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Worker struggles to pay rent and insulin

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MIAMI – Elsa Romero eyes the $3.38 vanilla pound cake. A tiny chew may save her life. She’s unsure she will be able to afford it.  

Romero, 57, appears round the low cost grocery in her Liberty City neighborhood, the cacophony of Spanish and Haitian Creole voices competing for her consideration as she tries to do the maths. 

There’s $90 in her checking account, and her subsequent paycheck arrives in 10 days. As a janitor making minimal wage, she will be able to’t afford $110 for her weekly insulin, however a forkful of the dessert at any time when her blood sugar drops may preserve her out of the emergency room. 

That cake – low cost and stuffed with empty energy and sugar that might exacerbate her diabetes in the long term – is a short-term necessity, she decides.

Romero’s predicament is dire and tragic and widespread. Across the USA, 58.3 million people work for less than $15 an hour. What hope they held out for reduction within the type 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 help package deal. For individuals reminiscent of Romero, life continues to be a daily struggle. 

With the cake in her basket, Romero strikes to the new bar. She picks up a quart of beef broth and a facet of mashed potatoes, her solely different meals for the subsequent few days. 

She will get in line on the checkout counter. 

“$11.24,” the cashier says, ringing her up.

“Un momentico,” she replies. One second, please. 


Romero pulls out a scrunched $10 invoice and a few singles. When the clerk fingers her the change, Romero places it within the tip jar. 

“There’s always someone that needs it more,” she says. 

Elsa Romero purchases a vanilla poundcake, fruit and milk at a discount grocer March 16 in Miami. For Romero, 57, the cake is a cheap alternative to her expensive insulin.

Elsa Romero purchases a vanilla poundcake, fruit and milk at a reduction grocer March 16 in Miami. For Romero, 57, the cake is an inexpensive different to her costly insulin.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

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 earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans stated soaring housing and food prices threatened their ability to pay for on a regular basis bills. 

“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 telephone interview

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich
There’s no place within the United States the place you may get a one-bedroom house for $7.25 an hour and nonetheless have sufficient to purchase meals and absolutely the requirements.

Biden stated he needs Congress to cross a federal minimal wage enhance, however there is not any deal in sight. Experts say individuals reminiscent of Romero usually should make troublesome choices to maintain 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 assume tank primarily based in Washington that researches financial insurance policies for working individuals.

Elsa Romero shops for food at a supermarket March 16 in Miami.

Elsa Romero outlets for meals at a grocery store March 16 in Miami.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY


Romero works 5 days every week, from 4 till 11 p.m., cleansing three flooring on the Miami Tower, a luxurious high-rise constructing downtown.

She has no paid sick go away or advantages. The firm costs staff $50 a month for parking within the empty constructing at night time whereas they work. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to purchase her personal private protecting gear till 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 corporate provides her and the opposite janitors one disposable masks a day. 

Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute
It’s not a query of being sensible or being considerate or planning for the longer term. You are compelled to make a collection of dangerous choices when life doesn’t work, and it could possibly’t work with wages that low.

The firm was fined $10,000 in November by the U.S. Department of Labor for spraying the constructing with chemical substances whereas staff have been inside. Romero and her co-workers have been overcome by the noxious fumes, struggling extreme burning of their eyes, coughing, lesions and bother respiration.

In her different job, Romero does housekeeping work for a household twice every week. Those are 14-hour days. The years of working along with her fingers have taken a toll. Last yr, she was recognized with arthritis. Her proper center finger flares up always. The stiffness shoots radiating ache 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 ache and appears for extra properties to scrub and polish by way of phrase of mouth, however extra work is intermittent at finest. All in all, Romero makes $1,600 a month.

Elsa Romero waits in line to buy lunch at a supermarket March 16 in Miami.

Elsa Romero waits in line to purchase lunch at a grocery store March 16 in Miami.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

The rent for her trailer is $700. The electrical invoice might be upward of $100. Her automobile fee is $303. It’s $216 for insurance coverage and $200 for gasoline. Her medical health insurance is $95 a month – she does not qualify for Medicaid. Other bills, together with meals, toiletries and drugs, run about $100. Romero’s insulin prices $440 a month.


Sometimes she stays up till 3 a.m. serious about how she is going to 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 metropolis in Honduras. Romero emigrated 40 years in the past to the USA after getting pregnant at 16. She left her child behind along with her mom as she discovered work to present for everybody again residence. 

She met a person, obtained married, turned a U.S. citizen and had one other daughter. Romero’s husband left when their little woman was 8 years outdated. She raised her as a single mother – by no means incomes greater than minimal wage – within the small trailer park she has referred to as residence for 3 many years.

Elsa Romero lives in a trailer park in Miami.

Elsa Romero lives in a trailer park in Miami.
Saul Martinez for USA TODAY

Inside her trailer, the unkempt cabinets reveal extra outdated paper calendars, church posters and child drawings than canned meals. The window air-conditioning unit is turned off to get monetary savings. The outdated white gasoline range does not work.

There are uncovered wooden two-by-fours within the kitchen. Romero’s been attempting to repair the ground since her residence suffered water injury throughout Hurricane Irma in 2017. Sections of it are patched with contemporary plywood that she’s changed little by little. Part of the roof is lacking, and there’s mildew in some corners. 

In the early years, Romero despatched cash to her household. Remittances paid for the development of a three-bedroom home for her mom. Now her sister in Honduras sends cash to Romero when she will be able to afford it.

5f5ce690 b8dd 4d83 b2c7 5ed22bd2a35b 002 ELSA FLORIDA 015
d1e89ebf 9379 4f32 b38e d8e0faad4e2f ELSA FLORIDA 014
TOP: A view of a broken rooftop inside the house of Elsa Romero in Miami. ABOVE: Inside Romero’s trailer sit extra outdated calendars, posters and children’ drawings than canned meals.
TOP: A view of a broken rooftop inside the house of Elsa Romero in Miami. ABOVE: Inside Romero’s trailer sit extra outdated calendars, posters and children’ drawings than canned meals.
LEFT: A view of a broken rooftop inside the house of Elsa Romero in Miami. RIGHT: Inside Romero’s trailer sit extra outdated calendars, posters and children’ drawings than canned meals.
SAUL MARTINEZ FOR USA TODAY
‘Blessed with work’

The solely ample factor in Romero’s life is her religion.

Dressed in her Sunday finest – a protracted ruffled denim gown with a black cardigan and matching sneakers, some colourful pink bracelets with rhinestones and a single gold ring adorning her proper hand – Romero enters the sanctuary of her small church.


As congregants raise their voices to sing in Spanish accompanied by a keyboard and crows of the rooster exterior, Romero closes her eyes, swaying from facet to facet 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 pocket book the place she jots down each verse in black ballpoint ink. I Timothy 2:13-15, Galatians 4:4, Matthew 1:23, Luke 3:23-38. 

Elsa Romero
Anyone else would throw within the towel. But I’m robust, Christ makes me robust.

Even the pages of her pocket book are a prayer. Inscribed is a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

This is Romero’s second of respite. Meditation. Fortitude. Her solely day without work from workingtwo jobs.

After the service, households decide up their weekly grocery donation field within the courtyard. The church runs a small meals pantry for its neediest households, together with an 81-year-old lady Romero drives to church on Sundays.  

Romero does not be a part of her pal within the line for free meals. She requested for a donation field solely as soon as through the pandemic lockdown, when she did not work for 2 months as a result of she was frightened of catching the virus. She does not want the “cajita (box),” she says, as a result of she is “blessed with work.”

“Anyone else would throw in the towel, but I am strong, Christ makes me strong,” she says. 

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