Willy’s restaurant is an Atlanta based Mexicana style chain known for fresh ingredients, quick service, and reasonable prices. I’ve been a regular patron at the Piedmont Park location for years.  My daughter teases me because I always order the same thing,  vegetarian burrito in a bowl with guacamole and all the goodies. It’s also a success story that Atlantans tout as part of a larger narrative of the city being a land of opportunity for small businesses.  Willy Bitter, originally from Asheville, North Carolina, opened the first location on Roswell Road back in 1995. The journey began from his passion for delicious burritos with flavors from the cuisine he enjoyed in California and Colorado. Willy Bitter and his employees undoubtedly worked very hard, enduring long hours, back aches, and other personal sacrifices in the early years. Even his mom worked in the kitchen.  Willy Bitter beat the odds and has made Atlanta proud.

However, there is another side to Willy Bitter’s success story. The workers are currently paid between $8.00 and $12.00 an hour according to the company website. Like most restaurant work, they are required to stand or walk the entire shift and must be able to life 50 pounds 20 times per shift. They work with chemicals, and “hazards include but are not limited to cuts, burns, and falls.”   The minimum wage in Georgia is currently $5.15 an hour.  Willy’s pay and benefits are competitive. They are in accordance with the law. The conditions are normal and most employees probably like working there.

But what does it mean to follow the law, especially in a city that celebrates the life of native son Martin Luther King Jr.?  When we look back at his leadership in the 1960’s with organizing and fighting against Jim Crow and economic injustice,  it’s a painful reminder that what is legal and what is just are very different things.

Years ago, late 90s I had a job with a base pay of $7.00 an hour with bonuses if we met sales goals, which I did. I usually ended up making around $10.00 an hour. It was a silly job, meaning I just laughed at it and myself, because it was a dating service. My job was to call single people from mail-in leads and convince them to attend a meeting for the purpose of joining a dating service. With this job that did not tire me in the least,  I had a spacious apartment with a roommate, splitting our rent of $500 a month. I had paid music gigs too. The complex was older, but had a decent pool.  It was in Cobb County, right on the edge of Fulton by the river. I was 10 minutes from work.  I was very young with a little talent, a lot of naivete, and enough courage to have left home.  I had no kids, no legal problems, and great health. Adulthood was just beginning and I enjoyed coasting. I didn’t want to climb at the time, just be.  I even had a gym membership. I’m not materialistic and I don’t drink much. And so I didn’t feel deprived since low-maintenance was what I was going for.  I paid my bills and spent time with my friends at the pool.  I rarely needed financial help from family.

Today, an employee working full-time at Willy’s for $12.00 an hour is making $1920.00 each month. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta now is $1437.00. Obviously, a Willy’s employee working at my favorite location in Piedmont Park, can’t live close to work.  If the guy preparing my daughter’s quesadilla did get a lease in that neighborhood, he would only have $483 left for everything else. And I’m not addressing taxes or deposits.  And so, it’s fair to assume most employees are driving 30-60 minutes, or they are taking trains and buses to work.  Which puts their commute at roughly 2 hours each way.  Furthermore, it costs on average $184 to $367 for one man to feed himself each month. For women it’s $163-$325. To eat healthy food, a diet with more fruits and vegetables as opposed to processed foods,  it costs about $1.50  more each day. Even if employees are able to rent a place in College Park or Cascade Heights for say $800.00 and keep their food bill at a modest $225.00. They would have $412.00 for everything else-clothing, medical care, transportation, and entertainment.

What happens when there’s a car repair bill? What happens if an employee has a chronic illness requiring medication? What happens if there’s a medical emergency? Willy’s offers health insurance.  But, with co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses, one emergency can easily amount to $1000. What happens if a female employee at Willy’s gets pregnant and the man who impregnated her decides parenting isn’t for him? There’s no paid maternity leave. Daycare on average for an infant is $1100 a month. And sometimes pregnancy causes severe morning sickness, leading to missed shifts and a greater chance of getting fired. Complications at birth can lead to long recoveries or weeks in bed.  And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the United States doesn’t have a “difficult pregnancy fund,” that distributes checks to women who can’t work during pregnancy and/or can’t work right after giving birth.  Unless a family member wants to care for the child and the mother during recovery for free, an abortion for $500.00 (if insurance doesn’t cover it) is often the only choice.

What happens to these workers? What happens is debt; credit problems; unpaid bills; payday loans; living with multiple people or in their car; doing side jobs under the table; constantly fixing broken possessions; selling drugs; engaging in low key out-of-sight sex trading; staying in abusive relationships; and enduring chronic stress. All of it is happening in the wealthiest nation on Earth. And so much of the suffering is unnecessary.

