NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Pamela Flood, 22, a mother of three, is a worker at Burger King in Brooklyn, N.Y., struggling to avoid becoming a statistic.
"People, especially with children, should not be making $7.25 an hour," said Flood at a Nov. 29 fast food walkout, what energized organizers in the Fast Food Forward campaign are calling the biggest effort in the United States to unionize fast food workers.
"Then you become a statistic of the public assistance system, a statistic of the welfare system . . . This is a big woman's issue, especially women with kids, because at the end of the day if you have nobody to help you and all you have is your job and that money is falling short, where else do you turn to?" she said.
Flood is also part of another set of statistics. These surround young, female, low-wage workers who are trying to squeeze a living out of meager wages while contending with pressures that range from--and sometimes come all at once --childrearing, schooling and student debt.
Women make up two-thirds of fast food workers in New York, according to a report by Fast Food Forward.
If that reflects a national trend it's not a good financial sign for women. The national median hourly wage for "food service and preparation workers," jobs that include prep cooks, deli workers and fast food servers, is $8.76 an hour, lower than all other reported occupations, reported Fast Food Forward.
Women made up about two-thirds of all workers who were paid minimum wage or less in 2011 and 61 percent of full-time minimum wage workers, according to the National Women's Law Center, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A woman working full time, year round at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour earns just $14,500. For a family of three, that means her income falls below the poverty line by more than $3,600.
The largest number of female workers at or below minimum wage in 2011 are under 25 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like Flood, many of these younger workers are also trying to support children while supporting themselves.
Some are also trying to work their way through school. Oneika O'Keefe, 22, works at a hardware store in the Bronx. She and her sister, who is 20 and also a low-wage worker, both support themselves. Their mother is unable to provide for them. She can't always keep up with her student loans. At one point she defaulted and that meant she had to stop going to school.
It also hurt her ability to find a better job. When O'Keefe applied for a job as a manager at a large department store, because she would be handling large quantities of money, hiring managers disregarded her because of her credit score.
Bintou Kamara, an employee of Abercrombie and Fitch who started the Sustainable Scheduling campaign with the help of the Retail Action Project, had to skip class about three times in a year to go to work because she was afraid of being fired for missing work.
Low-wage jobs have constituted a majority of the job growth in the U.S. since the recession.
Food services, retail industries and employment services, such as temp jobs in particular, have added 1.7 million jobs in the recovery and constitute 43 percent of total net growth, according the National Employment Law Project.
Workers from two of these industries, retail and fast food, have been on the frontline of a push for better wages and employment. National headlines often focus on Wal-Mart, the Bentonville, Ark., mega discount retailer, but there have been plenty of other pockets of activity.
New York Protests
Here in New York, retail workers launched their movement at the Sustainable Scheduling campaign in mid-October.
On Dec. 6 in New York, in the middle of holiday shopping season and bell-ringing charity workers in Santa suits, a consortium of low-wage workers, including car wash employees, airport contractors and supermarket workers, united in Times Square--organizers estimated thousands--for better wages for workers across the United States.
"This is a movement that started a few months ago with low-wage workers being fed up," said Cara Noel, communications director at UnitedNY, a New York advocacy group standing behind the campaigns.
Poverty-level and worse wages can be more easily overlooked when workers are young and presumably footloose, said Yana Walton, communications director at the Retail Action Project. But Walton said that's wrong and can trap workers in sectors that don't provide any long-term security.
"When you give the 'young people' excuse, what you're doing is denying them an opportunity for an education . . . it makes it so young people's opportunities to get out of the industry are hindered," she said.
Student loan burdens can also be worsened by time spent in low-wage fields, sometimes the only work available in an economy where the unemployment rate for people under 20 is 23.7 percent.
Repaying student loans is likely to present a worse hardship for women than men, according to a 2012 American Association of University Women report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that women still earn less than men across the board even though they face the same financial demands.
Because women earn less, student loan repayments make up a larger portion of their earnings. Twenty percent of women compared with 15 percent of men pay more than 15 percent of their take-home salaries for educational debt, according to the AAUW report. Women are also more likely than men to borrow money for school. Among 2007–08 college graduates, 68 percent of women borrowed money for college compared with 63 percent of men.
Maggie Freleng is an editorial assistant for WeNews; she lives in Brooklyn.
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