Working Poor, Living Poor

Thousands try to make it on minimum wage, or less, in Tucson. That's why they call it hand to mouth.

By Richard Bruner

It is 8:15 in the morning when Carmen Perez arrives at Casa Maria on the corner of 25th Street and Third Avenue. As usual, the pigeons are holding a noisy conference on the roof of the kitchen building and half a dozen scabby-looking cars are parked on the street. Probably 40 blank-eyed men and a handful of women are clustered around the yard and doors of the buildings waiting for a food handout.

"I like working here," said Perez, a 30-year-old Mexican green-card-holder. "I like the people," the employees and volunteers, members of the Catholic Worker movement, who run the center. Perez usually brings her youngest child, a pretty 3-year-old girl. She works at the center without pay as a volunteer Monday through Friday, but cleans an airline's offices on weekends as an employee of One Source, a janitorial agency on Palo Verde. She would like to work 40 hours a week, but her employer uses her only 16, at $7 an hour (after deductions, that comes out to $5,715.84 a year).

When she leaves Casa Maria in the afternoon and heads for her trailer home (two tiny bedrooms), Perez takes one of the plastic bags of food given to the crowds of men and women lined up for handouts. She stops at a supermarket and buys a few vegetables and, perhaps, some meat. She cooks the donated food and her supermarket purchases for the evening's dinner after her husband, Juan, 29, arrives.

Karen Mistal, 51, works 30 hours a week in a Tucson "family restaurant" (no alcoholic drinks) for $2.13 an hour plus tips. She estimates her weekly gratuities total $180 to $225, reporting that to restaurant management, which adds it to her gross income for tax-withholding purposes. Her weekly paycheck then comes to about $35, meaning she takes home about $250 a week on the best tip weeks. Per month, that's about $1,000. Luckily, Mistal (not her real name) has a live-in boyfriend who gives her $400 each month as a "kind of rent payment," which she uses to pay utility bills. He also provides $100 a week for grocery purchases.

But when she pays her other recurring obligations, she barely squeaks by. She makes a $500 loan payment for the land on which she has her manufactured home. She pays another $275 on the loan for the home. She also pays $213 on an auto loan, $100 per month (paid semiannually) for vehicle insurance, $96 for a whole-life insurance policy.

Total, $1,184.

In addition, she makes regular monthly payments on her credit card bills. She is not extravagant about credit card purchases: no gasoline, groceries, or restaurant meals. But she has used her credit cards to buy a washing machine and a refrigerator.

If she had a higher income, her interest payments would be lower. But because her income is so low, she is penalized with high interest payments. The lowest loan interest she pays is 9 percent on the land loan; her manufactured home loan interest is 12 percent. Her credit card interest is 24.99 percent. Her auto loan interest is 14 percent. "They thought I was a bad risk because I don't make that kind of money, so naturally they threw me into a higher interest. I said, 'I don't understand this. Rich people can get lower interest rate and us poor people have to pay more interest. I don't understand this.'"

Mistal and the Perezes are part of an estimated 139,847 people, about 16.2 percent of Pima County's population, living below the poverty line. They are not on welfare or TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families, a federal supplement to families with children living in poverty).

They hold jobs. The Perezes came to the United States from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico to find adequate medical care for their 3-month-old daughter, Zulema (now 10 years old). They got green cards and Juan started working at a McDonald's restaurant as a cleaner for $3.25 an hour. Carmen Perez stayed home to care for Zulema. Later, Juan found a job as a cook at a Mexican restaurant where he earned $4.50 an hour. When Zulema turned 3, Perez entered her in a Head Start program at Liberty Elementary School on Mission Bell. Ever the devoted parent, Perez volunteered to work at the school. She continued after Zulema entered the primary grades, spending five years as a volunteer before taking a job at Anthony MFG Commercial Products assembling irrigation sprinklers. Meanwhile, five years ago, Juan Perez got a job as a landscaper at Rincon Country Resort making $7 an hour. Today, their combined income approaches $20,000 a year (before tax deductions from Juan's wages). Neither job provides medical insurance or other benefits.

