A grocery worker unpacks potatoes at 17th and Mission streets.

Behind the counter of every tasty sandwich joint, hip bar, and go-to cafe so popular in the Mission are low-wage workers, manning the registers, chopping the vegetables, pulling the espresso shots.

Many have worked for minimum wage for years, but that could change in November when voters will decide on a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage from $10.74 an hour to $15 an hour by 2018.

In the meantime, we wondered how Mission workers manage in one of the country’s most expensive cities? And how do they view the ballot measure? We will be doing a series of stories on minimum wage workers and families.

Most we spoke with last week depend on living with family or sharing rent with roommates. Often, they work here but live outside of the Mission. Saving up for a rainy day, a medical emergency, or college is tough.

“It’s hard but it’s okay,” said Julio Lopez who works for minimum wage at Jay’s Cheesesteaks on 21st street near Valencia as well as at a nearby taqueria. He works 60 hours over six days a week. He lives with his family on the outskirts of San Francisco in what’s almost Daly City. Lopez said he’s tried living in other areas but that the people really make a place, and he is loath to leave because he would miss the Latino community.

Ana Mejia, a middle-aged woman who serves food at Las Tinajas for minimum wage, shares rent with her family in the Mission. Though she didn’t want to share an opinion on the potential for a minimum wage increase, she did know that if she were to earn more, she would start building up savings – something that just isn’t possible with the wage she currently earns.

Younger workers tend to be optimistic about their earnings. At Sidewalk Juice, Coloy de Guzman said he’s pretty satisfied with his minimum wage job.

“I recently bought a car,” he said proudly. “You just gotta work hard for it.”

But de Guzman, a 20-year-old city native, has the advantage of living with his family in SoMa, where he doesn’t pay rent. This means he can use tips, which add up to between $10 and $20 a day, as spending money and save the rest.

Yoselin Martinez Xonthe, 18, is in a similar situation. She works at Xanath Ice Cream on Valencia for about nine hours a week while she studies nursing and lives with her parents. She knows it would be much tougher if she had to pay rent.

Just a few blocks away, Rocio Zaragoza mirrors Martinez Xonthe almost exactly. Also 18, Zaragoza is holding a large advertising sign at the corner of Mission and 21st. She does this for about five hours a day, three days a week. After graduating from Mission High, she’s trying to earn some money to help her attend SF State to study nursing. She lives with her parents and her wages mostly go to them to secure her place at university. For her, it’s a good job, she said, and she’s earning “okay money.”

For those already in school, minimum-wage jobs don’t always seem as generous.

If she went from what she earns now to earning $15 an hour, Carla Vasquez, who works at La Rondalla, said things would be “way better.”

“With $10 an hour you have to work and the cost of rent, transportation food… how do you expect us to pay our phone bill?” she asked. “It’s a little tight, it’s hard.”

Vasquez is working toward a general education degree at Skyline College and lives with roommates in downtown San Francisco. Sometimes, she said, she doesn’t have money to buy food or has to spend all her earnings on textbooks.

Raul Ruiz, a student at San Francsico State University working toward a Master’s in writing, works part time at Dog Eared books. Ruiz lives in the Excelsior, where he rents a room in a house.  He earns slightly more than minimum wage. If his wage were to increase to $15 an hour, he said, it would be slightly better, but “I really can’t complain.”

Ruiz also has the advantage of also receiving a stipend from the university.

Back at La Rondalla, Vasquez’ older colleague Baltazar Tirado, who has worked in the kitchen for 17 years, seemed frustrated with the spending power of his earnings. He lives in the Mission, where he rents a room in a home shared with roommates. His home has a bathroom, but no kitchen.

“No one’s happy with minimum wage,” he said. “Much less myself.”

He’s not alone. Minimum wage workers across the nation have protested the insufficiency of minimum wage.

Nonetheless, Tirado doesn’t agree with raising the minimum wage, fearing that everything else would become more expensive as a result of raising workers’ wages. Between paying for rent, food, and other necessities, Tirado said he wouldn’t have anything left over even if he was paid more. Instead, he’d like to see the cost of living reduced so that his hard-earned dollars would be worth more.

Leonor Noguez also doesn’t think it’s a good idea to raise the minimum wage much higher. She has been working at La Taza for 16 years but still earns less than $15 an hour and said that she and her fellow La Taza workers “deserve to get a raise. Latino workers especially because we do the jobs nobody else wants to do.”

But Noguez said she didn’t like the idea of a new hire, who might be inexperienced and slow, getting paid more right away than what she has worked many years to earn. Nonetheless, if she earned $15 an hour, she’d save for retirement. Or maybe a vacation, she added, making her the first worker interviewed to mention any kind of luxury.

Andrea Valencia contributed to this report.

