• December 26, 2014

Low-wage workers often find solace in benefits

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Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2014 4:30 am

HARKER HEIGHTS — Kathryn Quirk, 25, doesn’t let her minimum wage job define her. Instead, every order of Bush’s fried chicken she serves puts her one step closer to her dream job in theater.

“There is no shame in having a job like this,” said the Killeen resident, who has worked at Bush’s for 2½ years. “You have to start somewhere, and this isn’t a bad job to have.”

From fast-food restaurant employees like Quirk to retail clerks, employees earning minimum wage play essential roles in business operations in Central Texas and across the state.

In 2012, Texas ranked second among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its proportion of hourly-paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That year, 282,000 Texas workers earned $7.25 per hour, while 170,000 earned less. Idaho ranked first with 7.7 percent.

Since the minimum wage was established in 1938, the federal rate has been raised 22 times. With the most recent hike in 2007, President Barack Obama has pushed to increase the federal rate to $10.10 by 2016.

Furthermore, a proposition on the March 4 Democratic Primary ballot calls for the minimum wage to be increased 110 percent above the federal poverty line for a family of four, which some experts interpret to be $12.63 per hour.

Workers who make minimum wage often have to work two jobs or share living expenses to make ends meet. When Quirk first started working at Bush’s, she earned $7.30 an hour. She now makes $7.50 an hour and lives at home with her parents.

Quirk sought employment with the fast-food chain because “no one else was biting.”

“It’s a job. It’s money and it pays the bills,” she said.

Benefits

Most fast-food restaurants in the area pay only minimum wage. Other retail businesses pay more, but still below the hourly wages proposed by Obama and the Democratic Primary proposition. Many employees of those businesses say the benefits they receive make up for the low wages they earn.

Lisa Stewart, 53, has worked at H-E-B in various positions for 10 years, eight at the Harker Heights store. Although she works full time, she has always held a second job to make ends meet.

Stewart now makes more than $10 an hour and is pursuing a college degree.

“I was 49 years old when I first stepped into the classroom, and I was a fish out of water,” she said. “H-E-B gave me the opportunity to pursue a degree in business administration. They have always been good to me and I don’t know any employer that values their employees more than they do.”

H-E-B starts baggers at $7.50 an hour, but Brenda Johnson, general manager for the Harker Heights store, said employees move up the pay ranks quickly. She started out as a cashier and has worked for H-E-B for 22 years.

“We want our employees to get promoted, stay with our company and retire with us,” Johnson said. “Here at H-E-B we believe our employees should be paid well. We will always pay above whatever the minimum wage becomes.”

Not for adults

While many low-wage workers are happy with their jobs and surviving financially, some said minimum wage is not for adults.

Douglas Dyer, an economics and finance professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, said minimum wage was never intended to support families but to teach valuable work skills to a younger generation or provide a second income.

Michael Sherman, a Copperas Cove resident, believes minimum wage is built only to give young people work experience while they’re still living at home and don’t have the responsibilities of numerous bills or a family to support.

“When I left high-school, I worked at a Chick-fil-A,” he said. “My daughter has followed in my footsteps and began working for the new location here. But that’s all these jobs are for; it’s not designed to sustain an adult life.”

Herald staff writer Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro contributed to this story.

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