Activist Cierra Brown On Why The Fight for Fifteen Is Important Now More Than Ever
Cierra Brown has been working in fast food since she was 14 years old. She’ll turn 30 this year, and works two jobs — one at McDonald’s, where she makes $9.50 per hour, and another at Duke University Hospital in the food service department, where she makes $15.15/hour. Because both jobs are part-time, Cierra doesn’t have health insurance. She has been working throughout this pandemic because both jobs are considered “essential” — putting herself and her health at risk while barely making a living wage.
Cierra joined the Fight for $15 three years ago and has been speaking up on behalf of herself and other fast-food workers ever since — including a recent digital strike calling for paid sick days. She recently talked to Supermajority Co-Founder Cecile Richards about why she’s fighting for a living wage and health insurance — now, during the coronavirus pandemic, more than ever before.
Cecile Richards: First, can you tell us about your experience working in fast food?
Cierra Brown: When I was in my 20s, I started working at McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina, and was a cashier. I wasn’t making much at all — maybe $7.25 an hour. Bus passes are $2 every day, so I had to make a decision: Do I want to get food or get a bus pass today? My bus stop was an hour’s walk away from my house, and even when it was raining and cold, I still had to walk. Now, I also work part-time at a hospital to cover my bills. I have to work two jobs just to maintain everything, and it’s still not enough money.
I’m diabetic, but I’m not getting any health insurance because I’m a part-time employee. To get health insurance, I’d have to be full time at my healthcare job and I’d have to be solely contracted through that job. I’ve been asking for a full-time job, but I have to wait until something comes along.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
I was just out of work recently because I had a [COVID-19] scare. [The hospital] got me tested and everything came back the way it should, and that’s a good thing, but why does it have to be so extreme for them to help me? [Living with diabetes] is extreme enough, so why can’t you help me then?
There are masks when we get to work, we wear gloves, and they check our temperature at the door, but I still fear going to work. I know that [my employers] need me, but I need myself too, and my family needs me. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, and I’m the oldest. I don’t want this virus to take over my body or [the body of] anyone who is close to me.
Can you tell us about the digital strike you recently participated in to call attention to how COVID-19 has impacted so many workers?
We were going on strike about our paid sick days. You have to understand that [the problems surrounding COVID-19] isn’t new for workers who are already in fast food. This is just another situation we have to face, but the strike was to let everyone know we can do this together. We’re going to continue to fight for what we believe in and what we need. We have a voice. We should be able to get what we need [from our employers]. They get what they need from us, and more.
When I started working at McDonald’s, I was tired of having to struggle. Statistically, women are paid less than men. Black women get even less. Everybody should be equal, and the Fight for Fifteen is about equality. When we come together, we’re all brothers and sisters. We talk about our problems and see how we can help each other, and if we can’t help you today, we’ll find you some help. We need that unity among all of us. We don’t judge each other — if we have problems, we face them together.
Can you tell us more about the Fight for $15 campaign? How did you hear about it, and what has your experience being part of it been like?
I was at McDonald’s, and I was working the drive-through when I met a Fight for Fifteen organizer, Keenan. At first, I thought someone was trying to get money, and I don’t have money to give out, but he kept being persistent about [me coming to a Fight for Fifteen meeting], so said I would come to one of the meetings. I signed up, and from then on, it was nonstop.
In 2018, [the Fight for Fifteen] went to the capitol building in D.C. as part of the Moral Mondays wave of civil disobedience organized by the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for our rights. We all got arrested together. It was amazing to stand in the shoes of my ancestors who did this before me. That made me want to stay there and keep doing good for my people. I want to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.