Five times a week he gets on the Metro bus and heads to work. The 30 minute ride from West Hollywood to Downtown LA isn’t all bad. It gives him time to read for school or listen to music, but there’s one major drawback.
“It stinks. Like, the bus literally stinks,” said David De La Cruz, when describing his trips to work.
The 19-year-old has come to deal with it, since he can’t afford any other way to get around town. No car, no motorcycle, no bike. And no Uber.
De La Cruz makes minimum wage as a cashier at Taco Bell, where he works between 30-40 hours each week. The increase in Metro fees from $1.50 to $1.75 (or from $75 to $100 for monthly passes) doesn’t seem life-altering, but when you’re on a tight budget like De La Cruz, every quarter matters.
“It isn’t much, but it adds up. When the bus driver told me I was like ‘ah, man!’” laughed De La Cruz.
His paychecks are spent each month on the basics: helping his older brother pay rent for their apartment, schoolbooks, and food. Finding a way to get by on $9 an hour is a grind, but he’s gotten used to it.
As a four-year-old, De La Cruz’s single mom brought their family to Los Angeles from Mexico. Even with his mom having to work several low-paying jobs to keep their heads above water, De La Cruz is certain it was the best move for the family long-term.
“Everyone says it all the time, but it really is the Land of Opportunity,” said De La Cruz when describing the United States.
De La Cruz is an English major at Cal State University, Northridge, and hopes to become a language arts teacher after he graduates. Having a Dream scholarship helps assuage his financial burden somewhat, but De La Cruz has to clock his hours each week at Taco Bell to make ends meet.
There are simultaneous initiatives in motion that aim to help people like David. While there is a ballot being circulated to raise it to $15 by 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposal to raise minimum wage to $13.25 over the next three years has gained the most traction.
You would think if anyone would be in favor of Garcetti’s proposal to increase minimum wage in LA over the next three years, it would be De La Cruz, right?
“I’m not an economist or anything, but I really don’t think it’s a great move,” said De La Cruz. “For me it might help, but I think it would hurt just as many — or more –people than it helps.”
De La Cruz argued the customers at Taco Bell are dependent upon the prices being low, since many of them pay with their EBT cards. If Taco Bell had to pay its workers more, De La Cruz felt the prices would increase and the customers would suffer.
“And they would probably cut our hours, too!” said his co-worker Jessica as she walked by. (It was at this point I started to wonder if Taco Bell had really awesome employee benefits)
De La Cruz echoed the same sentiment, fearing a decrease in customers would lead to less hours for him and everyone else. For him, the fear of potentially losing his job outweighs the benefit of a potential increase in his hourly wage.
Critics of Garcetti’s plan have similar concerns. The LA Chamber of Commerce said on Tuesday an increase in minimum wage would “reduce, not increase the number of jobs” in the city.
Others claim if the mayor is successful it would push businesses out of LA and into neighboring cities.
Still, the reality is that for more than half of the fast food workers in America, the pay isn’t enough to get by. A joint study from UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois last year showed 52 percent of fast food workers were on government assistance, compared to 25 percent for the workforce as a whole.
“I could definitely use the extra couple bucks an hour – just to help with rent and gas,” said Walter, cashier at a local Jack in the Box who did not want to give his last name. “I hope [the increase in minimum wage] happens.”
Those in favor of the increase believe it is necessary to assist in paying for everyday items. While gas, rent and groceries have all seen price increases, wages have been static for several years.
Despite being against the Mayor’s plan, even De La Cruz had to admit he could see a benefit to an increased minimum wage. “It’d help me pay for all these bus rides,” said De La Cruz.