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Cherese Mildrew, 33, once worked four jobs to make ends meet.|Brendan Krisel, staff photo

The minimum wage rises but is still hard to live on

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When Cherese Mildrew worked as a minimum-wage worker in California, she shared a two-bedroom apartment with four other people just so they could afford the rent.
At 22, when she moved back to Syracuse, it was more of the same. Here, she worked four different jobs just to make ends meet.

One day she would be restocking shelves at Price Chopper, and the next she would be working a cash register at Family Dollar. Mildrew said employers were understanding, and would allow her to work a schedule where she didn’t have to go immediately from one job to the next.

“Some employers are OK because they know it’s hard and if they can’t give you all the hours you need, they will give you the hours you need to make it to your other job,” Mildrew said. “It works, but you’re tired, but at least you have some pocket money for a little bit.”

Now 33, and working as a medical secretary at SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital, Mildrew holds a steady, 40-hour-a-week job making $12.50 an hour. She is also earning a bachelor’s degree in health services administration from Bryant and Stratton College.

In February the minimum wage for tipped workers in New York State was set to be raised 50 percent, from $5 an hour to $7.50. The majority of tipped workers work in the restaurant industry, but tipped workers include anyone who receives money directly from customers for providing a service.  The $2.50 hourly raise would serve as a $100 weekly raise for a full-time worker and will be effective at the end of the year.

The increase for tipped workers is consistent with New York’s recent labor policies. Since 2013, the standard minimum wage has increased every year. At the end of 2013 the minimum wage was $8 and by the end of this year it’s set to jump to $9, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also recently announced his plan to have the statewide minimum wage raised to $10.50 an hour by the end of 2016, with a special minimum wage of $11.50 in New York City to account for the higher cost of living.

Currently the minimum wage is $8.75 an hour in New York state. That calculates to $350 a week and $18,200 a year not taking into account sick days or vacation.
According to a March estimate released by the governor’s office, there are 23,536 workers in the Syracuse area making the current minimum wage.

Citizens of Syracuse can’t find steady, good-paying jobs. Low wages show up in weekly pay checks — and in the larger data.

According to the 2014 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing study by CNY Fair Housing, the City of Syracuse is home to concentrated poverty. The median household income for Syracuse was nearly half that of the overall Onondaga County median household income for the years 2005–2012.

The 27 poorest census tracts in all of Onondaga County are in the city; only two of the richest 28 are in Syracuse. The median household income in Syracuse for whites: $36,889. For blacks: $24,051. Half the kids 5- to 17-years-old in the city — 45% — are growing up in poverty. Overall, 38% of blacks in the city live in poverty, versus just 14% of whites.

For many years both in California and New York, the minimum wage defined Mildrew’s life. She learned to budget extremely carefully — and even then sometimes couldn’t pay all of her bills at the end of the month.

While she laughs about the situation now, Mildrew remembers when her first car was repossessed. Before she moved to California her bank gave her two options, to return the car, or to take it with her as long as she kept up with payments. She took it, but in a few months it was repossessed, Mildrew said.

“I thought somebody stole the car, so I was trying to figure it out and then I put two and two together, called the bank and they said, ‘Yeah we had our sister company come get the car because you were delinquent on two payments,’ which they understood, but it was just something that had to be done,” Mildrew said.

Cherese Mildrew is currently earning a bachelor degree in health services from administration from Bryant and Stratton College.|Brendan Krisel, staff photo

Mildrew said that moment was a wake-up call for her and taught her the importance of keeping good credit and budgeting, even though it was hard to manage on a minimum-wage salary.

Now Mildrew beats the minimum, but still sometimes feels a bit undercompensated.
“To me it feels like if you grasp a position, if you grasp something very well, then they give you more (work), but they don’t compensate you with pay. They load you up with work but you don’t get compensated, which I don’t think is right,” Mildrew said.

Mildrew estimated that she earns about $2,000 a month in salary and after paying for her car, food, cellphone, cable and taking care of her 4-year-old daughter Kayla, she is left with about only $500 at the end of the month. That’s without having to pay rent, as her fiancée is in charge of that.

Discrimination based on source of legal income limits housing choice

If people derive some or all of their income from a form other than wages, they tend to struggle. It is extremely difficult to find rental units that accept Section 8 or public assistance. In surveys and focus groups, this was identified as the No. 1 reason individuals are discriminated against in their housing. People with disabilities, families with children, female-headed households and racial and ethnic minorities often face difficulty as well.

