April 19, 2021

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Rationing insulin. Skipping meals. One woman’s struggle to survive on minimum wage

10 min read

MIAMI — Elsa Romero eyes the $3.38 vanilla pound cake. A tiny bite could save her life. She’s not sure she can afford it.  

Romero, 57, looks around the discount grocery in her Liberty City neighborhood, the cacophony of Spanish and Haitian Creole voices competing for her attention as she tries to do the math. 

There’s $90 in her bank account and her next paycheck arrives in 10 days. As a janitor making minimum wage, she can’t afford $110 in her weekly insulin, but a forkful of the dessert whenever her blood sugar drops could keep her out of the emergency room. 

That cake — cheap and full of empty calories and sugar that could exacerbate her diabetes — is a necessity, she decides.

Romero’s predicament is dire and tragic and common. Across the United States, 58.3 million Americans work for less than $15 an hour. What hope they held out for relief in the form of a boosted hourly pay was dashed recently when Republicans succeeded in having a $15 minimum wage removed from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. That means for people like Romero, life will continue to be a daily struggle. 

With the cake in her basket, Romero moves to the hot bar. She picks up a quart of beef broth and a side of mashed potatoes, her only other food for the next few days. 

She gets in line at the checkout counter. 

“$11.24,” the cashier says, ringing her up.

“Un momentico,” she replies. One moment, please. 

Romero pulls out a scrunched $10 bill and a few extra singles. When the clerk hands her the change, Romero puts it in the tip jar. 

“There’s always someone that needs it more,” she says. 

Elsa Romero purchases a vanilla pound cake, fruit and milk at a discount grocer in Liberty City on March 16, 2021 in Miami. For Romero, 57, the cake is a cheap alternative to her expensive insulin.
Working multiple jobs to barely pay the bills

Most voters — Republicans and Democrats alike — support raising the federal minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 since 2009. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans said soaring housing and food prices threatened their ability to pay for everyday expenses. 

“There’s no place in the United States where you can get a one-bedroom apartment for $7.25 an hour and still have enough to buy food and the absolute necessities,” former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells USA TODAY in a phone interview. 

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich
There’s no place in the United States where you can get a one-bedroom apartment for $7.25 an hour and still have enough to buy food and the absolute necessities.

Biden has said he wants Congress to find a way to pass a federal minimum wage increase. But without a deal in sight, experts say people like Romero often must make difficult decisions to sustain themselves.

“It’s not a question of being smart or being thoughtful or planning for the future. You are forced to make a series of bad decisions when life doesn’t work and it can’t work with wages that low,” says Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that researches economic policies for working people based in Washington, D.C.

Elsa Romero food shopping at a local supermarket on March 16, 2021, in Miami.

Elsa Romero food shopping at a local supermarket on March 16, 2021, in Miami.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

Romero works five days a week, from 4 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. cleaning three floors at the Miami Tower, a luxury high-rise building in downtown Miami.

She has no paid sick leave or benefits. The company charges employees $50 a month for parking in the empty building at night while they work. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to buy her own personal protective equipment until she began organizing her coworkers with the Service Employees International Union. Their efforts led to a three-day strike. Now, the company gives her and the other janitors one disposable mask a day. 

Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute
It’s not a question of being smart or being thoughtful or planning for the future. You are forced to make a series of bad decisions when life doesn’t work, and it can’t work with wages that low.

The company was fined $10,000 in November by the U.S. Department of Labor for spraying the building with chemicals while employees were inside. Romero and her coworkers were overcome by the noxious fumes, suffering severe burning in their eyes, coughing, lesions and trouble breathing.

In her other job, Romero does housekeeping work for a family twice a week. Those are 14-hour days. The years of working with her hands have taken a toll. Last year, she was diagnosed with arthritis. Her right middle finger flares up constantly. The stiffness shoots radiating pain up her arm. 

“When I get home I have to run it through warm water and then I daub an ointment the doctor sent me,” says Romero. 

She withstands the pain and looks for more homes to scrub and polish through word of mouth. But any additional work is intermittent at best. All in all, Romero makes $1,600 a month.

Elsa Romero waits in line to buy lunch at a local supermarket on March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.

Elsa Romero waits in line to buy lunch at a local supermarket on March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

The rent for her trailer is $700. The electric bill can be upwards of $100. Her car payment is $303; It’s another $216 for insurance and $200 for gas. Her health insurance is $95 a month — she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. That leaves about $100 for any other expenses, including food, toiletries and medicine. Romero’s insulin costs $440 a month.

Sometimes she stays up until 3 a.m. thinking about how she will make ends meet.

“When that happens I turn on worship music, I begin praising my God, that fills me and the Lord blesses me with sleep,” Romero says. 

She is from La Ceiba, a port city in Honduras. Romero emigrated 40 years ago to the United States after getting pregnant at 16. She left her baby behind with her mother as she found work to provide for everyone back home. 

In time, she met a man, got married, became a U.S. citizen and had another daughter. Romero’s husband left when their little girl was eight years old. She raised her as a single mom — never earning more than minimum wage — in the small trailer park she has called home for three decades.

The trailer park neighborhood where Elsa Romero lives, March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.

The trailer park neighborhood where Elsa Romero lives, March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

Inside her trailer, the unkempt shelves reveal more old paper calendars, church posters and kid drawings than canned food. The window air-conditioning unit is turned off to save money. The old white gas stove doesn’t work.

There are exposed wood two-by-fours in the kitchen. Romero’s been trying to fix the floor since her home suffered water damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Sections of it are patched with fresh plywood that she’s replaced little by little. Part of the roof is missing and there’s mildew in some corners. 

