Life on the minimum wage: 3 Idahoans' stories

Three Idaho Falls workers inform the debate over raising pay in the Gem State.

(IDAHO FALLS) POST REGISTERApril 20, 2014 

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Randi Higgins, an Arctic Circle supervisor in Idaho Falls, said she is overqualified for the jobs she must pursue.

PAT SUTPHIN — Post Register

When Mary Ann Funk cleans a hotel room, she scours the floor for dropped coins. Whatever she finds, it goes in the bank.

"Since I started in June, I've collected $53," she said.

Funk, 55, is a housekeeper at a motel in Idaho Falls. She earns $7.50 per hour, just a quarter above minimum wage. The found change, along with tips from customers, goes a long way, she said.

Her situation isn't unusual.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 29,000 - or 7.1 percent - of Idaho workers paid by the hour received the state's minimum or less in 2013. That makes the Gem State No. 2 in the country for workers paid $7.25 an hour. In 2012, it ranked No. 1.

At $7.25 an hour for 40 hours a week, an employee earns a little more than $15,000 annually.

'VERY HARD WORK'

Funk starts and ends each day cleaning. The beds get stripped and remade, the towels laundered. She picks trash off the floor and scrubs the toilets and tubs. Each room takes about 30 minutes.

"It's very hard work," she said. "... I hurt by the end of the day from bending over all the time.

"But you know, when you walk into a room and it's torn apart, and you walk out of there knowing you put it back together - and I'd feel comfortable sleeping in it - that feels good."

Funk rarely works full time. In the peak summer months, she'll clean 20 to 25 rooms each day. In the wintertime, when things are slower, she'll clean 10 to 15.

"You don't really get your 40 hours," she said. "And with the low pay, that's really tough. If I was full time, the pay would still be quite a stretch, but it might be easier."

In February, Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, introduced legislation to gradually increase the state's minimum to $9.75 by 2015. The bill died in the Senate's State Affairs Committee.

Funk thinks an increase would help.

"I'd say working like 8 bucks an hour and full time would be a lot easier," she said. "But right now, it's really a struggle."

STRUGGLING WITH RENT

Justin Stanley, 20, is a part-time janitor at The Zone Sports Grill in Idaho Falls. He earns the minimum for duties that include cleaning the floors, wiping things down and mopping.

Stanley lives at the Ark, a men's shelter in Idaho Falls, and can stay there only because his mother helps him pay his rent.

"She's just always been there for me when I needed help, really," he said.

Stanley started his job last month. At some point he's hoping for a raise. Eventually, he's hoping to go back to school.

"I don't make enough yet to pay off my bills and everything," he said. "I'm going to try to do whatever I can (to make more) and hopefully I get more hours."

BARELY ABOVE

Randi Higgins, 37, is a supervisor at the Arctic Circle fast-food restaurant. She is paid 50 cents above minimum wage. Despite working full time, she doesn't think it's a livable wage.

"There's insurance, gas and a lot of people don't qualify for food stamps," she said. "I can't even pay for a crappy apartment ... I think (minimum) needs to be higher."

Higgins wasn't always earning the minimum. In previous years, she held a number of jobs, including a teacher's aide position at a local elementary school.

But that quickly changed in 2010, after she was convicted of a drug-related felony.

"After I got a felony, it took me seven weeks the first time to get a Burger King job," she said. "And I applied for at least 300 jobs all over the Internet - everywhere. I have a huge resume, I'm way overqualified for everything I do. But with a felony on my record, it's pretty hard to find anything besides a gas station or fast food."

Higgins worked at Burger King for two years before moving to Arctic Circle, where she's been employed since November. She enjoys her work, she said, but standing all day taxes her body. To make matters worse, doctors suspect she might have multiple sclerosis.

"For me, it's the health thing - having to constantly move around," she said. "A lot of people don't want to get into this line of work, but I do it for the people. I love people."

RAISING THE WAGE

Raising the minimum to $8.50 would affect about 71,000 jobs, according to Bob Fick, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Labor. A raise to $9.75 would affect more than 143,000, he said. That's because workers who make less than that also would see raises.

"If the economy operates appropriately, there would also be tens of thousands of jobs above those levels that would get pay raises to avoid salary compression," he said. " ... Presumably you'd have people making $12 to $13 per hour."

Some argue that raising the minimum would strain business. Others believe it also could increase unemployment.

Don Reading, a consulting economist for Boise-based Benjamin Johnson Associates, said raising the minimum could increase unemployment in certain cases, but have a neutral or positive effect in others.

Raising the minimum also could reduce demand for food stamps and housing subsidies, which in turn could reduce taxes, he said.

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