‘Just to Keep Food on the Table Is Difficult’: Why These Hard-Working Women Joined ‘Fight for $15’ Protests

·Senior Editor
Sumer Spika, center, joins a Fight for $15 protest in Minneapolis. (Photo: Courtesy of Fight for $15)
Sumer Spika, center, joins a Fight for $15 protest in Minneapolis. (Photo: Courtesy of Fight for $15)

Sumer Spika had never been arrested before. But on Tuesday, as part of a slew of nationwide protests for higher pay, the homecare worker and mother of four sat and blocked traffic with fellow activists near a McDonald’s in Minneapolis and was subsequently cuffed.

“This was my first act of civil disobedience, and it was very peaceful,” Spika, 37, told Yahoo Beauty by phone not long after going through the booking system. “But our state is in a care crisis, and we have been shouting from the rooftops for a really long time about it and we’ve not been heard. So I felt like I had no other choice. I had to do something, and I did.”

Spika’s actions were part of a Day of Disruption in 340 cities on Tuesday — organized by the Fight for $15, a movement that began as a fringe effort to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers in New York City and has now become a national phenomenon. It’s caught on with airport workers, childcare providers, Uber drivers, retail employees, and home-care laborers, with strikers demanding $15 an hour and union rights, and Tuesday brought the most disruptive protests yet, at 20 major airports and outside of hundreds of McDonald’s across the country.

“We can’t feed our families, pay our bills or even keep a roof over our heads on minimum wage pay,” the Fight for $15 website explains. “When we first took the streets, the skeptics called us dreamers — said a $15 wage was ‘unwinnable.’ We didn’t listen. We won $15 an hour across New York State and California … in Seattle. … And we won’t stop fighting until we turn every McJob into a REAL job. That’s the #FightFor15.”

Dayla Mikell joins a protest in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Courtesy of Fight for $15)
Dayla Mikell joins a protest in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Courtesy of Fight for $15)

Spika was among many arrested for civil disobedience in the name of a living wage — along with two of her very supportive clients. She spoke with Yahoo Beauty about what motivated her to protest her pay, earned through an average of 70 hours a week spent at two to three jobs in which she helps care for people with disabilities at home, through services that include bathing, dressing, toilet assistance, and accompanying clients on outings.

She gets paid $12.93 an hour, without overtime, and her husband cannot work because he has multiple sclerosis and must rely on his own homecare worker (which is fortunately paid for by the state). But even with the mass of hours Spika puts in, she does not make a living wage.

“Even with the 70 hours a week, we still rely on government assistance for our healthcare and other things at different times — like food stamps,” says Spika, whose children are 2, 4, 9, and 12 years old. “On our first union contract, we bargained for paid time off, but instead of using it to go on vacation, I wind up cashing it out at the end of the year and using it towards bills. We’re never able to actually use it for what it’s meant for — a day for myself, or a sick day. It’s not something I have the luxury of doing.”

Her family’s expenses include a mortgage and car payments, and “just to keep food on the table is difficult,” she says. A recent $1,200 car repair bill wiped out their savings, garnered from a third job Spika held over the summer. “It’s continually a juggling act of what needs to be paid and what doesn’t,” she says. “But even bigger than my struggle is the struggle of the elderly and those with disabilities who need the care and cannot get it, because nobody wants to do this job — a hard job for so little pay.”

The highest toll on her, Spika says, may be emotional. “I’m not able to be home with my kids like I want to be,” she laments. “I’m constantly caring for other people, so I’m certainly last on my list of caring for, so sometimes that can be hard.” Still, she stays with her career because of the satisfaction she’s gotten from it since the day she started eight years ago.

Sumer Spike blocking traffic in Minneapolis. (Photo: Courtesy of the Fight for $15)
Sumer Spika, left, blocking traffic in Minneapolis. (Photo: Courtesy of the Fight for $15)

“A good friend’s husband passed away very unexpectedly and they had a 2-year-old with special needs, and she needed help caring for her daughter,” she explains. “I thought it would be a temporary thing, but I really fell in love with the job, knowing I make a difference in someone’s life every single day. It’s why I keep doing this job.” Even if she understands that the work she does is not held in high esteem by society.

“I think, historically, this job was done by women — and women of color — so the job has never been valued,” she says. “People do not understand the value of keeping [disabled and elderly] people in their homes — that they’re living lives with dignity, and also saving the government a ton of money.”

Also joining a local protest on Tuesday was Dayla Mikell, 27, a childcare worker in St. Petersburg, Fla., who joined a protest of 100 workers at a McDonald’s in nearby Tampa. She began volunteering at her aunt’s daycare center when she was just a teen, and as preschool teacher has worked with kids ages 1 to 5; currently she teaches 2- and 3-year-olds, getting paid $11.50 an hour.

“I recently had to move back in with my parents because my landlord raised the rent up to $1,500,” Mikell tells Yahoo Beauty. She and her boyfriend, a cook in a downtown restaurant, could barely afford the $1,000 they had been paying. “I moved back in in September, and it was really embarrassing, honestly. I don’t like to see myself fail and I don’t like to ask for help, but my mom [who works as a waitress] saw me struggling. It’s humiliating.” Her younger siblings — 10, 12, and 15 — see her struggling daily, she says, working extra jobs like babysitting and house cleaning to help cover expenses, and they are scared for their futures.

“They say, ‘I don’t ever want to be where you are.’ My 12-year-old sister wanted to be a teacher like me and now she’s like, no. … Still, it’s a struggle, but I love what I do,” she says. “I like that it’s never a dull moment. It’s unconditional love — you could be having a horrible day, but when those kids tell you they love you, it just warms my heart.” While she and her boyfriend want kids of their own, she says, “Right now we can’t afford it. We even have names picked out. But we’re not financially secure.”

Mikell’s mother got her involved in the Fight for $15 effort, she says, telling her daughter she’d seen it on Facebook and then signed her up. She’s been to several demonstrations now, fighting for her line of work to be seen as worth more than it pays.

“I think it’s just brainwashing that a lot of people don’t think our line of work is valued,” Mikell says. “They think it’s easy work, but it’s hard. We work all the time and we always think about our kids, even when we’re off the clock. Our job is never done.” Still, she says, “I’m fortunate to have a job that’s very loving,” adding that she’s hopeful her wages will rise if they keep taking it to the streets. “I feel hopeful, because I see other states and other areas getting the $15 an hour. It’s going to happen.”

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