Samuel Santana, 20, of Cicero appreciates his job at an area Burger King, where he's worked for 10 months, but wants to make more money. He makes $8.25 an hour and rarely works more than 30 hours a week.
"It feels like I'm living off chump change. One week I'll get 12 hours, the next week I'll get 10, so it's like, 'What's my check going to be?' No matter what, it won't be that satisfying," he said.
So for the last several months, Santana has been helping to advocate for a higher minimum wage, volunteering for the local chapter of the national organization Fight for $15. That organization began about four years ago with agitation from fast food workers in New York City, but is now a presence in about 300 cities worldwide, according to the organization's website. Besides fast food workers, Fight for $15 also addresses wages for home healthcare workers, airport workers and adjunct professors, among others.
States like California and New York have raised their minimum wage to $15. It's currently $10.50 in Chicago, but, since Santana is in the suburbs, he is subject to the $8.25 wage. He'd like to see that raised at his restaurant.
Santana mainly works as a cashier and tries to go into with the restaurant with a positive attitude.
"I mostly go in there with a smile," he explained. "I could be having the most terrible day, but I always tend to go in with smiles, to get positive feedback from customers, but I want to make sure that I go in there being who I am."
Sometimes that's not easy, Santana admitted. "Mostly that's because of being a member of the LGBT community," he added, noting that he has never gotten flack for being out, but nevertheless feels like an outsider sometimes. "I feel like they look at me and [ask themselves], 'He is who he is, but should we respect him for that?'"
He lives with his mother, who is in poor health and currently unable to work. "I feel like she's always taken care of me, but I feel like now I need to take care of her. …As her son, I feel like it's my passion to help her out. She's the one who drives me to work."
One of Santana's co-workers helped connect him to Fight for $15, he recalled. "I was really nervous about itabout how it would affect me at work."
He'd usually been pretty introverted too, so being around a lot of people at organization meetings required stealing up some courage as well, he said. "I thought it would feel like I feel at work. But when I got to meet interesting peopleworkers doing what I'm doingI was proud to see it, and enjoyed seeing that I wasn't the only one doing the work."
Santana had been part of his school's gay-straight alliance, but noted, "I was never outspoken. But it changed with Fight for $15."
He hopes that his experience offers some inspiration to his co-workers, he said. "Most of them realized, 'Wow, if he can do it, I can do it.' Now, I don't have to be that 'quiet one,' I can be that 'positive-minded, out spokesman.'"
He'll be attending Fight for $15's first national convention, which takes place in Richmond, Virginia, on Aug 12-13. That weekend, organization members will vote on a plan to mobilize working Americans making less than $15 an hour, and discuss the correlation between the low-wage crisis and government policies adversely affecting people of color, according to a Fight for $15 press release. It's a long overdue conversation, Santana said.
"I feel like my voice can be a 'breakout' voice," he said. "Since I've inspired people at work, I hope I can inspire other LGBT workers in the world, so that they know that they're not just an 'outer-point' in society. They're working just as hard as anybody else. We want to make a living and support who we need to support. We want to make sure that we get the message to [executives] that, 'Just because we're LGBT doesn't mean we're not as 'normal' as you guys.'"
Santana had been enrolled in college but had to drop out to help out his mother. He said he also has tried to find better-paying work, but hadn't had any luck. So for now, he'll both keep working at the restaurant and advocating for higher pay.
"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, and do what I believe in," he said. "I want to make history and make my mother, and everybody else, proud."