Like Mistal, the Perezes must skimp to get by. They pay $545 a month--about a third of their total income--for trailer-purchase installments and rental of the lot on which the trailer is parked.

As Hispanics, the Perezes are part of the second largest ethnic group of poor people--56,948--in Pima County. The largest group is that to which Mistal belongs--poor whites, 67,313. The number of poor blacks is 6,702; Native Americans, 3,447; Asians, 3,163.

Mistal and the Perezes are among the working poor. In 1962, Michael Harrington's The Other America offered a definition of working poverty that is still valid. "There are new definitions [in America]," he wrote, "of what man can achieve, of what a human standard of life should be. Those who suffer levels of life well below those that are possible, even though they live better than medieval knights or Asian peasants, are poor. . . . Poverty should be defined in terms of those who are denied the minimal levels of health, housing, food and education that our present stage of scientific knowledge specifies as necessary for life as it is now lived in the United States."

Tucson is a low-wage town. In fact, some industries are heavily dependent on the poor to fill their employment needs: cleaning services (like that which employs Carmen Perez), food service (like the restaurant where Karen Mistal works), retailing (especially Wal Mart and the now-bankrupt Kmart) and landscaping (which employs Juan Perez).

So is one of Tucson's major growth industries--the call-center cluster. A spokesperson for the Greater Tucson Economic Council said America On Line "started here with a call center and found so much good about the work force here as far as liability and lack of turnover that they brought more work here. It has three call center locations with a total of more than 500 employees," nearly all of whom are paid less than $8 an hour.

There are more than 16,000 employees of call centers in Tucson, working for $6 or $7 an hour. Long-established call centers are owned and operated by Sears Teleservice, Matrix, Teletek, Greyhound Lines and United Airlines (whose employees are now represented by the Machinists Union and are paid more than the typical wage). The new centers are those of Sprint (400 employees), Card Management Corporation (300), Advantage Receivable Solutions (300) and APAC (800). American Airlines also has a reservations call center in Tucson, but reportedly pays its employees better wages.

A significant factor in Tucson's reputation as a low-wage town is its lack of unionization. The Greater Tucson Economic Council recruits industries with a pitch that includes: "Arizona is a constitutionally-mandated right-to-work state, with a 2000 private-sector manufacturing unionization rate of 4.9 percent. Arizona was one of the lowest ranked states in terms of percentage of manufacturing employees unionized. The U.S. average was 16.0 percent."

Aside from construction unions (whose members are mostly confined to companies working on big commercial projects), only a few unions can claim members: the United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents employees at Safeway and Fry's, where food clerks earn $14 an hour. Also, its members include drivers for private garbage collector Waste Management, cafeteria workers in Raytheon and Legal Aid Society lawyers, paralegals and clerks. A year ago, the union made a dramatic breakthrough in negotiating a contract for the mostly Hispanic workforce at EuroFresh Company, a Willcox greenhouse where tomatoes are raised hydroponically.

The Communications Workers Union is attempting to organize call-centers. So far, it represents a few print shop employees, Qwest workers and the blue-collar city employees.

Another employer of the poor--often homeless men--is the day-labor-agency sector, companies such as Labor Ready, Allied Forces, Arizona Labor Express, Control Personnel and General Labor.

The director of Primavera Foundation, Karin Uhlich, blames this industry for much of the homeless phenomenon in Tucson. "Day labor," she said, " is a major issue contributing to homelessness. It is virtually impossible in the current market in the day-labor industry for people to transition into any kind of stability because of the industry itself. It's almost like predatory employment."

To illustrate, Uhlich, whose foundation operates Primavera Works, 323 Euclid Avenue, a day-labor service, as well as shelters for both men and women, described the exploitative practices of the industry: "Some day-labor companies write a check to the laborer and charge a fee to cash them. They pay minimum wage and charge for transportation {to the work site} and rental of work gloves. They get away with it because they are working with desperately poor people."

