Pittsburgh-area women tell of trying to make ends meet on minimum wage

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Brittany Gaiter started to cry Monday when she described how hard her mother had worked to raise her.

Now a single mother herself, Ms. Gaiter, 24, is raising a daughter she gave birth to when she was 15. (The baby's father died when she was pregnant). She earned her GED when she was 16 and had her own apartment at 18.

Now, in addition to her 8-year-old girl, she has a 5-year-old boy. His father helps some, but he also is struggling.

Ms. Gaiter works for minimum wage, but her hours change weekly. Some weeks she works up to 30 hours, other weeks 10 hours -- and last week, none.

In addition to her work at Family Dollar, she styles women's hair. But times have gotten hard enough that she had to move back in with her mother.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Family Dollar, which pays her the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, recorded a profit of $80.2 million in its most recent quarter, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Monday at a meeting with Mary Beth Maxwell, the acting deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, the tears were flowing as Ms. Gaiter was joined by other women talking about raising children on minimum-wage jobs.

Ms. Maxwell is spending time on the road listening to workers' stories of how they try to make ends meet earning minimum wage.

Hannah Williams, 21, has two minimum-wage jobs and is going to school to earn a bachelor's degree while raising her 3-year-old daughter.

"I don't really get to see her," she said. She wakes her daughter in the morning, gets her to day care and then heads to work. Some days she works as a hotel housekeeper. Other days she serves banquets. It is all temporary work that she said doesn't always leave her enough money for groceries. At one point, she said, she left her daughter with her mother because she could not afford to feed her.

As a college student at the University of Phoenix, she said she does her homework after her toddler goes to bed.

"I want to be successful in order for me to get a better wage," she said.

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said he wanted to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour. The first federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Of the seven women who met with Ms. Maxwell, none of their employers paid them more than minimum wage and none were granted a full 40-hour a week job, which also meant they were not receiving benefits.

At minimum wage "you can work full time and make $14,500 a year," Ms. Maxwell said in an interview. "What a lot of people have to do is work two of those jobs. What the president is saying is let's reward hard work."

She said Mr. Obama supported a minimum wage increase because "in this country there is a basic promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should make enough to make ends meet."

Alveyna Turner, 40, of the North Side works at the YMCA in her neighborhood 18 hours a week. She said she could buy medical benefits, but that would not leave enough for anything else. Her paycheck is $126 every two weeks.

When Ms. Maxwell asked the women assembled what they would do with an extra $1.75 an hour, they said they would pay bills or buy school supplies and clothes for their children.

Anna Brewer, 24, who earned a bachelor's degree from Penn State's honors college and now works as a barista for La Prima coffee house, was the only woman at the meeting who did not have children. She said she would first use some additional money to see a dentist.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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