January 3-9, 2007

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Henry Ford

Courtesy Library of Congress
Production value: In 1914, Henry Ford stunned the economic world by more than doubling the salary of most of his workers to $5 a day. The move was a great success; workers earned enough to buy the cars they assembled, thus fueling the production of more cars.

Bare Minimum

What it means to live on the minimum wage in the North Bay

Text and photos by Michael Shapiro

     Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
     If you gotta have proof just try it yourself, Mr. CEO
     See how far $5.15 an hour will go
     Take a part-time job at one of your stores
     Bet you can't make it here anymore
          --James McMurtry, "We Can't Make It Here"

From the glittering $5 million homes of Sausalito and Belvedere to the Napa Valley's vineyards, to teenagers driving SUVs along Sonoma County byways, the North Bay is dripping with money. Yet much of the region's population doesn't share in that wealth. Whether you realize it or not, you meet people every day who are struggling to get by on $10 an hour or less.

They're brewing up your cappuccinos at cafes, recommending movies at local video shops and putting in time at such big-box stores as Wal-Mart. Whether young or old, single or married with children, they rarely consider even simple luxuries like a restaurant meal. Some can't even afford essentials like school lunches for their kids. And many forgo a car, which is almost a necessity in a region so poorly served by public transit.

The minimum wage has become a hot topic since the Democrats' electoral victories have given them control of Congress. Nationally, the minimum wage, earned by an estimated 7 million people, is an appallingly low $5.15. Because it isn't linked to cost-of-living increases, it hasn't risen since 1997. But the news for low-wage workers is brightening. In the recent elections, six states voted to raise their minimum wages, making 29 states that now require a base pay higher than the national minimum. Even President Bush is appearing to capitulate, stating at the end of December that he would agree to a $2.10 minimum wage increase as long as small businesses receive tax relief--relief, however, at which Democrats are expected to balk.

Nancy Pelosi, who is Speaker of the House as Congress reconvenes this month, has pledged a graduated minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour. This will help workers in some parts of the country, but it's irrelevant here. California's minimum was $6.75 an hour; that went up to $7.50 on Jan. 1 and will rise to $8 on Jan. 1, 2008, making California's base slightly above the national minimum.

That's still too low, says Larry Robinson, a Green Party member of the Sebastopol City Council. An hourly wage of $7.50 is enough to live, "if you work 80 hours a week," he says. "Seriously, the minimum wage is not a living wage." Sebastopol pays its employees well above the minimum wage; its living wage ordinance mandates a minimum wage of $13.20 for city workers or $11.70 if benefits are included. But this covers only Sebastopol's employees and those of firms signing major contracts to perform work for the city. Petaluma and Sonoma have also passed limited living-wage ordinances for their employees.

According to Steve Pizzo, a journalist who opines at, the "salary for a rank-and-file member of the House and Senate is $165,200. That comes to roughly $690 a day, or $86 an hour," he says. That's more than 16 times the minimum wage, without factoring in all the days off that Congress members take to raise campaign funds. "Remember," Pizzo adds, "this is the same Congress that maintained without a hint of irony or guilt that raising the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour would 'ruin the economy.'"

Yet some still argue against a minimum wage. William Niskanen, chair of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, calls raising the minimum wage "the dumbest idea of the year" and says the minimum wage should be abolished. In an online discussion on Craigslist, someone posting as "spudmuck" writes, "Try asking [low-wage workers] how they would feel if their job went away. Then discuss how evil it is to pay them what they are paid."

Following are comments from six North Bay workers earning around $10 or less an hour. The faces you see in this story are those of people who don't work at big-box stores. I interviewed several people at Wal-Mart and other chains, but all say they could lose their jobs if they commented publicly. They're not paid enough to afford anything but the basics, but they don't seem to hold that against their employers. Intriguingly, several say they'd rather have more free time than more money. "I don't miss money or things, but if I could work less, I would," says an SRJC student who works full-time at a large retail store in Santa Rosa. "I almost never have a day off. I'd like more time to get homework done or take a trip to the beach now and then, to read the New York Times all day on a Sunday."

Angelica Schimara

Angelica Schimara barters and makes her own clothes.

Angelica Schimara, 21, clerk, Box Office Video, Sebastopol
Salary: $7.50 an hour
On how she lives: I rent a room in a condo for $500 a month. To survive, I have to find places where there's cheaper food. I make sure it's good food, though. I live on a meal and a half a day. My boyfriend works at Whole Foods. That's nice because he gets a discount.
On living without a car: I don't have the money for a car, so any job I get has to be close by. I live about a mile from work--that's hard on days like today when it rains--I have to find a ride. I don't take the bus at night; there are too many weirdos. I'd rather walk; it's OK to walk at night here.
On her budget: I work 35 hours a week; that's about $900 take-home a month. After paying the rent, the extra $400 goes for food, just food. So many kids my age live in people's barns--it's so expensive to live here.
On working in a video store: It's nice working at Box Office. I can rent movies free. The hours are flexible, and it's loads of fun. We do a lot of art here. I love movies. I associate them with home--when I was younger we sat as a family and watched movies.
On future plans: I want to be a teacher. I was a teacher's aide at Oak Grove in Graton. I earned $10 but was riding my bike to Graton. That's too dangerous when it starts to rain. I do a little nannying on the side. I'd like to have a place of my own. If I had more money, I'd move to Santa Rosa and go back to school so I could teach. Then I'll make more money--well, maybe a little more money.
On living simply: I buy in bulk and make a lot of my own stuff. I haven't gone clothes shopping in 10 years, except in thrift stores. I've lived on my own since I was 18. You get really good at sewing, crocheting, making stuff--I make shampoo from eggs, face scrub from sugar and lemon juice. You can make a little bar of soap last a long time.
On barter: Sometimes people bring in apples from their garden. I meet lots of people here and barter. I make hats and draw pictures and bake pies. A guy brought in a bunch of apples so I'm baking him an apple pie.
On respect: My mom drives a 1995 Kia with dents from when we kids were learning to drive. A lot of people cut her off because it's not a Mercedes or BMW. I love this town, but some people are kind of snooty. They're rich and don't treat you with respect, but there are lots of really loving people, too.
On living independently: The hardest thing for any young person is to be out on your own. When our parents were our age, they could buy car, get a place to live and save money. A lot of parents don't understand why we can't do this. I heard we'd need to earn $13 an hour to be where our parents were.
On a just living wage: A fair minimum wage would be $10. It's not just wages but how expensive things are, especially rent. It's hundreds of dollars to rent a little room to live under somebody else's rules--and you still don't feel like you're on your own.

Rogelio Alavez

Rogelio Alavez sends about $300, half of his monthly earnings, to Mexico each month.

Rogelio Alavez, 50, fence-builder and odd jobs, Graton (from Oaxaca, Mexico)
Salary: around $10 an hour; varies by job
On what he does: I build fences for wild animals for a wildlife rescue group. I usually work 18 to 24 hours a week, it depends. If there's not enough work, I don't get hired.
On his family: I have a wife and five kids, ages 12 to 27. Es poquito. [It's just a few kids, he jokes.] I send them money every 15 days, usually $250 to $300 [more than half of his earnings] each time.
On getting by: If I had 40 hours a week, it would be enough [to support himself and his family]. But sometimes it's less, much less. That's when it gets hard. Part-time is not enough. I average two or three days of work per week. The work is not regular.
On housing: I live here in Graton in a house with two people in each room. I pay $150 per month. It's just a place to rest. All I have is a radio to listen to music and some books to study English.
On other jobs: Sometimes I find another patron--I work in a carneceria butchering meat or I help with construction. This time of year I may get a job sweeping leaves. I work in gardens in the spring.
On going out: I'm not accustomed to going to a restaurant or a bar. We cook at home.
On self-improvement: I advise people to learn English and educate themselves so we can protect ourselves and ask for better wages. When employers arrive here, sometimes they ask if workers speak English. Some patrons prefer if people speak some English.
On migratory life: I spend 10 months here, a couple months at home. I hope to return [permanently] next year to Oaxaca to be with my family: I'd prefer to die there than die here. (laughs)

     Now I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
     Just like the ones we made before
     'Cept this one came from Singapore
     I guess we can't make it here anymore

Jane Doe, 30s, Wal-Mart, Napa
Salary: under $10 an hour
     I visited Wal-Mart in Napa clad in obvious reporter attire: a camera slung over my shoulder and notebook and pen in hand. When approaching people, I told them I was interviewing workers, but most said they feared losing their job if they spoke with me. A supervisor materialized and told me that he couldn't kick me out of the store, but that if I "harassed the associates" he'd have to "ask me to leave."
     I asked an older employee how she affords life in Napa while working at Wal-Mart. "No one can afford it," she said. "I live with my daughter." She doesn't blame Wal-Mart, telling me, "The government controls us too much." Outside the store, I spoke with another employee, a young mother of two, who said I could use her comments if I didn't identify her or state her salary. I cut the interview short when I noticed a supervisor eyeing us.
On surviving on low wages: I'm living with a roommate here in Napa. I can't afford a place of my own. The rent is $1,250, which we share. I have two children. I have to pay for food, cable, phone, the Internet. I struggle--there's nothing left at the end of the month. I work full-time, but get my benefits through Medi-Cal, and it's free. It's hard: sometimes I don't have enough to give the kids lunch money; that costs more than $2 per day [per child]. I'm trying to get in a program that would reduce it to 40 cents [per child].
On a fair living wage: It should be $9 or $10.
On working at Wal-Mart: I've been here two and a half years and I like the job. I like the people, but just living in Napa is expensive. It's a good store. I enjoy the community.
On what she'd tell President Bush and Congress: Raise the minimum wage! Raise it, raise it, raise it!

