At the ever-growing bottom of the American economy, a low-wage worker becomes a minimum-wage activist
DURHAM, N.C. — She had been riding the city bus almost every day for the past decade without paying much attention to the people around her. Sara Fearrington, 43, was usually isolated in the fog of her own problems, commuting between working double shifts at Waffle House and parenting at home, but now she walked with uncertainty into Durham’s bus station late one afternoon holding a clipboard and studying the crowd of tired faces.
“Hi there,” she said to a man wearing a neon yellow vest and hauling a large toolbox. “Are you interested in joining a movement for —” but he was already past her.
She looked down the walkway and saw a woman in a hotel housekeeping apron talking on her phone. Sara smiled and stepped into her path. “Do you have a minute to talk about our poverty wages?” Sara asked, but the woman pointed to her phone and kept walking.
Sara sat on a bench and lit a cigarette. She’d spent nine hours that day waiting tables for what turned out to be $7.40 an hour including tips, and she rubbed her swollen ankles as she watched passengers transfer between a dozen city buses parked at the station. Construction workers wore hard hats on their way to the night shift, and fast-food workers in grease-stained uniforms carried bags of leftovers to take home. A family wheeled tattered suitcases from one bus to the next. “The Road to Nowhere” was what some Durham residents had begun calling the city’s bus system, because even at a time of historic employment and record wealth in the United States, low-wage workers remained stuck riding in circles around the ever-expanding bottom of the American economy, where half of the state’s workforce earned less than $15 an hour and pay was mostly stagnant.
A woman in a KFC hat sat next to Sara on the bench and sifted through her purse for a bottle of Tylenol. Sara reached for her clipboard and stuck out her hand.
“Hi. Hate to bother you,” she said. “We’re out here trying to organize workers who want to fight for decent pay.”
The woman looked at the clipboard and shook her head. “I don’t have time for sign-up sheets or politics or none of that,” she said. “Me neither,” Sara said. She unzipped her coat to show the woman her Waffle House uniform. “I worked all day and made sixty-seven bucks,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this, but what I’ve been doing isn’t working.”
“Sorry,” the woman said, standing up to leave. “I got my hands full just doing the math on how to make it from today until tomorrow.”
Sara had spent the past decade solving that same daily equation, trying to navigate the widening gap between a federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers that hadn’t gone up in 29 years and a cost of living that had more than doubled. She paid her rent in $20 increments to stave off eviction. She switched from one waitressing job to another for a 25-cent raise. She worked six days a week or seven, two jobs at once or three, somehow making it from today until tomorrow as a recession turned into a recovery, and President Obama gave way to President Trump, and the hopes she’d once had for her own life faded into the aspirations she had for her six children.
Now the eldest of those children had been evicted from her first apartment. The next was beginning a low-wage job at Jiffy Lube. The third was in Raleigh working her way through community college. That left three children at home with Sara and her husband, Dee, who were so buried in their own mounting debt that, when a friend knocked on their door in January trying to form a union for disenfranchised workers, Sara had decided to take the first political action of her life. She’d filled out a survey and joined NC Raise Up, a small group of Durham workers pushing for what Sara believed was the unlikeliest solution to her problems yet.
“Minimum wage of $15 an hour!” read one of the demands on a flier attached to her clipboard, even though the federal minimum had been stuck for a decade at $7.25.
“Unions for All,” the flier read, even though union membership in the United States had been plummeting for 50 consecutive years and only 2.4 percent of workers in North Carolina belonged to unions.
Sara walked through the bus terminal for an hour with a few other workers with NC Raise Up, the North Carolina branch of the national Fight for $15 movement to unionize workers and raise the minimum wage. She asked people how many hours they worked. “Too many,” said a school janitor. She asked how much money they made. “Same as everyone. Minimum,” said a woman wearing broken glasses. She asked everyone to write a personal message about their lives — messages Sara and the other workers hoped to deliver to North Carolina leaders later that month during a hearing about the minimum wage at the State Capitol.
“Who’s actually going to read all this information about my life?” asked one woman in a McDonald’s hat, and Sara told her about their upcoming trip to the Capitol.
“What do they care about my problems?” the woman said.
