BUSINESS

Living on the bare minimum

More than a third of L.A. private-sector workers make less than $13.25 an hour, the proposed new minimum wage

There's little room for surprises in James Collins' monthly scramble to manage rent, bills, debts and gas.

The $250 repair bill for his fiancee's engagement ring didn't fit the budget. So he asked the jeweler if he could add the repair cost to his one-year installment plan for the ring. No problem, an employee told him last month.

But when he returned a week later, a manager vetoed that decision — and kept the ring as collateral on the bill.

"I still have this bill, I don't have the ring, and I don't know when I'm going to get the $250 to get it back," Collins said.

Such are the daily trade-offs in one of the nation's most expensive cities with one of the largest shares of working poor. Collins, 42 and a father of two, makes $9.95 an hour, just above the state minimum, as an activities coordinator at a nursing facility in Watts. On the day he needed $250 to repair the ring, he had less than $30 in his checking account.

More than a third of private-sector workers in Los Angeles make less than $13.25 an hour — the new minimum wage proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti last month. City Council members supporting the bill would like to further boost the floor to $15.25 an hour by 2019.

"More and more companies are moving to the minimum wage as their main worker's wage," Garcetti said. "That has kind of undermined that promise in America that if you work hard, you will be able to support yourself."

The political push to raise wages will be as controversial in L.A. as it is nationally, and researchers continue to squabble over whether and how much it would help low-income workers — or hurt the businesses that employ them. What's clear is that the measure would affect far more people in Los Angeles than in any other city considering a minimum wage hike.

With its huge population, high poverty rate and high cost of living, Los Angeles is among the nation's most impoverished cities. About 567,000 workers in the city earn between $9 an hour and $13.25, according to a study, requested by Garcetti, from UC Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

They are primarily middle-aged workers supporting families, the Berkeley researchers found, relying on data from the U.S. census and other federal sources.

Contrary to stereotypes of minimum wage workers as teenagers or part-timers, nearly half of those who would be affected are between 30 and 54 years old. More than a third are supporting children. More than two-thirds work full time. Nearly half have taken college course work.

They hail from a wide variety of occupations. Many work in restaurants or retail positions. But others are professionals in healthcare, manufacturing or nonprofit organizations. They are bank tellers, telemarketers, library assistants and zookeepers.

Minimum wage workers often remain in the same jobs for years, with few chances for advancement or raises. They juggle several jobs to keep up with expenses, sacrificing sleep and time with family.

Often, they have no health benefits. If they do, many can't afford to pay for them.

"Right now, minimum wage is not a steppingstone," said Michael Reich, an economics professor at UC Berkeley who has studied the effects of raising the minimum wage. "It's a place where people are stuck for long periods of time."

A $2 raise in two decades

Bartolome Perez has worked at the same McDonald's franchise in South Los Angeles for 21 years. He started as a custodian, became a cook and later moved up to crew trainer. He's back to being a cook.

He started at $4.25 an hour — the minimum wage in 1993 — and now makes $10.75 an hour. After adjusting for inflation, that's a raise of slightly more than $2 an hour over the last two decades.

"Right now in my savings account I have $400," Perez said on a recent evening in a small two-bedroom duplex he rents with his wife, two daughters and a 10-month-old granddaughter. "If I divide that by 21 years, how much have I saved? And is that what a human being deserves, having spent a whole life working for a corporation?"

He said he has never had benefits, unless you count the free turkey a manager gave him one Thanksgiving. He supplements his income by working part-time as a soccer coach for the L.A. Unified School District.

Since last year, he's been active with other fast-food workers who have staged protests pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

His wife, Vilma, also works for the district as a cafeteria worker. After nearly a decade of part-time work, she was recently upgraded to full-time status. It's the first time she and her husband have had medical benefits in a quarter-century of living in the United States.

The family has gotten by on luck and medicine brought by relatives from El Salvador.

Perez has looked for other jobs through the years in other industries like food packaging. Some paid more; others about the same. He stuck with McDonald's because of the consistency.

"The problem wasn't with the jobs themselves, it was simply that they were not stable," he said. "They were temporary, and bills are not temporary."

The poor leading the poor

Every day, Yvonne Vasquez counsels those who are homeless, unemployed or struggling to get by on low salaries as an intake specialist at the nonprofit Skid Row Development Corp.

