USA TODAY International Edition

One woman’s struggle

Rationing insulin. Skipping meals.

- Romina Ruiz- Goiriena

MIAMI – Elsa Romero eyes the $ 3.38 vanilla pound cake. A tiny bite could save her life. She’s not sure she can afford 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 afford $ 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 difficult 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 five days a week, from 4 until 11 p. m., cleaning three floors at the Miami Tower, a luxury high- rise building downtown.

She has no paid sick leave or benefits. 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 efforts led to a threeday strike. Now, the company gives her and the other janitors one disposable mask a day.

The company was fined $ 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, suffering 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 finger flares up constantly. The stiffness 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 fills 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 fix the floor 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 afford 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 terrified 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.

Tough choices

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 offer you my thoughts and my day.”

Romero pricks her finger 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 five 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 floor.

Romero drives to the nearest Petsmart.

She finds 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 floors. 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.

 ??  ?? Romero doesn’t seek out free food. She asked for a donation at church only once during the lockdown when she didn’t have income for two months. She calls herself “blessed with work.”
Romero doesn’t seek out free food. She asked for a donation at church only once during the lockdown when she didn’t have income for two months. She calls herself “blessed with work.”
 ?? PHOTOS BY SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY ?? Elsa Romero works five days a week cleaning floors in a Miami luxury high- rise.
PHOTOS BY SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY Elsa Romero works five days a week cleaning floors in a Miami luxury high- rise.
 ??  ?? Romero says faith makes her strong. She jots notes during her pastor’s sermons, then reviews them at the trailer park home she shares with her three dogs.
Romero says faith makes her strong. She jots notes during her pastor’s sermons, then reviews them at the trailer park home she shares with her three dogs.
 ?? PHOTOS BY SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY ?? Making minimum wage, Elsa Romero says she can’t afford insulin for her diabetes.
PHOTOS BY SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY Making minimum wage, Elsa Romero says she can’t afford insulin for her diabetes.

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