“Our problems,” Sara said. She gestured around the crowded bus terminal. “Just about everybody in here’s barely making it.”
“Fine. Our problems,” the woman repeated. “And what do you expect they’re going to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” Sara said.
She had been both employed and poor for her entire adulthood, but only in the past few months had she learned that officially made her a part of something: the low-wage workforce, the fastest growing segment of a splintering American economy that continues to expand at both extremes. There were a record 53 million low-wage workers last year, or about 44 percent of all active workers in the United States. More than half were women. Two-thirds were in their prime earning years. Forty percent were supporting children at home. They earned a median annual salary of $17,950.
Sara’s own version of those statistics meant awakening at 4:40 a.m. to catch the first city bus of the day because she didn’t have a car, and asking friends to share medications because she didn’t have health insurance, and working the past 11 years without taking a vacation because she couldn’t afford the time off. But what she resented most about being one of the working poor was the constant anxiety that came from having no margin for error. At every moment, the smallest problem threatened to upend the fragile balance of her life, and now on a day when she had $28.42 in savings and $2.09 in checking, she arrived home from the bus station to find a big problem waiting in an envelope on her porch.
“Eviction notice,” a letter read. “This is a 10-day warning.”
Sara walked inside and her husband, Dee, came out from the kitchen. She handed him the notice, and he sat down on the couch.
“You should call Rick,” he said, meaning their landlord, Rick Soles, who managed 400 properties in Durham. “He likes you. He’ll work with us.”
“And what should I tell him?” Sara asked. “‘I know we owe fifteen hundred, but how’s sixty?’ He’d have a padlock on this door in no time.”
Rick had already evicted them from three other homes in the past decade when they failed to pay, and after the last time, they’d moved with their children into a motel and then a homeless shelter. Sara had spent eight months working double shifts to pay back the eviction costs and save up for a new security deposit, and once they had the money there was only one place they could afford on a monthly budget of $800. It was a converted funeral home with two bedrooms, one bath and a few bullet holes left by a previous tenant. They’d strung Christmas lights over the porch and turned a utility closet into an extra bedroom to make the space work for a family of five, two dogs, three cats and a rotation of friends and relatives who sometimes slept on the couch.
“We need to bring Rick something real,” Sara said. “Like seven hundred as a peace offering.”
“Where’s that coming from?” Dee said. His voice was hoarse, and he tried to clear his throat. They were $120 behind on their cellphone bills, $210 on the electricity and $90 on the Internet.
“Extra shifts,” Sara said. “Weekends. Doubles.”
“It feels like I can’t get air,” Dee said, pointing to his throat, and she followed him to the back porch where he’d been spending much of his time during the past year, ever since his worsening health forced him to leave a $10-an-hour job at a recycling company. Doctors had diagnosed him with a hernia, two ulcers, a lung infection and severe COPD. He’d spent three weeks in the hospital before returning home with an $18,000 bill, but Dee believed the root of his health issues was at least partly situational. It was stress, he thought. It was exhaustion. It was anger. It was the shame he awoke to every morning when his wife’s alarm went off and all he could do was rub her feet, fix her breakfast, and hand her a knife to carry for self-defense on her walk to the bus stop.
They’d been together since high school in a middle-class suburb of New Jersey. Sara had gotten pregnant at 17, hid it from her family, and then moved into a one-bedroom apartment with Dee. Their first debt of adulthood was for medical expenses related to the delivery. Their next was for child care so Sara could finish school. Their next was for student loans so Sara could take college classes in computer programming, which went nowhere. Now it was 11 apartments and a combined 28 low-wage jobs later. The blisters on Sara’s feet had hardened into scars and a tattoo on her forearm read, “Broken,” and Dee couldn’t stop apologizing for letting her down. He was trained in construction, welding and landscaping, but lately all he could do was care for the kids and work an occasional odd job in the neighborhood.
“Why can’t I get any air?” Dee said again, standing up on the porch, trying to open up his lungs.
“Relax. Just breathe,” Sara said.
“It feels like somebody’s standing on my chest,” he said.
They could hear the hammering of construction a block away on a new million-dollar home, the latest sign of an economic expansion that had doubled the wealth of America’s top 10 percent. A Whole Foods Market had opened across from their neighborhood Family Dollar, rents in Durham had doubled and the basic living wage to provide for a family their size had risen to more than $34 an hour.
