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As some of you may have read in the September 1st edition of the Miami Herald, the following is an account of the working poor (those earning around the minimum wage) that the Herald profiled (visit www.herald.com for the full article with a great photo essay by J. Albert Diaz). Hats off to the Herald for devoting so much space and time in reporting on a population group all too often overlooked.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
STORIES BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO, SARA OLKON AND J. ALBERT DIAZ
Luis Augusto Herrera, 37, spends his nights scrubbing grease from grills, stoves and kitchen floors. For $225 a week, he works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. with no days off, no overtime pay.
That comes to $5.62 an hour, 47 cents above the nation's official minimum wage.
It's no easy job. The cleaner he uses to sanitize the restaurants is so powerful that when a clerk tried to get Herrera's fingerprints to complete his political asylum petition, she couldn't find any. Some days, Herrera ends his shift so tired that he falls asleep on the Metrorail train. He goes around and around the loop until he wakes up hours later.
Yet, he says, looking at his pregnant wife, Sonia, and their perky 6-year-old daughter, Paola: ``I am a lucky man. I saved my life and I have my family with me.''
A former police officer, lawyer and community organizer in the small town of Cúcuta, Colombia, about 45 minutes from the Venezuelan border, Herrera fled five months ago after three of his childhood friends, mayors in nearby towns, were executed by guerrillas. Herrera was warned that he was next.
In South Florida, he won political asylum right away, but landing a job that pays enough to support his family has been more difficult. Today, the $695 rent on the family's modest one-bedroom apartment in Northwest Miami-Dade is due -- and there's not enough money to cover it. Paola started school at Palm Springs North Elementary and needs uniforms and school supplies. But there's no money for that, either.
''I know that I have to erase everything I was and reinvent myself to support my family and I'm willing to work hard, but I can't make ends meet unless I find a job that pays at least $7.50 an hour,'' Herrera says.
People like Herrera living on minimum-wage paychecks are often the unheralded masses that make cities run.
They shuttle us to the airport in the summer heat. They take care of the dishes in the restaurants we eat. They scrub floors and pots and pans. They sell cosmetics door-to-door for extra money. They help us find our way through a hospital corridor. They ring the cash register at the neighborhood convenience store.
In the midst of our cluttered days, it's easy not to see them. But they work hard -- yet what they get paid doesn't buy what it used to three decades ago. A gradual decline in the real value of the minimum wage, after four hikes in the 1990s to $5.15 an hour today, has not restored the 1960s standard.
For many people, hard work has led to a good life and prosperity. It's the dream, especially cherished in South Florida's immigrant communities. But for others, the work ethic doesn't always produce enough income to keep up with the high cost of living. A third of the American work force earns between $7 and $8 dollars an hour -- above the minimum wage, but still not enough to make ends meet.
In Miami, where the median household income stands at $22,007 a year, nearly one-third of the city's population lives in poverty, the highest rate in the United States for a city of its size.
They are called the working poor. These are some of their faces in South Florida and their daily struggles to carve a life for their families:
Frances Talbott thought she'd be retired by now.
The 73-year-old grandmother hobbles off to the side in the middle of a steely surgical ward corridor at Holy Cross in Fort Lauderdale. She works as a ''greeter,'' welcoming patients and showing them the way around the hospital.
Talbott tries to keep the weight off her ulcerated foot, but she often stands to better help patients.
She wears an angel pin and a red, white and blue ribbon corsage.
She hands out hall passes. She looks up room numbers. She keeps her smile.
''It's a nice job for me. I'm 73. It's not like I can walk in any place and get a job,'' she says. Not that she hasn't tried. But ``at my age, when you apply for a job, you never hear from them.''
Talbott earns $5.15 an hour working Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. She's been at the hospital for three years. She's never had a raise. The reason is bureaucratic, not personal: Her position was arranged through the Service Agency for Senior Citizens of Broward County, which places persons 55 and older in federally subsidized jobs.
She will get more money only when the minimum wage goes up.
She has no savings. She has no pension. She gets $604 a month in Social Security -- and that's not enough to live on.
Talbott doesn't work to stay busy or to get out of the house. She works because she needs to. She suffers from congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis, which leaves her short of breath. Her feet hurt ``most of the time.''
