Most North Carolinians, no matter our race, occupation, or country of origin, work hard for our families. But we don’t all get paid enough to make ends meet, no matter how hard we work.
I came to this country from Honduras over 20 years ago after Hurricane Mitch devastated my home country. Thanks to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which allows people like me to live and work legally in the U.S., I’ve been able to contribute to this country and provide for my family. But with the wages I make, it has never been easy.
I am an essential worker. I have two jobs, working six days a week. During the day, I work at an industrial laundromat, making sure that hospital linens and medical scrubs are washed and disinfected properly. In the evening hours, I work as a janitor, disinfecting offices to make sure that working families in Durham stay safe and healthy.
Despite being deemed “essential” by the U.S. government, I am also deportable because of our broken and inhumane immigration system. I’m not alone. More than 131,000 TPS recipients are essential workers like me, risking their lives in service to their communities.
Nearly one in five essential workers in America is an immigrant, including many Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members and leaders with the Fight for $15 and a Union. We are of every race and background living in every state, keeping America fed, clean, and safe. We are doctors, nurses, child care, and home care workers. We are essential to America.
But not only do many of us working immigrant families lack permanent protection from deportation, we are also underpaid. I am paid $12.10 an hour, which is barely enough to get by, and don’t get hazard pay for the essential work that I do. I live with constant fears: first, of contracting the virus at work; second, of being unable to keep providing for my family; and third, of being separated from them after so many years spent making this country our home.
As we fight to pass important laws like the American Dream and Promise Act and the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 that would bring justice to immigrant families like mine, we must also fight for policy that recognizes the invaluable contributions and sacrifices of all essential workers—immigrants included. We need to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. For years, workers with the Fight for $15 and a Union have gone on strike, organized countless actions, and devoted our precious time to demand a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to come together in a union to help build a better future.
We cannot wait any longer.
For me, $15 an hour would be a gift of life. It would mean that I could spend more time with my two beautiful grandchildren who love sleepovers. I dream about taking a vacation with my family. In all my years in the U.S., I have only ever taken one vacation—and it was only for two days—because I cannot afford to take the time off from work. If I fall one step behind, it would be devastating for my family.
And I know that $15 an hour would make a difference not just in my life, but also in the lives of millions of workers. Experts estimate that a $15 an hour wage would boost the incomes of nearly one-third of Black workers and one-quarter of Latino workers, which would finally give us a chance to tackle generations of racial income gaps. Raising the minimum wage will have far-reaching benefits, tackling food insecurity, lowering rates of depression and suicide, and reducing child abuse—without leading to job loss.
In my fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, I’ve seen the impact of coming together and demanding justice right before my own eyes. A $15 an hour minimum wage isn’t just morally right—it’s also good economics and good politics. We need everyone in Congress—Democrats and Republicans—to stand with us in our fight for a $15 an hour wage.
I recently came across some words that were spoken by U.S. Representative John Lewis at an early Fight for $15 and a Union strike in Atlanta: “Sometimes you have to make a little noise. Sometimes you have to find a way to make a way out of no way. Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way.” We will not rest until our way is found. Senators must recognize the work our entire country has agreed is essential by passing a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
It’s time that all essential workers—no matter our race, our job, where we live, or our country of origin—are respected, protected, paid a living wage, and granted the right to join a union.
Onys Sierra is an SEIU-Workers United member. She lives in Durham.
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