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$8.50 an Hour Buys a Bleak Existence

In the seediest part of downtown Los Angeles we walk through a grim hotel lobby, go past armed guards and locked gates, ride the creaky elevator to the fourth floor and step into the only home Juanita Burroughs, a full-time security guard for 18 years, can afford.

The 50-year-old grandmother opens the door to her one-room, $315-a-month place on 7th Street near San Pedro and we squeeze in together.

I’ve been in bigger walk-in closets and nicer prison cells, and that’s no exaggeration.

“I do what I can with it,” Burroughs says, sitting on a bed that takes up half the room. I take the only chair and our knees are almost touching.

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Artificial flowers are strung along the flesh-colored walls and teddy bears compete for space on the bed. There’s no closet or dresser and her uniforms hang on a hook, badge No. 2333 pinned to a pocket. The cost of the uniforms is taken out of her check.

This is the life $8.50 an hour -- with no vacation, health benefits or sick leave -- buys you in Southern California, where the middle class is shrinking toward invisibility as the service economy pushes thousands to the edge of the cliff.

“When I first came here and saw this room, all I could do was just cry,” sighs Burroughs.

But she couldn’t afford anything else. The divorced mother of four had stayed for a time with her sons and other relatives, but none of them were in good enough shape to help her out for long, she says, and she didn’t want to add to their burdens.

Why stick with a low-end job like security guard? Because

she didn’t finish high school, so her options are limited, and the pay in other service jobs isn’t much better. For a while she lived in her car, but it got towed one day and she couldn’t afford the impound fees. That landed her on the streets for a year, taking meals at downtown missions.

Now she’s in this claustrophobic room, feeling only slightly more optimistic. She gets up at dawn to beat the lines for the shower in the shared bathroom down the hall.

“An awful lot of people are barely scraping by in a place with a great deal of wealth,” said Dan Flaming of the Economic Roundtable. “I think it’s fragile and precarious for us as a region to have such deep polarization between those who are skilled and educated and comfortable and those who are desperate.”

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So how will Burroughs and others like her ever escape the squalor?

We can simply decide that an honest day’s work ought to afford a person some basic dignity, and legislate a living wage. But the mere mention of such an idea works the ruling class into a lather and paralyzes politicians. So Burroughs is taking a different gamble.

For the last year, she’s been going to meetings and rallies staged by Service Employees International Union Local 1877, which has been trying for three years to organize thousands of security guards.

I first met Burroughs on Tuesday morning as she marched in a steady rain with a few hundred colleagues. At one point she took the microphone outside Macy’s on 7th and said she hadn’t had a vacation in years and was tired of living in poverty.

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Her job at Bank of America Plaza, she later told me, is to inspect the trunks of cars that enter the parking lot. In a post-9/11 era, she can potentially save lives as well as protect the offices of multibillion-dollar companies.

So shouldn’t that be worth more than $8.50 -- a wage that leads to high turnover and lots of inexperienced guards looking for explosives?

Robert Maguire, who owns several high-rise properties in downtown L.A., thinks so.

In his buildings, he requires guard service contractors to pay their employees a minimum of $10 per hour, plus health benefits. “I think people don’t calculate the cost of turnover, and it’s very high,” he said.

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He thinks higher wages make economic sense. “You can’t have people that are disenfranchised if you’re trying to get quality and productivity, and we think ... it is absolutely justified.”

Other building owners haven’t stepped up, though. And even Maguire is skeptical about bringing in Local 1877. He and other owners point out that SEIU represents janitors, and they’d rather not have the same union involved with guards because a walkout by one could be honored by the other.

That’s a flimsy argument, if you ask me, and something that could be avoided in negotiations. It hasn’t been a hindrance in other cities, says SEIU official Jono Shaffer.

“Owners are resistant,” says Victor Narro of UCLA’s Downtown Labor Center, “because they see how effective SEIU has been with janitorial workers. But this is a very responsible union that doesn’t just strike without trying to work out relationships with owners.”

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Speaking of janitors, there’s an irony here. Several decades ago, janitorial jobs were unionized and largely African American in Los Angeles. Employees made middle-class wages. But the union was busted by owners and contractors who hired cheaper immigrant labor, some of it illegal, squeezing many African Americans into lower-paying jobs. What kind of jobs? Security.

An estimated 60% of the downtown security guards are African American, as is Burroughs. She knows she’ll never find easy street as a security guard. But a bump to, say, $10 or $11 an hour, with health benefits, could get her out of the one-room trap and put her into something where she can at least cook, cutting back on her food costs.

“I don’t even have my grandchildren in here,” Burroughs says as she flips through a family photo album. “I don’t want them to see Granny living this way.”

She takes me back down in the elevator and a friend asks how she’s doing.

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“I’m blessed,” Burroughs says.

“Blessed?” I ask.

She’s alive, she tells me, with a roof over her head. I say goodbye and head out to the streets where she once lived.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez

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