Once a farmer in small-town Illinois, she was widowed twice, earned her real estate license and somehow managed to put all four of her kids through college. The kids aren't able to help her financially, she said, because they are burdened with their own lives, raising a total of 13 children.
She sighed hard, betraying a hint of bitterness, when asked about a nest egg.
''I didn't think I'd still be working,'' she said. ``I paid into Social Security all my life. It's impossible to live on.''
Wilson and Patricia Martínez, immigrants from Uruguay, don't focus their attention on their street, a dreary stretch of mobile homes separated by mud puddles, or on the neighbor who keeps playing mariachi music. To the Martínez family, the cramped, $900 trailer in Hollywood means upward mobility, a tad more secure than renting the $575 one-bedroom.
Inside, the air is steamy and wet, aided by the heat from a kettle of arroz con pollo simmering on the stove. Relief comes in quick spurts from a table-top oscillating fan.
Ten-month-old Anthony plays atop a pale rose carpet and stares at a fast-paced cartoon, the sound turned down low. He has deep dimples and a hearty grip, used to motor a soil-smudged plastic dump truck.
Winston, 5, is less rough-and-tumble, more circumspect. He cautions his brother not to chomp on a pen. He traces his fingers against mosquito netting.
The decor is a tight-swirl of cheer: Miniature teddy bears compete for space with a bike fixed with training-wheels. T-shirts and socks are scrubbed bright white and folded military crisp.
Patricia Martínez, 28, cares for the boys at home. Wilson Martinez, 33, works as an assistant restaurant cook.
He has had three different jobs in the past 1 ½ months, including a stint at a Dolphin Mall restaurant. A recent gig promises him $8.50 an hour, but he can only get 40 hours. He felt better when he earned $6.50 hourly: That job had more hours -- up to 70.
Meanwhile, their monthly expenses pile up: a car payment of $360; car insurance $150; trailer space $290; electricity $40; phone $25; gas $22; food $300.
After the bills get paid, ''there is nada,'' Patricia says. ``We live day by day.''
To George Feliciano, 28, and Yomarie Vega, 23, the Coram Gardens unit in unincorporated Broward County looked nice and affordable: a two-bedroom for $625.
Then, they began to discover the real deal: raccoons inside the walls. No cold water for two months. The overwhelming stench of mildew. They stopped paying rent after a bedroom ceiling collapsed.
''It's the only weapon poor people have,'' said Feliciano, a Queens native with a barrel chest, short cropped hair and a goatee.
The family -- Vega and three kids, two Feliciano's, moved in with relatives after the county deemed the units unsafe.
They have few options. Feliciano lost his job at a car rental agency in March -- he blames post-Sept. 11 layoffs. His wife stays home with the kids.
For three months, he has tried to find something else. So far, he's only taken odd jobs that pay just a little over minimum wage. His family simply cannot survive on $6 an hour, he said.
''Everywhere I went it's just -- they don't call you back,'' Feliciano said.
Then, his '89 Honda Civic broke down. He spent days scouring junkyards looking to replace the distributor. New, it would cost $580; used, $250; but at a ''U-pick'' junkyard, a distributor can cost as little $20.
He searched and searched, but no luck.
To get to job interviews, Feliciano now bikes in the summer heat -- arriving at interviews drenched in sweat.
In any circumstance, separation or divorce is a painful experience, but people who barely earn enough to make ends meet fall into deeper despair as they cope with such a grim, new reality.
Loneliness dogs Soledad León, a 40-year-old immigrant from Peru. Her husband, she says, left her with a $2,000 bill from Sears and doesn't pay any child support.
She earns $6 an hour -- $220 a week -- at a vertical-blinds factory, and sometimes a little extra selling Avon. Paying the $475 rent on her one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood is a constant preoccupation. Almost half her paycheck -- $100 a week -- goes to pay for day care for Kevin, 5, and Amy, 3.
Then, there's the electric bill, about $45, and $60 for the telephone.
On a recent afternoon, as she talked about the predicament of working and parenting alone, León broke into sobs. Kevin and Amy played in the bedroom.
