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Cierra Brown is trying to do all she can on her own, but it rarely feels like she’s doing enough.
Cierra Brown estimates her commute to work would only take about 25 minutes if she had a car. That’s part of the reason she returned to McDonald’s in January: Her car had broken down and she needed money. But at McDonald’s, Brown only earns $9.50 per hour as a cashier, which barely helps cover rent and is far from enough to solve her vehicular woes.Without a car, one of Brown’s main headaches is getting to work. Her typical bus commute to McDonald’s takes as long as two hours each way. By the time she starts work, she’s already tired. When she gets home, she’s exhausted. “That is where a lot of my headache comes from,” she told VICE.
At 29, Brown works approximately 40 hours a week, splitting her time between a McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina, and a food-service gig a local hospital. “It’s still not enough,” she said. Both jobs are part-time, and she doesn’t receive health insurance through either employer. She can’t afford insurance on her own, either. That’s a problem since Brown is diabetic, and she has to pay for her medical expenses out of pocket. She’s trying to do all she can on her own—she receives no food stamps or other assistance, she notes—but it rarely feels like she’s doing enough.
“It’s really rough right now,” she said.
Returning to McDonald’s wasn’t an easy decision. The first time Brown left McDonald’s in 2015, it was because she hadn’t received the raise and benefits package she had been promised when she was promoted to assistant certified swing manager, she said. She thought she was going to get a bump to $11, some paid time off and health insurance. “I never got it,” she said. So she quit. Coming back has been difficult at times, which is part of the reason she joined “Fight for $15 and a Union” a political movement that advocates for a $15 minimum wage. The cause gives her some small semblance of hope. This is what an average week for Brown looks like.
Today was cold. My 30-minute walk to the bus stop felt farther than usual, even though I walk this same route every day. I caught the 1:20 p.m. bus, then switched buses, and got to work a few minutes before my 3:30 p.m. shift at the hospital. For the next four hours, I stand in one spot on a concrete floor working the tray line. It’s like a constant assembly line, putting food on trays for thousands of patients. I do milk, bread, butter, Ensure. Milk, bread, butter, Ensure. A tray goes by every few seconds. Milk, bread, butter, Ensure. If I’m slow, it backs up the line and it takes longer to finish. Standing in one place so long makes my feet and my legs hurt. I know when I get up tomorrow; I will wince when my feet touch the floor.
After work, I got a ride to the Fight for $15 and a Union office, just in time to catch the last 20 minutes of our membership meeting. I got up and spoke about the public hearing we’re planning for next month—a hearing for workers like me to testify about the conditions we’re facing in Durham, N.C.
I joined the Fight for $15 and a Union because I’ve worked in the fast food industry for 14 years—about half my life—and all these jobs have a few things in common. They all paid poverty wages. None of these jobs have given me the opportunity to come together with my coworkers in a union, or receive any healthcare benefits. And the only way we’ll create change in these jobs is workers coming together and demanding it.
The bus was late today, and it reminds me to get back to saving for a car. I used to have one, but I couldn’t keep up with my car note or insurance with my McDonald’s paycheck. I’ve been trying to save towards a car, but every time I save money, I have to use it. It feels like I’m not getting anywhere. I figure I need at least a $1,000 down payment. I had about $300 saved, but I had to use it to get groceries, pay my phone bill, and get back, and forth to work. So I’m back at zero. I’m thinking about this while I deliver meal trays to patients. I pick up trays from the basement level where we pack them, and take them to different floors. I try to give every patient a little sunshine when I drop off their food, anything I can do to make their day better. But I don’t have much time because there are hundreds to deliver and I have to be quick.
Working at McDonald’s today—running the cash register, cleaning up the dining room, helping keep the kitchen running. I only get paid for one job, but they ask me to do a little of everything. I meant to pack a lunch and bring it with me, but I forgot. I try not to eat McDonald’s food. I’m diabetic—I have to eat at regular times so I can take my medicine and manage my diabetes. Neither of my jobs offer health insurance, so I have to manage my health on my own. It’s 8 p.m. and my scheduled shift is over, but they asked me to stay later—probably till 10:30 or 11 p.m. I would like to tell them no, go home, eat dinner, take my medicine and go to sleep. But I can’t do that. I know from experience that if McDonald’s asks you to stay late, you better do it. If I say no to extra hours, it’s likely that my next week’s hours will get cut or I’ll get taken off the schedule for a while.
I end up staying until 11:15 p.m., when they say I can leave.
