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Melissa Douds waits for the bus. Douds, who turned 41 this year, has worked off and on in fast food for ten years and currently makes $8.50 an hour. She says her hours have been unpredictable: anywhere from as many as 70 per week to as little as 15. Photographs by Chase Castor
The Power and Privilege Issue

This Is What Living on Minimum Wage Looks Like

The photographer Chase Castor shot four workers in Kansas City, as they struggle to survive day after day with little pay.

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

In May 2017, long after he had lost the Democratic primary for president of the United States, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, along with 30 Senate cosponsors, introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Known, now, as the Raise the Wage Act, it was a major element of Sanders’s campaign, as was his support for Fight for $15—the movement, started in 2012 by American fast-food workers, to make this, as well as the right for the workers to unionize, a national requirement. Perhaps most famously, these issues came to a head in April 2016 during a presidential debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn.


“History has outpaced Secretary Clinton, because all over this country people are standing up and saying $12 is not good enough,” Sanders said, quoted in the Washington Post.

After all, this proposal was not the first of its kind. In 2015, Sanders proposed the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act—but it received only five cosponsors, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, instead favored legislation for a $12 an hour wage. Over the years, however, Sanders has never wavered, and a month after he conceded the primary victory to Clinton, in July 2016, he succeeded in getting the Democratic Party to endorse this part of his platform. His current bill remains in Congress.

The fight, though, rages on—and shows, really, no signs of slowing down. Though several states have pledged their support on the matter—in New York, for instance, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a plan in 2016 that would raise the minimum wage in New York City to $15 per hour by the end of 2019protests, organized by Fight for $15, continue to crop up throughout the country. And it’s not only retail and fast-food employees: Many, including those in the childcare and healthcare fields, have joined the battle. (Disney World workers just claimed victory this past September.) In February 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, low-wage workers across the South went on strike themselves and, following in the footsteps of those who came before them, marched for what one woman told the Guardian was nothing more than “respect and a decent wage.” Their protests come from a tradition of marches, rallies, and civil disobedience—the same tactics that factory, mill, and sanitation workers used in the past.


Chase Castor, a documentary photographer based in the Midwest, met up with four low-wage workers in Kansas City who struggle to survive day after day: Melissa Douds, Ke Flemons, April Shabazz, and Nathan Wash. What he captured were the intimate moments—the constant upkeep of their homes, the grueling commutes—of these men and women’s daily lives. Many don’t make enough money to adequately live, and many, too, have to travel long distances on public transportation to get to work. More often than not, they have two jobs, cannot afford to have all basic utilities, toil away for 60-plus hours a week, and sometimes still cannot even pay their rent.

This fight is for them. Alex Norcia


Each morning, Ke Flemons gets her two girls, Kay Kay and Tootie, ready for the day, and then takes a bus across town for her $8.50 per hour shift at Burger King. Even though she splits bills and rent with her sister and her mother, Flemons cannot afford to keep all the utilities on.


If their power does get cut off, Flemons sometimes charges her phone on an extension cable from the house next door. Even though she works 32 hours a week, she and her daughters have been evicted, and, at times, homeless.


On a hot summer day, April Shabazz’s daughter bends down to fix a short in her AC unit’s power cable. Shabazz lives with her two kids and new granddaughter. At the time this photo was taken, she was a home healthcare worker as well as a Grubhub delivery driver.


Working more than 70 hours per week, Shabazz brought home approximately $2,300 during the month of July 2017.


Nathan Wash, with his broken reading glasses, gets ready for his 5 AM shift. Between his two jobs—at McDonald’s and as a janitor—he works around 60 hours each week.


Wash’s workday always starts at 5 AM, and his second shift ends at 10 PM. (He has a two- to three-hour break in between.) In his spare time, he studies previous labor movements in his apartment.


Douds and her husband, Mike Washington, rent a bedroom in a house with three other roommates.


The bedroom is all Douds and her husband can afford on her paycheck, as Washington has a heart condition that keeps him out of work and requires expensive medications.

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