When Shonda Roberts was a high-school senior in San Jose, California, more than twenty years ago, she learned that she was pregnant, and dropped out. She gave birth to a daughter, and, a couple of years later, another followed. When she was twenty-three, she had a son. Roberts’s mother mostly raised the girls (“A more stable place for them,” she told me), but the son, Thomas, stayed with Roberts. She needed cash to take care of her children, so she took one of the few jobs that she could get without a high-school diploma, a cashier at a local Taco Bell.
When I met Roberts, in December, she had been working in the fast-food industry, on and off, for close to twenty years. I had read a lot about the fast-food strikers who were asking for a fifteen-dollar-an-hour wage, and I wanted to know more about their lives away from the picket line.
Roberts, who is now thirty-eight years old and working at a K.F.C. in Oakland, is slightly stout, with hair done up in braids. She is quick to smile, and she has a matter-of-fact attitude about her circumstances. Tacked to the wall above her stove is a Bob Marley poster with the quote “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Around mid-morning, after Thomas, now fifteen, has headed off to school, Roberts walks to the K.F.C. on Telegraph Avenue. She earns eight dollars an hour as a cashier, and she typically works five- or six-hour shifts.
“I pack orders, take orders. I clean, take out the garbage. I deal with belligerent people, disrespectful people, I deal with a lot of people who do drugs—so I’m basically a security guard, too,” she told me. During a ten-minute lunch break, she wolfs down free fried chicken. In the early evening she walks home to her apartment, where, when she has food in her small refrigerator, she prepares dinner.
I visited Roberts a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, and she still had leftover turkey in an tinfoil baking tray. She usually cooks a lot of beans and ramen noodles. The night before, she said, she had sautéed some vegetables and made a sandwich.
Often, though, she can’t afford vegetables. She is paid little enough that she qualifies for a hundred and ninety-five dollars’ worth of food food stamps, but they run out after a couple of weeks, and by end of the month the fridge shelves are virtually bare, and Roberts starts skipping meals so that Thomas can eat more. “I’d love to eat fruit,” she told me. “Fruit is my favorite. Peaches. Nectarines. Cantaloupe. Bananas. I like Fuji apples. Can’t afford to eat it.”
For a long time, Roberts wasn’t political. When she couldn’t pay her bills, she just assumed that that was how things were, and always would be. When she ended up homeless, in 2003 and, again, in 2010, she tried harder to improve her situation, at one point working a day shift and a graveyard shift in an attempt to get out of the shelter where she was living.
Then, this spring, some labor organizers showed up at the K.F.C. where she works, and handed out petitions calling for big fast-food chains to pay their workers a fifteen dollars an hour. They called it a “living wage,” a level of income that would cover basic needs. Almost on a whim, Roberts signed the petition and attended a few meetings, where she was shown a video of fast-food workers on strike in New York.
“It got my attention,” she told me. Despite the skepticism of some of her fellow-employees, she began talking to coworkers and friends about the campaign. When labor groups called for a national fast-food strike, she joined the picket line.
Across the country, for the past several months, workers have been walking out of McDonalds, K.F.C.s and other fast-food companies, calling for a fifteen-dollar hourly wage. Fast-food companies say that this is unrealistic. Raise the hourly wage to fifteen dollars per hour, they argue, and local franchises, many of them operating with small profit margins, will either fail or have to lay off employees. (James Surowiecki wrote about this in the magazine.)
In August, the East Bay Organizing Committee, a labor group, sent Roberts to Detroit for a national conference of fast-food employees. “Once a snowball starts rolling downhill, it gets bigger and bigger,” she told me. “I saw seven hundred workers under one roof, fighting for the same cause. It took my breath away.”
Like many other striking fast food-workers, Roberts has been quoted in local papers and photographed on picket lines. The attention, she said, gave her “a sense of empowerment.” It also made her feel secure: she didn’t think that her manager liked her activism, but she figured he would likely be reluctant to harass or fire someone who had been quoted in a newspaper. (When I called Roberts’s K.F.C. branch looking for a comment from her manager, an employee referred the request to the company’s headquarters; a spokesman didn’t respond to that request, though he commented on other issues.)
