Op-ed: As an East Bay fast-food worker, I say we need $15 minimum wage and a union

If you listen to the big business lobbyists, you might actually hear them claim that the Bay Area’s higher minimum wage laws will have no impact or might even hurt our communities.

But that’s missing the real story: the lives of tens of thousands of workers like me who will benefit.

I have worked for two years at a McDonald’s in Oakland. I took the job to help my mom, who is also a low-wage worker, pay the rent and put food on the table, and to help with my school expenses. For example, I wanted a cap and gown for my high-school graduation. I needed to pay my phone bill. Now, I need to keep working while also a full-time student at Laney College.

When I stared I earned $8 an hour. Most weeks, I worked about 15 hours — which meant by bi-weekly paycheck was barely $200.  I could never take a day off for school events or other activities, or I would wind up looking at a paycheck that didn’t even keep even with my expenses.

Now, thanks to the Oakland minimum-wage law, my pay is up to $12.25 an hour — that’s a 50% raise. I can open my check and know that there’s enough to cover the bills.

It’s made a huge difference in my life.

But still, my mom earns $13 an hour at a big box retail store, and between us, we often take home just $1,000 every pay period. Imagine paying Bay Area rent on that!

That’s why I’m participating in the Fight For $15. With $15 an hour, I could help my mom with the money she badly needs — she could go to dinner on her birthday. And I might even be able to save a little. I take my $1 bills every week and try to put them away for the future, but there’s never enough to spare.

I’ve learned in this campaign that the minimum wage helps, but isn’t enough. We need to raise the wage everywhere in the Bay Area, from Emeryville to Richmond and beyond, but that isn’t enough.

We also need a union to protect our rights as workers. At McDonald’s, we lack security — not only job security, but the security of knowing we are safe at work. A woman who works at Taco Bell was hit in the head with a gun not far from where I work. Late at night, it’s not always safe. My co-workers tell me that they can’t afford to take their child or family members to the doctor.

My professors at Laney College are low-wage workers, too. They’re “adjuncts” with no job security. They have master’s degrees, but have to race all over the Bay Area to get enough classes to make ends meet.

So when I say “15 and a union,” I’m not asking for too much. I’m just asking what’s fair. And the news media needs to hear my side of the story, and not listen to big business lobbyists.

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Zharia Harper, 19, has worked at McDonald’s for two years in Oakland, she also studies African American Studies full-time at Laney College in Oakland.