Low wage payers set a low bar for wage earners

I'm a Chicago home care worker, and I just stormed the headquarters of one of our country's largest employers: McDonald's.

Why should I care about McDonald's? While I might not stand behind a McDonald's cash register or cook burgers on their grills, McDonald's workers' fight for a better wage is my fight too. When the fast-food giant pushes down pay, it sets the bar low for employers everywhere.

And when the company pretends it doesn't need to pay its fair share in taxes, resources like home care don't get the funding they need to run and run well.

I've been a home care worker for the past 11 years. It's important, hard work that's a vital lifeline for the some of the most vulnerable people in our area, including seniors and people with disabilities. But I can get only 27 hours of work each week, and I'm paid just $13.25/hour.

This means putting off paying my electricity bill in order to make rent. It's meant my two twin boys have delayed going to college. Instead, they've worked retail jobs to help our family pay the bills. Too many home care workers, fast-food workers and other parents in Joliet are in the same boat.

Ours was the largest-ever protest at a McDonald's shareholder's meeting. Along with thousands of other underpaid workers from around the country, we descended on company headquarters - and even pitched an overnight encampment - demanding they raise pay to $15 and stop their tax avoidance. It's about time.

Our economy isn't working when families play by the rules and still can't get by. But I am not the only one. From Chicago to Portland, and from Tampa to Atlantic City, too many Americans are doing important jobs and are paid less than $15 an hour.

How did it end up like this? Big corporations, like McDonald's, have created a low-wage economic model that has hollowed out our middle class. When so many people work for so little at our largest employers, pay goes down for everyone.

In home care, the effect of low wages is high turnover and an understaffed workforce that can't meet all the needs of our communities. In Illinois, for example, for every 10 seniors in need of care services, there's only one care provider available. That's a huge gap, and one that needs to be fixed.

Nationwide, low wages paid by big business cost taxpayers more than $150 billion in the form of help to underpaid workers, such as food assistance and housing support. McDonald's alone costs taxpayers one billion dollars a year.

This is wrong. McDonald's can afford to give its workers a raise. It makes billions of dollars in profits a year. Its share price is at record highs. The shareholders who meet each year in Chicago have become wealthy from selling McDonald's food, and it is time the people who make and serve it got a share of the success.

It is time the people who work "McJobs" are lifted up, paid a fair wage and have access to the resources they need to get by.

Demanding $15 an hour is not unreasonable. It is a fair wage for hard work. A raise would certainly change my life. I could have money in a savings account. I could pay my electricity bill and rent on time. I could put money aside for my kids' college plans.

It would mean no longer pinching pennies and stressing about the future.

That is why I marched on McDonald's shareholder meeting with more than 10,000 other underpaid workers, and am continuing my calls for change. It isn't just about changing one company. It is about changing our whole country and winning a fairer deal for all Americans who want a living wage for their hard work.

Denise Brown is a home care worker in Joliet and a leader in the Fight for $15.

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