Commentary: I’m one of many Americans who just wants a good job. It’s time for Congress to listen to us

Light illuminates the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Light illuminates the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. A Huntington Beach resident writes that Congress should pass two jobs bills that would help people like him.
(Patrick Semansky / AP)

Even before the pandemic, I felt like I was stuck in limbo. I’ve always been a hard worker, but I’ve spent years trying to get the kind of job that would enable me to support myself and my son.

I worked in construction all my life. Twenty-five years ago I moved out to Orange County from upstate New York with a buddy of mine — it was a chance to do year-round work and avoid the brutal winters I was used to.

My son, Zakary, was born soon after I moved out here, and so Southern California became my home. For years I held various construction and other manual labor jobs. But in 2008, when I was working for an Orange County agency hauling and demolishing old equipment, I got an extremely bad back injury that ended my career.

Ever since then, I’ve been on the long road of recovery as I try to get back to work.

I had to have three surgeries on my back and am now disabled. I’ve always wanted to go back to work but I can’t do any physical labor because of my back. After years of looking, I finally found a promising opportunity right before COVID-19 hit. I was getting training to drive a bus to provide transportation for elderly and disabled people. I was finishing up my training just as everything started to shut down. The training program ended and so did the prospect of a job.

Now I receive $900 a month in Social Security disability payments, but that’s not enough to live on. I’ve got to stretch those payments to cover rent and utilities, car insurance, a cellphone and all my necessities. Plus I need to eat. I worry each month about missing a rent payment and losing my home.

Zakary, who now works as a driving instructor at AAA, helps me out every month with my expenses. I’m incredibly proud of the productive and responsible young man Zakary has become and I appreciate his support, but he shouldn’t have that to help me out. I’m his dad. I should be helping him out.

Community colleges offer benefits larger universities may not, including a preparedness for online courses especially useful during the pandemic.

Lots of my friends are in the same boat, struggling to support their families. I’ve been frustrated with the lack of opportunities for folks like me. Recently I joined WorkMoney, an organization that brings together Americans from across the political spectrum who are demanding our elected officials put working families first. It’s not just residents of Orange County or California. People across the country are struggling, and we need Washington to work for us.

I voted for Donald Trump for president, but now I’m calling on my congresswoman, Rep. Michelle Steel, and all members of Congress to stop playing politics and invest in jobs and families by voting for the two big bills currently making their way through Congress.

We need family-sustaining jobs and training opportunities for young people and for older workers like me who need or want to change careers. Two years of job training through community college would enable me to learn the basic computer and data entry skills I need to get an office job without getting further into debt.

We need to rebuild a more resilient, efficient and affordable electrical grid. I wash my dishes in cold water, and in the winter I barely use my small heater — luckily it doesn’t usually get too cold in Huntington Beach. I’d be behind on my electric bills if it wasn’t for Zakary’s help.

It isn’t right that families are suffering and Congress isn’t working to make our lives better. That’s what we elected them to do.

It is surreal to me when I watch the news and see politicians from both parties fighting over policies that will help everyday Americans as if they are just playing a game. These are our lives and livelihoods they are destroying with every day of inaction.

We need their support now — we need training and jobs and a path to a healthy, secure and sustainable future. That’s not political, it’s just practical.

My message to Republicans and Democrats in Washington is simple: Put your politics aside and put everyday people first.

Michael Barber lives in Huntington Beach and is a member of WorkMoney, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

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