Here's how Uhlich says it works: Day-labor companies tend to locate their facilities near homeless shelters and soup kitchens, to be close to their source of labor supply. They tell people to report for work from 4 to 5:30 a.m., at which time the laborers, mostly men, line up and wait until the agency begins assigning jobs. Unskilled workers are paid minimum wage ($5.15 an hour). But they often don't get the full amount because they are charged $3 for a ride to the work site and another $2 if they need work gloves. At the end of the day they are paid by check. The agency will cash the check for another fee.

"It's physical, manual labor," said Uhlich. "Many of the jobs are in the construction industry, like construction cleanup, sometimes demolition, landscape, digging trenches, sometimes warehouse work. Typically, pretty hard physical labor. Not skilled."

Eunice Quiroz, customer service representative for Labor Ready, 2554 North First Avenue, said fees charged to customers range $7 to $20-plus an hour, depending on the skill level required. In turn, Labor Ready pays its unskilled workers the minimum wage, $5.15. The agency provides free transportation to work sites and pays its workers either by check or voucher. The voucher can be inserted into a machine at the agency's office. The machine spits out cash, but charges a dollar for the service. The checks are written on the agency's account at U. S. Bank, with an East Broadway address. But it turns out there is no local bank branch. A woman at a Phoenix branch said workers paid with a U. S. Bank check must "go to their own banks" for cash, an unlikely occurrence, since few have their own bank account.

Day-laborers are part of the working poor, even though they are homeless. "These people want to work," said Uhlich. "Eighty-six percent of the people we surveyed want a permanent job. They say, 'That's why I'm doing this. I am hoping someone will hire me permanently.' Yet some day-labor companies put a message on the back of the ticket they issue to companies who use their laborers that says, "You agree not to hire any worker we send to you within six months of our dispatching them," Uhlich said. "So there goes any possibility of permanent employment. It was really an industry which was trapping people who thought, 'If I work hard maybe this guy will hire me.'"

Besides operating its own day-labor agency, Primavera has gone to bat for the working poor in the legislature and in government agencies. The Department of Labor busted one of the day-labor companies, for wrongful withholding, said Uhlich. "They had to refund $70,000 to 500 workers who were by and large homeless," and were forced to close, she said. "We would like to take at least part of the credit."

"In partnership with a bunch of other organizations," she continued, "we've gotten two laws passed in the state: one prohibits day-labor companies from charging check-cashing fees. That was passed in 2000. The second was passed last year (2001) which prohibits companies from charging any fees that will dip someone below the minimum wage because people are supposed to be assured of minimum wage. It also prohibits companies from interfering with offers of permanent employment. We hand out cards to workers which inform them of their rights and who they can call if their rights are violated."

Primavera operates a competitive day-labor facility, charging employers about the same as others, a base rate is $9 or $9.50, but paying a higher wage. "Our starting wage is $5.75. We provide free transportation and even free sack lunches so people have something to eat at noon so they can really do a good job," Uhlich said.

"Forty percent of our workers have been hired into permanent jobs. To me that says these are workers who are demonstrating their abilities; people are willing to hire them. If they have a viable broker, like us, they can succeed in getting jobs."

Primavera also seeks to instill better money management habits in its workers. "We pay weekly instead of daily. Our goal isn't just to be the best day-labor company in town, which I think we are. It really is to work with people to {help them} escape the street. So, if someone comes to us and says I need to be paid every day, we say we'll give you an advance on your first paycheck. So we'll give them maybe $25 to get by for the week--cigarette money. What we try to do is get them into that rotation of a weekly paycheck, because a whole week's pay starts adding up. If they're staying in a shelter, they set aside 75 percent of their paycheck. At the end of a month or two they've got money saved up for an apartment. We say, 'We're going to support you a hundred percent to help you get off the streets. Daily pay is like water running through your hand.'"

