What Happens When Low Wage Workers Suddenly Get a Living Wage?

Last year workers at the Resorts World casino in Queens, New York, won a major wage increase as a result of unionization and an arbitration decision. Five workers talk about how their lives have changed as a result.
Christopher Robbins
June 5, 2014
Resorts World worker Jeannine Nixon and her son, Carl.
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In October of last year, the union for the employees working at Resorts World Casino, one of the most successful casinos in the country [PDF], struck a deal that effectively doubled the salaries for 1,400 of the roughly 1,700 employees. The employees went from making $10-$12/hour to $20 or more, plus benefits, essentially overnight. This transformation is rare, so we asked five of the employees what their lives were like before the contract and how they changed after they began receiving a fair wage for their work.
 
Jeannine Nixon
 
I've been working at the casino for almost three years as a customer relations representative. I work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 35 hours a week, so it's still part-time. Before the contract, I was actually making around half my salary now. I was making $12 and change, now I'm making $22.80 an hour.
 
I live in Jamaica, Queens. I've lived in New York all my life. My commute is still hard right now, I'm looking to get a car because then it would only take 15 minutes to get to work. Right now, I start out in the morning, take two buses to take my son to school, then I take one bus to come back to the subway, then take the subway to work.
 
Oh, [life before the contract] was awful. I was actually borrowing money so I could make it. It was horrible, especially health-wise, because I couldn't see the right doctors. I had some surgery, and I was supposed to get some blood tests, but I couldn't get them done because I didn't have money for my co-payments. You know, it was a struggle.
 
Plenty of people put off what's important health-wise, because that's what they have to put off because of their bills. Before, if something bothered me, I'd wait until it got really bad, because I just couldn't afford to go in.
 
A lot has changed now with me being in Local 6. I'm able to see all the specialists and in particular have a major surgery that was long overdue. I was having trouble eating and drinking, and they diagnosed me with achalasia. They told me that they needed to repair my esophagus and after that I'd be able to eat and drink properly, but then I was told I needed esophagectomy. Now I have better coverage and a thoracic surgeon from Cornell—one of the best—they went in and looked and that's what I'm facing now. But with the contract, I don't have to go pay those high co-payments. I count it as a blessing that I receive the service that I am receiving now. And if I didn't make what I make now, I probably wouldn't be following up with my medical care.
 
I raise my son by myself. He's five. Now I'm able to put him in different programs, when before there were no programs available to him. He starts private school in August. I'm grateful for the [wage] increase, it is really important. Now I can afford to pay my bills, I can afford to pay my rent. I don't need to borrow or need additional resources to do that.
 
To be honest with you, at the end of the day, I have pride knowing that I can pay my own bills. It'd be nice to get some resources from my son's father, but that was my decision to raise him. Now I'm able to pay my bills and know that I don't have to look anywhere else. It's an overwhelming feeling, and I still pinch myself and ask, "Is this really happening?" I get two paychecks a week. It's like, you get a paycheck, and then you get another one! [Laughs]
 
Having a living wage means—I just appreciate the impact it had on all of us. Money's not everything, but when you can have money to pay your bills, do to the things you want to do, you can go on a vacation and enjoy yourself! You can do all these things and there's satisfaction that comes from knowing that you can do them for yourself. I know that I'm able to have my pride in the end.
 
Nick Cocco
 
I've been working security at the casino a little bit over a year. When I first came on I was making $11.50 an hour, and now I'm making $22.32, and on top of that there are raises in the next five years. This contract means I can provide a better life for my family and myself.
 
I've lived in New York my whole life. I'm originally from South Ozone Park, now I live in Far Rockaway.
 
My commute is not bad at all. I can drive, but it's actually easier taking the train. I get right off in front of the casino. Who's got it better than me?
 
I'm in the process of raising a highly functioning autistic child with my fiancée. He's my stepson, but in my eyes he's mine. I love him, and nobody can tell me otherwise.
 
My fiancée is also a stage 4 cancer survivor, and I was impressed with the medical coverage the contract provides. She recently got a job as a dean of a high school, and when you have a child with high functioning autism, you're constantly running around with doctors appointments, therapy, and she works a full time job on top of the full time job of raising a son. This contract allows her the support to go out there and earn the respect she deserves. This contract affects everything.
 
A living wage is extremely crucial, because when you look at New York and all the other bigger cities, everything is going up. You're lucky to get a 2, 3 bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood for less than $2,000 a month. How can you expect someone to be a pillar of society, so to speak, when they're giving you $7.50/hour, or $10/hour? You can't even fill up a tank of gas with that kind of money.
 
A lot of these companies are making a lot of money, and they won't open their books. The casino is making a killing, and we don't even have table games yet. If you're making the money, you should be paying a fair wage. What's fair is fair.
 
So a fair wage gives people an opportunity to go out there and make a living. When I come to work I like to give you my best. I wear many hats. When you're paid a fair wage, it's easier to do that.
 
