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Low-Wage Jobs: a Start or Dead End?

October 18, 1998|KARIMA A. HAYNES

October marks the 15th consecutive month that the nation's unemployment rate has been below 5%, creating a labor shortage among restaurants and retailers that rely on low-wage workers.

Businesses are scrambling to fill jobs and, in some cases, doubling the minimum wage or offering signing bonuses, retirement savings plans and health care benefits--incentives usually reserved for high-paid professionals.

KARIMA A. HAYNES asked a job training program director and three unemployed workers whether the perks make low-wage jobs attractive.

RALPH RAMIREZ KACY / Director, entrepreneurial programming, Mission College One-Stop Center, San Fernando

The people we work with are recently unemployed. They haven't been able to find work in their chosen field so they come to us for retraining. They are at all different levels. Some were executives, some were middle managers, others were factory workers.

In the past, they had been making a decent wage and they got used to living up to that standard. With house payments, car payments and children to raise, they can't live on a low wage--they would have to go into bankruptcy. There are many jobs available that pay minimum wage, but you can't raise a family on a minimum-wage job.

There have been cutbacks in welfare and an effort to move from welfare to work, yet these low-paying jobs don't really [offer] people much more than they received on welfare. Many people do not have their own transportation, they don't live along a bus line or the buses don't run where they need them to. I was looking at the rates at a child-care center in San Fernando. Someone earning minimum wage would spend all of their money on child care.

There are a lot of issues involved in going to work. . . . Unemployed young people are more likely to take low-wage jobs and the incentives may help to sway them.

TONIA HAMM / Unemployed data entry operator, Sun Valley

I was working at a medical insurance company in Burbank, inputting medical claims into a computer system. We got a new vice president. He made changes in the company and six people got laid off. I was making $9 an hour. The jobs that I see [advertised] pay a lot more, but they want people with more computer experience. I am taking a class to upgrade my computer skills so that I can get a job that pays equal or better than my old job.

I wouldn't mind working at Wal-Mart or another department store. If I had to, I'd take it. . . . I see a lot of help-wanted signs at restaurants, but I'm not interested in applying there because I want to get more training in something that is similar to what I know how to do.

CHUCK VECCHIO / Unemployed warehouse worker, Sylmar

I was working for a temporary agency. I got a job at a paint-tinting plant packing paint cans into cardboard boxes and putting them onto a pallet. I got injured and was replaced. I am planning to take classes to either become a pharmacy technician or to work on computers.

I don't want to take a dead-end job. I am single. If I make $4.25 an hour, I can't pay my rent and buy my food. I want a career. I hope to learn basic computer skills that will help me find a job where I will be in demand and can earn money--that's the main thing.

SAMUEL OVIEDA / Unemployed woodworker, 27, Canyon Country

I started a woodworking job, but I was let go the very next day because they said I didn't have the necessary experience with saws. I want to start a new career and go on from there.

We are not living in a poverty-stricken state. Low-wage jobs can be upped so that single parents can make a living.

Low-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants could work for some people. If a person has a plan, they could start there, get trained and then go on. It's really up to the individual. I worked in fast-food restaurants when I was 15 and 16 years old, but I'm 27; I don't want to do that now.

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