Marlie Meranville just got a raise as the Connecticut minimum wage jumped from $11 to $12 on Sept. 1.
On top of that, a new ruling by the state Department of Labor could eventually mean a huge pay hike for all the workers at the state-owned service plaza in Darien, where Meranville pulls a late shift at Sbarro.
But you’ll have to forgive the 23-year-old Stamford resident for not celebrating on this Labor Day.
Whatever gains she and millions of other low-wage workers made before COVID have faded to a pre-pandemic memory. Even with a slightly higher hourly wage, her hours are way down, from 35 or more a week to 22.
And her workload is higher, with coronavirus cleaning duties on top of the regular tasks of a fast-food worker.
During and after her nearly three-month layoff, Meranville was delivering food and medicine for Uber Eats and other services, but her 2007 Jeep conked out. And so just recently, she had to give up the apartment she took in Bridgeport last summer with friends. She moved back in with her mother, who works with her at Sbarro.
“I’m doing more work but getting paid less,” Meranville said Friday — not exactly correct, as she did get a 50-cent raise, courtesy of Connecticut’s second large jump in a five-year plan to reach $15. Still, as most of us take a day off for the holiday set aside to recognize workers, her comment reflects her valid view of the employment world.
In another universe, one without COVID, this might have been a year when low-wage workers would have something to celebrate. Unemployment was hovering just over 3 percent as 2020 started and even some low-wage workers were seeing gains, though not nearly as hefty as those at the top of the pay scale.
But coronavirus has hit Meranville hard, just as it has other front-line service workers, especially in fast food, and especially those who are Black or Latinx. Among 238,000 Connecticut residents who filed for continuing unemployment benefits in a recent week, 105,000 had incomes under $20,000 in the prior year, said Patrick Flaherty, economist at the state Department of Labor.
That’s 44 percent. “Usually,” Flaherty said, “the under $20,000 group is maybe a third.”
‘I can’t stay still’
Nationally, analysis of federal data by the Economic Policy Institute shows that Black women saw a slightly smaller increase in unemployment in April compared with February, but the rate was higher — 16.9 percent compared with 15.8 percent — because it started out higher for Black women. Latinas saw a much higher jump in unemployment than white women, and have been slower to regain work.
Meranville did receive unemployment benefits during the spring layoff. But she told me she didn’t collect the $600-a-week federal bump-up more than a few times. That might be because she took up the delivery work. She tried to get answers from the Department of Labor but couldn’t get through, like thousands of others, as state residents have filed more than 800,000 claims in six months.
“I was looking for jobs even when I was on unemployment,” she said.
Why do that? I asked. Her state and federal benefits would have outpaced any work she might have found, by a long shot.
“I can’t stay still, I have to do something,” Meranville said. “You have to make money.”
Even last week’s raise was a mixed blessing. “I was assuming it was going to be a dollar,” she said — because the minimum went up by a dollar. Instead it was only 50 cents an hour, to $12 from $11.50.
Meranville, who was born in Haiti, had worked her way beyond the minimum wage as a shift lead at Sbarro, and now she’s back on the bottom. She’s seen others making $1 or $2 an hour over the minimum for heading a shift.
“It took them like a year to give me a 50-cent raise,” she said. “I was mad. I’m still mad.”
Mad workers are not usually conscientious workers and even though Meranville did look for work during the layoff, against her own interests, she admitted she could be working harder at Sbarro.
“I’m not putting my heart into it,” she told me, “because I’m not getting paid to put effort into it.”
She gets that this is not the ideal attitude. But she’s been there for five years, since graduating from Stamford High School in 2015, and doesn’t feel she’s moving ahead. “It was my first job, of course I was supposed to be happy about that, but I’ve got bills to pay,” she said.
Her dream is to be a psychiatrist and she said she briefly took some classes at Norwalk Community College, but stopped. She is, after five years, in the large group of long-term earners at or just above the minimum wage. She’d like to buy a tiny, one-bedroom house but that’s way out of reach in Fairfield County.
Connecticut in 2018 had about 129,000 residents working at the minimum wage or less, research from the Department of Labor showed. That’s probably higher now that the wage has gone up from $10.10 to $12, Flaherty said.
Many of us assume a rise in the minimum wage is good for workers like Meranville. That’s true on the surface, but it’s not a slam-dunk safe conclusion. Republicans who oppose the increases say hours are curtailed and jobs become more scarce as the minimum rises.
Now, with COVID sinking the nation into a deep recession, we can’t know who’s right in that debate. More than in previous recessions, especially the Great Recession of 2008-09, lower-wage workers have paid a price, with or without a rising minimum wage — even in health care, Flaherty said. “Not a lot of doctors got laid off but a lot of administrative support folks in dental offices got laid off.”
Meranville doesn’t need to study the data to understand that she has little bargaining power right now — which is why the state ordered the minimum wage increase in the first place.
She’s one of about 33,000 fast food and food counter workers in Connecticut, one of the lowest paid occupations — with a median wage of $12.25 an hour early in 2020, according to data from the state Department of Labor.
Two factors could help matters. First, the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which largely represents janitors and other building service workers, is trying to organize nearly 1,000 fast-food workers at the state-owned service plazas. Meranville supports that effort.
And as part of that organizing, SEIU 32BJ petitioned the state for so-called standard wages for many of those workers. That would mean they’re treated like state vendors, in effect, with mandatory benefits or a bump-up of about $3 an hour. Last week the Department of Labor announced it had ruled for the standard wage at three McDonald’s outlets in the plazas — giving workers back pay totaling $870,000.
The downside: Workers with low skills, for example cashiers who don’t speak English, could be crowded out of these jobs if the union wins big victories for them.
Meranville ought to be able to demand more money as a shift lead, pushing herself back over the minimum wage. But she feels she can’t. Maybe it’s the COVID recession. Maybe it’s the psychology of the low-wage work, which keeps her from giving her all, and leaves her unable to afford a car right now. Maybe, like the Republicans say, it’s the rising minimum wage that keeps everyone close to a flat rate.
“We’re falling behind. We’re still falling behind.” she said. “I’m trying to get a job that pays more but ...”
Her voice trails off.