Two Primavera workers expressed gratitude to the foundation. One, James Robison, 56, has been a successful entrepreneur, convicted felon, soldier and wanderer. He was the oldest of eight children in his family in New Albany, Ind. His parents split up when he was 8 and he was sent to a foster home, while his siblings were adopted into various families. "Everybody else got homes, but I was still stuck in this place where it made me a little bit pissed off at the world. Mentally ill, you might say. 'My parents don't want me.' I did a lot of screw-ups, made a lot of bad judgments. I went into the military {at 17 after graduating from high school} to avoid going to reform school." While stationed in Scofield Barracks in Hawaii Robison attended two years of college at the University of Hawaii.

Shortly after his discharge, however, Robison got into trouble. He was arrested and sentenced to prison in Chino, Calif., for second-degree robbery. "Stupid shit! Twenty years old and didn't know any better. Did 21 months on the five years they gave me. Got out and was a constant screw-up until I got married the first time in 1969." Before his marriage, he sampled the hobo life. "I traveled all over the United States. Decided I didn't want to work. Having been in the military, I wanted to goof off for a while. I worked here and there. I took part-time jobs all over the place. I'd take a dishwashing job or street-sweeping job, anything to put some money in my pocket to keep from being hungry. Back in those days, they didn't have too many shelters for homeless people. There weren't very many of us." After marriage, he settled down and took a steady job in a building-supply company. The marriage produced a daughter, but it broke up in the early 1970s.

In 1973, Robison married a second time. He and his wife had three children and he adopted her son from an earlier marriage. They lived in Lebanon, Ore., where he started a business installing fireplaces and wood stoves. In his first year, he netted about $110,000. But he was caught twice selling marijuana and served a 14-month sentence. His wife stuck with him during his incarceration, but the marriage broke up in 1981, a year after his release. He came to Tucson and stayed four years, part of the time working as a cook and kitchen manager for a steak house. "One day I got mad and left them. Went to Cleveland, Ga., and opened my own building and remodeling business--J and J Enterprises--with, at one time, a six-man crew." He married again, but was divorced in 1989. His business was declining. He was drinking heavily and "got into a mess of crap with some people and got beat up, got threatened, put in jail and threatened again. I decided to take a break. I came back to Tucson to try to regroup."

Robison gave up drinking and now lives in a Primavera shelter. He shows up every morning to get work at the Primavera Works agency. "Primavera is a good place for someone trying to regroup and get back on their feet, clean place, all pretty decent people." He deposits his pay with Primavera, allowing them to hold it until he needs it.

When asked what he wants in his future, he said he'd like to "find another woman and settle down." He owns land in Tennessee and Georgia and a house in Kingman, valued at $165,000 and now rented to a tenant. The rent money goes into a trust fund for his children and is helping to pay for his daughter in veterinary school. His basic problem is "not getting along with women," but he has never been abusive. "I don't hit women; that's not part of my curriculum. It's not a challenge for a 200-pound man to beat up on a little skinny woman. I have a hard time getting along with them. I just don't understand them."

Another Primavera client is Sihon Sprouse, 28. After high school, Sprouse worked on a ranch, then for a pizza restaurant, then at 24 attended a seaman's training course in Pine Point, Md., operated by the Seafarers International Union. That led to working on merchant marine ships out of Houston, Bayonne, Savannah and Washington State. He liked the seaman's life, except for the long stretches of boredom at sea. After two and a half years, he quit and went to California and then to Glennallen, Alaska, where he is making payments on two and a quarter acres. Late last year he decided to see what the desert was like and moved to Tucson. He lives in a Primavera shelter.

Sprouse tends to measure his life in terms of vehicles. In California he worked at a landscaping job long enough to buy a Ford Arrowstar van. He wants to stay in Tucson, get a fulltime job and buy a Dodge pickup, a vehicle he loves. With whatever money he saves from the job he wants to go back to Alaska and build a log cabin.

Sprouse travels alone. He has never been married and never lived with a woman more than three months. "I am a Catholic and I love Mary. I think women are our equals. I just haven't been able to live with one and think about marriage because I think about my financial stability and reality. Never had a child. I love children, but I don't think I would like to raise one. Maybe just see them and pat their heads."