Working a minimum wage job in Seattle can be difficult when paying your rent is a challenge.
I won’t tell you why I took a job at a national department store for the holiday season. My story is not as interesting as those of my fellow seasonal employees.
Following our eight hours of computer training and a quick walk around the store with a manager, we were thrown into the deep ends of the sales floors to learn how to swim. It was incredibly stressful at first, but I didn’t freak out because I didn’t have as much at stake as others. I knew that I could walk away and still pay my rent.
Many of the seasonal employees were young immigrants with English as a second language. Some were college students, and others were working to support extended families. After helping one shaking, frightened woman understand how to close the register, she asked, in a thick accent, if she could give me a hug, saying, I “saved her.” I never saw her again after that night.
For a lot of workers, a minimum-wage job won’t cut it if you are trying to live in Seattle, although it’s higher here than elsewhere. We took our union-required breaks (paid) and meals (unpaid) although we weren’t members of the union. We couldn’t select any shifts until the represented sales associates had chosen their shifts. Regular employees were encouraged to work up to 60 hours a week. Sometimes, after that, there wasn’t much left to go around.
By December we found our groove and started picking up shifts in our favorite departments. I liked housewares, but a coworker, “Cady,” didn’t like working there because people ask a lot of questions about the products. She also thought her pierced, tattooed look was off-putting to the older customers who shopped in that department.
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“Cady” graduated from the UW last June with a degree in gender and women’s studies. She’s a twenty-something — a typical Seattle millennial. She could be the person brewing your morning latte or working the counter at Dick’s. She hoped to stay on at the store after the holiday season. She needed to find a place to live because her friend is planning to renovate the basement where she had been staying. She wanted to go to graduate school but knew that she can’t afford it. She couldn’t even afford rent.
“David,” a coworker, seemed like someone I might have gone to high school with 35 years ago. At middle age we were both too old for minimum-wage jobs. One night I offered to close one of the last registers so we could both go home. He asked if he could do it so that he could put a few more minutes on his timecard for that day. He hadn’t gotten enough hours that week and every minute counted. I headed home, grateful that I could get off my feet and that I didn’t need those extra minutes.
It didn’t take me long to realize how hard it would be to support oneself with this kind of work. It’s tiring, repetitive and requires you to pretend you don’t have a college degree or a family to support. You can’t scream that you deserve better than this. But everyone deserves better. So, the next time someone complains about paying people $15 an hour minimum wage, think about “Cady” and “David”: the underemployed, working-to-make-ends-meet, cogs in the wheel of the service economy.