A Day in the Life of a Family of 6 Trying to Survive on Fast-Food Wages

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Photo: Courtesy of the Ortiz Family

As oil prices drop, the unemployment rate falls, and growth picks up, there’s one part of the economy that remains lackluster. That’s wages or earnings — the amount of money that average families are taking home. Without wage growth, many workers feel like they have no choice but to put in more hours to get ahead. And without earnings growth, the strength of the recovery feels illusory to many families.

This week, I visited a Texas family that demonstrates the phenomenon: All the Ortizes do is work, and they still feel like they’re just getting by, vulnerable to bad luck and unable to pull ahead. They make up part of what wonks and economists are now calling the "precariat," the large class of American families characterized by insecurity and instability, even when employed. They’re the flip side of the coin from the one-percenters. And the question now is whether the recovery might finally prove strong enough to reach them.

Luis Ortiz and his wife Josefa are involved in the Fight for $15, a movement pushing for governments and businesses to raise the wages of low-income workers. It started with a series of walkouts in cities like Chicago and New York, and has grown over the past two years to encompass strikes, rallies, and walkouts by thousands of workers in dozens of cities. I met them through labor organizers a few months ago, and Luis told me about life with four fast-food workers under one roof. He agreed to let me to come see what a day in their life was like — and by the time I did, in many ways, things had gone from hard to harder.  

6:30 a.m.: The Ortiz household — all six people and one room of it — is just starting to stir.

It is freezing cold, clear, and dark in the Houston neighborhood where Luis and Josefa live with their four daughters, three in high school, one in elementary school. The next hour is for the brushing of hair, the washing of faces, the application of makeup, the packing of bags, and a crush to get into the single bathroom they all share. It is the only hour that all six members of this tight-knit family will spend together for the remainder of the day.

7:30 a.m.: It is light out. Bleary, running late, the family packs into the car, dropping off Abril at elementary school, and then Sol, Iris, and Dulse at high school. A few minutes later, Dulse calls Luis. She left her iPod in the car. “It’s a distraction,” Luis shrugs. Dulse does not get her iPod delivered.

8:05 a.m.: Josefa gets dropped off last, for work at a Burger King on a busy retail corridor. She does not clock in until 8:30 a.m., so she and Luis get a few minutes to chat in the car. For years, Luis used to work here, too, so they would get to pass each other in the kitchen while they assembled burgers, scrubbed floors, and cleaned bathrooms for $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage.

8:23 a.m.: The bell rings, and the older girls finish their breakfast at school and head into class. It’s apple juice, a chicken biscuit, and cereal today.

8:40 a.m.: Car empty, Luis talks about the family finances.

It has been hard. Over the past year, they have spent down the meager savings they once had. Luis, Josefa, Iris, and Sol — all four are fast-food workers. But on low, low wages and unreliable hours, they have to come up with $550 a month in rent for the studio. Then there are the utilities, the gas, the groceries, the schoolbooks, and the clothes.

Josefa now works two jobs to help keep the family afloat. They use her first check to pay off the rent, Luis explains. Then they hoard the other bills and pay them off with the second one. Even with the two high-school students pitching in, they are barely keeping their heads above water. “We don’t pay on time,” Luis said. “We’re always waiting for Josefa’s check.”

It is difficult, he explains, speaking in Spanish. It is also exhausting. Sometimes Josefa works seven days a week. Sometimes Sol is at work past midnight. The family barely sees one another.

9 a.m.: Luis orders breakfast from a Mexican joint around the corner from his house, the kind of place where an egg-and-chorizo taco goes for $1.25. He sips his coffee, flexing his hands to show how swollen his joints are.

10 a.m.: Josefa eats two meals a day, both at work. Most days, around now, she sneaks in her first few bites. The Burger King makes her pay for her meal. She complains that the managers at the company disrespect the workers — shortchanging them on hours, preventing them from taking needed breaks, and generally not appreciating their labor. But she said she has no fear of getting fired. She knows too much and is too valuable to the chain, a longtime, steady worker in an industry characterized by high rates of labor turnover. 

10:30 a.m.: Luis heads back to the empty apartment. He finds it depressing, confining. He would give anything to be at work right now.

But the past few months have been an ordeal. He found his muscles so exhausted and swollen that, one day at work, he could not take the cap off of a water bottle. His boss told him to take a three-week break — unheard of in an industry that never gives sick days or family-leave days. It is early stage renal failure, the doctors told him. He is uninsured.

Most mornings, he walks, trying to relieve the swelling in his legs, as his doctors told him to do. He wears compression socks and performs physical therapy on himself, given that the sessions are $40 each. Today he had hoped to go to dialysis, to help clear the “poison from his blood.” But it is more than $580 a session. He has only cobbled together enough money to go twice.

So he waits, and hopes to get better. To relieve the boredom, he says, he listens to the Beatles on an iPod. He watches movies. To help with his condition, he takes a kind of medicine that puts him to sleep, “like Nyquil,” he says. He nods off, not quite resigned. And for the next few hours, the house is quiet.