The bus stops running at 10 p.m. on Sunday, but McDonald’s asked me to stay until close at 1 a.m. They asked me to stay because they need my help. I know it’s going to be rough to find a way home, but I need the money so I said yes. Again, staying late is not mandatory but I know I might get punished for saying no, so it’s risky to not accept. And getting less hours at work would mean that something is going to have to go lacking—like a bill that will have to go unpaid. When you make $9.50/hour, you don’t have any wiggle room. I get out at midnight and call three people for a ride, because there is no way for me to walk home. The first three people don’t answer. I can’t blame them, it’s late. In the end, Keanon, another Fight for $15 and a Union member, comes to get me. I can count on other workers because they know what I’m going through. In the Fight for $15, we have each others’ backs.
Mondays are paydays at McDonald’s. Before I leave for my hospital job, I get my McDonald’s paycheck. It’s $215, for 2 weeks of work. I know I will be broke by Wednesday. First things first, I set aside $5 to pay back gas money for a friend who drove me to work last week. I mentally put a little bit of this check in the “saving for a car” fund. I set aside a chunk of this check for rent. I live with my boyfriend John and his parents. John and I help around the house and we pay rent every month. A couple years ago I had my own apartment, but the cost of rent has gone up so much in Durham, and my paychecks are about the same. I know a lot of other friends and workers who are living with family or even in their cars. So it’s not just me who can’t afford to be independent.
Then I go straight to the Dollar Tree and get the necessities: soap, toothbrush, canned food, pads, tampons, hand soap, and a few other things. It takes me a little while to decide whether I want to get my snack that I really like—these crunchy popcorn chips—or do I get soap. I decide I need to wash myself more than I need those chips! My $215 check is lower than I expected. I thought my hours were going to equal up to a little bit more, but my calculations were wrong. I feel like I’m not progressing—I’m not able to do anything beyond my basic needs. And I know I’m not the only one struggling with these poverty wages—this is why we fight!
The hospital tray line was moving fast today. There’s another worker who is pregnant and approaching her due date. I kept my eye on her as she worked a few spots down from me. She was picking up metal pallets that we use to keep the food warm, and bending down to pick up plastic utensils from the bottom shelf. I jumped in and helped her as often as I could, getting things from the low shelves so she didn’t have to keep bending. I tried to help her as much as I could. She says she plans to work for as long as possible, trying to provide for her baby. As part-time employees, we don’t get health insurance or paid sick days. She’s excited to become a mom, and I’m happy for her. We’re good coworkers—work friends, you could say.
I’m on the bus to my hospital job when I get a call from McDonald’s—they want me to come in today. So after I finish my shift at the hospital, I figure out the bus schedule to get from job A to job B. By the time I get home tonight, I will have spent almost 5 hours on the bus.
McDonald’s is a little short-staffed tonight, so I’m busy. I take orders at the cash register and keep a smile on my face no matter what comes at me. I’m good at being friendly even when I’m tired, because I actually like our customers. Most of the people who eat at McDonald’s are working at jobs that pay less than $15/hour. And here in North Carolina, it’s a safe bet that they don’t have union protection at work. So when I’m fighting for $15 and union rights for all workers, I’m doing it for them too. Since I became a leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union, whenever I meet a worker I see someone who could join our fight. When I finally get home most of the house is asleep, but John is waiting up for me. We cook dinner—chicken and a bag of frozen mixed veggies with a little soy sauce. We eat together and talk about our days. We talk about bills and how we’re going to cover the next week. He makes me laugh and we watch TV until I fall asleep on the couch.
I’m preparing meal trays for patients at the hospital and the day is speeding by because I’m excited for what comes next. Later today, I’m going to a Fight for $15 and a Union leadership retreat. I get to the retreat a little late because I couldn’t take off work. Other worker-leaders are sitting in a circle talking about lessons from past social movements—the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. They widen the circle for me and I jump into the discussion. This fight for workers’ dignity is not new—it’s something that’s been going on for decades. It feels good to be talking about big ideas after packing hospital meals for hours. I share about my daily struggle—working since age 14, often having to rely on food stamps while working full time for McDonald’s, no health insurance, always worried about making ends meet. There’s no way for me to face these realities without the Fight for $15 and a Union—it’s helped me find my voice.
In one of the sessions, we talk about hope. This movement gives me hope, but we still have a lot to do—we haven’t won a $15 minimum wage here in the South yet, and we need to make McDonald’s hear our demand for a seat at the table. When I talk to other workers I tell them: We need more chances to come together in unions because we need each other.
Our workshops run late into the night because we want to keep talking and planning. Everything that I learned here today, I won’t forget. But I have to get some sleep—tomorrow is another work day.
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Writer: Maxwell Strachan
Date: December 2019
Publication: Vice Newsletter