When Jane Pollack worked as a server for a local restaurant in Gainesville, she struggled to make ends meet.
She was paid about minimum wage and said the paychecks from her employers were often invalid and bounced back when she went to deposit them.
“We had issues with conditions in the kitchen, but the main thing is that we weren’t getting paid on time,” she said.
Pollack was one of about 50 people who were present at a rally that protesters assembled to demand action from state legislators and presidential candidates to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The Fight for $15 and Union Rights rally took place in over 20 cities in Florida Tuesday as part of the movement’s National Day of Action. The local rally was organized by the Alachua County Labor Coalition and took place at Northwest 13th Street and West University Avenue.
After several speakers spoke in favor of the movement, protesters marched to a nearby McDonald’s where they chanted phrases like “hold the burger, hold the fries, make our wages super sized,” and “we work, we sweat, put fifteen on our checks!”
Mayoral candidate and former city commissioner Lauren Poe, and county commissioner Ken Cornell both spoke in favor raising the minimum wage.
“This is about social justice and social equity,” Poe said. “Gainesville and Alachua County has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the entire United States.”
According to a 2014 United Way report, Floridians need $15 per hour to make ends meet and 3.2 million of all households in the state cannot afford basic housing, child care, food, health care and transportation. The report also found that Alachua County has the worst income inequality in Florida.
Poe said that the city of Gainesville should start by paying its employees $15 and hour, as well as everybody who does business with the city.
“By doing this we set the example and raise the bar. When we pay people $15 an hour it’s not just money in their pocket, but more money in the pockets of all the local businesses. It eases the burden on government assistance. People no longer have to ask the government to simply eat,” he said.
Jeremiah Tattersall, who is on the board of the Alachua County Labor Coalition, helped organize the rally. He said the Fight for $15 movement originally started in New York and expanded to bigger cities in Florida, such as Miami and Tampa, then extended to a total of 20 cities throughout the state.
Tattersall said that the Alachua County Labor Coalition has also been working on a campaign to try to get the top 10 largest employers in the county to pay employees a living wage close to $15 an hour by the year 2020. Some of these employers include UF, Santa Fe College, the City of Gainesville, the Alachua County Commission and Publix.
The University of Florida has recently implemented a policy to increase the minimum wage for its employees to between $10 and $12 per hour.
Tattersall said he has met with workers who would like to voice their concerns, and has heard several heartbreaking stories. Three years ago a man who worked for the county told him a story that particularly stood out to him.
“This one guy stands up and says ‘Probably once a month, sometimes twice a month, I have to call in sick to work and not get paid because I can’t pay for gas in my car to get to work,’” he said.
Tattersall said the community supported him when coordinating the rally. He feels his job as organizer is not necessarily to be on the front lines of advocacy, but to help empower those who are affected.
“When we have city and county workers feeling powerful for the first time in years, knowing that they have an entire community that has their backs is what really keeps this going,” he said.
Tattersall said that, unlike Jane Pollack and other protesters at the rally, many individuals are afraid to voice their concerns.
“One of the things that have been happening is that workers have been receiving retaliation for speaking out,” he said. “Not just by losing their jobs, but by being treated differently or getting worse hours.”
At the time that Pollack was waitressing 30 hours per week, she also worked 20 hours per week as an office assistant at Santa Fe College.
Now an English student at the University of Florida, she thinks back to those moments when she had trouble meeting her food, rent and car insurance payments.
“There is this misconception that people that work at restaurants are just college kids or retired people trying to get a few extra bucks, but these are people who are actually trying to support themselves,” she said, “and when our paychecks were bouncing, our bills were going unpaid, and who’s going to be responsible for that?”