STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
As the manager at Burger King, Flor Rodriguez has climbed to the topmost rung she can reach, but the single mother of two still can’t afford to support her children. She works up to 60 hours per week for an annual salary of $32,000, but her bills outpace her wages month after month. So now she’s considering getting a second job at Denny’s.
Rodriguez, who never earned a high school diploma, knows that more education is the key to a better job but has almost no time or money to put toward GED classes.
Low-wage workers – defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as those who make $11 an hour or less – form the backbone of Durango’s tourism industry. Yet for many of these workers, their efforts reap neither the savings for the future nor the resources to take the next step toward a better life. The concept of a low-wage job becoming a stepping stone to a better career is more myth than reality.
This low-wage dilemma doesn’t affect everyone equally. National statistics and local observations reveal that the populations disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs are those that have long struggled to gain equal footing in the work world: minorities and women.
A mountain of barriers
Statistics show that after a 25-year period, only half of those in the lowest 20 percent of wage earners had moved up, and of those who did move, half had moved only to the next highest wage group but still earned less than the national median wage, according to statistics from the Sloan Work and Family Research Network.
Abel Garcia has been a low-wage earner since he entered high school. Ten months ago, he was a high school senior about to graduate, with his sights set on going to college and becoming a mechanical engineer. But now those dreams have been smothered under the weight of 11-hour workdays making tacos and waiting tables at two local restaurants. He doesn’t have time to pursue a college degree and has little savings left over after paying bills and his share of rent to live with his parents.
Local advocates agreed that education is a crucial step on the path to career advancement, but for people living paycheck to paycheck, finding the time and the money for classes or training can seem an insurmountable challenge.
Durango’s higher cost of living exaggerates the financial burden, said Eve Presler, founder of the Collaboration of Caring Communities, which works to optimize services and resources for people in need.
The hourly wage required for a single person to sustain himself of herself in the county is $11.57, according to Region 9 Economic Development District. The livable wage for those supporting families is triple that. Yet average wages for the three most common occupations here – sales, administrative support, and food service and preparation – are between $9 and $15.
“It’s like you can’t afford less hours, but you also can’t afford not to improve yourself,” said Sallie Collom, a spunky 32-year-old who works more than 60 hours per week at two fast-food restaurants in town to pay $450 per month for rent and other bills. “Education would definitely help, but I’ve gotta pay the bills.”
Collom doesn’t have children, but those who do face the added challenge of securing child care while they attend classes or training, said Nicole Mosher, executive director of the Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center.
It’s also hard for people on the financial edge to think about the long-term benefits of education or technical training, said Deborah Uroda, programs coordinator with the Women’s Resource Center.
The area’s high living costs leave many unable to cover costs but still ineligible for assistance such as food stamps or child care support.
So even if a person is working full time, his or her life might not look different from someone who is unemployed, Presler said.
Lower-level workers also are usually the first to be laid off or fired.
“It’s hard to advance in a career when you are perpetually looking for a new job,” Presler said.
Women and minorities face additional challenges to making their way up the career ladder.
Minority children are more likely to grow up in poverty and to enter the workforce with less education. And many immigrants face language-related challenges, yet also often have to send money back to family members in their home countries, leaving less to spend on English classes or vocational training, Mosher said.
Single motherhood is on the rise, bringing its own set of barriers. The prospect of taking out large student loans to finance an education, for example, is a huge concern for women who are the sole supporters of their families, said Deborah Uroda, of the Women’s Resource Center.
And single parents or not, women continue to take on the lion’s share of child-rearing responsibilities and may be perceived as less reliable when they have to put family before their work, which could hurt their chances for a promotion, Uroda said.
Such workplace discrimination is more widespread than most people realize, said Ryan Smith, an associate professor of sociology at Baruch College in New York who studies race, ethnicity and gender in the workplace.
Segregation of minorities and women into certain kinds of jobs is a national phenomenon, Smith said. Managers and upper-level executives, who are disproportionately white and male, tend to hire and promote employees from similar backgrounds as themselves, perpetuating the racial and gender inequality, Smith said.
“If you are a racial minority and you worked hard, got a good education and spoke the language well, research shows you would still confront barriers to employment that would have nothing to do with your abilities,” Smith said.
For women and minorities, “it seems like the system is rigged,” he said.
But when people are locked into certain positions, their potential is stifled because there isn’t a reward for working harder, Smith said.
A concentration of women and minorities in low-wage jobs also deprives the overall economy of the benefits of a diverse workforce.
“No one group has a monopoly on productivity, virtue or vice,” Smith said.
It is demoralizing for people to work day in and day out without hope for a pay increase, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance.
If people are resigned to living paycheck to paycheck, they put off buying a house or going back to school, which has a human and economic cost, said Joseph Thomas, with Colorado Jobs with Justice.
“People are cutting out all the stuff that provides a boost to the economy,” he said.
Low-wage earners also lack the ability to save for retirement, emergencies or health care, making them more likely to depend on social services, experts said.
But low-wage work supports a system that produces affordable goods and services. The trade-off for raising wages is higher prices in the store, causing issues of affordability, said Alex Hall, chief economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
It’s a system with no easy solutions.
“(Low-wage workers) are like the surviving class. They are on the low end of the economic totem pole, but they’re also so vital to this community,” said Mosher said. “It’s a weird oxymoron, and it’s missed by a majority of the community.”
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald