MIAMI – Elsa Romero eyes the $3.38 vanilla pound cake. A tiny bite could save her life. She's not sure she can afford it.
Romero, 57, looks around the discount grocery in her Liberty City neighborhood, the cacophony of Spanish and Haitian Creole voices competing for her attention as she tries to do the math.
There's $90 in her bank account, and her next paycheck arrives in 10 days. As a janitor making minimum wage, she can't afford $110 for her weekly insulin, but a forkful of the dessert whenever her blood sugar drops could keep her out of the emergency room.
That cake – cheap and full of empty calories and sugar that could exacerbate her diabetes in the long run – is a short-term necessity, she decides.
Romero's predicament is dire and tragic and common. Across the USA, 58.3 million people work for less than $15 an hour. What hope they held out for relief in the form of a boosted hourly pay was dashed when Republicans and some Democrats had a $15 minimum wage removed from President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package. For people such as Romero, life continues to be a daily struggle.
With the cake in her basket, Romero moves to the hot bar. She picks up a quart of beef broth and a side of mashed potatoes, her only other food for the next few days.
She gets in line at the checkout counter.
"$11.24," the cashier says, ringing her up.
"Un momentico," she replies. One moment, please.
Romero pulls out a scrunched $10 bill and a couple of singles. When the clerk hands her the change, Romero puts it in the tip jar.
"There's always someone that needs it more," she says.
Working two jobs to barely pay the bills
Most voters – Republicans and Democrats – support raising the federal minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 since 2009. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans said soaring housing and food prices threatened their ability to pay for everyday expenses.
"There's no place in the United States where you can get a one-bedroom apartment for $7.25 an hour and still have enough to buy food and the absolute necessities," former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells USA TODAY in a phone interview.
Biden said he wants Congress to pass a federal minimum wage increase, but there's no deal in sight. Experts say people such as Romero often must make difficult decisions to sustain themselves.
"It's not a question of being smart or being thoughtful or planning for the future. You are forced to make a series of bad decisions when life doesn't work, and it can't work with wages that low," says Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington that researches economic policies for working people.
Romero works five days a week, from 4 until 11 p.m., cleaning three floors at the Miami Tower, a luxury high-rise building downtown.
She has no paid sick leave or benefits. The company charges employees $50 a month for parking in the empty building at night while they work.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to buy her own personal protective equipment until she organized her co-workers with the Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. Their efforts led to a three-day strike. Now, the company gives her and the other janitors one disposable mask a day.
The company was fined $10,000 in November by the U.S. Department of Labor for spraying the building with chemicals while employees were inside. Romero and her co-workers were overcome by the noxious fumes, suffering severe burning in their eyes, coughing, lesions and trouble breathing.
In her other job, Romero does housekeeping work for a family twice a week. Those are 14-hour days. The years of working with her hands have taken a toll. Last year, she was diagnosed with arthritis. Her right middle finger flares up constantly. The stiffness shoots radiating pain up her arm.
"When I get home, I have to run it through warm water, and then I daub an ointment the doctor sent me," Romero says.
She withstands the pain and looks for more homes to scrub and polish through word of mouth, but additional work is intermittent at best. All in all, Romero makes $1,600 a month.
The rent for her trailer is $700. The electric bill can be upward of $100. Her car payment is $303. It's $216 for insurance and $200 for gas. Her health insurance is $95 a month – she doesn't qualify for Medicaid. Other expenses, including food, toiletries and medicine, run about $100. Romero's insulin costs $440 a month.
Sometimes she stays up until 3 a.m. thinking about how she will make ends meet.
"When that happens, I turn on worship music, I begin praising my God. That fills me, and the Lord blesses me with sleep," Romero says.
She is from La Ceiba, a port city in Honduras. Romero emigrated 40 years ago to the USA after getting pregnant at 16. She left her baby behind with her mother as she found work to provide for everyone back home.
She met a man, got married, became a U.S. citizen and had another daughter. Romero's husband left when their little girl was 8 years old. She raised her as a single mom – never earning more than minimum wage – in the small trailer park she has called home for three decades.
Inside her trailer, the unkempt shelves reveal more old paper calendars, church posters and kid drawings than canned food. The window air-conditioning unit is turned off to save money. The old white gas stove doesn't work.
There are exposed wood two-by-fours in the kitchen. Romero's been trying to fix the floor since her home suffered water damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Sections of it are patched with fresh plywood that she's replaced little by little. Part of the roof is missing, and there's mildew in some corners.
In the early years, Romero sent money to her family. Remittances paid for the construction of a three-bedroom house for her mother. Now her sister in Honduras sends money to Romero when she can afford it.
‘Blessed with work’
The only abundant thing in Romero's life is her faith.
Dressed in her Sunday best – a long ruffled denim dress with a black cardigan and matching sneakers, some colorful pink bracelets with rhinestones and a single gold ring adorning her right hand – Romero enters the sanctuary of her small church.
As congregants lift their voices to sing in Spanish accompanied by a keyboard and crows of the rooster outside, Romero closes her eyes, swaying from side to side and sings, "Blessed is the Lord, the king."
Romero's fingers caress her Holy Bible pages. As the pastor begins his sermon, she takes out her devotional notebook where she jots down every verse in black ballpoint ink. I Timothy 2:13-15, Galatians 4:4, Matthew 1:23, Luke 3:23-38.