It’s budget season so let’s start off today’s column with a simple math word problem.
Question: If a person works 40 hours a week at a rate of $15 an hour before taxes they make $31,200 per year, what is the one fact we know about this person?
Answer: They’re struggling to get by.
I called to make sure I got the facts and figures right because the memories of my preteen years can be a little hazy. Turns out I remembered more than I thought.
What I recalled was crawling out of bed for school and already seeing my mother dressed for the breakfast shift at a hotel. She held two neatly pressed uniforms on hangers in one hand and her purse and keys in the other as she prepared to walk out the door. When she leaned in to kiss me goodbye, she smelled of White Shoulders perfume and Suave shampoo, and I knew I wouldn’t see her again until the next day.
My mother supported our family and kept a roof over our heads by working three different waitressing jobs and it wasn’t enough. To survive we relied upon the help of programs like food stamps and the National Free Lunch Program at school, as well as other programs for those experiencing poverty.
My mom was a part of the working poor. A class of people that even though they work full-time still don’t make enough to support their family.
As a waitress, she made $2.13 per hour. That was in 1995. At the end of each shift whether it was at the hotel or two shifts at Olive Garden (they ensured that she never worked more than 40 hours in a week to keep her from earning health insurance or other benefits. But hooray for unlimited salad and breadsticks!), she was to report to management what her tips were for the shift.
Then, when it was time to get her paycheck the next week, it would read $0.00. That’s right. She didn’t actually get a paycheck at all.
You see, after taxes, there was nothing left.
Sadly, that is not uncommon for servers in Pennsylvania either. Currently the tipped wage in Pennsylvania is just $2.38.
Back in February, with good intentions for a fourth year in a row, Governor Wolf, proposed a hike to Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to state legislators. At the federal level, Senator Bob Casey has co-sponsored the Raise the Wage Act.
Both of these proposals eventually gets either Pennsylvania or the United States as a whole to a $15 minimum wage; not at once of course, over time, 2025 and 2024 respectively.
The Republicans in Harrisburg have basically told Wolf to go pound sand for the past four years, but there seems to be a little wiggle room this year to potentially get us to $12 per hour.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The current proposals do not take into consideration that by the time any employee actually reaches the $15 per hour rate, inflation will have already exceeded the added benefit of . . . wait for it … just getting your head above water. Don’t let anyone fool you, $15 an hour won’t put anyone on easy street.
Now, back to those tipped-wage workers; Governor Wolf has stated he wants to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Thank goodness, because I think those just like my mom who have been bringing home $0 paychecks deserve more.
I would purposely fall asleep on the couch in our living room just to wait to see her before I was off to school the next day. She’d come in with her apron still on and pull me into her lap. I would fall back to sleep no longer to the smell of White Shoulders but of restaurant food and even to this day I find comfort in the musty smell.
Here’s another simple math word problem.: A politician gets to choose between making $7.25 an hour or $2.38 an hour plus tips. Which do they choose?
Yeah, we all know the answer: Neither.
Aryanna Berringer, of Westmoreland County, is an author, and a columnist for The Pittsburgh Current. Her work appears monthly on The Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.