Minimum-wage worker from Elgin: '$13 is worth fighting for'

  • Rosa Ramirez of Elgin reflects on the past 20 years of working long hours at minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.

    Rosa Ramirez of Elgin reflects on the past 20 years of working long hours at minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Oak Lawn resident Ryan Foster, 22, says the state's current minimum wage of $8.25 per hour isn't always enough to make ends meet.

    Oak Lawn resident Ryan Foster, 22, says the state's current minimum wage of $8.25 per hour isn't always enough to make ends meet. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted6/25/2017 1:00 AM

At 53 years old, Rosa Ramirez has been working minimum-wage jobs to support herself and her family since they moved to the United States 20 years ago. For 22-year-old Ryan Foster, his low-wage income is essential to pay loans and get through college.

Though on opposite ends of the career spectrum, both suburban residents have joined the fight for a minimum-wage increase.

 

Cook County last October passed ordinances to raise the minimum wage to $13 per hour by 2020 and require paid sick days. Some towns have adopted the mandates, but others have decided to opt out.

For Ramirez and Foster, the difference is a matter of quality of life.

Rosa Ramirez

As a single mother of two, Ramirez, an Elgin resident, has worked long hours at countless minimum-wage jobs trying to make ends meet.

Through various temporary staffing agencies, she has found factory work making electronics, clothing, soap, football helmets, automobile parts, cooking utensils, and other products. For the past six months, she's been working at Elgin Die Mold in Pingree Grove.

Rosa Ramirez of Elgin discusses what a Cook County minimum wage increase and paid sick days would mean to her, and what she thinks of the many suburban towns that have opted out of the county ordinance.
Rosa Ramirez of Elgin discusses what a Cook County minimum wage increase and paid sick days would mean to her, and what she thinks of the many suburban towns that have opted out of the county ordinance. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
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Ramirez said she has never made more than $9 per hour.

She often takes double shifts and holidays to pay the bills and feed her family. She works six days a week and rarely calls in sick because she can't afford to miss a day's pay.

"I always have to work overtime," Ramirez said through a translator. "Minimum wage isn't enough to support myself and my family."

When Ramirez heard Cook County towns -- including a portion of Elgin -- could be raising their minimum wage, she was thrilled. Having been involved in the fight at the state level for years, she spoke at local city council meetings to support the cause.

Much to her disappointment, Elgin and many other suburbs have opted out. Ramirez said elected officials should learn about the hardships of earning minimum wage before making decisions that affect workers' lives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They didn't do what they needed to do for the workers," she said.

She wakes up for work every day at 3:30 a.m. and often doesn't get home until after 5:30 p.m., she said. Her jobs require physical labor, which leaves her exhausted and can cause long-term injuries, yet she avoids going to the doctor because she's afraid of the medical bills.

"Thirteen dollars is something to fight for," she said.

Ryan Foster of Oak Lawn will drive for Lyft to help pay off debt and other expenses.
Ryan Foster of Oak Lawn will drive for Lyft to help pay off debt and other expenses. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer
Ryan Foster

For several years, Foster has worked low-wage jobs while paying off student loans and living with his parents in Oak Lawn. He joined the fight last year after realizing Illinois' minimum wage of $8.25 per hour isn't enough to bring even a full-time employee above the poverty line, he said.

"For people to be making minimum wage and still be considered poor and still need government assistance -- that's what fuels me to do what I do," Foster said.

He recently left his job at Jimmy John's in Hickory Hills, where he started four years ago as a regular employee making $8.50 per hour. Before he resigned, he was paid about $10.25 as a manager, while also working in the store and as a driver.

Foster, who has his associate degree, is driving for Lyft and hopes to get a job at a dental office. He plans to take online courses next semester and begin studying computer science at Loyola University in January.

In Foster's eyes, gradually raising the minimum wage will help students and young adults like himself be more successful as they pursue higher education degrees and venture out on their own. But he said it will also benefit adults who work several minimum wage jobs to support families.

"There are people who aren't given equal opportunities. It's just hard for them to get out of that hole," Foster said. "I fight for them, too."

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