Workers stretch wages to make ends meet

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

"The minimym wage is barely enough to keep a full-time worker above the 2000 federal poverty guideline amount of $19,430 for a single person. For a family of three with a single breadwinner, a full-time job paying $8.85 per hour is necessary to keep above that povery line.

The national economy has been flush, unemployment is down, and it's a job-seekers market. But on the Kenai Peninsula, finding a good job -- the kind of job that can support a family -- is still a challenge.

For Kerry Spooner, a waitress in Soldotna, making ends meet means multiple jobs, counting her pennies and accepting a bit of help. But she's not a complainer.

"We're doing really well right now. The bills are caught up," she said.

A single mother with two children at home, she works 50 to 60 hours a week in the winter between two jobs. Last summer, her sons went to stay with grandparents and she worked four jobs, getting by on four to six hours of sleep a night.

"I load up on hours when they are gone," she explained.

Kenai Peninsula jobs are often seasonal, pay is low and the unemployment rate runs above state and national averages.

When Spooner moved to the peninsula a year ago, she found the options a bit better than in her former town in Montana, but far from great. She considers herself lucky to have gotten work with bosses she likes, but would have preferred something that pays better than waitressing.

"It's harder to find other work," she said. "There's not a whole lot else. Especially for females."

National debate over welfare reform and the minimum wage are prompting renewed attention to low wages, but in Alaska the problem may be even more acute.

Although the minimum wage in the state -- now $5.65 per hour -- is set above the national level, low income workers are hard pressed to get by.

The minimum wage is barely enough to keep a full-time worker above the 2000 federal poverty guideline amount of $10,430 for a single person. For a family of three with a single breadwinner, a full-time job paying $8.85 per hour is necessary to keep above that poverty line.

Yet the federal poverty guidelines may be unrealistic.

National studies of buying power suggest that the minimum wage, when corrected for inflation, peaked in the 1960s.

Some economists say that if wages had kept pace with the cost of living since the 1960s, the minimum wage would now be between $12 and $14 dollars, according to a CNN report.

In 1999, the Seattle-based Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and the University of Washington's Northwest Policy Center examined living costs around Puget Sound and concluded that a "living wage" would be $10.43 for a single person and $17.59 for someone supporting two children.

A parallel study in Sacramento, Calif., recommended $15.95 an hour as a minimum for someone supporting two children.

The average Kenai Peninsula worker earns about $12.60 per hour, based on state figures.

In the past 15 years, Alaskans' wages have slipped from among the nation's highest to near the average.

A 2000 study by the federal Commerce Department found that, in 1999, Alaskans' average income grew the least in the United States, even though the figures included the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. If current trends continue, wages in the state will fall below national averages.

At the same time, although the gap between the cost of living in Alaska and other states has narrowed, it is still costly to live even in relatively inexpensive communities such as the large towns of the Kenai Peninsula.

Spooner brings home about $1,400 a month, although paychecks fluctuate because her hours and tips vary.

Rent on her two-bedroom apartment is $575, including heat. Electricity runs about $40 to $50 a month. She feeds her two growing boys, which probably costs about $350 per month. Then there's the cost of clothes, the phone and the car. The family's 1983 Audi recently cost her $300 and needs to go back in the shop.

"There's not a whole lot left over," she said.

Spooner has no workplace benefits, no savings and no health insurance.

"That's the next thing to work on," she said.

Neal Fried, a state labor economist, reported that part of the reason Alaska is slipping behind the rest of the country is that fewer residents are employed in high-paying jobs.

Despite renewed interest in the sector, declining oil production has caused layoffs in recent years. Timber, mining and commercial fisheries also have seen declines.

What has increased over the past decade is jobs in the retail and service industries, including tourism.

Those jobs, however, generally pay less than those in natural resource fields, he said.

In the five-year period of 1994 through 1998, the last year for which full statistics are available, the average income in the Kenai Peninsula Borough rose 7 percent to $25,120. The average increases for the state and nation were 10 and 20 percent respectively, according to the August 2000 edition of "Alaska Economic Trends."

The state's preliminary figures from 1999 show that Kenai Peninsula workers took home almost $500 million in overall payroll that year.

The bulk of the private-sector work force was involved in retail trade (about 3,400 people on average) and services (about 3,300).

Those classifications fluctuated by about 2,000 jobs depending on the season, and workers in them averaged about $1,500 in monthly pay.

No analysis of the cost of living on the peninsula has been done, but government assistance programs give a general idea of what people need to get by. Here are the approximate cut-off monthly income numbers for a family of three, with one working adult and two children, to qualify for several programs:

n Alaska Temporary Assistance Program: $1,156;

n Alaska Housing Finance Company (AHFC) very low income: $2,000;

n U.S. Dept. of Agriculture school lunch subsidy: $2,727;

n AHFC low income: $3,200.

Spooner gets $100 from AHFC toward her rent, and her sons qualify for reduced school lunch prices.

"That helps out a lot," she said.

She always keeps her eye out for other jobs to apply for and is interested in automotive work.

"I'm a tomboy at heart," she said.

But in the long term Spooner is looking toward education as her ticket to higher income. She had one year of college before starting her family and is eager to return and finish her degree someday.

As much as she enjoys waitressing, she knows its not for everyone and not what she wants to do the rest of her life.

"It's a tough job," she said. "It really is. You smile at everybody and run your butt off."

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