USA TODAY International Edition
One woman’s struggle
Rationing insulin. Skipping meals.
MIAMI – Elsa Romero eyes the $ 3.38 vanilla pound cake. A tiny bite could save her life. She’s not sure she can afford it.
Romero, 57, looks around the discount grocery in her Liberty City neighborhood, the cacophony of Spanish and Haitian Creole voices competing for her attention as she tries to do the math.
There’s $ 90 in her bank account, and her next paycheck arrives in 10 days. As a janitor making minimum wage, she can’t afford $ 110 for her weekly insulin, but a forkful of the dessert whenever her blood sugar drops could keep her out of the emergency room. That cake – cheap and full of empty calories and sugar that could exacerbate her diabetes in the long run – is a short- term necessity, she decides.
Across the USA, 58.3 million people work for less than $ 15 an hour. What hope they held out for relief in the form of a boosted hourly pay was dashed when Republicans had a $ 15 minimum wage removed from President Joe Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID- 19 aid package. For people such as Ro
mero, life continues to be a daily struggle.
With the cake in her basket, Romero moves to the hot bar. She picks up a quart of beef broth and a side of mashed potatoes, her only other food for the next few days.
She gets in line at the checkout counter. “$ 11.24,” the cashier says, ringing her up. Romero pulls out a scrunched $ 10 bill and a couple of singles. When the clerk hands her the change, Romero puts it in the tip jar.
“There’s always someone that needs it more,” she says.
Working two jobs
Minimum wage has remained at $ 7.25 since 2009.
“There’s no place in the United States where you can get a one- bedroom apartment for $ 7.25 an hour and still have enough to buy food and the absolute necessities,” former U. S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells USA TODAY.
Biden said he wants Congress to pass a federal minimum wage increase, but there’s no deal in sight. Experts say people often must make difficult decisions to sustain themselves.
“It’s not a question of being smart or being thoughtful or planning for the future. You are forced to make a series of bad decisions when life doesn’t work, and it can’t work with wages that low,” says Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington that researches economic policies for working people.
Romero works five days a week, from 4 until 11 p. m., cleaning three floors at the Miami Tower, a luxury high- rise building downtown.
She has no paid sick leave or benefits. The company charges employees $ 50 a month for parking in the empty building at night while they work.
At the beginning of the COVID- 19 pandemic, she had to buy her own personal protective equipment until she organized her co- workers with the Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. Their efforts led to a threeday strike. Now, the company gives her and the other janitors one disposable mask a day.
The company was fined $ 10,000 in November by the U. S. Department of Labor for spraying the building with chemicals while employees were inside. Romero and her co- workers were overcome by the noxious fumes, suffering severe burning in their eyes, coughing, lesions and trouble breathing.
In her other job, Romero does housekeeping work for a family twice a week. Those are 14- hour days. The years of working with her hands have taken a toll. Last year, she was diagnosed with arthritis. Her right middle finger flares up constantly. The stiffness shoots radiating pain up her arm.
“When I get home, I have to run it through warm water, and then I daub an ointment the doctor sent me,” Romero says.
She looks for more homes to scrub and polish, but additional work is intermittent at best. Romero makes $ 1,600 a month.
The rent for her trailer is $ 700. The electric bill can be upward of $ 100. Her car payment is $ 303. It’s $ 216 for insurance and $ 200 for gas. Her health insurance is $ 95 a month – she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. Other expenses, including food, toiletries and medicine, run about $ 100. Romero’s insulin costs $ 440 a month.
Sometimes she stays up until 3 a. m. thinking about how she will make ends meet.
“When that happens, I turn on worship music, I begin praising my God. That fills me, and the Lord blesses me with sleep,” Romero says.
She is from La Ceiba, a port city in Honduras. Romero emigrated 40 years ago to the USA after getting pregnant at 16. She left her baby behind with her mother as she found work to provide for everyone back home.
She met a man, got married, became a U. S. citizen and had another daughter. Romero’s husband left when their little girl was 8 years old. She raised her as a single mom – never earning more than minimum wage – in the small trailer park she has called home for three decades.
Inside her trailer, the air- conditioning unit is turned off to save money. The old white gas stove doesn’t work.
There are exposed wood two- byfours in the kitchen. Romero’s been trying to fix the floor since her home suffered water damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Sections of it are patched with fresh plywood that she’s replaced little by little.
Part of the roof is missing, and there’s mildew in some corners.
In the early years, Romero sent money to her family. Remittances paid for the construction of a three- bedroom house for her mother. Now her sister in Honduras sends money to Romero when she can afford it.
‘ Blessed with work’
The only abundant thing in Romero’s life is her faith.
Dressed in her Sunday best, Romero enters the sanctuary of her small church.
As congregants lift their voices to sing in Spanish, accompanied by a keyboard and crows of the rooster outside, Romero closes her eyes, swaying from side to side and sings, “Blessed is the Lord, the king.”
This is Romero’s moment of respite. Meditation. Fortitude. Her only day off from working two jobs.
After the service, families pick up their weekly grocery donation box in the courtyard. The church runs a small food pantry for its neediest families, including an 81- year- old woman Romero drives to church on Sundays.
Romero doesn’t join her friend in the line for free food. She asked for a donation box only once during the pandemic lockdown, when she didn’t work for two months because she was terrified of catching the virus.
She doesn’t need the “cajita ( box),” she says, because she is “blessed with work.”
“Anyone else would throw in the towel, but I am strong, Christ makes me strong,” she says.
Romero is up before sunrise. She sits on the most expensive item in her trailer, a two- seat brown electric recliner her daughter got her for Christmas. She hasn’t brushed her teeth or washed her face yet. She opens her Bible.
“Señor, te entrego mis pensamientos y mi dia,” Romero prays. “Lord, I offer you my thoughts and my day.”
Romero pricks her finger to check her blood sugar. It’s low. She eats a small piece of the poundcake.
Romero is prescribed 22 cubic centimeters of insulin daily by her doctor, but sometimes she skips it. During the lockdown, she stopped taking insulin for five days. The attempt to wean herself off to save money nearly killed her. She was nauseous, dizzy, dozing off. Rationing insulin can cause a person to lose consciousness and die if untreated.
The plan for this morning is to pay the electric bill. But Mariposa, Didi and Princess, Romero’s three aging dogs, are out of pee pads.
The dogs, some of whom have been with Romero for more than a decade, spend much of their day alone unable to go outside. She’s worried the wood could rot from the dog urine, arresting the progress she’s made repairing her floor.
Romero drives to the nearest Petsmart.
She finds the blue absorbent pads and carries the box to the checkout lane. She pays $ 39.58 with tax – half the cost of the power bill.
“I saved up my points, and I was able to get a whole $ 10 off,” Romero says with a triumphant smile.
“Así hago mis cositas,” she says. “This is how I take care of things.”
Back at the trailer, Romero drinks some of the beef broth, takes a shower and puts on her orange uniform.
She serves Mariposa, Didi and Princess their kibble before heading to work.
Romero spends the next 7.5 hours cleaning out garbage bins, dusting surfaces and mopping floors. Sometimes, she stops to catch her breath and crack a joke with her co- worker Milagritos, 73, who is saving to send money to her family in Cuba.
Romero returns home after midnight and changes into her pajamas. She runs her hand under the bathroom faucet for the pain.
As she lies in bed, she turns to God and prays she’ll wake up tomorrow to do it all again.
“You are forced to make a series of bad decisions when life doesn’t work, and it can’t work with wages that low.” Thea Lee President of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington that researches economic policies for working people.