Angel Rivera
 
I'm a security officer, and I work the evening shift and the swing-shift, 4:30 to 12:30 sometimes, and 8:30 to 4:30. It's not so bad. I'm doing a whole lot better than I was two years ago. Back then we didn't have a union, they were making a lot of cuts. In the very beginning I was making $9.45 or so, then $11.79, then after the contract came in I started making $21.35 for 35 hours a week.
 
I live in Sheepshead Bay, in a NYCHA building. Before the contract, I really struggled to pay my rent in one shot. I just recently got married, I have a wife who lives in the Dominican Republic. I support her too. Way back when I worked corporate security 10 years ago, we could live off of $12 an hour, that was pretty decent.
 
Now in 2014, you just can't live on that! Rent is going up, and 10 or 15 years ago, $200 bucks would get you 20 bags of groceries. Now you're lucky to pick up 8.
 
Before the contract, I was paying my rent in installments, but I was seriously struggling. Every paycheck was around $365 a week after taxes. So a third goes to rent, you gotta get a MetroCard, I gotta send $100 to my wife—I had to go to the food pantry to get groceries to put in my cabinets.
 
When we got the contract, my eyes went to tears. I feel blessed right now because we're represented. We're getting a substantial wage that's keeping us on the right track. I'm 51, and ever since I got this raise my life has been so much easier. I'm getting a good health plan, I don't have to pay a dime out of pocket, every day I get to go do my job. I don't have to look behind my back. I feel confident. I feel like I'm doing my job, and that's what it's all about.
 
Luis Melendez
 
I work in the finance department at the casino. I close out all the boxes full of money. I've been doing it for two years now. I work from 4 a.m. to 12 in the afternoon, usually I get up at 3 to get ready. They close the casino at 4, so everything's empty when I get in. I live in Ozone Park, Queens, and I'm lucky—I could walk to work if I wanted to.
 
Before the contract I was at $11.68 an hour, and when the raise came in I started making $21.67. Before I was making less than $300/week and after, it was $575. It helped a lot.
 
Before the raise, a lot of times I fell behind on my rent payments. It was a dilemma: which was more important, food or bills? So I made the bills and I'd buy whatever food I could afford afterwards. Luckily, my aunt lives here, so any time I was hungry I could go by her place and she could give me dinner or lunch. I'm very lucky I have family.
 
I'm 50 years old, and I don't have too many other options for work, but I appreciate this job. I'm always on time. I got sick a few weeks ago, I had a fever of 102, and I called my boss and he said "OK, we understand." We have better health insurance, better protection for the employees.
 
It's a tremendous change, getting this contract. Right now there are so many people living in poverty each week, doing what I did, struggling. Do you pay rent or do you eat? This country is a very rich country, with a lot of rich people, but so many are in poverty. It's only right that people who work hard get what they deserve. The minimum wage has got to go up. If it goes up, it makes a huge difference! The minimum wage has gotta go up.
 
Donna Molinari
 
I started at the casino in January of the year it opened. I'm a cage cashier in the finance department. When someone wins tickets they come to the cage and we pay them out in cash. We also do advances and vouchers, whatever has to do with money. I work from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and the 2 to 10 p.m. swing-shift.
 
Before the contract we were making $13 and change an hour, and after we make $22 and change. It's an unbelievable difference. A life-altering difference, especially for someone like me.
 
Things were hard. I was a single parent, and things got really rough. One of my sons is disabled. I was working in a supermarket in Pennsylvania and I don't drive, so I was walking everywhere I went. Then the casino opened and my application went through so I moved to New York with my youngest son. He wanted to see his dad and I rent a room from a friend.
 
The money we're getting now allows me to get a place of my own, at 55 years old. I always said that what I want to do when I grow up is get a place of my own! [Laughs]
 
I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I live in the Rockaways now. I have 3 children and two beautiful grandsons—twins! Having extra money allows me to help my grandchildren. If they need diapers, I can get them diapers, and I can feel good. Now I can be a grandmother to them.
 
The union and the contract have made such a difference. I have thyroid disease and I have to take medication for it every day. I can go and get my bloodwork done, I have arthritis, but I can go to the doctor and they take care of me.
 
I can tell you the difference between making a living wage and not is because I've lived this way the majority of my life. When you have a living wage, you don't get paid and think: do I buy food this week? How am I going to pay this bill? Are they gonna shut my lights off?
 
The other night I was on the train coming home and there was this young girl with three young children, and she had a container of milk, and I heard the middle child of the three ask, "Mom, can I have some milk?" and the mother said, "No, you know we need it for the baby." And I remembered feeling like that. So when we got off the train I gave her a few bucks and told her to go get some milk. And I saw the look in her face, and I've been there before! There are so many people who have been there before.
 
For people with family, especially children, how do you make a choice like that? You have to borrow to pay the bills, and you borrow from this person to pay that bill. Making a living wage isn't luxurious, it's living! It's being able to take breaths and go to sleep at night and not worry as much. 
 
June 9, 2014