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'Mad As Hell': A Look Inside Life At Just Above Minimum Wage

The last time Barnes took more than a weekend off work was several years ago, when she got so sick she landed in the hospital.
Carlos Bernate for NPR
The last time Barnes took more than a weekend off work was several years ago, when she got so sick she landed in the hospital.

Joyce Barnes sometimes pauses, leaving the grocery store. A crowd shifts past, loaded up with goodies. Barnes pictures herself, walking out with big steaks and pork chops, some crab meat.

"But I'm not the one," she says. Inside her bags are bread, butter, coffee, a bit of meat and canned tuna — a weekly grocery budget of $25.

The shopping has to fit between her two jobs. Barnes, 62, is a home care worker near Richmond, Va. In the mornings, she takes care of a man who lost both his legs, then hustles off to help someone who's lost use of one side of his body in a stroke. The jobs pay $9.87 and $8.50 an hour. Barnes gets home around 9 PM, then wakes at 5 AM to do it all over again.


It's been like this all her life. Virginia lawmakers last month for the first time approved five sick days to some home health-care workers. Paid vacation is a dream. "Work work work" is a ringtone one of her grandchildren set for Barnes: "She said, 'Nanny, when you call me, I know it's you, because that's all you do is work.' "

Barnes can't afford not to. Home and health aides are among the lowest-paid jobs in America. Also on that list are cooks and cashiers, file clerks and janitors, drivers and construction workers. The most common low-wage work is in retail.

"It just kind of hit a point where we just couldn't afford food," says Kaede Montooth, 20, who's worked at PetSmart in Savannah, Ga., for a couple of years. "[My partner and I would] sit there and we're like, OK ... we can buy like pasta sides that are $1 and then that's what we get for the week."

Pandemic cutbacks at the store left Montooth working shorter and shorter shifts, at $11 an hour. A second job, looking after reptiles at a state park, now pays the same amount. For a while, it was touch and go: picking up pet-sitting and Instacart delivery gigs, coming to terms with needing food stamps. Montooth is an artist, coveting a glossy $15 book — but it would cut into the wi-fi budget.

When experts study low-wage jobs, workers like Montooth and Barnes are actually often left out, because traditionally, labor data focus on the "prime working age" of 25 to 54. Martha Ross from the Brookings Institution decided to expand her research to workers 18 to 64, including part-timers — and was shocked at her discovery.


Adjusting for regional differences in the cost of living, Ross found 53 million low-wage workers in America, with median earnings of $10.22 an hour, or $17,950 a year.

"This is a huge swath of our labor market," Ross says. "It really made me think about the kinds of jobs that we're creating."

Ieisha Franceis from Durham, N.C., used to be a nurse's assistant for $12 an hour. But she worried about exposing her elderly mother to the coronavirus and took a job as a cook at Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, with a pay cut to $9.20 an hour.

"I say it all the time: I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul, and robbing Paul to pay Joe, and they're just going to have to argue about it," Franceis says about the juggle of bills for water, gas, light, groceries and whatever her 12-year-old son needs. "It's hard to have any type of a nest egg."

She wishes politicians in Washington, debating whether minimum wage should be $10, $11 or $15 per hour, lived a day like she does — with almost two hours on a bus, just to get to work.

"I challenge any of them to walk one day in our shoes... Get up, do the kids, catch the bus, work our job, get back on the bus, deal with what we have to deal with at home, face these bills. They'll be lost at catching the bus," says Franceis, who advocates for higher wages with the Fight for $15 and a Union.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if Congress decided to phase in a $15 minimum wage by 2025, some 1.4 million jobs would get cut, while at least 17 million workers would get a raise.

When asked about why they stay in low-paying jobs, workers often say there aren't many options around them. Franceis and Barnes both also said something else: They love their work, just the pay and benefits are lacking.

Barnes has found a new voice as an advocate for home care workers through the Service Employees International Union. Like many home aides, she talks about taking care of people as a calling — but that love of the work has been tested.

A few years ago, her teenage grandson got a janitorial job. "Nanny, you know how much I get paid?" he asked Barnes. He showed her the paycheck: $10.50 an hour, more than his grandmother made at either of her jobs.

"I looked at him, my whole face dropped," Barnes says. "I said, 'Oh, baby, that's so good.' But all along, I was mad as hell."

If she did get a big raise, Barnes says she would probably cut back on her crazy hours, take a few days off, maybe even make it a vacation. When was the last time this happened? Maybe six years ago, she says, then catches herself, remembering: She took that time off because she'd landed in the hospital.

A friend has told her about New Orleans, a place like nothing she's ever seen. Barnes imagines what it'd be like, strolling down Bourbon Street, laying eyes on drapes of moss cascading off tree branches — not having to think about work.

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