Dee had started going with Sara to NC Raise Up meetings as the group prepared for its hearing at the State Capitol, and he’d heard what other low-wage workers were doing with their own rising anger. There had been more major worker strikes in the past year than anytime in the previous two decades. Grocery store clerks in New England, bus drivers in West Virginia, home health aides in California, even 90,000 teachers in North Carolina — they had all walked off the job, and sometimes Dee wished Sara could walk away, too.
“You need a day off tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know how you’re still standing.”
“I’m on the schedule,” she said.
“Call out,” he said. “Sleep in. They don’t pay you enough to deal with this.”
“You’re right,” she said, and she stayed with him on the porch for a while, giving in to the delusion.
Her alarm went off less than six hours later, and she willed herself out of bed at 4:40 a.m.
“It could be a big day,” she said to Dee as she put on her Waffle House apron, whispering so she didn’t wake the kids. It was Friday. Payday. The restaurant would be crowded. Her customers would be happy. She would laugh at their jokes and refill their coffees. They would splurge on big orders and reward her with bigger tips.
“A hundred-dollar day, easy,” she said. “I can feel it.”
Dee swallowed his morning medications and watched her get dressed. He handed her a Waffle House hat and checked to make sure she was carrying her knife for protection. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I feel good. I think I could even get to $150,” Sara said, and she kissed him goodbye and tiptoed out the front door.
Her days unfolded in a series of financial calculations, and here came the first: She could spend $14 on a taxi to make sure she was the first waitress to arrive at Waffle House, allowing her to work the busiest section of the restaurant and increase her tips. Or she could gamble by waiting to take the first city bus of the morning, which sometimes arrived late and sometimes broke down and sometimes took more than an hour as it hit dozens of traffic lights on the way across town. But the bus only cost $2. She walked to the bus stop just as the driver pulled up five minutes early. She got a quiet seat to herself in the back. The bus cruised through the lights and she arrived at the restaurant before anyone else. She picked out her favorite section of three red booths, and then shined the tables and wiped down the laminated menus as she waited for her customers to arrive.
She loved her job most in this moment, when it felt to her like anything could happen. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers was unchanged since Sara started high school, and even with her tips included she usually only earned about $9 an hour. But there was also the possibility for a surprise, like when she’d helped a single mother calm her child during a tantrum and the mother left her $100, or when one of her regulars dropped $50 for a $7 tab. There was a rumor going around Waffle House that a waitress in a different part of the state had collected a $900 tip a few weeks earlier, which was the closest thing to economic mobility that Sara could ever imagine occurring inside a Waffle House, and why couldn’t that happen to her? Theirs was the third busiest franchise by volume in the area. It was located right off the freeway. Business executives occasionally stopped through on their way between Raleigh and Durham, and now she greeted her first customer of the day, a man carrying a briefcase and wearing a tie.
“Morning, hon,” she said, leading him to one of the three booths, fetching his coffee before he could so much as sit down. He thanked her and placed a $16 order. She whistled her way over to the cook.
“Big day,” she said, as the cook greased the grill. “I can feel it.”
And then she waited. She watched the front door. She said hello to the other two waitresses as they arrived for their shifts. She rang up her first customer at the register, and he handed her a $2 tip. She refilled bottles of ketchup that were already almost full. She wiped down tables that were already clean. She lifted the window shades above her three booths and watched as the darkness outside turned into dawn, and then as breakfast time turned into brunch, all while the restaurant remained mostly empty.
“What the hell’s going on?” another waitress said. “I don’t come here to waste time, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“Maybe because it’s the end of the month,” the cook said. “People run out of money.”
“They stay in when it’s this cold out,” another waitress said.
“It’s still early,” Sara said, even though it was almost noon. “Might turn around.”
She’d been working in food service since she turned 16, and she could memorize any order and perform every job from greeter to the head cook. She’d been held up at gunpoint at a Red Lobster when she was eight months pregnant and then finished the rest of her shift. Her mother had died, and she’d gone back to work two days later. It had been 13 years since her last trip to visit family in New Jersey, and during that time she’d earned low wages for six different chains before starting at Waffle House, which was both her favorite and the most challenging. The restaurant offered low prices and no alcohol, which meant small bills and smaller tips. Success as a waitress depended on speed — on turning over tables in an average of 20 or 30 minutes, which could only happen if there were customers waiting to eat.