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9 Comments

  1. Good to see that even some folks who receive the minimum wage do not support increasing it to $15 an hour.

    As well as the obvious inflationary implications cited, there is also the impact it will have on local employment and local businesses if their cost base is arbitrarily increased by nearly 50% with no accompanying increase in productivity to pay for it.

    I also expect it will be an empty victory for at least those who rely on tips, as customers scale back on tips. In fact I don’t know why those getting tips should even qualify for the minimum wage – that’s not the case in most other cities.

    It’s dangerous to stray too far from the idea that pay rates should depend on value added, and not on someone’s needs, wants and desires. Tax credits for lower paid workers is a better solution than externalizing the gap. If your work is only worth $10 an hour, then paying you more is not justified.

    1. Thanks for this great reporting. I wish we all media paid this much attention to the opinions of the poor among us, and to the diversity of their opinions.

      I want to correct the comments made by Sam. On inflation: UC Berkeley economists estimates overall inflation to rise by .3% in SF because of the #MinimumWage. Minimum wage workers will come out ahead. The same economists published a study of minimum wage increases historically across the US, and found little to no impact on overall employment numbers; probably because of the ‘henry ford’ scenario–pay workers enough and their consumer spending will lift the economy.

      As to the question of why workers who get tips deserve to also receive the minimum wage? it is because (according to Economic Policy Institute)–tipped workers are twice as likely to live in poverty as hourly/salary workers. 14.6% in poverty in one study, compared to 6%.

      I do agree that we should expand the earned income tax credit, which will help out the poorest among us. HOWEVER, it is terrible when conservatives point to EITC as a reason for not raising the Minimum Wage; they have had their chance to expand EITC, have never done it, and now cite it as a reason not to help poor folks by raising their minimum wage.

    2. More inane garbage jargon from Sam/John. Every study of this subject shows that a minimum wage increase boosts the local economy. Anyone who works should make a living wage. If making $10 an hour keeps you in poverty, leaves you unable to afford the necessities to survive, then it’s essentially slavery.

      Sam/John fails, as usual, to show what value he’s added to the conversation.

      1. Whatever bizarre scale you come up with to determine what $10 an hour is worth is in truth worthless if it’s not a living wage.

        Silly Sam/John believes that property owners deserve to receive full-market income no matter how wildly inflated it is, but that working people’s wages should stagnate no matter how high the cost of living gets. (Hmm, which group adds more value to society?)

        1. No, I am simply argue that people get paid for the value they add and not based on how much they think they would like in order to live the way they feel they deserve.

          Getting more money just because you are poor goes by another name. Welfare.

  2. There are many issues that relate to this…If minimum wage is “too low”, people who utilize public benefits may simply choose “not to work” because the “payoff” isn’t really worth it. Also, with retail (food, etc.) booming in SF, there is actually a shortage of workers…check CL for minimum wage retail jobs and there is clearly a glut. The existence of sites like Poached for food service jobs is evidence of this. The downside to this boom is that there is a shortage of workers who live in or near SF who are willing to do this work…So you may be “stoked about the artisanal ham shop” but they might be struggling to find workers or you might be shocked at the level of service you get. “You (employers) get what you pay for..” and if it’s low…well….

    1. Supply and demand. They will eventually find workers when the price point is right. If they can’t find a worker at minimum wage, they will increase the wage until they start getting workers. This takes time so there are blips when there is a “shortage” of workers. Don’t freak out and let the market brings those wages up.

      If there are truly not enough workers, more businesses would be closing their doors which does not seem to be the case.

  3. What no one talks about is the increase for all folks making close to $15/hour. If I make $15/hour today, and the minimum wage increases by more the $4/hour, I would expect that my income go up by $4/hour. It took me a while to get to $15/hour by learning more and taking on more responsibilities on the job. If I could make $15/hour and not have any stress/responsibilities(i.e. hold a sign for 5 hours), I might quit my job and take the less stressful one. It would make sense that employers must raise the pay for all workers as there needs to be some incentive to take on more responsibility.

    Now, all of this may be a good thing. I think interviewing the employers and asking what impact it will have on their particular business would be a good article. It would tell the entire story vs. looking only at the workers side. The most important question everyone wants to know is, “how much will my carne asada burrito increase in cost if this law passes?” Answer that and then people can choose sides.

  4. Society needs to ask the question if it is better off without businesses that rely on minimum wage to survive – and the jobs it provides. Or if the services provided by that business should be more costly to be sustainable for society.

    The market can’t make that decision. Markets are simply instruments to find the price at which supply equals demand of a limited resource. It is society’s responsibility to limit resources where necessary.

    I like the idea of asking business owners. I would add to ask the customers too.

    Great to see ML take on the big questions from a local pov.

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