Courtney Shackleford, a 20-year-old full-time student at Trinity Washington University, works at the Ben & Jerry’s shop at Union Station. She told ThinkProgress that her schedule fluctuates, and at $8.25 an hour she struggles to pay her bills even while living at home. “It’s hard because I want to be able to get my own place and still pay off school, but I can’t,” Shackleford said. “Depending on my hours, I might make $700 in a month, but living in D.C. rent alone is $700 or $800.” She does not receive health insurance.
Neither does Lynette Justin, who is also paying her way through school with her job at Pret A Manger. Justin, 24, said the medications she needs as a liver transplant recipient can often eat up two whole paychecks. “I shouldn’t have trouble living on my own at my age,” said Justin, 24. “I don’t want to burden my family, but I can’t afford to live anywhere else so I have to live with my family.”
22-year-old Justin New used to attend culinary school and dreamed of opening his own business, but now works at the FYE store at Union Station for $8.50 an hour. “I get about 20-25 hours in a week. Transportation alone can run about $50 a week, and I also have my student loans which is $300 a month,” New said. He will have been in the job for a year in August, and said he’s looking for a second job to make ends meet.
“We’re all just trying to reach the American Dream,” Shackleford said, “but we can’t right now.”
At a press conference following the walkout, experts from the National Employment Law Project will lay out some grim statistics about how these workers live. Roughly 75 percent earn less than $10 an hour, and almost four in 10 rely on public assistance programs to survive despite working full-time, according to NELP’s new report. There are more than 2 million workers like New, Justin, and Shackleford, making under $12 an hour and hovering near the poverty line in jobs created by federal contracts. That makes the government a larger low-wage employer than McDonald’s and Walmart combined, and helps explain why D.C. has become a focal point in low-wage worker activism that’s reached New York City, Seattle, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago.
The workers are being joined by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and D.C.’s non-voting congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). The two joined 15 other House members in urging President Obama to act to end the government’s “complicity in denying these workers decent wages and benefits,” in a letter sent on July 2.