Tena Weedon’s daughter, Jeanae, an aspiring school principal, received scholarships to pay for all but $2,000 per year of her tuition to Spelman College. However, even covering the balance is difficult for Weedon.
As a worker who has always made minimum wage or only a little more, she is constantly facing financial challenges. Each month, she struggles to pay for basic necessities and has even fallen behind on the monthly payments for her subsidized apartment. She was recently laid off from her job as a part-time retail clerk at a hardware store where she made $8 per hour.
Weedon said her most difficult challenge is figuring out how to take care of her daughter’s needs. Like most parents, she is willing to do without for herself, but finds it painful when she can’t even afford to send her daughter $20 for spending money.
“It hurts,” said Weedon, 48, who lives in Southeast Washington. “She knows I struggle, so she won’t ask me when she needs something. When I do get a little extra money and I try to send her something, she doesn’t want to take it because she knows how it is.”
Weedon is among a group of low wage-earning women scheduled to participate in a walk to protest for a hike in the minimum wage on March 26. The protest, organized by OurDC, is being held to ask that the minimum wage in D.C. be increased to $12.50 per hour. A spokesman for OurDC said the higher wage would “begin to lift low-wage workers out of poverty.” The group is also urging passage of an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The federal wage hike is supported by President Obama.
“When your house is on fire you dial 911. Who do you call when your daughter’s future is going up in flames because you earn minimum wage?” Weedon asked.
“A high school teacher pays the rest because I just couldn’t afford it. I’ll be marching for a decent wage so I can help my child. Right now, I can’t.”
According to statistics from the National Employment Law Center, there are about 19,000 women workers in the District who earn minimum wage. Many of them are women of color who are heads of their households, said James Adams, the spokesman for OurDC.
“Almost all are handcuffed to poverty by low wages,” Adams said. “The White House said almost 33,000 District workers would benefit from a $10.10 per hour federal minimum wage.”
Weedon told the AFRO she has always found it difficult to find higher-paying jobs. She dropped out of Cardozo High School in the early 80s, but returned in 2000 to earn her diploma from Ballou High School so that she could keep her $7.75-per hour job as a teacher’s assistant. The highest she has ever made at a job is $9 per hour, when she worked at Dulles International Airport.
At $9 per hour, she earned $720 each two-week pay period. By the time taxes were taken out, she took home $575 and she was grateful for the job.
“When I was working security, I made minimum wage,” she said. “When I was working most of the other jobs I’ve had, I’ve made minimum wage. If you aren’t working in the government or own your own business or work in something like the news, you make minimum wage in D.C.”
Expenses can add up quickly. She can’t remember the last time she bought herself a dress or had her hair done. Her only recent personal purchase was buying a pair of sneakers a few months ago. Since she can’t afford a car, she often walks where she needs to go to save on bus and Metro fares.
On a recent afternoon, her refrigerator held nine eggs, a pack of bologna, three pieces of Kraft American cheese, a pack of ramen noodles, a half gallon of tea and a bottle of water. There were two packs of frozen chicken wings in her freezer.
She had purchased a few pieces of fruit when she went shopping a few days earlier, but it was gone quickly. “I get $189 per month in food stamps,” she said. “I was splitting them with my daughter so she could get something to eat down at school.”
The march is one of a series of actions scheduled to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to benefit workers like Weedon, Adams said.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has been invited to walk at the head of the group on March 26. Organizers expect 200 women and children, as well as men who are also low wage workers.
Adams said the event was planned to coincide with the return of congressional leaders from their March recess. The March 26 protest will begin at 4 p.m. at Columbus Circle in front of Union Station. The group will march to the west front of the Capitol for a 4:30 p.m. rally and news conference.
She wants legislators considering measures to increase the minimum wage for workers like her to understand that they want to work. They just need to make a fair wage, Weedon said.
“I just wish they would close their eyes and put themselves in our shoes,” she said. “They need to picture their daughters and sons and what it would be like to not be able to feed them or take care of them. I want them to image their family in that situation and tell me what they think then.”
Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.