EDMOND — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series examining Democratic candidate Cathy Cummings’ Living Wage Experiment in November. Reprinted by permission by The Vista.
Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful Cathy Cummings removed a basket of fried chicken from popping grease in the deli department at Buy For Less. Her hands, cracked and blistered from a long night spent washing dishes and a chilling bicycle ride to work, transferred the hot chicken into a silver pan, polished and ready for the display case.
“I feel like the majority of people in Oklahoma are struggling with something,” Cummings said. “I think it comes down to that you can’t make it on a minimum wage job.”
Cummings and her husband, Sean, left their suburban home on Nov. 1 to begin “The Living Wage Experiment,” an attempt to bring awareness to the minimum wage workers’ everyday struggles. The couple rented out a $425 one-bedroom apartment by the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City and found minimum wage jobs.
Cummings is working at Buy For Less off 23rd Street and Pennsylvania. BFL pays their employees a “living wage” of $9 an hour. A “living wage” is considered to be an amount of pay high enough to maintain a normal standard of living. Minimum wage in Oklahoma is currently $7.25 an hour. Cummings will work 30-32 hours a week, which will equal out to be one full-time minimum wage job. She said she believes the store is a great model for Oklahoma companies and that if more companies would pay a “living wage” it would lead to less people on government-assisted programs.
Her husband is working for Uber, an application-based transportation service.
Cummings and her husband have estimated their take-home-pay, after taxes, for two minimum wage workers to be $2,144 a month. After paying all of their expenses, including rent, utilities, car payment, car insurance, health insurance and medicine, they were left with $228 for food and gas the remainder of the month.
Cummings said they have been sharing one car and a bicycle.
Cummings said she got the idea for this project after working as a lunch lady in the Oklahoma City Public Schools system during the summer. Her first paycheck of $259 for 39 hours, sparked the question “how are these people making it, how are they supporting their families?”
Chairman of the political science department at Oklahoma City Community College and adjunct political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, Markus Smith, said he thinks the experiment is a great way to shed light on the difficulties of living on minimum wage.
“Unless you actually work for minimum wage, you have no idea how to really survive on it,” Smith said.
Cummings owns and runs Vito’s Italian Restaurant and Sean Cummings Irish Pub in Oklahoma City.
She feels the need to shed light on the low unemployment rate in Oklahoma.
According to Oklahoma’s government website, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has held close to 5 percent for the past three years.
“With that low of unemployment, that tells me everybody’s working,” Cummings said. “So if they’re working and they still have to live on food stamps and all other kinds of government-assisted programs, then why are they not making it?”
With the sound of struggle in her voice, Cummings said she challenges any politician to do “The Living Wage Experiment,” not to give them publicity, but to give them empathy.
“If I’m going to be second in charge of the state, I want to know how people are living, what their everyday struggles are,” Cummings said.
Smith applauded Cathy in exposing a common reality to Oklahomans who could relate to the struggles that Cathy and her husband are enduring under this experiment.
“If you do not know what it means or feels like to live on minimum wage, then you are not able to relate to these individuals and simply turn a blind eye to the issue at hand,” Smith said.
Cummings said she wants to be a voice for the people. She said she wants them to know that she is concerned about their welfare and that they can voice their concerns to her.
Like many minimum wage working Oklahomans, Cummings’ eyes expressed the fear of living paycheck-to-paycheck, of not knowing what lies next. With under $80 left for food and gas this month, Cummings said she remains hopeful.
“The main thing that I want people to take away from this,” Cummings said, “is that you need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to really understand what they’re going through.”
Elections are scheduled for 2014. A primary election will be June 24 with a runoff election, if needed, set for Aug. 26.
The general election is set for Nov. 4.