Landscape | Fall 2015 Issue

Working Poor, Working Hard

One young Los Angeles worker struggles to make ends meet on minimum wage.

By Lisa Fung

Inside the compact offices of the Los Angeles Restaurant Opportunities Center, workers are scrambling. It’s gradu­ation day for a fine-dining class at ROC, where restaurant workers learn skills needed to get better jobs in the industry. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“I’m really exhausted,” said staff member Zumi Mizokami, sinking his lean frame into a plush club chair away from a burst of activity outside. “I’d much rather be horizontal.”

To live in Los Angeles on minimum wage is to work not one but many jobs. It is always being tired.

About 567,000 city residents earn the minimum wage of $9 an hour, according to a recent study by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley. Although that amount is higher than the federal minimum of $7 an hour, the so-called “living wage” for a single adult in Los Angeles — the amount needed to support that person — is about $12, so even a single person making the minimum wage often is obliged to work more than one job.

“I’m lucky I don’t have a family, and I don’t have a ton of other responsibilities,” Mizokami said. But many workers do. About 25% of minimum-wage workers in L.A. are age 20-29, according to the IRLE study. Almost half of all minimum-wage workers are supporting children.

In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed into law a measure that will incrementally raise wage minimums within the city to $15 an hour by 2020. The first increase won’t come until July 2016, when the hourly wage will hit $10.50 an hour. For Mizokami, that’s better than nothing, but it’s little — and a little late.

“It would be different if this was happening next month,” he said. “That would change people’s situations drastically. But it’s going to take a long time.”

At 28, Mizokami already has 11 years of restaurant experience. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he briefly held a salaried job at Minority AIDS Project, but was laid off when government funding for the organization was cut. He then turned to minimum-wage restaurant jobs, bringing in tips when he worked as a server. But, he said, it’s time for him to move up to the “back of the house,” the kitchen.

“It’s really hard to live on minimum wage,” he said. “I had one restaurant job last year. … My check every week was about $360 and my rent was close to $700, so the amount that you have left after you pay your rent is for food and bills, and that’s pretty much it.”

He shook his head. “So that’s what minimum wage is to me: You’re making food in a restaurant — you’re selling $29 entrees — but you can’t afford to dine at that restaurant.” So Mizokami economizes. He doesn’t get cable TV. He doesn’t pay for Internet service. He shops at thrift stores, eats at work, mends his own clothes. He does replace parts on his bike, but that helps him save elsewhere.

“I’ve been saving up for a car for maybe the past three years,” he said. “It would probably increase my opportuni­ties, but it’s so expensive — insurance is really high, gas is really high, plus all the expenses having to do with driving.” He bikes. It takes him about half an hour to get to his restaurant job or to his other jobs as a clerk at an adult store in West Hollywood and a cook at the farmers market in Hollywood. He recently gave up the farmers market job because his work schedules conflicted.

The restaurant business can be grueling. While Mizokami is grateful to be learning new skills, the treatment of workers can be abusive, with chefs who regularly curse, yell or other­wise are disrespectful to their workers. But he’s determined to improve his situation.

“I like to push myself and I like pressure, but I don’t like being disrespected,” he said. “I stay because I’m there to learn, and what I’m learning here I can’t necessarily learn other places.”

Mizokami, who identifies as transgender, also faces other challenges. “A lot of people in my community have a hard time finding jobs because they’re trans,” he said. “There is a lot of discrimination, and it’s hard to get hired at places where it’s free of harassment.”

He dreams of someday starting his own food services business — perhaps co-owning a cooperative with an alter­native business model — “one that is supportive of the craft and supportive of the labor and the workers.”

But those dreams have to wait. For now, it’s back to work.


Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, who has held senior editorial positions at The Los Angeles Times and

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