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For One Family, Recovery Coming Over Time : Economy: A veteran truck driver and his wife say it's like starting from scratch, but slowly, surely, that sense of security, with the help of overtime pay, is making its way back.

March 01, 1994|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHICAGO — When John Harrington hears the pundits crowing about the booming economy, he can offer proof, too. It's right there in his paycheck, summed up in one word: overtime.

Five extra hours, maybe 10 a week, if he's lucky. An extra day's pay won't make his family rich, but it's a notch up on their security ladder--and that's good enough for the veteran truck driver.

"Everything looked dismal three, four years ago," Harrington says. "Now, I'm more optimistic. I read the newspapers and see all the positive things. If people are buying and spending money, then I'm working. That's the bottom line."

It hasn't been that way very long. About 2 1/2 years ago, the trucking company Harrington had worked for since he was 18 closed--just two months after he and his wife, Ellen, bought a new house.

"It's so hard to get ahead," Harrington says, explaining why they had bought the home. "You couldn't wait for everything to be perfect. You had to take a chance. Then what we thought could happen, happened."

What followed was a domino-like procession of trouble.

Nine months without a job. Savings depleted. Two mortgages to meet, one from their former house. And a new worry: health insurance. Harrington's mother-in-law made the $250 monthly payments.

"At first, he said, 'I'll be working in a month,' " Ellen Harrington recalls. "One month went by. Then another. And another. I thought the economy must be really bad. Everything is not going to be as easy as I thought it was."

Harrington was determined to stay in trucking even though deregulation during the '80s had bankrupted companies and forced thousands onto the unemployment rolls. At age 43, he had 20 years invested in a Teamsters pension and wasn't about to change professions.

"I was locked in," he says. "It's almost stupid to walk away."

Harrington eventually found temporary work at Carolina Freight Carriers Corp.; he was hired full time in February, 1993. He says he earns more than $15 an hour, still short of union scale.

Though it's slightly more than his previous salary, the cost of living has soared and the Harringtons, like many other blue-collar workers across America, feel as if they're running in place.

"If we're making progress, it's minimal," says the ruddy-faced, mustachioed Harrington. "But who is progressing? I just don't know. . . . We're just breaking even."

The Harringtons and their two daughters, 16 and 10, live modestly in a ranch-style home on the city's South Side--a Democratic, blue-collar bastion--about a mile from Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.

Ellen Harrington works part time as a secretary and travel agent to make ends meet. Their money disappears fast: $100 a week for their 16-year-old's Catholic school tuition; $100 a week for gas and lunch for her husband. Then the mortgage, food, clothes and heat.

Rent from two tenants who live in their former home, a building with two apartments, helps out. Still, it's a scrimp-and-save world.

"We keep thinking we're going to have extra money," Ellen Harrington says. "But without any savings . . . we live from check to check. It seems like we're starting all over."

Harrington has begun putting aside $20 from each check to build new savings, and he hopes his new job will restore the family's sense of security.

But they have postponed big purchases. Harrington drives a 1983 Ford pickup truck; his wife has a 1978 Mercury.

Harrington is bracing for contract talks this spring, hoping there won't be concessions, but he's not expecting a raise, either.

"I think the company is going to be around for a while," he says. "If they aren't, we'll just deal with it when the time comes.

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