According to estimates from union groups, paying workers a living wage would raise the price of a burger or a bucket of chicken by a couple of cents per meal; fast-food chains say that they would have to increase prices far more than that. For Roberts, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour wage would allow her to buy basic items: a kitchen table, a new pair of work shoes, the occasional fresh peach or banana or Fuji apple. It would mean that she could buy her kids Christmas gifts, or go out with them on their birthdays. “We don’t celebrate birthdays,” she said. “I don’t have anything to buy my children. I recycle gifts my aunt or a friend gave me.”
I visited Roberts at her ground-floor home on an industrial street in Oakland. She lives in a wooden house subdivided into three apartments; her apartment—a single room, perhaps a hundred and thirty square feet—shares a wall with the storage area for a large Asian supermarket. Roberts keeps her clothes in a small bureau by her bed; atop the bureau are a couple of old TVs (freebies from friends) and a forty-dollar DVD player that she bought from Radio Shack after saving for months. Along with the Puma boots that she bought two years ago, for thirty dollars, the DVD player is one of few possessions she has purchased for herself.
In a space between the foot of her bed and the modest kitchen (stove top, sink, fridge), Thomas sleeps on a floor mat. Before he goes to school each morning, he rolls up his mat and hoists it onto a storage shelf. When one of his older sisters, both students at Humboldt State, come to stay, they sleep in the bed with their mother. “I wish there was room to walk around, so I could bring more stuff over,” her younger daughter, Tyani, who is nineteen, told me.
The small bathroom, with a toilet and an old, cracked bathtub, is in the hallway outside Roberts’s apartment. She shares it with the building’s other occupants; one is a young waitress who works across the bay, in San Francisco; another is a lady who gets up early and comes home late—Roberts hardly ever sees her.
For these accommodations, Roberts pays five hundred and forty dollars a month, which includes utilities. Since she is almost always late with her rent, she also has to pay a fifty-dollar late fee. Most months, Roberts’s four weekly paychecks—before taxes, and before the small weekly deductions for overdue child support, owed to her mother for raising her daughters—add up to a little less than seven hundred dollars. Factor in the deductions, and that leaves her with about a hundred and thirty dollars each week: about equal to the rent that she owes.
Roberts told me she wants to work full-time but is never given more than thirty hours of work a week, since that would qualify her as a full-time employee, and K.F.C. would have to pay for her health insurance and other benefits. (A spokesman for K.F.C. didn’t respond to a request for comment on its policies regarding employees’ hours but said, more generally, “The vast majority of our U.S. restaurants are owned by franchisees who are independent business owners. Our franchisees pay competitive wages and provide training and development so their team members have the opportunity to build their careers.”)
In November, Roberts tacked up another image, a few feet from the Marley poster. This one is of a clenched fist and the words, in red and black, “This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for. … Our families that struggle and resist every single day!”
Roberts has shot photographs, on friends’ cameras and on her cell phone, for much of her life; it’s one of her few hobbies, along with listening to music and reading poetry, and she dreams of eventually studying photography. At one point, she enrolled in adult-education classes, hoping to get her G.E.D. She enjoyed it, and her English teacher told her, she recalls fondly, that she had real promise; she had kept a journal during these years, and she enjoyed writing. But, desperate to earn money, she dropped her classes and returned to fast food.
I asked what she would she do if K.F.C. agreed to pay her fifteen dollars an hour. “My life would change,” she told me. “I’d buy my son some shoes and some clothes. Skateboarder shoes. And a decent pair of jeans. Get him a haircut. Buy him a phone. I’d be able to provide for my children. You should be able to do that as a parent. My life would change a lot.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist, a senior fellow at the Demos think tank, and the author of “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.”