Commentary: I’m diabetic. If I stop working, I don’t have money to live

My first job was in fast food. I was a teenager in California, and I made $8 per hour. This March, I turned 39. I’ve worked in food service off and on all throughout my life. Right now, I work two jobs. I’m still in fast food; one of my jobs is at Church’s Chicken. They pay me $9 per hour.

I beat myself up about how little I make in silence but not outwardly. It hurts to know that Church’s doesn’t value the more than 20 years of experience I’ve accumulated. It hurts to know that they see me as just another chicken-handler and not a person. I tell myself, “I’m worth more than this,” every day, but I keep my mouth shut.

I like to work, and I work hard, more than 60 hours every week. I don’t like being used as a pawn for the rich to get richer — and that’s what’s happening to fast food workers like me in this country. In order to pay my rent and medical bills, I have to work the hours I work. If I stop, I don’t have enough money to live.

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Until last November, I lived in Los Angeles, California. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 14, which means my body doesn’t make its own insulin. If I don’t monitor the foods I eat, check my blood sugar at every meal and take insulin several times a day, my condition could quickly kill me. It’s no exaggeration to say I need insulin injections to live. In California, I had health insurance through Obamacare.

When I moved to Texas, I knew I’d need to get a new plan, but I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to get coverage. I was shocked when the woman who was helping me find a plan told me to come in to see if I was eligible. I thought, “What do you mean, ‘if’?” As soon as the possibility of not having health insurance entered my mind, my heart started beating faster. Sure enough, I don’t make enough money to afford Obamacare even with the subsidies, and the state government in Texas has refused to expand Medicaid. What’s life or death to me is politics to them.

Although I work overtime each week, I’m considered a part-time employee at both of my jobs, so I don’t qualify for benefits through work, either. Basically, my boss at Church’s has me down as an employee who’s supposed to be scheduled for less than 30 hours a week, but circumstances each week lead to me working more hours. Even though I don’t like being cheated out of the benefits I deserve as a full-time worker, I want to work as many hours as possible. Insulin and other medical supplies cost me about $200 out of my pocket each month, and then rent for my studio apartment is another $700. Add in food, transportation, and other bills, and I’m struggling to stay out of the red.

A couple of weeks ago, my hours at Church’s were cut in half, with no warning, and no official explanation. Word spread that labor costs had gotten too high. Having my hours was a $540 rug pulled out from under me. It’s a reminder of how few rights workers like myself have, for now. But along with my fellow workers, we’re fighting to change that. Recently, I joined Fight for $15.

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I had heard about Fight for $15 while I was still in California. I was impressed that workers in Seattle were able to get a $15 minimum wage. But to be clear, it’s more than just $15 per hour. I work full-time hours but I’m not considered full-time. Wages are only part of the issue. I can make $15 an hour — but if I have to pay all my medical bills out-of-pocket, I’m not really earning that.

I have a health condition I’ll die with. I have to take a day off work each month to see my doctor, and I’m not getting paid for that. If for some reason I’m actually sick, I have to act like I’m fine so I can make it through work. The only time I don’t go to work is if I’m so sick my face is in the trash can, throwing up. Taking a day off work for anything less is not an option.

Casey is a fast food worker in Austin and a member of the Fight for $15 movement.

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