She makes $11 an hour and often reflects on how her circumstances aren't so different from those of the people she tries to help.

"If I didn't like the job, I think I'd hate the pay," said Vasquez, 38.

She has three children and lives with a long-term boyfriend in an apartment near Staples Center. "If we would ever break up, I would basically be homeless," she said.

Still, she's skeptical of Garcetti's push for $13.25 an hour. She has health benefits, sick leave and a job that allows her the flexibility to take classes at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Vasquez believes prices would go up if employers are forced to raise wages — so would she really get ahead? Smaller businesses and nonprofits like Skid Row Development might have to cut staff.

"Everybody sees the money, but they don't see the issues, the problems that would come with it," she said. "They'd probably hire someone more educated, maybe with a B.A. or master's, pay them three bucks more and let one of us go."

Employed and homeless

Nelson Rice is just entering the workforce at age 19, and already he can't keep up. After leaving home at 18 and training as a certified nursing assistant, he's had trouble finding housing he can afford.

He makes $10.10 working at a nursing home, but he's been homeless for nearly a year, bouncing among several youth shelters. He expects to remain that way until he gets his GED and a license to be a vocational nurse.

Recently, a group of young men saw him in his scrubs on the bus and attacked him, fracturing his jaw. They wanted money, and they assumed, from his medical garb, that he made more, he said.

"I love L.A., but I can't even enjoy the city I was born in," Rice said, struggling to speak with his jaw wired shut. "It's not beneficial to me at all. It just stresses people out trying to make money."

Rice's situation also underscores one of the central challenges of raising the minimum wage within Los Angeles city limits. He works at a nursing home in Lynwood — just southeast of the city limit — meaning he wouldn't benefit from the wage increase unless political leaders there follow Garcetti's lead.

Experts caution that having different minimum wage laws across the 88 cities of Los Angeles County might drive low-skilled jobs out of Los Angeles proper.

"If they can move a mile down the road and cut their wage bills substantially, they will," said Christopher Thornberg, an expert on the California economy who is founding partner of Beacon Economics. "It should be at the state or county level, not at the city level. This may be OK for the county, but it's terrible for the city."

But will they cut my hours?

For many workers, it's not just low wages that cause financial pressure. It's also uncertainty about hours.

Zenaida Torres, 45, earns $9 an hour as a server at a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights.

She loves what she does, but feels overworked and exploited. Recently, she and several colleagues accused their employer of wage theft, and the restaurant agreed to pay a settlement.

But Torres said her hours were dramatically cut in retaliation — she's now able to work only on weekends, about 15 hours a week. She fears she'll be fired, and worries about whether she could find a better job.

Her feelings are mixed on a minimum wage increase. If the required pay goes up, employers might hesitate to hire her, she said in Spanish, through a translator. But more income would enable her to move into a larger apartment, allowing her 12-year-old daughter, Angelica, to have her own room.

Currently, the two squeeze into a studio in East Los Angeles. Her paycheck is quickly consumed by basic bills: $700 in rent; a 30-day bus pass; the phone bill. There's nothing left.

"I'm looking for different alternatives — a way to make money independently," she said. "Maybe I'll make crafts, sell food on the street, even sing — anything that can get me an income."

Will she leave me?

Collins, who works at the Watts nursing facility, has lived on a financial precipice for years.

On a recent Friday, he had about $17 left from the check he got a few days before. He needed to spend at least $10 to make it to a once-a-week course he's taking in the San Fernando Valley, 41 miles from where he lives in Long Beach.

He hopes to become certified as a social services designee, which might get him up to $12 an hour.

The gas might last three more days, he said. Then he'd have to borrow from his fiancee or co-workers.

Sometimes he thinks: "How do I hold on to this woman, if she's giving me money for gas?'"

A boost to $13.25, he said, would help. Maybe he wouldn't have to delay paying the insurance one month, and the utilities the next.

He might take his daughters out to eat, or buy health insurance through his employer.

Or get his fiancee's ring out of hock.

"I've come to the realization that I'll probably never have a house, never have a new car," he said. "I just want the security of knowing that I can get a one-bedroom, furnish it, and just pay my bills. I don't think that's too much to ask for out of life right now."

chris.kirkham@latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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