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Photo: Courtesy of the Ortiz Family

2:30 p.m.: Luis drives to pick up Abril from school and meets Dulse back at home. His youngest daughter asked for a snack and a nap, he said, and the girls settled in at home to do homework and watch television. All of the menial jobs — all of the hours worked — are for them, Luis said, and he’s committed to making sure that they have it better than he did.

But he is also committed to making the lives of other low-wage workers better. It was 18 months ago that a man named Armando Tax approached Luis in a Burger King parking lot at 5:30 in the morning. He explained that he wanted to talk to Luis about his rights as a worker.

Why did it take you so long!” Luis asked Armando, huddling in the parking lot in the dark. “I’ve been waiting for something like this!”

3:47 p.m.: Josefa makes her last burgers and prepares her workspace for the employee coming in to take her place. She then leaves to walk to her next job at a swanky Mexican restaurant, where a small lobster taco goes for $10.

She likes this job a lot better, she explains, hurrying down the road, the sun in her eyes. “They have more respect for their workers,” she said, and they pay better, too. She makes $10 an hour, pressing tortillas, making soup, and cleaning up in the kitchen.

3:48 p.m.: Sol rushes from school to her job — $7.75 an hour at a Raising Cane’s chicken joint — to clock in on time at 4 p.m. She is “always rushing big time” after school, she said. She changes into her work uniform in the bathroom. Normally Iris would join her, but she decides to take this afternoon off from work. 

6 p.m.: Josefa eats, again at work. Monday through Saturday, she works two jobs. Often, she picks up a shift on Sunday. The last day she decided to take as vacation was Christmas. “We stayed here,” Luis said. “Josefa was tired.”

Life would be better if they were earning more. Through Armando and his colleague Diana Herrera, both labor organizers, Luis and Josefa found a way to advocate for that. They joined the union-backed Fight for $15. They’ve attended meetings. They’ve walked on picket lines. They’ve participated in strikes. They’ve talked to their colleagues about standing up to their bosses and advocating for their rights as workers.

He’s one of a few who took a leadership role and started taking action,” said Diana. Many workers are too afraid of the potential consequences, including losing what scant income you have. For Luis, she said, “I think it’s from a frustration, from wanting to do something better for your family.”

When he signed on, he had been working for the minimum wage at the Burger King for the better part of a decade.

8:30 p.m.: Dulse, Iris, and Abril sit down for a meal of fajitas with Luis, and then the girls start to nod off. Abril never sleeps unless her oldest sister, Iris, is asleep, Luis said. “She waits to see Iris go to sleep.”

9:45 p.m.: Luis drives to pick up Sol from work.

He has tried to go back to work himself, even given his medical issues. But Burger King gave him only scant and uncertain hours — nothing like the full-time schedule he had before. Unofficially, he heard that he had been let go because of his work with Fight for $15. At one point last year, a district manager called Luis outside of the Burger King and told him, “Stop doing what you’re doing,” Luis said. “You’re crazy to ask for $15, and you could lose your job for doing it.”

Luis and Josefa — and Diana and Armando — had seen the same story play out over and over again. A chain restaurant does not fire an employee, per se. It simply stops giving them as many hours. Or it gives them impossible hours. Or it works them on random days. Or it sends them home early. Unable to make it work, the employees eventually quit.

10:07 p.m.: Sol comes out of work, Luis waiting to take her home. Often she does not eat dinner, she says. “The smell of the chicken fills me up.” She normally does her homework when she gets home from her job, nodding off around 1 a.m.

The wear and tear on Josefa, now the family’s main breadwinner, and his daughters is what wears on Luis. He breaks down crying, saying how one day he found his oldest daughter crying herself. “I don’t have any regrets,” Luis said, about his labor advocacy. But he said he still feels like a burden at home and wants to be back working, earning more, doing better.

Sol describes her parents’ work with the labor movement as inspiring for herself and her sisters. “It’s being part of something big,” she said. “It’s not just in Houston. It’s all over the country.” It is true: The movement has held strikes in 230 cities, on six continents, involving thousands and thousands of workers.

Though Washington has failed in its effort to raise the federal minimum wage, many state and local governments have forged ahead of late. For instance, 20 states raised their minimum wage on New Year’s Day, and the cities of Seattle and SeaTac, in Washington, have anchored theirs at $15. And stagnant wages and earnings have become policymakers’ central economic concern as the unemployment rate has fallen and growth has picked up. “For tens of millions of working families who are the backbone of this country, this economy isn’t working,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a liberal standard-bearer on the issue of wages, said at a summit on Wednesday. “These families are working harder than ever, but they can’t get ahead. Opportunity is slipping away. Many feel like the game is rigged against them — and they are right.” 

10:41 p.m.: Josefa calls Luis. He picks her up from the Mexican restaurant. Three of her girls have already settled in for the night. A few minutes later, the family is reunited at home again. Shortly after, the lights go out.