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Veteran waitress has to bicycle to work

Sylvia Mesa’s knees ache and stiffen after hours of serving plates of drumsticks and mashed potatoes at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant in Buena Park.

Then after spending most of the day on her feet, the veteran waitress gets on her bike and rides two miles to the apartment she shares with her daughter and granddaughter.

The bike is one of several money-saving tactics she uses to make ends meet on the modest salary she has collected at the restaurant for the last 35 years.

Money almost always seems tight when you’re among the 861,000 workers in Southern California’s $54-billion tourism industry, the region’s largest job creator. Compared with those in other industries, tourism jobs are among the lowest paid and typically are only part-time or seasonal positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The jobs also have a high turnover rate.

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“It’s important to have these jobs, but they are by nature part time and low-paying and don’t necessarily have benefits,” said Dean Runyan, a marketing and economic research consultant on recreation, travel and education who is based in Portland, Ore.

Tourism took over as the region’s top job generator in the last few years, as Southern California’s previous powerhouse industries — manufacturing and wholesale trading — have shrunk as a result of the recession and outsourcing.

But the average hourly pay for all tourism workers in the region is $12.75, compared with $22.18 an hour for all private-industry workers in Southern California, federal data show.

Tourism jobs are also marred by a turnover rate that is about 40% higher than the overall rate for all private, nonfarming jobs in the nation, according to the labor data.

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For restaurant servers like Mesa, the hourly wage in Southern California is one of the lowest of any industries in the state — an average of $9.99 an hour, plus tips, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, secretaries and office assistants in the region earn an average of about $15 an hour.

But Mesa is one of the lucky few whose part-time job comes with benefits. Knott’s offers her health coverage, a retirement plan and paid vacation. She is one of about 160 employees at the restaurant.

On good days, tips can double Mesa’s hourly wage, but she said gratuities vary from table to table and from day to day. The economic slump, however, sharply cut into her take-home pay.

“There are so many people out of work, and it shows in my tips,” she said.

And living in Southern California can be expensive, so Mesa has had to sacrifice some costly conveniences — such as a car.

She began riding her beach cruiser to work four years ago when her yellow AMC Rambler broke down and she decided to forgo the cost of repairs, insurance and gasoline. Now the bike is her only means of transportation, even during rainstorms.

“I just wear a raincoat and ride anyway,” she said.

Her daily rides begin and end at a Buena Park apartment she shares with a 23-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old granddaughter. She has two other grown daughters and a son.

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Mesa refuses to divulge her age — it’s not polite to ask it of a lady, she says — but she allows that the strain of lifting trays of food and dishes five hours a day takes its toll.

“In cold weather, my knees swell,” she said, after punching out of work recently. “They are kinda stiff by the end of my shift.”

Waiting on tables can also be mentally demanding, said Carl Winston, director of San Diego State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program. His own mother worked as a waitress for 25 years.

“It’s a great way to make $20, $30 or $40 an hour with tips, but you are taking orders all day and some people get burned out on it,” he said.

At Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, Mesa recognizes the effect of tourism on her job, noting that she often serves visitors from Japan, Britain, South America and Canada. “We get them from all over the world,” she said. “Tourism definitely affects our business.”

Mesa didn’t plan on working as a waitress for 35 years.

“When I was young, you married a man and he supported you,” she said. “I didn’t really think about a career.”

For many years, she worked a morning shift at the restaurant and an afternoon shift as a part-time teacher’s assistant at her children’s elementary school and day-care center in Buena Park.

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But her marriage ended in divorce in 1998, and two years later budget cuts ended her teaching job.

Since then, Mesa’s daughter Raquel and granddaughter Jessica also took jobs at the Knott’s restaurant to bolster the household income.

“They help me with the rent, and of course that is a tremendous help,” she said.

Mesa’s granddaughter also rides a bike to work. Her daughter walks.

With its bright interior and classic American fare like homemade biscuits and boysenberry pie, the Chicken Dinner Restaurant radiates hometown Americana. Mesa, tall and personable, sporting a blond ponytail, fits right in.

Mesa has stuck with her job, partly out of her fondness for her workmates and customers.

“You get attached to all the people you work with,” she said. “And there’s a lot of wonderful people you meet.”

And over her 35 years in the eatery, she has met many.

On a recent weekday, Mesa hustled meals to a light lunch crowd that included Laura Montierth, 42, and her family from Long Beach.

Montierth, who has been visiting the restaurant since she was in the first grade, considers Mesa a familiar feature there.

“She been here as long as I can remember,” she said of Mesa. “She’s part of the ambience. She’s an icon.”

hugo.martin@latimes.com

One in a series profiling people working in Southern California’s No. 1 industry. Next: A hotel manager.


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