Please don’t send a long email accusing me of insinuating that the working poor have low character. (But do send a note and subscribe and donate.)  Do I need to point out who actually wrecked this economy in 2008? While I don’t know traders working on Wall Street personally, I do know that the guy cleaning the tea bin at the Willy’s on West Paces Ferry Road wasn’t the man who ruined my investments. I read books and consume media. I have an imagination. People do what they feel they have to do.  And those of us with degrees, connections, and most importantly,  parents and grandparents with savings and homes that they own,  should reserve judgement for what people with little power do to survive.  It’s not my place to judge a young woman mothering an asthmatic child whose father is MIA,  working for $13.00 an hour at the mall, for doing “a job” on her landlord because in return, he will give her a break on rent; $100 for the kid’s medication; and the gas to take him to get allergy shots.  If I were her, a person with few options, and couldn’t come up with a better solution, and it came down to my kid’s breathing.  As disgusting as it sounds, I would do the unthinkable.  I know I would feel shame. But  I most certainly would not feel guilty, because alleviating the suffering of my child is what I’m going to do, whatever the cost to my dignity.

I’m not saying Willy’s or any restaurant or low wage employer is forcing people to sell Aunt Dixie’s oxycontin at parties, or is making workers engage in need-based quarterly-timed prostitution.  Most employers are doing what the law requires. And in fairness, they have debts; families to feed; and calls from investors to avoid.  The issue is bigger than one company, one industry, or one city. Stagnant wages, lack of affordable housing, and a dysfunctional healthcare system are all in the same crowded car on the highway to hell. I’m not exaggerating. There are terrible consequences for such messed up values.  The system makes life difficult year after year for people who literally get burned at work. And why?  So the 1% can have their taco and eat it too?  Along with a yacht, or 10, yeah I’m looking at you Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. 

Most people making over $40,000 a year don’t think about how the $25,000 or $19,000 a-year earner actually lives. They don’t want to be that person. And so, out of site out of mind helps with motivation.   And poverty wages are most definitely not on the minds of people in the $80,000 to $200,000 a-year club. Most of those people are working long hours and then defending those hours on their off days for whomever will listen.  But well-meaning people doing ok and the people doing great, should think about poverty. Maybe put in some time on the issue between retweeting what Obama said yesterday, and having drinks with politically enlightened intellectually stimulating friends with no association to rednecks.  Atlanta is the most unequal city in  the nation. The middle class is getting bombed and hollowed out while the folks below them can’t get a decent pair of shoes and are literally going to die prematurely.

We should be proud of our city. Atlanta is an economic powerhouse for the entire southeast region. It is the home of John Lewis, Home Depot, Tyler Perry, OutKast, Coca Cola, Delta, and Sara Blakely (billionaire gal who invented Spanx-yes thank you).  We have a great symphony orchestra, an art scene, sports with hottie soccer players, hip-hop recording studios and excellent universities.  Elton John stays here a lot and Hollywood movies are made here now all the time.  Atlanta is also home for thousands of LGBTQ southerners who don’t feel safe in Winder, Watkinsville or Willacoochee, Georgia. It is home to black dentists and black real estate agents who can make salaries their parents couldn’t dream about.  But what would Martin Luther King Jr. have to say about the people doing well in Atlanta during this time of great inequality, as we shuffle our visiting relatives over to his house, because they are grating on our last nerve, and too damn lazy to walk up Stone Mountain?  Are we doing enough? Is following the law enough?

To the people calling the Atlanta Metro Area home, we have to ask ourselves,  is Willy’s really a success story? Is our city and is this region truly succeeding? Is our nation succeeding?  I say no. If a full-time job does not meet basic needs for healthy food, shelter, clothing, medical care, educational opportunities, and reasonable options for transportation, along with a minimal budget for entertainment, something is wrong. And indeed, much is wrong for 48% of Americans that are making less than $30,000 a year.

From where I’m sitting in the cheap seats, it looks to me like a lot of people in our nation have successful businesses with happy shareholders that go on wonderful vacations, at the expense of workers who can’t afford to eat fruits and vegetables every day, let alone pay for cancer treatment or even the removal of a mole.(Yes I paid $400 in 2017, with insurance, to have a mole removed and tested for cancer.)

Maybe it’s time for all of us in Atlanta to stop looking at our phones while waiting in line for lunch, and actually look at the people serving us and try to imagine their lives. Maybe it’s time we do something for  people we don’t know and yet interact with each day as they deliver our Amazon boxes filled with stuff we don’t need; as they replace an alternator in the hot sun; or when they bake cupcakes for our baby’s birthday party. Looking at the hard numbers of their paychecks is uncomfortable. Looking at our health insurance benefit statements is enraging. But we should do it anyway. And then we should collectively act and demand change. Doing nothing means we are complicit. We are complicit in the suffering of our fellow Americans who deserve to live in a clean safe home; go to the doctor; eat heirloom tomatoes once and a while; enjoy a movie; take care of family;  and have an actual honest wage for honest work.


Other interesting article on the subject of wealth inequality.

Washington Post (On tax bill and what it does to the poor)

ZeroHedge(About low wages)

Market Watch (Discusses what amount we need to feel secure)