She watched a train pass on the tracks outside the window. She sent a text message to Dee. “Slow, slow, slow,” she wrote. She counted down the final minutes of her shift and sat in one of her empty booths to add her receipts: Sixteen tables for the day. Four takeout orders. Two parties that left her no tip whatsoever. Not a $150-dollar day, or a $100-dollar day, but a total of $43 in tips.
She untied her Waffle House apron and walked outside, where another waitress was waiting for her ride home.
“This is a nightmare,” Sara said.
“I can’t do another shift like this,” the other waitress said. “Thirty-eight damn dollars. I’m so sick of making nothing, solving nothing.”
“It’s day after day of the same problems,” Sara said.
“I’m getting ready to walk out and never come back.”
There was a sign on the window behind them about the “Waffle House Family,” with its 1,950 locations and 45,000 employees, and lately Sara had been thinking about those numbers and trying to imagine her stresses multiplied across America’s low-wage economy. Forty-five-thousand people at Waffle House, 180,000 at Taco Bell, 210,000 at CVS, 440,000 at McDonald’s, and on it went. Maybe her problems were also their problems.
“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” the other waitress said.
“Yep. Tomorrow,” Sara said.
The next day she awoke to a message from one of the organizers at NC Raise Up: “Stop the cycle now!” it read. “Come show our power.”
The invitation came on behalf of Keenan Harton, 46, who volunteered with NC Raise Up while juggling jobs at a landscaping company and Biscuitville. He’d worked at drive-through windows off and on for the past 30 years, and recently his son, Tyreek, had graduated from high school and also begun to work full time in fast food. Tyreek, 20, was at McDonald’s, where a few weeks earlier he’d cut his hand on a metal toaster, wrapped the injury in paper towels, and continued his shift. The cut had become infected, and Tyreek had spent three nights in the hospital before returning to his next shift at $7.75 an hour.
“He needs to know he’s worth something,” Keenan told other workers with NC Raise Up, and several dozen had agreed to join him for a protest of working conditions at McDonald’s and to rally for the right to unionize. Keenan hoped his son, who was in the middle of his shift, would walk out of the restaurant on a one-day strike and join them.
“It might be a lot for him,” Keenan said to Sara as the group met in an alley behind McDonald’s. “He’s a shy kid, real quiet, like the stress has already gotten to him.”
“I tell my kids, ‘Stress is an adult life,’ ” Sara said.
“I hate that this what I’m passing down to him,” Keenan said.
“I got a daughter working at Burger King,” Sara said. “It’s a fight, so we better raise some fighters.”
An organizer motioned for the protesters to begin moving toward the restaurant. Sara had never participated in a march, or a demonstration of any kind, and she positioned herself near the back as they headed toward McDonald’s in a single-file line. The first protesters made it inside and then dozens more followed, shouting, chanting and banging on red plastic drums. “We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!” they yelled, as Sara entered the restaurant and began chanting with them. They pushed toward the front register. A McDonald’s manager took out his cellphone to call police.
“We stand with Tyreek,” the protesters shouted, while in the kitchen Tyreek continued to shovel fries.
“Tyreek is not alone!” the crowd chanted, yelling his name again and again, until finally he emerged from the kitchen wearing a gauze cast on his injured arm. He jammed his hands into his pockets. He looked away from his manager and down at the floor. Sara pushed forward in the crowd. “Don’t be scared! Don’t back down!” she yelled. Tyreek removed his McDonald’s headset. He took off his hat. He untied his apron. He came over to join Keenan, and they walked outside as the protesters followed behind in celebration.
“We’re about to wake North Carolina up!” Sara told Tyreek, congratulating him, inviting him to their upcoming hearing at the State Capitol. Seven states had already approved legislation to get to $15. Maybe the next raise would be theirs. She watched as Keenan wrapped his arm around his son and turned to face the other workers.
“What do we want?” Keenan shouted.
