News: Painful Paydays

Working without making a living can result in 'injury of the spirit'

Jymi Bolden

Diane Marowitz (right) of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati helps a student with class work.

When work pays but doesn't pay enough, low-wage earners are largely left on their own to make ends meet.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, put to the test the notion that if people would only work hard they could get ahead. Leaving her comfortable existence as a writer, she traveled the country taking jobs waitressing, cleaning hotels and houses, working in a nursing home and organizing clothing racks at a Wal-Mart store. Her goal was to find out how low-wage workers survive.

Ehrenreich speaks to the Woman's City Club about her experiences March 18.

"According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 — the year I started this project — it took on average nationwide an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient's landing a job at such a 'living wage' were about 97 to 1," Ehrenreich wrote.

Affordable housing is less than affordable for people earning meager wages, Ehrenreich found. At one point, she ended up in a pay-by-the-week motel, with no air conditioning, no fan and a screenless window. The door also had no bolt, and she had to eat from a bag because there was no place to store or prepare food.

"You might imagine, from a comfortable distance, that people who live year in and year out on $6 to $10 an hour have discovered some survival stratagems unknown to the middle class," Ehrenreich wrote.

"But no. It's not hard to get my co-workers talking about their living situations, because housing, in almost every case, is the principle source of disruption in their lives, the first thing they fill you in on when they arrive for their shifts."

At one job, a waitress shared a room in a flophouse with a roommate. A cook shared a two-room apartment with three other people. Another server shared a one-person trailer with her boyfriend, paying $170 per week.

The hostess lived in a van parked behind a shopping center at night and showered in a co-worker's motel room.

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary there are a host of special costs," Ehrenreich wrote. "If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week."

Jumping from family to friend
The housing wage in Hamilton County is $12.73 per hour, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That's the wage that a worker must earn to afford a two-bedroom unit at the area's fair market rent.

More than 1.1 million Ohioans — 10.5 percent of the state's population — lived below the poverty level in 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ryan Nissim-Sabat, organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 12, says he has known non-union workers who have no heat and leave their ovens open for warmth. He's also seen workers using boxes for furniture or living in pay-by-the-week hotels.

Many times non-union hotel and restaurant workers rely on people they know for housing, according Nissim-Sabat.

"People do jump around from family to friend," he says.

Diane Marowitz, director of employment resources for the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, tries to help people entering the workforce find jobs that can meet their needs.

"If they work in minimum wage jobs with no benefits, they cannot be self-sufficient," Marowitz says. "We know that when welfare reform went into effect the welfare rolls decreased dramatically, because there were jobs available."

With the economy in a slump, jobs are not as readily available as they used to be.

Marowitz says the YWCA tries to put people through job training and, if they need it, a General Educational Development (GED) program.

"If people don't have a high school diploma, it's even more difficult to get a job," she says. "Some of them — the ones who are fortunate enough to go through a training program and get a decent job — they are able to go off assistance and support themselves. Not well, but they are able to support themselves."

Selling your life
The lifestyle of the rich is an ever-looming reminder of how little the workers who serve them have. Once Ehrenreich was on her hands and knees scrubbing floors as the owner of a posh home sat and watched, making sure she didn't miss a spot.

"Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect?" Ehrenreich wrote. "Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased — boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?"

Ehrenreich started to question what sort of a person she would be if fate had landed her permanently in the role she had temporarily assumed.

"If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?" she wrote.

A fellow maid answered that question in her last day on the job. A 67-year-old woman who needed knee surgery — which she attributed to too much floor scrubbing — lasted two years on the job, more than any of her co-workers. The boss drew no attention to the fact that it was her last day nor thanked her or wished her well, according to Ehrenreich.

On the same job, workers scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets were not to take a glass of water if it were offered.

For Ehrenreich, even knowing she wouldn't be in the same position as her co-workers wasn't quite enough to keep her spirit soaring.

"Yes, I know that any day now I'm going to return to the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life," she wrote. "But this fact sustains me only in the way that, say, the prospect of heaven cheers a terminally ill person: it's nice to know, but it isn't much help from moment to moment. What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life."

Barbara Ehrenreich speaks to the Woman's City Club at 7:30 p.m. March 18 at the Plum Street Temple downtown. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. For more information, call Barbara Hogan at 513-751-0100.

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