Pascha Moore has been working in the fast food industry since she was sixteen years old. She started out making $5 per hour at Hardee's. Twenty years later, the mother of four is making $8 per hour at McDonald's. She can't get enough hours on the schedule to afford rent, so she's staying "here and there" while her kids stay with cousins.
"My daughter made honor roll and I can't buy her a little gift," she said.
Moore is one of an estimated 70,200 workers
in Durham who make less than $15 per hour and one of about twenty-one thousand Durham workers who earn less than $10 per hour. She and other low-wage workers spoke about the realities of those statistics Tuesday night at a hearing hosted by Raise Up for $15
at the Hayti Heritage Center.
The event was part of a national call for racial and economic justice marking the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, while he was in Memphis to strike with sanitation workers.
"As Dr. King described, our struggle is the struggle for genuine equality, which means economic equality
— jobs and freedom. Jobs and freedom went together in the movement," said Peter Pihos, a historian and lecturing fellow at Duke University. "... Forty-nine years after Dr. King's assassination, economic equality remains his unfulfilled dream. The stock market might be at an all-time high, but the one percent takes much more than it makes while ordinary workers like these folks survive on starvation wages." (Pihos is a member of a Duke faculty union).
Reverend Curtis Gatewood, field organizer for the North Carolina NAACP, leads a moment of silence honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a workers' rights hearing in Durham Tuesday.
Organized by Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives, thousands of people marched in thirty cities Tuesday night, including in Memphis, where Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP spoke. In addition to the rally in Durham, events were held in Greenville and Gastonia to highlight the importance of unions and living wages.
North Carolina's minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, in line with the federal minimum, which has not been raised since 2009. Legislators introduced a bill last month to raise North Carolina's minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2021.
Low wages disproportionately affect women and people of color. According to the National Employment Law Project
, more than half of black workers and sixty percent of Latino workers in the U.S. earn less than $15 per hour. About fifty-five percent of workers who earn less than $15 are women.
"All Americans, especially women of color, we need a raise," said Seretha Platt, a mother of four who works at Bojangles and Church's. The food industry is Durham's largest low-wage sector, according to the People's Alliance.
Nikki Cannady says low wages have forced her to sacrifice her health. Cannady, a new mom, has worked in home care as a nurse assistant since 1997. Her doctor told her a year ago that she had carpal tunnel syndrome in both her wrists and needed to take time off. She couldn't afford to do that and the condition worsened, forcing her out of the job for two weeks. She returns to work Thursday.
In the meantime, two clients have ditched her, but she says most of the patients she works with get mad when they find out how little she is paid and try to sneak her extra cash. In fact, it was a patient who told her about Fight for $15 three or four years ago. Although she drives her own car all over the Triangle seeing as many as eight patients each day, she loves what she does.
"My patients, their families, the love, the one-on-one feedback," she says.
Abdul Burnette, a Raise Up for $15 member and fast food worker for eighteen years, says it is particularly important now to stand up for both racial and economic equality.
"This is a dark moment for all of us," he said. "We have a white supremacist in the White House. Again — we have a white supremacist in the White House."
Moore said instead of making America great again, per the Donald Trump campaign slogan, we should "fight to make America what it wasn't — and that's for everyone."
On Wednesday at noon, Raise Up for $15 plans to deliver a petition to the McDonald's on Roxboro Street asking that she get more hours. Moore isn't afraid of calling out her employer — she knows she has been a good employee and has "a machine" behind her in the Fight for $15 movement.
"What worries me," she says, "is not getting heard."