STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Living off tips and not the minimum wage

Curtis Perry

Governor Snyder signed legislation Tuesday night to raise the state minimum wage. The law boosts wages gradually, and tipped workers will still make 60 percent less than whatever the minimum wage is for other workers. Right now tipped workers make $2.65 an hour. Under the new law they'll move up to about $3.50 an hour four years from now. 

There is also a petition drive looking to put minimum wage legislation on the ballot. That proposal would raise the minimum wage to around  $10.00 an hour for all workers, including tipped workers. The new law replaced the old public act the ballot measure would change, which may make the effort pointless.  Organizers of the petition drive say they may go to court over the maneuver.

The majority of tipped workers are women. I took the State of Opportunity story booth to a recent gathering of women talking about economic security. The first woman to walk in to the room was Denise Gleich. She's 49 and a native Detroiter.

Gleich has been in the restaurant industry for 30 years, often relying on tips. She raised three daughters on that money, but as she gets older and the economy changes, things are getting tougher. All of her daughters work in the restaurant industry, but she wishes they didn't.

Gleich is now back in school, working towards a bachelor's degree. She hopes to become a substance abuse counselor and says she's getting a lot of help from a program for non-traditional students. Here's her story. 

"Since 2000 the industry has really made a change. You just don't know what you're making. It's very, very inconsistent. I went to work yesterday and I left with $15.00. That's not a job. 

You can't get sick. If you don't show up to work you don't get paid, you're screwed. So in the industry, over the years, waitresses pass around penicillin or antibiotics because you don't make it to the doctor. Somebody's got them, bring them in, you know, that's how we got through the winter flu season or whatever you know, and work sick. I can't afford to get sick. I'd be out on the street if I got sick right now. There's no space for that. 

Most restaurant people work holidays, Mothers Day, so you miss out on a lot of family gatherings.

And as I'm getting older I'm looking back and saying, 'I want that to change. It's going to stop.' And I try to tell my daughters you just want to get out of here because you miss out on life. You're missing out, because you're always hustling. 

I'm getting older, I'm getting tired. I just can't see myself doing it for another 15 years. I plan on living a real long time. I don't want to retire. I want to continue, but I want to do something I'm passionate about and I want to help other people to have better lives.

I decided to go back to school to find more financial stability, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm a non-traditional student. I want to be a substance abuse counselor. There's a lot of self-doubt sometimes.

What am I doing this for? Am I too old to try to do something new? But I'm not going to give up on myself."

You can share your story with State of Opportunity, anytime, here.

*An earlier version of this post misstated Gleich's age. She is 49 years old, not 39. 

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