"It's really difficult," says Sara Fernandez, 41, of Columbia, who supports her two children and herself on an $8-an-hour fast-food job. "It means sacrificing a lot of things."

Fernandez, a native of Honduras, doesn't speak much English but was interviewed with a translator who works for Casa de Maryland, a group that helps and advocates for immigrants. Fernandez said she has to budget very carefully and be very disciplined to stretch her paycheck.

She and a cousin help each other out, especially with child care, and if it weren't for groups such as the Salvation Army, her kids wouldn't have gotten many gifts for Christmas. She hopes to help spread the word about why the minimum wage should be increased.

"It's important," she said, "and necessary."

For Marissa Greene, the prospect of a raise on her own $8-an-hour job allows her to dream a bit.

"I can see myself saving some money — maybe I can afford a used car," says Greene, who takes a cab or walks to her job at a fast-food place about a mile from her apartment. The nearest bus stop, she said, is four blocks away from the space she rents in her landlord's home, and she worries about walking by herself late at night when her shift ends.

Greene has had better jobs in the past, working in patient transport at a hospital and as an aide for the elderly and disabled. But she says she struggled with drug addiction for a time, which set her back before she successfully received treatment.

She was working as a home health aide two years ago, for $9 an hour, when she saw the sign seeking a cashier at the fast-food restaurant. It only paid $7.50 to start, but her job as an aide was irregular — she was only called when needed and had no set schedule or number of hours.

Now she generally works just under 40 hours, although on a recent day she also took the shift of a co-worker who had a baby. What she makes stretches only so far, with $135 a week going toward rent. She relies on cabs for transportation since she generally works until 10 p.m. She usually eats at work, although she stocked up on some essentials before a recent snowstorm in case the restaurant didn't open.

Greene hopes for a better future for herself, and to find time to look for a higher-paying job. She has two grown daughters, one of whom is a nurse's assistant and might be able to help her find similar work — especially one connected to a university where she could take classes.

"I don't intend to stay at this level," Greene says. "I'm not dumb. I believe in myself to do better.

"Maybe I can take a course online. Education is definitely the key to getting out of poverty and moving up in society."

To do that, a couple more dollars an hour would surely help, she said.

"It's not that much, $2 or $3," Greene said of the proposed increase, "but they'll have a better society."

A successful formula

That is also how Amanda Rothschild views the effect of better wages as well. She is an owner of Charmington's, a cafe that opened in September 2010 on North Howard Street in Baltimore, and supports the efforts to raise the minimum wage, even though she has always paid above it, even for tipped employees.

The 15-member staff currently makes $8 an hour, which she is considering raising, and Rothschild estimates that tips add another $3.

"We felt it would foster a better employer-employee relationship," Rothschild said. "And there are a lot of hidden costs to keeping wages as low as possible."

On of them is high turnover, which she said can sap resources, given the amount of time it takes to hire and get new workers up to speed. She is proud that about three-fourths of her staff has been at the cafe for more than a year, and about 60 percent for at least two years. About eight of them are co-owners, and employees can invest in the cafe monetarily or through work hours.

A happy, invested staff contributes to the kind of restaurant she envisioned, and feels she has achieved — a place filled with regulars, where staff and customers generally know each others' names. That may not be possible, Rothschild said, if employees feel underpaid or have to work other jobs.

The formula is working for Charmington's, she said, which has made enough of a profit that the partners are able to pay themselves a salary.

"It was a journey at first. It was a learning process," Rothschild said of the way the cafe operates. "It was almost like an experiment: Will this work?

"I can say: It does."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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