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Three individuals offer different perspectives on life on minimum wage

Three individuals offer different perspectives on life on minimum wage
Mario Galdamez, of Annapolis, holds his 3-year-old nephew, Jose Tejada Jr., during Bible study last week in Eastport. Galdamez and his stepbrother, Jose Tejada Sr., washed dishes for low wages at Annapolis restaurants when they arrived to the U.S. in the early 1990s. (By Tim Prudente, Staff , Carroll County Times)

Far from the State House and beyond earshot of the debate on raising Maryland's minimum wage are those living the issue.

Few workers in Anne Arundel County make the hourly minimum wage of $7.25. But others make between that and the new minimum advocates want the state to adopt: $10.10.

Among them are two women who agreed to offer their stories, and a man who recalls life at the minimum.

Don't raise the wage

This is not a poor Peggy story, she said, wiping tears from her cheek.

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Peggy Chappell offered her story only because she was asked.

There was the foreclosure of Chappell's Florida home, the end of her two marriages, the medical bills that remained from her diabetes. And there's the debt that came with it all.

She has worked about a decade at Macy's stores and earns $9.63 an hour. The proposed state increase would raise her hourly pay 47 cents.

But Chappell doesn't want lawmakers deciding her paychecks.

She accepts life in a basement apartment in Mayo. She stands by her choice, decades ago, to raise boys instead of advance a career.

"I knew what I was giving up," she said. "I wanted to be around my kids."

She may not have had a career, but there was always work.

At 15, she called cards in a Beverly Beach bingo hall. In 1968, she graduated from Annapolis High School.

Her first husband took her to Idaho in the early 1980s. There, she worked in a cafe, a convenience store, a chiropractic office. She was a teller in a savings-and-loan. She opened a feed-and-tack store that didn't last.

Now she's 63, in an economy she says favors the young.

She has her regrets: a college degree in French, moving to an Idaho ranch, taking a second mortgage on the Florida home.

In Florida she began working at Macy's, but the paycheck never seemed enough.

She returned to Anne Arundel after her father became ill. He died in April.

Now she rents the basement apartment in her sister's home for $300 a month.

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Chappell gets Social Security - that helps. She's saving to retire to Florida and watch her grandchildren grow.

It's hard to weigh it all - decisions made, then paid for years later.

"I would have done things differently, but who knows? You do what looks good at the time."

She paused.

"I wouldn't be the person I am today if I had not gone through the losses."

She doesn't want money from lawmakers. She has the independence born from years of ranching, cashiering and waiting tables.

"The more you give someone, the less they appreciate it."

Raise the wage

Britani Alexander never planned to be here, not now.

Alexander planned to be overseas, maybe serving in the Air Force like her mother, maybe in the Peace Corps. That was the dream during her senior year at North County High School.

But the 20-year-old still lives in her family's Glen Burnie apartment. And she still dreams of travel while earning $7.30 an hour at Dollar Tree.

Some state officials and activists want to raise her hourly pay to $10.10 by 2016.

"Oh my God, I would get my own place," Alexander said. "Of course, it should be raised. Seven twenty-five - are you kidding me?

On paydays, Alexander deposits about $100 in savings.

Sometimes, she withdraws it before the next payday.

Perhaps her Buick needs gas. Maybe it's her turn to help buy groceries. There's a $60 phone bill. Car insurance costs $70. A $335 paycheck never seems to last two weeks.

Alexander picked up extra hours around Christmas. But her shifts are short, about five hours a day. Most weeks, she works between 20 and 30 hours.

"They cut hours short all the time," she said.

Alexander received $2,500 from her mother to begin at Bowie State University. She bought books, a computer, clothes, dorm-room decorations. The money ran out, and she returned home after her sophomore year.

"I wish I wouldn't have blown it like that," she said. "I could have been saving it, working on the side. I didn't know how to manage money."

Still, the dream remains. Alexander is studying for the Air Force enlistment exam.

"I'll find a way to have a better career."

Lessons on the minimum

Worshipers bend over Bibles in the living room, again reading the Scripture from Sunday's Mass.

In the kitchen, Jose Tejada pushes up his shirtsleeves and repeats the gospel for immigrants who earn minimum wage.

The way to live, he begins, is to find an apartment, two-bedroom. Sleep beside your wife and children in one room, rent out the second, share expenses.

If you are alone, as Tejada was in the 1990s, rent space on a floor. Sleep beside four, maybe five others. Wake before dawn and wait for your turn to shower. Return your pillow and blanket to the closet before work.

"Thank God we're here now," said his stepbrother, Mario Galdamez.

Here

is Bible study in an Eastport home.

Local Latino families gather Monday nights to pray, sip

atole

, a corn drink, and promise each other that poverty can pass.

It has been years since Tejada slept on a kitchen floor, lighting the gas stove for heat. Years since he walked home because a taxi ride would have cost him his night's wages from washing dishes.

"With that kind of money, it's impossible to live on your own," Tejada said.

Now he works with Galdamez at Homestead Gardens, earning more than $10 an hour.

So other immigrants come to him for advice.

"Let me explain this," Tejada said.

The men in the kitchen go quiet.

"You don't spend more than you make."

The men nod.

"You don't take your wife to a restaurant."

They nod.

"What are you doing if you come to this country and just consuming? Why do you come here?"

Many of these families came to work, live inexpensively, save, and retire to their homelands.

They weren't aware of plans to raise the minimum wage. But they've learned to be guarded about their hopes.

"If it goes up, everything goes up - more for food, more for gas," Galdamez said.

Tejada shook his head.

"If food stays the same and they raise the money - that's good."

Before leaving, they carry out a Catholic tradition, the Rite of Peace. They shake hands and promise each other: "Peace with you."

"

La paz contigo

."

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