“Fifteen and a union!” Sara and the others yelled.
“When do we want it?”
“And if we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down,” Sara chanted. “Shut it down!”
The next day, Sara began to write the first speech of her life. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she practiced saying, again and again. She rehearsed on 5 a.m. bus rides and during breaks at work. Then one afternoon, she totaled up $48 in tips and boarded a bus with other NC Raise Up workers headed for Raleigh, where she imagined facing dozens of lawmakers under the Capitol dome.
But it turned out the Capitol didn’t have room to host the hearing, so instead the bus parked at a church across the street. Sara walked into the church and saw that most people seated in the rows of folding chairs were not in fact lawmakers but other low-wage workers and activists from across the state. The governor had declined his invitation and offered to send a staff member. That staff member had canceled at the last moment. Out of the 170 elected state lawmakers that controlled the state’s minimum wage, only five were in their seats as an organizer stepped to the lectern.
“Welcome to a historic night for workers in North Carolina,” he said, and then he called the first of 21 scheduled speakers, each of whom had been given three minutes.
Keenan stood in a landscaping uniform with gardening shears dangling from his belt. “My son is 20,” he said. “When he was born, I was working fast food for almost $6 an hour. Now he’s working fast food for a little over $7.”
Dee walked up and rattled an inhaler in his pocket. “I watch my wife come home from work and she can barely stand up,” he said. “Please. Do something.”
When Sara’s turn came, she unfolded her speech on the lectern, looked past the empty chairs, and smiled at the small group of politicians seated on a stage. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. She could hear Dee breathing hard in the row behind her. She could see two of her children sitting against the far wall, charging their cellphones because their electricity was about to be cut off at home. “There’s a lot I could tell you about my life,” Sara said, and she thought about how she’d avoided eviction a few days earlier by using her tax refund to pay rent, and how she was already falling behind on rent again.
“Some people live paycheck to paycheck, but I live tip to tip,” she said. “That means my family lives tip to tip.”
She told them about customers who left no tip at all. She told them about shifts when she made $3.10 an hour. She told them: “We are not worth less because we make less, and I’m not going to stop fighting.” She started to tell them about working 55-hour weeks while moving her family into a homeless shelter, and eventually an organizer near the front of the stage held up a sign marked with a red X. Three minutes. Her time was up. “All I do is work, and I can’t meet my basic needs,” she said. “I always, always work.”
“Your story cut through to me,” one of the politicians said from the stage, a little while later, when it was his turn to say whether he supported a $15 minimum wage. He said he’d worked as a valet during college in the late 1990s and earned what Sara was making now. “I’m kind of the outlier, because I didn’t come here as a supporter,” he said. “My party isn’t for raising wages. My friends aren’t for it. But what I see now is there’s a real problem, so thank you.”
He handed the microphone to the next politician, but a few people in the crowd started to yell. “Is that a yes or a no on $15?” Dee shouted. “Yes or no?” the crowd chanted, and after almost a minute the politician reached back for the microphone.
“I came in tonight and I was a no,” he said. He pointed at Sara. “After hearing your story, I don’t think there’s any choice. I will walk out tonight and it’s a yes for me.”
The workers erupted in applause. Sara wiped her eyes. She hugged her 9-year-old daughter.
“Which senator was that?” she asked, when the event ended, and an organizer explained that the man onstage wasn’t a senator, or an elected lawmaker, but a Libertarian candidate running for the state House of Representatives. He’d received 3 percent of the vote in 2018 and now he was trying again.
“Oh,” Sara said. “So he’s not going to be voting or anything?”
“It was still a major victory,” the organizer said. “Movements take time. We’re growing, we’re creating alliances, but the full push could take —”
“Years. I know,” Sara said. She leaned against Dee, and he reached down to rub her ankles.
“We’re building momentum,” the organizer said, and Sara nodded.
“You changed someone’s mind,” Dee said. “That’s major.”
“I’m tired,” she said, and a few minutes later they were out of the church and traveling back toward Durham, back into a house where the rent was behind, the electric bill was overdue and the Internet had just been cut off. They didn’t have years or even days.
“If we can just get through tomorrow,” Sara told Dee as she set her alarm, and five hours later she was walking back to the bus.