Obama Minimum Wage: When The Working Poor Can't Take A Sick Day

Life isn't easy at $7.25 an hour.

Following President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, where he called for increasing the national hourly minimum wage to $9 from $7.25, we asked HuffPost readers in certain parts of the country what they thought of the idea -- and whether they, or anyone they knew, were earning minimum wage at the moment.

One of the places we reached out to was Texas, which in 2011 was among the states with the highest percentages of hourly workers who were earning minimum wage -- or less.

A reader from central Texas, who we'll call "Catherine," wrote back to tell us about the minimum-wage workers at her local gas station, and how they struggle to get the kind of medical care many of us simply take for granted.

If you or someone you know is earning minimum wage, and you'd like to share your story of how a minimum-wage increase would affect you, send us a note at openreporting@huffingtonpost.com.

Here's what Catherine told us:

My neighborhood Shell gas station employs about four individuals who seem to rotate 10-hour shifts. At any time of day, any day of the week, there is at least one and sometimes two people on duty. I know the current crew has been there at least two years, and I know they are paid $7.25 an hour with no sick time and no benefits.

I know because I asked one day this past December, and I asked because I noticed one of the workers getting sicker and sicker by the day. As an RN, I was concerned. It looked to me as if she had a raging sinus infection. Finally, one day when this worker could barely speak or hold her head up, and her face was red and swollen, I asked if she had been to the doctor. She said she hadn't. She told me she couldn't take time off, because she would not be paid.

I asked if she had any health insurance. She said no, and told me she could not afford to go to a doctor, an ER or an urgent care center.

I gave her some unsolicited advice for home care remedies, and went home. I went to the internet and looked up a college in our city and not far from our locale, and printed off information, application forms, office hours, and instructions for application to their community health plan, which they developed years ago for people who are without insurance for whatever reason, people who are ineligible for Medicaid, and so on. The plan gives access to any and all care at the hospital, as well as prescription meds and follow-up care with an assigned private physician in the city. All costs are on a sliding scale.

I got back in the car, took these papers to the woman at the Shell station, and urged her to take care of this and make an appointment for her next day off, because she needed antibiotics.

In the following days, I began talking to young men who worked at the gas station, asking them about their job and their lives. Most of them were high school graduates. One young man had a wife at a tech school, and an 18-month-old daughter. They were all pleasant and hardworking.

On a typical day, these employees take the sales for gas, manage the pumps via computer in the store, receive the incoming stock, stock the shelves, clean the bathrooms, clean the store, mop, and so on. I have seen them doing these things. There is also a safety risk with these jobs, since robberies and injuries can happen.

I wrote to the President about this, because I cannot believe Shell Oil Company pays some of their workers less than $10 an hour while the company makes record profits [ed. note: see here] and financially contributes to those candidates who would deny healthcare to these workers [ed. note: more information here]. I thought about personally boycotting Shell, but I decided that 1) all of the oil companies probably pay the same, 2) I cannot go without gasoline, and 3) these people need their jobs.

I was absolutely thrilled to hear the President put minimum wage on his agenda, and I see no reason why it can’t get done. Nor should it take months and months and months to get it done. I immediately saw the faces of those nice young people who are so conscientious in their work.

Some letters are edited for length and clarity.



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