In the early years, Romero would send money to her family. Remittances paid for the construction of a three-bedroom house for her mother. Now it is her sister in Honduras who sends money to Romero when she can afford it.

TOP: A view of a damaged rooftop inside the home of Elsa Romero in Miami, Fla. ABOVE: Inside Romero’s trailer sit more old calendars, posters and kids’ drawings than canned food.
TOP: A view of a damaged rooftop inside the home of Elsa Romero in Miami, Fla. ABOVE: Inside Romero’s trailer sit more old calendars, posters and kids’ drawings than canned food.
LEFT: A view of a damaged rooftop inside the home of Elsa Romero in Miami, Fla. RIGHT: Inside Romero’s trailer sit more old calendars, posters and kids’ drawings than canned food.
SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY
‘Blessed with work’

The only abundant thing in Romero’s life is her faith.

Dressed in her Sunday best — a long ruffled denim dress with a black cardigan and matching sneakers, some colorful pink bracelets with rhinestones and a single gold ring adorning her right hand — Romero enters the sanctuary of her small church.

As congregants lift their voices to sing in Spanish accompanied by the keyboard and crows of the rooster outside, Romero, too, closes her eyes, swaying from side to side and sings, “blessed is the Lord, the king.” 

Romero’s supple fingers caress her Holy Bible pages. As the pastor began his sermon, she takes out her devotional notebook where she jots down every verse in black ballpoint ink. I Timothy 2:13-15, Galatians 4:4, Matthew 1:23, Luke 3:23-38. 

Elsa Romero
Anyone else would throw in the towel. But I am strong, Christ makes me strong.

Even the pages of her notebook are a prayer. Inscribed is a verse from the Book of Proverbs, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

This is Romero’s moment of respite. Meditation. Fortitude. Her only day off from workingtwo jobs.

After the service, families pick up their weekly grocery donation box in the courtyard. The church runs a small food pantry for its neediest families, including an 81-year-old woman Romero drives to church on Sundays. The ride is no small charity for Romero, who spends $40 on gas every three days. 

Romero doesn’t join her friend in the line for free food. She only asked for a donation box once during the lockdown, when she didn’t work for two months because she was terrified of catching the virus. She doesn’t need the “cajita,” she says, because she is “blessed with work.”

“Anyone else would throw in the towel. But I am strong, Christ makes me strong,” she says. 

Paying bills on minimum wage forces workers to make tough choices

Romero is up before sunrise. She sits on the most expensive item in her trailer, a two-seat brown electric recliner her daughter got her for Christmas.

She hasn’t brushed her teeth or washed her face yet. She opens her Holy Bible.

“Señor te entrego mis pensamientos y mi dia,” Romero prays. Lord, I offer you my thoughts and my day.

Romero pricks her finger to check her blood sugar. It’s low. She eats a small piece of the vanilla pound cake.

Romero is prescribed 22 cubic centimeters of insulin daily by her doctor but sometimes she skips it. During the lockdown, she stopped taking insulin altogether for five days. The attempt to wean herself off to save money nearly killed her. She was nauseous, dizzy, dozing off. Rationing insulin can cause a person to lose consciousness and die if untreated.

The plan for this Monday morning was to pay the electric bill. But Mariposa, Didi and Princess, Romero’s three aging dogs, are out of dog pee pads.

The dogs, some of whom have been with Romero for over a decade, spend much of their day alone unable to go outside. She’s worried the wood could rot from the dog urine, arresting the progress she’s made repairing her floor. 

Elsa Romero's three dogs pictured at the door of her home on March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.

Elsa Romero’s three dogs pictured at the door of her home on March 16, 2021, in Miami, Fla.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

For America’s poor, there’s no such thing as a simple setback.

Three years ago, Romero got into a car accident. A vehicle rear-ended her and the insurance paid her $1,800 to fix her car. But when she went to pick up the vehicle, the body shop wanted $3,700. They had charged her every day for holding the car in their lot. The tally grew as each day passed, and she never could pay them. She lost the car.

She was too afraid to ruin her credit in the process, so she kept making the monthly $290 car payments to pay off the balance while riding the bus to and from work. Sometimes she’d miss the bus at night and it would take her two hours to get home. A few months ago, she was able to buy another car.

Romero drives to the nearest Petsmart. In under 15 minutes, she’s in Miami’s Design District, an upscale neighborhood filled with art galleries, celebrity-chef restaurants and Gucci and Christian Dior luxury boutiques.

She finds the blue absorbent pads and carries the box to the checkout lane. She pays $39.58 with tax — half the cost of the power bill. 

Elsa Romero buys supplies for her three dogs at a local pet store on March 16, 2021, in Miami.

Elsa Romero buys supplies for her three dogs at a local pet store on March 16, 2021, in Miami.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

“I saved up my points and I was able to get a whole $10 off,” Romero says with a triumphant smile. 

She adds: “Así hago mis cositas.” This is how I take care of things.

Back at the trailer, Romero drinks some of the beef broth, takes a shower and puts on her orange uniform.

She serves Mariposa, Didi and Princess their kibble before closing the door behind her and heading to work. 

Romero spends the next 7.5 hours cleaning out garbage bins, dusting surfaces and mopping floors. Sometimes, she stops to catch her breath and crack a joke with her coworker Milagritos, a 73-year-old janitor who is saving to send money to her family in Cuba. 

Romero returns home after midnight and changes into her pajamas. She runs her hand in the bathroom faucet for the pain.

As she lays in bed, she turns to God and prays she’ll wake up tomorrow to do it all again.

Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi

Pelosi: We have strong argument for $15 min wage

AP

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