Living Wage and Reclaiming My Humanity

By Stephanie Harris

“Every time I hear the door opening, I feel the person coming into the restaurant and taking a piece of me”. I work at Mehaks Indian Cuisine, located in Ithaca, NY and I make $7.25 an hour-which is about half of what the proposed living wage is for Ithaca. My co-workers, Heidi, said the aforementioned quotation when musing on how she felt during a Friday night shift. At first, I was taken aback that she said such a claim. As a server, it’s engrained into the way you think that you just have to accept the flow of customers that come in on any particular night. You don’t question any of the pain you feel in your body from the long hours and various tasks that you have to do, because it becomes an accepted part of your lifestyle.

But there is a certain danger than comes with this complacency. You become your own worst bully. Your mind goes through the motions of accepting the work conditions and the derogatory treatment by people as part of the work that you’ve chosen to participate in.

When your wage is based off the number of people who walk through the door of a particular restaurant, there becomes the inherent need to sell yourself.

The money I make for a living isn’t based on how much I make per hour.

It’s based on who walks through the door of the restaurant.

It’s based on the whim of a person and their feelings about my service.

It’s based on the inherent assumptions the customer makes about my persona, the type of work I do, and why I do it.

The amount of money I make in order to survive is based on how much of myself I give to the customer, and after working for five plus years in the service industry, this aspect of garnering income is the most soul crushing. From my experience, the part of this work that chips away at your soul is the sense of hopelessness and uncertainty about your income. When you come into work on a particular day, you don’t know how many people will come in to eat that day. You don’t know what their mood will be. The pervasiveness of uncertainly has the potential to, and can, overwhelm the psyche of the worker. You feel defeated before you even come into work for the day.

The uncertainty of whether you will be able to make ends meet, coupled with the loss of hope manifests as defeat. You have to work so many hours just to ensure that you will have a roof over your head and food in the fridge that you don’t feel as if your time belongs to you anymore.

The most common phrase becomes “I’m tired…I don’t have time to…” and essentially, you lose that magic about yourself that makes you who you are.

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My family history informs why making a living wage is so important to me. I watched for years as my father worked 60 hour work weeks to support a family of five all by himself. His salary was well below the proposed living wage for Ithaca and it took a significant physical, mental, and emotional toll on his person. He became a drug addict to cope with his work week and I never really saw him much, except when he came home to give his pay check to my mother. Soon my mother also second-hand succumbed to my father’s drug addiction. His addiction made her a bitter and paranoid woman and she took that out on me and my siblings, often in violent ways. It hurt me so much to see my siblings suffer because of my parent’s personal problems stemming from working such long hours for little pay. I don’t want to see the people I love succumb to addiction and anger because their pay is so little.

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I currently work two jobs, totaling a 50-hour work week. The reasons I work are various: I need to take care of myself, I need to make sure my siblings, who live in NYC whilst I live in Ithaca, have enough money for food and school supplies. I work so my father’s life-consisting of his work ethic and drug addiction, don’t go in vein. I work so the people I love can suffer a little less.

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Making a living wage would allow me to develop my individualism. It would allow me to reclaim my humanity. Working for so little money since I graduated college killed my spirit and enthusiasm for life. I don’t have time to develop myself intellectually when more than a third of my week is dedicated to working jobs that are unrelated to the professional academic life that I want to pursue.

A living wage would make achieving financial security an easier feat. My primary motivation in being financially secure is not so much for myself, as it is for my siblings. My younger sister is going to college, and I want to be able to co-sign a loan for her if she needs it. In order to do that, one must be on solid financial footing themselves. Additionally, she is a minor and we have had run-ins with family court stemming from cop visits during drug-fueled arguments by my parents. I want to make a living wage so that if the day comes where I have to prove to a judgment that I am financially stable enough to take care of a minor (my sister is 16), I can do so without having to worry that my sister will be placed in the care of strangers who might abuse her.

A living wage would give me peace. I want to enjoy Ithaca without fear of losing the people I love the most due to monetary constraints of the way they react to the stress caused by these financial deficits.

A living wage gives me freedom and I want that more than anything for myself and my fellow Ithacans.

Reprinted with permission from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

The Tompkins County Workers’ Center is a non-profit labor rights organization in Tompkins County, New York. Following its mission “to stand up with all people treated unfairly at work,” its efforts are dedicated to movement-building among and empowerment of workers through direct action, organizing, workers’ rights and safety education, facilitating enforcement of labor protections, and Living Wage advocacy. This piece was part of the Workers’ Center’s 2016 Living Wage Visioning Contest, which invited people to share original creative works about how their lives or the lives of their families would change if they made a Living Wage.

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