One Tennessee Mother’s Case for Raising the Minimum Wage


Photos by Ashley Barrientos / Lifestyles Editor

After a 10-hour shift of serving hot platters of tacos and enchiladas, Sofia slumps into a leather booth. Her small feet throb— she didn’t get a break today— as she glances at her cracked phone screen, which flashes the time: 11 p.m.

Surrounded by glasses empty of Coke and trays of stale, half-eaten tortilla chips, she nervously wipes her hands on her black apron, stained with salsa and cheese dip. She opens her black tip holder and counts through the crumpled money she made that night. A $20 bill catches her eye, and she recalls who left it for her: the quiet old couple who regularly come in on Wednesday and Friday nights. They had pinned the wrinkled bill under a sweaty cup of water:

She hopes the final count will be enough to cover the rent on her small yellow house that lies just off of I-24.

By definition, the minimum wage is supposed to be a living wage. When the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that the minimum wage was created to ensure that businesses paid people for work and that the wages were enough to live on.

Sofia’s tip book at the end of a Wednesday night.

In Tennessee, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour.

This mother’s situation demonstrates how this reality is delusionary. In her eyes, the minimum wage is barely livable.

Sofia, an undocumented mother of four children, has been working at a Mexican restaurant in without a pay raise for almost a decade now, barely scraping by.

“I work 40 to 60 hours a week, and that’s only barely enough to survive, to just have the basics in life,” says Sofia. “I sometimes have to work even 70 to 80 hours a week. If I miss just one day of work, it’s not going to be enough to pay for my rent or food or clothes.”

Despite being praised as essential workers throughout the pandemic, many food service employees are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, approximately 69% of undocumented immigrant workers hold jobs that are deemed essential.

Chronically low wages have hurt workers of color and, especially, women of color, who make up a disproportionate number of workers who are underpaid in the United States. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) reveals that this is a result of “structural racism and sexism, with an economic system rooted in chattel slavery in which workers of color — and especially women of color— have been and continue to be shunted into the most underpaid jobs. “

The National Partnership for Women and Families, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, states that Latinas are usually paid just 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Women of color in the United States experience the nation’s persistent and pervasive gender wage gap most severely.

Because Sofia is undocumented, it is difficult to search for work elsewhere that may offer fairer wages, since many jobs require legal citizenship status.

Sofia is pictured towards the end of her shift, preparing a drink for a customer.

“I have no choice but to stay there,” she says. She wrings her hands together as her soft brown eyes gleam with frustration. The wrinkles weaved into her skin deepen.

“I’m sick of that place.”

Because she works at the lowest wage possible for tipped workers, Sofia is extremely dependent on tips in order to make ends meet. If she makes a certain amount from tips every week, the restaurant will not pay her anything.

“Sometimes, my paychecks from the restaurant are only $0. Or maybe $5 or $6,” she says. “The customers are the ones who really pay us.”

A picture of Sofia’s $0 paycheck from the restaurant in early March.

If Sofia doesn’t make enough tips during a 40-hour week, the restaurant will only compensate her an extra $60 on her paycheck.

She believes that raising the minimum wage would be important for working mothers like her, because the tips and the federal minimum wage combined sometimes aren’t even enough to sustain her and her family comfortably. 

“Some people just don’t leave tips,” she says. “A lot of people don’t.”

The money she makes from working minimum wage is “just for surviving the day.” This means, paying rent, paying the bills, buying food.

“We can’t go out a lot, and we cook most of the time to save money.”

Sofia also argues that raising the minimum wage would help her do more than just survive.

“I live in a small house with four kids. If they raise the minimum wage, I could finally save for a bigger house.”

According to Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank that researches economic trends, workers in low-wage jobs and their families benefit the most from these minimum wage increases, reducing poverty and income inequality. Nearly two-thirds of servers, cooks, and other food workers would see their earnings rise by $5,800 annually, a 2021 report from the institute found.

Sofia says that working minimum wage forces her to choose between waiting tables and spending time with her family.

“I recently had to cut my hours back to 40 hours a week because of my kids. I wanted to spend more time with my family,” she says. “I’ve been working there for more than 10 years, and they still pay me the same.”

Mothers like Sofia would be able to live more comfortably with a higher minimum wage. However, there are currently no plans to implement a state minimum wage in Tennessee, despite the fact that it’s been nine years since the federal minimum wage was last increased.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Ashley Barrientos, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Life

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