''I don't want them to see me cry,'' she said.
When people earn so little, a new set of problems can set them back months.
Alanda McMillion, 26, also lost her Opa-locka apartment to a leaky roof. She now sleeps on a mattress with her three children and her niece and nephew on the floor of her sister's apartment.
She went off welfare and into transitional services last year and was working 30 hours a week at Wendy's when the city condemned her building and she had to move out. She was always about $100 short in expenses, but at least she had a roof over her head.
Now she faces the prospect of having to go to a homeless shelter. She knows she can't stay in her sister's cramped quarters indefinitely.
Orlando Valdés, 28, is already there.
He's living in a Salvation Army shelter in Miami with his daughter, Sol Yglegna, 5. His wife, he says, left him after the family came from Cuba in 1998. He was laid off as an $8.50-an-hour electrician's assistant last March, and he lost his apartment. He has no family in this country.
Looking for a job has become a full-time job in itself. After eating breakfast at 7 a.m., he goes out on daily job hunts, visiting warehouses and job placement agencies. He takes hard-labor stints as they come his way, but they don't come often enough. He took a truck-driving course, hoping to land a job that pays $9.50 an hour, but he had trouble operating truck gears and he wasn't called for a job.
That's the way it has been for the past two months now. ''I can't make $5 or $6 or $7 an hour,'' Valdés says. ``I need to make $8 or more so I can support my daughter, and I need to work hours in a way that I can also take care of my daughter.''
For most of the day, Gloria Quiñones is unflappable. The 26-year-old woman from Puerto Rico has five young kids -- two in diapers. Her tidy one-bedroom Hollywood apartment is super-charged with toddler energy.
''Ya, ya, ya!'' she calmly scolds the bouncing Pablo Román, 3 and Juryvette, 6, jumping with abandon on their bunk bed, which, along with a bassinet, takes up half the living room. All the while wide-eyed Nageli, a 1 ½-year-old, plays a clumsy game of hand slaps with big sister Lizmarie, 9.
A trip to the park is the carrot for these kids. Behave, or forget ``el parque.''
Quiñones tries to lull a red-faced Nicole, age 3 months, back to sleep. When Nicole dozes off, Quiñones puts the baby down in her crib, then lifts her hands to her face. Her headache is back.
She makes $5.47 an hour working for a print shop, packing up magazines. What she earns overall varies: It depends on the work available at any given time. In a recent week, that meant just three days. She heard buzz about a factory job in Miramar at $7.50 an hour, but for that she would need a car. Not an option.
In one respect, Quiñones is lucky. She pays only $25 a week for child care to a neighbor who watches the children on the days Quiñones works. Sometimes, the neighbor even forgives the charges.
The rest of the money that Quiñones needs to survive comes from the children's fathers. Nicole's father pays child support: $457 a month. He sometimes stays at the apartment; the father of the other four children pays a total of $1,000.
Quiñones doesn't think much about the future. Asked about her dreams, she shrugs. After a pause, she has an idea: ``Buy a trailer.''
For Luis Augusto Herrera, the dream is twofold: to see peace restored in his homeland, and to eventually land a job ''in which I can be of service'' to his new country. In Cúcuta, a town where people were not able to use the park because it was controlled by rebels, Herrera organized Sunday sports outings along the main boulevard.
His dream job in South Florida: to work in a community service organization.
But for now, he'll settle for one that pays enough to cover the rent, put food on the table, buy Paola school uniforms and usher his new baby into the world.
Troubled by the health problems his cleaning job was creating, Herrera quit his kitchen-cleaning position a week ago. Job-searching is now a daily quest. He hopes the key to landing a better one is having in hand his work permit, which takes three months to arrive in the mail and is due this month.
''I have learned that to make a decent living here, I need two things: to have all my documents in order and be prepared,'' he says. To achieve the latter, he has enrolled in a free Miami-Dade Community College refugee program to learn English. On most days, he's hopeful, but when the financial pressure mounts, he begins to fear and have doubts.
''I thought we were taking off like this,'' Herrera says, arching his hand up like an airplane taking flight. ``Now, we're experiencing some turbulence, and I wonder, are we going down?''