum Wage series for more in-depth coverage in words, photos and video.

Though born partially deaf and learning disabled, Dionne Martin has aimed for independence since childhood.

She moved out of her parents’ home at the age of 16. She has been on her own since. The 41-year-old home care worker says her biggest challenge isn’t her disability. It’s surviving on minimum wage, her earning level since entering the workforce at 15.

Illinois’ minimum wage is currently $8.25 hourly, more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

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“When I heard on TV the city was having minimum wage hearings, I knew I needed to go because of my sister and myself and my mother,” says Martin, of North Lawndale, who earns $10.60 an hour at Lutheran Social Services but currently is assigned only 12 hours a week. She has worked at the agency for 10 years, being dispatched to help elderly clients in their homes.

“I like working with the seniors. Seniors are the best. When I first started there, I was making $5.25 per hour,” she says.

In the down economy, though, clients got scarce. She now has only three clients, who get four hours of help per shift.

“I have a client I do on Mondays and Fridays, one on Wednesdays, and one on Thursdays, but he’s been sick,” she says.

Her only sibling, Rose, 38, who also was born learning disabled, earns minimum wage as a janitor at the Anixter Center, an agency providing services to the disabled. She and her sister, both single, entered the workforce with high school diplomas, although Martin has taken some community college classes.

“I did Kennedy-King College for two years, Malcolm X for a year, through a disability program. Right now I’m trying to pay my school fees off so I can go back to school. I want to be a sign-language school teacher,” she says. “But they don’t have those sign language classes at Chicago community colleges anymore. I looked online.”

Martin had joined her mother in the home care field. Her 62-year-old mother, Christine, who trained as a certified nursing assistant, works seven days a week for the Gareda Home Health agency, where she earns $11 an hour.

“My mom can’t hardly walk as she used to, but has to work,” Martin says. “My stepfather passed two years ago, and the little money she got is gone now. She’s not old enough to get any benefits yet, and by the time they take out her union dues, it’s no money.”

Martin currently lives in Section 8 housing, paying $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Her mother lives in the Douglas Park neighborhood, her sister in Auburn-Gresham. Martin gets about $1,000 per month in Social Security disability income, which she has augmented all her life with whatever employment she could find.

“I can’t even count how many times my light and gas have gotten cut off. There’s rent, lights, gas, life insurance, phone, food and household stuff, and I have a cat, so that’s cat food and litter. It’s difficult everyday,” she says.

Born in Chicago, she grew up in Harvey and attended Thornton Township High School, where through a work-study program, she got her first job at McDonald’s. She worked at the fast-food chain for a year and a half, at $5 an hour. Her senior year, she worked in Thornton’s laundry room supporting its day care center, for $4.25 an hour.

“My mom remarried, and I decided to move out. It was too many people in the house. Mom didn’t want me to go, but I went to live with my grandma for a year, and after graduating, I got my own apartment in Waukegan,” Martin says.

There, she got a seasonal job at Great America for $5 an hour, then worked two years in the kitchen of a nursing home for $6; another two years at Taco Bell, for $6 an hour, and then a year as a janitor at Gurnee Mills Mall, making $7 an hour.

Moving back to Chicago, she faced cost-of-living sticker shock.

“I was paying $300 for a studio in Waukegan. When I moved here, they wanted $500 — just for a studio!” she says.

The state Department of Rehabilitative Services helped place her in various jobs and some training, once in Chicago. She worked three years as a janitor at the Ada S. McKinley agency, earning $5 an hour, then a year in the housekeeping department at a nursing home, earning $6. It was after that she entered the home care field at her current agency.

“We need more clients. My agency is trying to help us get more clients, but it’s getting harder to get the seniors to sign up, because depending on their income, Medicaid and Medicare sometimes won’t pay for it now. When all you can get is minimum-wage jobs, you’re stuck,” she says.

“Half the time, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this bill, that bill. Nobody invited me. I went to those hearings on my own. A raise to $15 an hour would be such a help for me, for my sister and my mom. But the mayor says we’re not going to get the $15. They’re going to give us $13 in three more years. But everything keeps going up. In three more years, we’ll need to be paid more just to make it.”

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