Thu, Apr 09, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Talk of US recovery rings hollow for workers on low salaries

Low-paid workers have not seen the benefits of a growing economy and yet huge differences of opinion remain over increasing the level of the minimum wage

By Jana Kasperkevic  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Illustration: Mountain People

Barbara Gertz wants winter to be over. She watched, worried, as cold days spanned from February to last month to this month. To her, low temperatures mean higher unemployment. Sure, the US unemployment rate had been steadily dropping for a year — holding at 5.5 percent after the latest disappointing jobs report — but in the Gertz household, cold temperatures mean unemployment is up by one.

Chad Gertz works in construction. He pours concrete, a job that requires warmer weather. The first two months of any year are typically difficult, but this winter has been brutal.

“He is collecting unemployment [pay] right now. It used to be that when it was cold, they would just say that there are indoor jobs for cold weather, and he would work year-round,” said Gertz, who lives in Commerce City, Colorado, just outside Denver. “That’s not the way it is any more.”

For now, the two of them are trying to live off of her weekly Walmart salary. After a recent annual raise, she now makes US$12.80 an hour.

The unemployment rate, despite getting stuck last month, has been a bright spot in the US economy for the last year. Often it overshadows the fact that US wages have remained almost unchanged since the 2008 recession began. However, it is an issue that has been going on for longer. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1979 and 2013, the hourly wages of middle-wage workers (those who earned more than half the workforce but less than the other half) rose just 6 percent — less than 0.2 percent per year. Low-wage workers fared even worse, with wages falling 5 percent over the 34-year period.

Healthy wage growth is one of the main ingredients required for a wholesome recovery. Stagnant wages are the reason many Americans have yet to feel the benefits of the US recovery, which has mostly consisted of job growth and increased GDP. Like Gertz, many US families are trying to make ends meet on low wages and each month have to figure out how to split the same small paycheck to pay bills that only seem to go up.

The recession hit the Gertzes hard. In 2003 after they were married, Barbara Gertz quit her job at a thrift shop. When things got tight in 2008, she got a job at Walmart. It did not pay as much as her old job, but she needed the money. The money became so sparse that when her husband drove her to work for her overnight shift, he would sleep in the car, waiting for her to get out. There was no money to pay for the gas that would enable him to drive back home and then back again to pick her up.

“In 2008, we moved in with his cousin because we couldn’t afford our house any more. We were just going to stay there for a couple of months to get on our feet,” Gertz said. “We are not at that point any more, but we are still barely making it.”

There are weeks when all they eat is macaroni and cheese in order to save money. Then there are months when they pay rent late. Her stepdaughter is in college now and despite wanting to, they cannot afford to help her with tuition. In fact, she sometimes offers them gas money so that they can come visit her. As the cold weather persists, they have had to borrow money in between paychecks to make ends meet.

Starting this month, Walmart’s minimum wage rises to at least US$9 an hour. By next February, that will go up to US$10 an hour, the company said in February.

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