Rob van Ee

Rob van Ee and his wife just added a second job to their family, so things are looking up.

Rob van Ee, 32, sandwich maker, Quiznos, Santa Rosa
Salary: $8 an hour
On getting by: I live at the far end of Santa Rosa on Sebastopol Road. I've worked here full-time and [earlier] at Quiznos in Sonoma for almost a year.
On how he lives: Welfare helps. We use food stamps. I share a house that rents for $1,900 a month. There are 11 of us in three bedrooms. We have the master bedroom and pay $800 a month. My wife just got a job. Until then, I was our sole source of support.
On how he gets around: I have no car. It kind of sucks. I rollerblade all the way home from here. Hopefully, it won't rain tonight so I don't have to walk.
On worrying about the baby: It's hard, always hoping you have enough to pay the bills. I fear running out of food. Our worry is making sure the baby gets fed. We have an eight-month-old baby. I can have lunch here, but that doesn't feed the family.
On his past: I've lived in Sonoma County most of my life. I graduated high school and had a couple of semesters at the JC, but nothing much.
On credit: I don't have any credit cards, just a bank card.
On a living wage: At least $8 per hour. It's so hard to live in California.
On his work: The work's not bad. Sometimes I look forward to it to get away from the craziness at the house.

Johanna Shipley

Johanna Shipley commutes from San Francisco to Fairfax for her shifts.

Johanna Shipley, 18, barista, Fairfax Coffee Roasters, Fairfax
Salary: $9 an hour
On money: [Earning just enough] helps you learn how to manage your money better. If I didn't have to manage it, I'd be blowing it on stuff I don't really need. It's not like I'm starving. My goal is to make enough money here to pay the rent. I try to use tip money for food. Mornings can bring $40 in tips, afternoons around $15. I work mostly afternoons and have worked here since February. I try to save 10 to 15 percent of every check. I balance it out so I have enough left to have some fun, but sometimes I have to say, "I can't do anything right now.'"
On working in a cafe: I like working here. You don't have to wear a uniform. It's pretty laid-back, and there are lots of friendly people in Fairfax.
On commuting: I live in San Francisco's Sunset district. I work part-time and live with roommates. I take buses--I'm still a student so I get student bus fare--it costs $6 a day to commute, but sometimes they charge me the $9 regular fare. I use Golden Gate Transit and have to take three separate buses, four on weekends. It takes an hour and a half to two hours each way. Weekends are the worst because there's only one bus per hour. I get off at 8pm, home at 9:30 or 10pm. I try to do homework on the bus, but a lot of times I just fall asleep.
On housing: I lived in San Anselmo with my mom until recently and helped her out with rent. We couldn't really afford it, so my mom moved in with a friend and I moved to the city. I just wanted to get out on my own.
On school: I'm still in high school, but it's independent study, so I go to class only once a week [at Tamiscal High School in Larkspur]. I plan to leave in January and go to college in Australia where my dad lives. Till then, I'm just trying to get by. My mom can't pay for my college, but my dad said if I move over there, he'd pay.
On a fair wage: The minimum wage should depend on where you live and what you do. Nine dollars here seems fair; if you're a supervisor, maybe $11.

     Will work for food, will die for oil
     Will kill for power and to us the spoils
     The billionaires get to pay less tax
     The working poor get to fall through the cracks

Angela Currie

Newlywed Angela Currie and her husband manage to save $300 a month.

Angela Currie, 19, Kinko's, Napa
Salary: just over $10 an hour
On paying the bills: It's not easy, especially if you have a car. I have a 2005 Dodge Neon. The payments are so high.
On housing: We--my boyfriend, I mean husband; we just got married--just got lucky and found a one-bedroom apartment here in Napa for $650.
On saving: I work 40 hours a week, and my husband works at the Cinedome. We try to save $300 a month. We're usually able to do it if we don't spend money on stuff we don't need. We really need to stick to our budget--we can't just go out and eat.
On living among the vineyards: The whole wine scene is just for the upper class, like if you're a doctor or something.
On why she moved out: Most college students live with their parents, but mine moved to Washington after I graduated, so I was forced to get my own place.
On the future: I'm going to school to become a nursing assistant.
On what she'd do with more money: We'd move to a better apartment and I'd get my husband a car.

Michael Shapiro is the author of 'A Sense of Place' (Travelers' Tales),' a collection of interviews with the world's leading travel writers. Look him up at

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