FLINT, MICHIGAN — Tyrone Stitt has worked as a maintenance technician at Taco Bell for 18 years. He started at $3.25 an hour when he was 25 years old and today, despite the skyrocketing cost of living in Flint, he makes just $8.50 an hour. He says that amount is not enough to support himself and his family, let alone afford bottled water.
“I’m breaking out in rashes and paying for water,” he told ThinkProgress as he marched across the University of Michigan campus in Flint among a group of protesters. “Increasing the minimum wage would help tremendously. It would make a tremendous difference in my life because I’d be able to pay my bills and provide for my family.”
Stitt marched and protested with the Fight For 15 campaign outside the Democratic presidential debate in Flint Sunday night. “Raise the wage, clean our water,” they yelled out repeatedly through megaphones. Protesters held large blue pieces of cardboard cut out in the shape of water droplets, and some displayed photos of Gov. Rick Snyder (R) with devil horns.
“We work, we sweat, put 15 on our checks,” they yelled together.
The group, which is advocating for a $15 minimum wage across the country, also protested outside the Republican debate in Detroit Thursday night. But with the water crisis crippling the city, the problems faced by minimum wage workers in Flint are even greater than those faced by low-wage workers in nearby Detroit.
“We can’t afford it,” Willie Williams, who retired three years ago from a job at Church’s Chicken, said about the costs of bottled water. “Some of us can’t even afford to eat because of the wages. We need more money, and they can do it.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Organizations across the country have stepped up to donate bottled water and filters to the residents of Flint, but Williams and other worry about how long that aid will last, and if the state government will fix the pipes and the city infrastructure before the aid runs out.
“We have a lot of people that have been donating all over the country, and thank god for that,” Williams said. “They have been really generous, but how long is this going to go? We need all the pipes changed.”
Williams lives with and supports his elderly mother, who has a heart condition. He said he’s not sure how the lead has affected her condition, but suspects it has made things worse.
Jeanette Hanbley, who works at Rally’s Hamburgers, also said she worries about how she’ll be able to afford bottled water when the donations stop. She says it’s been really hard on her family, given that she can’t give her two kids a bath or let them drink from the faucet.
“There’s no telling how long before they’ll give us water,” she said. “I’m 25. My kids may not see 25 because of this water.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Doctors are unsure about the longterm health effects of the toxic water on Flint’s children. The contamination puts them at risk for a number of problems, including lower IQ scores, developmental delays, and behavioral issues. And members of the community have experienced immediate effects like skin rashes and hair loss.
“It’s a sorry response,” Williams said. “This state has a billion dollar surplus and all he gives us is $50 million? And he’s slow to react. If that was his kids, what would he do? He would do everything in his power to make sure that they’re healthy.”
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agree that the response to the crisis has been inadequate. Both candidates called for Snyder’s resignation at the Democratic debate and said that the state and federal government should send money immediately.
Sanders also supports a $15 minimum wage, while Clinton has said she supports raising it to $12 an hour. Protesters were pleased that the candidates traveled to Flint for a debate, but said they need to hear more from them about what they would do to raise wages.
“If these candidates want our vote, they’ve got to come get it,” Williams said. “Show us they want our votes.”
Melvin Washington, who works at McDonald’s in Flint, said he will support whoever can help the community the most. “I don’t care about Republican parties or Democratic parties at all,” he said. “I just want somebody who’s going to help us.”