The voucher program is intended to provide individuals with mobility and access to better opportunity, yet it often does not. One potential solution to the problem is to add “source of legal income” as a class protected by local anti-discrimination laws. Promoting and supporting efforts to have source of legal income added as a protected class in New York state could also help. Another goal is to increase the number of landlords that accept housing choice vouchers throughout all parts of the county. There are many steps that could be taken to help ensure legal income does not limit housing choices, and these are just some of them.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Renters spend too much on housing

There is a substantial unmet need for additional quality affordable rental housing in the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. Some 51 percent of renters face housing cost burden, which means more than 30 percent of their monthly income goes toward housing costs. Between 2010 and 2012, 25.8 percent of homeowners with a mortgage had a housing cost burden, compared to 51 percent of renters.

Though the county has made a concerted effort to offer more quality affordable rental housing, its efforts have still fallen short in some areas. The county has not committed to providing assistance to improve rental-housing options for households that are not special needs. Though housing costs are generally greater outside the city, residents in the city are more likely to have a housing cost burden. Individuals in extreme poverty often have trouble finding quality housing. Those who use Section 8 receive a voucher, but they tend to have difficulty in finding landlords who will accept Section 8.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Opportunity Indices: Syracuse rates among nation’s worst

According to research done by the Urban Institute, Syracuse is one of the worst-scoring U.S. cities when considering equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity. To analyze the “opportunity gaps” that exist between whites and other races and ethnicities, the Urban Institute used five indicators of opportunity: residential segregation, neighborhood affluence, public school quality, employment and homeownership. The resulting opportunity scores were then mapped around three factors: housing and neighborhood opportunity, economic opportunity and educational outcomes.

According to the indices, Syracuse ranked 97th on a list of 100 metro areas in the research, earning an “F” when it comes to the opportunity gap between whites and African-Americans. When comparing ethnicities in Syracuse, namely the opportunity gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, the research showed another low score: 92nd on a list of 100.

— CNY Fair Housing Report

Trisha Botty who works in the office of politics and communications for SEIU Local 200United, a labor union that represents nearly 15,000 workers throughout Central New York, said in 2012 communities in New York realized how important raising the minimum wage is. That year, people started contacting their legislators, and organizations such as Local 200United started pushing harder for wage reform.

“We support issues that really help move workers up in this country and this state and more importantly making sure that we realize that you can’t live off the current minimum wage,” Botty said. “It’s not meant to be able to provide what you need for your family, or the opportunity to pay for your mortgage or utilities and put food on the table.”
Lisa Davis worked for the minimum wage until she realized that there had to be a better way to make a living.

For five years, Davis worked as a personal care aide at the Greenpoint Retirement Community in Liverpool. She kept records, and tended to every personal need of the residents, helping feed, bathe and dress them, among other duties. She was paid minimum salary, although she believed for how difficult her job was she should have been paid more.

“When I got paid I didn’t know if I would have enough money for the next week,” Davis said. “I was working very hard and was getting cheated out of pay.”
Now, Davis is earning her bachelor’s degree in marriage and family therapy at the age of 53 in pursuit of higher wages, but she is currently unemployed. Davis said the hardest part about living on the minimum wage was the amount of care she would have to put into budgeting.

“Learning to prioritize your money and pay what’s most important, I don’t think [minimum wage] is ever enough where you can pay off all your bills for the month without having a balance left on some type of bill,” Davis said.

Botty said poverty in the United States is directly related to wages, specifically the minimum wage. By raising the minimum wage in recent years, it has provided workers with new opportunities to provide for their families, even if their hourly wage is only $1 higher.

“A dollar to some people doesn’t seem like a lot of money, two dollars doesn’t seem like a lot of money,” Botty said. “But to people in our communities, including the city of Syracuse as well as the suburban counties, raising the wage gives the opportunity for people just to have a little bit more, and that money goes back into the economy too.”

Laura Brown, an organizer for the Workers Center of Central New York, an organization that advocates for workers’ rights and does outreach work for low-wage workers, agreed that the current minimum wage of $8.75 is not a living wage. Brown advocates for a raise beyond Cuomo’s proposed $10.50, but realizes that any increase is a step forward for minimum-wage workers.

“For people who are working low-wage jobs every little bit counts … but if you were to keep up with inflation the minimum wage should be higher, around $15 or $16,” Brown said. “The relative weight of that extra dollar, I’m not saying people don’t notice, I’m sure they do, but at the same time I feel like it’s always too little too late.”

Finding housing on a minimum wage

Cherese Mildrew answered some key questions about living on a minimum wage

“I mean you can find apartments and places to live with the minimum wage, but as far as being you know, quality, it might not be the greatest. It’s hard enough trying to pay bills and keep the basics going working minimum wage, or having one minimum-wage job.”
“It did put a damper on life a little because there was no in-between, there was no silence, basically. And there were kids in the house so it was … a very hectic environment, I must say.”
“Not having control was not something that I liked at all. I like being able to direct my own self, and not being able to do that, it put a damper on my self-esteem a little bit.”
Stephen ConnorsThe minimum wage rises but is still hard to live on
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