Idaho’s average weekly wage was lower than all but two other states in 2018, and its minimum wage, like 20 other states but just two of its neighbors, is $7.25 per hour. Even in the current robust economy — which is prompting even fast-food chains to start workers out above the minimum — Idahoans earning at the lower end of the wage scale are struggling to get by. Here are some of their stories:
CAROL AUGUSTUS, Nampa
Carol Augustus got her first job at age 13, working in a Dairy Queen where she was the youngest teen on the crew. She worked at that and other jobs through junior high, high school and college, in which she earned an associate degree.
She’s worked all her life, except when she was at home raising her two now-grown sons. But her medical issues prevent her from working full time; she earns $10 an hour as a home caregiver, helping people with illnesses or disabilities with things like medication, meals, cleaning and personal care.
“Some people need less help, some people need more help,” she said.
Augustus, twice divorced, has lived on her own for the past 18 years, and for a time left her home-care work to work in retail as a cashier and salesperson.
“It was really stressful — for me it was too stressful,” she said. “In this particular store, the floor was concrete.”
She developed serious foot problems. “I was literally limping,” she said.
During that time, her medical issues worsened, and amid rising bills, she was evicted.
“I was living out of my car in the middle of winter for about 10 days,” she recalled grimly.
Then, she was able to get into a homeless shelter for families in Nampa; after three months there, “I was able to get my life together, and I got a place to stay.”
The whole time, she worked, usually around 25 hours a week. After seven years of retail work, she returned to home caregiving.
“The retail did pay better, but it was just too stressful,” she said. Her retail job paid $10.75 an hour.
Augustus, 57, said she gets by on what she makes.
“I’m very fortunate — I get housing assistance, and I get food stamps. But I’m one of the fortunate few, because it takes, like, five years to get housing assistance, three to five years,” she said, noting the long waiting lists.
“There’s times when things can get real tight. But so far, knock on wood, I haven’t had any big problems,” she said. “I’m fortunate that my boyfriend’s brother is a mechanic — if anything goes wrong with my car, he helps me out. If anybody didn’t know a mechanic, I don’t know how they’d pay for it.”
While her 2002 Chevy Malibu is in tip-top running condition, “Gas can be real tough sometimes, especially now,” she said.
If her home-care work paid $15 an hour instead of $10, she said, “I wouldn’t have to rely on food stamps. I probably wouldn’t have to rely on housing assistance. I’d probably have enough gas money.”
She’s concerned about those who earn less than she does, with Idaho’s relatively low minimum wage.
“I think it needs to be raised,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot of companies that are making a lot of money off the backs of those workers that are making low wages.”
DANIEL SCHAFER, Boise
Daniel Schafer, an Army veteran, couldn’t believe he was interviewing for a job on a shift crew at McDonald’s at $9 an hour last month.
“I’m 32 years old — I’m trying to better myself,” he said. “That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not a 15-year-old kid right out of high school, I’m 32 and trying to get my life together."
And the job at the fast-food chain didn’t even work out. He was prepared to sign on for full-time work, but the hours available stretched late into the evening. The recovering addict, who’s in a Veterans Treatment Court program, has a strict 10:30 p.m. curfew. He couldn’t make it work.
He did find part-time work as a dishwasher at a downtown Boise restaurant.
“They actually started me at above minimum wage, $10.50 an hour and gave me a 50 percent pay raise the first day on the job,” he said. “I worked very hard.”
Eighteen months sober, Schafer is still living at the Boise Rescue Mission and, after a car accident, has no car; that’s meant he can’t drive to construction or call-center jobs like he did earlier.
“It’s not a pleasant place to stay, especially as a recovering addict,” he said.
He’s starting school at the College of Western Idaho, hoping to get an associate degree in business administration and then transfer to Boise State University to earn a bachelor’s degree. He’s lined up student aid, including a student loan and Pell Grant. He figures that’s the route to future success for him.
“I’m really tired of making other people money,” Schafer said.
He’d really like to find housing, but that’s proven tough.
“With the rules of my program, I can’t have roommates, unless they’re fully sober,” he said.
With the state’s low wages and its minimum wage of just $7.25 an hour, Schafer said low-wage workers can’t afford housing at the current prices.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “In order to be single and live on your own, you have to make a minimum of $15 to $17 an hour just to skate by by the skin of your teeth and get a decent one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment. That is a statistical fact.
“Finding a job that will pay you $15 to $17 an hour is almost impossible in this state, unless you’ve got a bachelor’s or master’s degree,” he said.
“I’m still at the mission, still having trouble finding housing,” he said, “but that’s just the name of the game. I’ll get there eventually. … It’ll take time, a lot of time and patience, a whole lot of time and patience. … I’m crossing my fingers.”
EMERGENCY LOAN APPLICANTS
Kate Nelson sees their applications every day. She combs through their finances to see if she can grant a small emergency loan to the low-income, working folks who come to her program. The loans make it possible for people to pay off things like utility bills, bicycle repairs, and ballooning payday loans.
"They are employed and sometimes over-employed, working more than 40 hours a week," said Nelson, director of the Economic Opportunity program at Jannus in Boise, "and still struggling to meet basic expenses."
Two years ago, the program added the small-dollar loans to its services; it now has more than 80 active loans.
"We as lenders have the ability to look at where their money has gone," she said, "what their expenses are, where they're spending their money, and we also see their credit reports. What that shows us time and time again is that people are struggling with student debt, they're struggling paying their utilities, and they're spending money on things that we all need like food and gas."
In one family of six, the father is earning less than $10 an hour working full time in retail at a chain store; the mother, who had a stroke about six months ago and is unable to work, stays home with the four children, two of whom have medical needs.
"They share one car and do have student loans they're both paying off," Nelson said.
The parents received a combined $2,500 in loans to pay off utility bills and debts related to a deteriorating home they inherited from a relative.
A single man who is a senior citizen and works in housekeeping has a gross income of $1,100 a month, pays rent, and receives food stamps, or SNAP. He used a $750 loan to repair his bicycle, his sole mode of transportation, and to pay off a high-fee payday loan.
A woman who is working multiple jobs — preschool teacher, janitor, house-cleaner and landscaper — has a monthly income of $1,788 and is a single mother of two. She used a $1,000 loan to pay off a payday lender; she'd taken out the payday loan to pay basic bills.
"It just spiraled from there," Nelson said. "When she first came in here, she was so extremely stressed. The weight of having financial burdens is tremendous; it literally weighs people down."
Nelson said the small emergency loans come at 12% interest but with flexible payment arrangements that help clients rebuild their credit.
"Our repayment rate is 98%," she said.
Nelson said she sees clients who earn Idaho's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in jobs like hotel housekeeping.
"It's not a livable wage, that's for sure," she said.