Eviela Carrera came to the United States, like many immigrants do, to give her four children a better life.
But making just $8.30 an hour assembling chicken sandwiches and cleaning the broiler at a Phoenix Burger King, the Mexican native is struggling to hold onto this hope. She'd like to help her daughter pay for college, but, tearing up, she says she's barely making her rent. Every month she has to decide: electricity or food?
Carrera, 40, and a half-dozen other Arizona workers shared their stories with a panel of government and business leaders Thursday at a community meeting about raising the minimum wage. About 30 people crowded into the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center for the event, organized by the activist group LUCHA and the Fight for $15 campaign.
Workers across the country have rallied under Fight for $15's banner since 2012. In response, several cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, have bumped pay to $15 an hour. In New York last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to implement a statewide change. Now it's looking as though addressing low wages will be a defining issue of the 2016 presidential election.
“People think this is a small, siloed movement, but it's not,” said Gilbert Romero, a community organizer with LUCHA. “We are gaining momentum.”
Themes of scraping by and unrealized dreams wove their way through all the testimonies.
Gabriella Ramirez, who has been working at McDonald's for 13 years and makes barely more than minimum wage, would like to buy a house. Adrianna Moreno, 22, wants to go to college, but her fast-food paycheck already is stretched thin helping support her mother, sister, and niece. Mariana Dominguez would like to take her three children on a vacation because they've never been on one. Diana Abello, a single mother of three, wants to get her gallstones removed, but she can't even afford groceries. She has to rely on food stamps.
“I don't want to depend on the government,” Abello said. “I want to be able to survive on my own.”
State Representative Juan Mendez (D-Tempe) nodded as he listened. The child of immigrants himself, he said, "I can barely afford to live in my own district.”
Many argue that minimum-wage jobs are designed to help teens learn work ethic as they transition from school to the workforce – not to provide support to whole families. But Mendez argued that is not the reality.
“While American capitalism never guaranteed success, it did once guarantee opportunity,” he said. “Too many of us are getting stuck on that first rung for too long.”
Several small-business owners, whom opponents posit could be negatively affected by a minimum-wage raise, listened in as well.
Carlos Velasco, founder of Velasco Consulting, which champions the “buy local” movement, said he was convinced that raising the minimum wage would help boost sales for small enterprises. Arizona businesses can't compete with big-box store prices. When families are living on minimum wage, he argued, they can only afford to shop at Walmart.
“I'm okay with having to pay higher prices to buy things for my family, as long as I know that helps other families live with dignity,” he said.
Tania Torres, president and CEO of Torres Multicultural Communications, a Phoenix marketing and public relations firm, said it's in her interest to pay a “living wage” to her employees.
“Big corporations like McDonald's just want to use small businesses like myself as a shield in their fight to avoid raising the minimum wage,” she said.
State Representative Rebecca Rios (D-South Phoenix) agreed. But, she pointed out, “I don't need to tell you Arizona is an extremely conservative state, and the odds of getting a bill through to raise the minimum wage is zero to none.”
The only way Phoenix will raise the minimum wage, she predicted, is through a ballot initiative.
“Thank heaven for ballot initiatives,” she said.
Carrera, for her part, shares the sentiment.
"Please," she said. "Consider us."