PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
A "Fight for $15" march in 2016 rallied on Canal Street.
Sabreal Ealem has worked in fast food for three years — she got her start at McDonald's, then Popeye's, then McDonald's again. Now she works while studying criminal justice at Southern University at New Orleans. "It's always been about work and school for me," she says. "I've never had a normal teenager life."
Ealam's mother and sister also work in fast food, earning minimum wage, or far less than the $15 minimum wage Ealem is calling for as part of a national movement demanding wage increases and the right to unionize. "The minimum wage has always separated my family — we've either been in work or at school," she says. "We rarely see each other. The minimum wage is separating families — not just mine."
As the U.S. celebrates Labor Day to close out a three-day weekend for many Americans, a growing chorus of low-wage workers, workers rights groups, unions, clergy and other organizations will push local, state and federal officials to raise minimum wages. McDonald's workers and supporters in New Orleans join a strike and add support behind the national Fight For $15 campaign led by Service Employees International Union. New Orleans' Labor Day protests are among other calls to action in 300 cities.
"Working at McDonald's, you put in the work but you don't get paid what you put in," Ealam says. "I don't feel like $7.25 is enough for me to do all of that."
Louisiana is not among the 29 states with minimum wages set higher than the $7.25 federal rate. More than 64,000 people in the New Orleans metro area work in food service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with roughly 15,000 of those workers relying on tips — relying instead on the federal tipped wage of $2.13 an hour.
Legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana have repeatedly stalled, most recently in this year's session in Baton Rouge, where a Senate committee killed an attempt to raise wages from $7.25 to $8 in 2018 and $8.50 in 2019. The increase would've raised wages for roughly 85,000 Louisiana workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
More than two dozen candidates
running in citywide races this fall pledged their support for a platform put forth by Step Up Louisiana, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage for municipal workers and demands candidates lobby for local control over adopting a citywide $15 minimum wage.
That platform also calls on candidates to promote and ensure equal pay for equal work; guarantee family and sick leave for city employees and contractors; "ban the box" on all employment applications to ensure formerly incarcerated people have a fair shot in the workplace; and allow workers the right to organize.