November 26, 2013

Poll: Anxiety over job security grips low-income workers

About one-third of American workers – a record high number – worry ‘a lot’ about losing their jobs.

By Jim Tankersley And Scott Clement
The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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John Stewart works at the Philadelphia International Airport, escorting people in wheelchairs. He is paid $5.25 an hour, plus tips, and worries about paying his bills and losing his job.

Will Figg for The Washington Post

ABOUT THE POLL

The Washington Post-Miller Center poll was conducted Sept. 6-12, 2013, among a random national sample of 1,509 adults, including landline and cellphone only respondents.

Overall results have a three-percentage-point margin of sampling error.

The error margin is 9.5 points among the 142 workers interviewed with annual household incomes below $35,000, 7.5 points among the 250 workers with incomes between $35,000 and $74,999, and 6.5 points among the 321 workers with incomes of at least $75,000.

His first job – he doesn’t remember if it was in 1978 or ‘79 – was cooking eggs and pancakes at a five-and-dime in New York City. He made $2.35 an hour, which would be a little less than $8 an hour today. He was 19 years old, a high school graduate who had grown up in Brooklyn and North Carolina. He hadn’t gone to college. He was sending chunks of his paycheck south to his parents, who were battling health issues. It was an anxious time in the national economy, with inflation running high.

He worried hardly at all, about any of it.

“In the years back then,’’ Stewart explained recently, “if you left a job, you were able to find another job, within the next day or the same week.”

He did leave that cooking job, fairly quickly. He found work right away as a messenger, running documents all over the city. In later years he would work in offices and at a trash dump infested with rats. He tried college for six months but left when his mother died. He has never gone back, though he would like to; he says he has never had the time or money for school. Eventually he landed in New Jersey at a Wal-Mart, poised, he thought, for a manager’s job. But he lost the promotion chance and the job – he was late to work too often, because of unreliable public transportation, he says – and in the fall of 2010 he retreated to Philadelphia to live with a cousin and look for a new gig.

This time, finding a job took him five months. It’s sadly typical for this recovery: In October, more than 4 million Americans had been looking for work longer than six months. That was down from nearly 7 million people at the start of 2010, but still 1 million more than at any point in U.S. history before the Great Recession.

When Stewart finally got the job at the airport, through a man at his church, he thought he was signing on to $7.25 an hour. On the first day they told him no, it’s $5.25 plus whatever tips come your way. That’s not usually very much. He brings home about $600 most months after taxes and accounting for unpaid sick days, he says. He pays a family friend $400 a month to live in her basement.

It makes him grateful to be a bachelor: “I’m glad I don’t have a family,” Stewart said. “Because if I had a family, man, we’d be hit.”

He has held the job for two years, arriving hours before sunrise on the circuitous bus route that takes more than an hour to cover what would be a quick seven-mile drive.

Before the shift begins at 4 a.m. he sits with colleagues, usually chatting about family and friends and complaining about work. On a recent Thursday, his first assignment came at 4:05. He picked up a 91-year-old woman at the counter and wheeled her through security, helping her shed her coat and walk through the checkpoint. It was a cold morning in the terminal, as usual, and he wore a blue jacket over a navy windbreaker over a navy sweater over his usual shirt and tie. At the gate she tipped him. He wouldn’t say how much.

Tips vary from day to day – sometimes he leaves work with enough cash in his pocket for a takeout dinner. Sometimes hardly any at all. Some folks bark directions sternly at the man pushing them around. Some passengers in the terminal curse him when they need to move as he rolls the chairs through. One man tried to fight him after Stewart asked him several times to make way.

(Continued on page 3)

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