By Barbara Goldberg
NEWARK N.J. (Reuters) - Maria Fernandes, a New Jersey woman with three part-time jobs who died while sleeping in her car between shifts, was remembered on Friday as much for her generosity as for becoming the face of millions of struggling U.S. low-wage workers.
A day after hundreds of U.S. fast-food workers staged protests in some 150 cities in a fight for higher pay, Fernandes was eulogized by family and friends who said their grief was eased by knowing that her death was contributing to a national conversation about raising the minimum wage.
Fernandes, 32, died while napping in a parking lot in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Aug. 25. She was apparently overcome by fumes from a gas can she kept in her car to be sure she wouldn't run out of fuel on her way to her part-time shifts at Dunkin' Donuts stores in three different New Jersey towns.
"Society has a way of looking down at people who try to make ends meet, who seek above the minimum wage," her friend Rochelle Sylvestre, 24, told mourners. "Maria won that battle. ... Even in death she is bringing about change, and awareness and a movement in the job market."
More than a dozen fellow Dunkin' Donuts employees were among the 70 mourners at the Evans-Gordon Funeral Home in Newark. It was not far from where Fernandes lived with her dog and two cats when she was not working the overnight shift in Linden, the afternoon shift in Newark, or weekends in Harrison.
"To go to three jobs, go home to take care of her pets and her friends, where she found time to sleep was in the car or sometimes at home for an hour or two. She was always on her feet," her friend and co-worker Armando Gonzalez said.
"From what happened with Maria, hopefully the state can see we need to raise the minimum wage so we don't have to kill ourselves to make ends meet," said Gonzalez, citing his own difficulty living on the "barely $300 a week" he takes home from his full-time job at Dunkin' Donuts.
The minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.25, above the federal minimum of $7.25 but far below the $15 minimum demanded by fast-food protesters in a series of nationwide job actions.
Dunkin' Donuts did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the wake of the recession, there has been an increase in the use of part-time workers, said Joan Entmacher, an expert in economic security at the National Women's Law Center.
"Employers aren't sure where the economy is going so they hire part-time workers because they are cheaper and not usually eligible for benefits or overtime," Entmacher said.
Nearly 2 million people in the United States are juggling two part-time jobs and two-thirds of them are women, the NWLC said.
Men tend to take on a part-time job for extra income if they already have a full-time job, which usually includes such benefits as health insurance, according to the NWLC's analysis of 20 years of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The money that Fernandes eked out was often spent buying pizza for homeless people, candy for children and gifts to cheer friends, mourners recalled. Her former boyfriend, Richard Culhane, 38, recalled how she bought clothes for him and his three young sons.
"She bought us suits. And here we are wearing them to her funeral," he said, blinking away tears in the sunlight glinting off a hearse.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Leslie Adler)