CAPITAL REGION — Come Jan. 1, the minimum wage will rise to $10.40 an hour for most workers in upstate New York, which equates to $416 for a 40-hour week, before taxes.
That’s not a lot to live on, if one must also pay for housing, transportation, medical insurance, food, child care, phones and so on.
The Daily Gazette spoke with local residents earning minimum or near-minimum wage in the Capital Region about what it’s like to live on a few hundreds dollars a week.
Their circumstances are markedly different, but they share a pride or a drive for self-improvement that keeps them working, rather than seeking out an easier path. Another common factor is that none carries the full cost of their housing -- none thinks they’d be able to do so -- and all struggle to meet other expenses.
“It’s a struggle, but I manage,” said Christopher Gordon, 28, who works at a McDonald’s in Albany.
He lives with his parents in Troy and helps pay their rent and also supports his nine children on $10.75 per hour.
“It’s kind of hard to survive on $10.75, because I have kids and bills to pay,” Gordon said. He sticks with the job in hopes of getting a better-paid position at the restaurant. “I want to move up in management.”
His objection to the paycheck is as much about what he can buy with the money as what he must take to earn in it: Stress and verbal abuse from customers who think fast food should be instant food.
“I go through a lot,” he said. “I work the register, and I take a lot of bullcrap.
“Why are you rushing me through a job that half of y’all can’t do?” Gordon said Wednesday, after a shift where only two other people were working. “It frustrates me because I’m on the front register. Nobody else wants to work the register because they don’t want to deal with the crazies.”
He takes heart in The Fight For 15, an effort to boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour that originated with fast-food workers in New York City. It was only partly successful, but Gordon isn’t giving up.
“I want to go forward for this, and I’ve been fighting for 15 since 2014,” he said. “I want to have something for my kids when they get older; their father fought for something.”
Savannah Willoughby, 24, of Scotia, works as a dietary aide and sometimes a dietary supervisor at the Schenectady Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, an Altamont Avenue nursing home.
Despite five years on the job and a partial supervisory role, she gets only 20 cents more than minimum wage: $9.90 per hour.
“I make just as much as anyone getting hired tomorrow,” Willoughby said. “It’s because of the staff turnaround. They work for a little bit and leave and get a better job.”
She doesn’t follow them out the door because she needs to keep a job that doesn’t make demands beyond the 40-hour week.
“I have to,” she said. “I have a child; I really don’t have time to get a better job, to build myself up.”
Her son is 5 now. Willoughby hopes in a few years, when her son is settled into school, she can take time to prepare for, land and hold a better job. In the meantime, she splits rent on an apartment with her sister and still has trouble meeting expenses — her phone service was cut off for non-payment recently.
“I struggle with bills every week,” she said. “There’s no way I could live on my own; it’s impossible.”
This time of the year brings another expense, one which she is determined to meet: Gifts for her son, niece and nephew.
“I don’t not give them a Christmas,” Willoughby said. “I really just try my best to get them what they need.”
That will include a basket of presents from a church that helps people in her situation.
Justin Miller, 22, of Rotterdam, also works at the Schenectady Center as a dietary aide, but for only $9.70 an hour.
He’s hoping to be elected as a delegate — a shop steward-type position — with 1199SEIU, the union that represents some of the workers at the nursing home and is fighting for better compensation for them.
“You’ve got to be a leader; never be a follower. That’s what my mom told me,” Miller said.
He still lives with his mother and is covered by her health insurance.
Paycheck aside, the job is a good one for now. Miller is out of bed by 5 a.m. and at work by 6 a.m., and he sees the same residents each day in the dementia unit.
"I care about the residents,” he said. “My dad’s a resident there.”
But he doesn’t see a future in it.
“To be honest with you, you cannot build anything with $9.70,” Miller said.
Each month, he pays rent to his mother, makes a car payment and pays his phone bill. He saves some of what’s left to return to college, now realizing that it was a mistake to drop out the first time around.
“You can’t get a job without a diploma — a really good job,” Miller said. “I don’t really like school. I’ve never been a school guy, but you’ve got to do it.
“I don’t plan on staying here forever.”
Samson Bruno had trouble bouncing back after a string of bad fortune in Newark, New Jersey, that included a divorce and the deaths of his sister and mother. He decided to try resetting his life in upstate New York.
He wound up at the City Mission of Schenectady, first as a resident, now as a resident and employee.
Unlike the retail industry, nonprofits such as the City Mission can’t raise prices to cover wage increases, and their salary scales often lag behind the for-profit world.
Bruno mans the City Mission’s intake desk, a job for which he makes the minimum wage.
“As far as the wages go, compared to the cost of living, that’s an issue for me,” said Bruno, who has student loan and child support expenses. “That line of where you’re just getting by day to day, planning for the future. Even just planning a vacation, not being able to plan a vacation. Or the food you eat.
Right now it looks like I would have to have two jobs to move forward.”
That said, he finds rewards in his work that go beyond money.
“In my case, yes, that’s the thing,” Bruno said.
“If right now I was working McDonald’s, my answer would be very, very different.”
On the intake desk, he points people to the help they need or offers a helping hand himself.
“Sometimes they just need someone to talk to,” Bruno said. “That part of it is amazing. At that point you’re not even focused on the paycheck -- the hours you’re putting in.”
He knows that someone, someday, will be able “to look back and say, ‘He helped me when no one else would.’”