Sonic worker pursues dreams while pushing for higher wages and more respect

Despite her struggles, Ashley Cathey is rarely seen without a smile.

The Eiffel Tower, the Notre-Dame Cathedral and The Louvre are just a few of the sights Sonic employee Ashley Cathey saw on her week-long trip to Paris – a city she has dreamed of visiting since she was a young girl.

As an employee who lives from paycheck to paycheck, Cathey thought it would be impossible to save enough money or find time to travel. As one of the oldest of 52 grandchildren, she tookg care of family members before she spent money on herself.

Yet because she is an active member of the “Fight for $15” campaign, Cathey was able to make her childhood dreams come true.

“Ever since I was a young girl, I dreamed of Paris, but I never thought I would actually get to go,” she said. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”

It’s not always been about the money for me, it’s about getting the respect I deserve as a person and an employee. I’ve been through so much in my life and decided I should turn my negative energy into something positive. That’s why I joined the fight. —Ashley Cathey

Unions supporting the “Fight for $15” campaign paid for Cathey’s trip in January. She visited as part of a contingent of American workers investigating how their European counterparts working in the fast food industry are able to make a higher wage while working in the industry.

Cathey, 27, said fast-food workers in Europe are paid on average $7 per hour more than in the United States. She came back motivated to raise minimum wage salaries in the country and ensure all employees are treated with respect.

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Infographic by Michael Robinson

“It’s not always been about the money for me, it’s about getting the respect I deserve as a person and an employee,” she said. “I’ve been through so much in my life and decided I should turn my negative energy into something positive. That’s why I joined the fight.”

The “Fight for $15” campaign was launched two years ago in an effort to raise pay for fast-food workers in America.

While Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are all in the process if raising minimum wage to $15 per hour, food workers in Memphis typically make just over $7.25 per hour.

Cathey said workers at Sonic are paid even less. As a carhop at the restaurant at 4009 Frayser-Raleigh Road, she is paid $5 per hour; a wage the company pays because the customers are supposed to leave tips.

Fighting for respect for low-wage workers is just one of the jobs Tom Smith, lead organizer of the United Campus Workers in Tennessee, does as an active member of the “Fight for $15” campaign.

“It is impossible to live on minimum wage in this country,” Smith said. “That’s been the core of what we’ve organized around — the idea that working a full-time job, especially for the state of Tennessee, ought to keep one out of poverty, not keep one in it.”

Though the cost of living goes up every year, minimum wage in Memphis has not raised since 2009. Cathey said making ends meet on $5 per hour is nearly impossible.

“Our pay should go up when the cost of living goes up,” she said. “It’s just common sense.”

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Photos by Michael Robinson and Lexi Kinder

While Cathey knows there is no future working at her current job, she needs the income to pay for the rent and utilities on the house she shares with her cousin.

It also is what motivates her to stay focused on her long-term goal of earning a degree in education and opening a daycare in Memphis.

“I love kids and treat my nieces and nephews as if they were my own,” she said. “Spreading love to children is something that has always been important to me.”

Cathey landed her first job at a McDonald’s in Memphis while she was still in high school. Working long hours while being a student was a challenge, but it was a sacrifice she said was worth making.

“Many days I missed school,” Cathey said, “but it was worth it because my family was more important to me, and I had to make a decision between helping my family out and being a good student.”

Though Cathey eventually wants to further her education, she said traveling to another country and learning about different cultures taught her more than she could ever learn in a classroom.

“I love traveling and learning about different places, but Memphis will always be my home,” she said. “As for a better living wage — change is coming. And I have God to thank for that.”

 

Michael Robinson, Brittney Gathen and Lexi Kinder contributed to this story.

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About the Author

Amanda Hrach
Mandy Hrach is a senior journalism student at the University of Memphis. She has spent many semesters reporting and copy editing for The Daily Helmsman, the student-run newspaper on campus. Hrach has been awarded various awards for her written work, including being named the best news writer at the Southeast Journalism Conference in February of 2015.

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