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Working but still falling short

The money he earns in a part-time job doesn't quite cover his costs, but a West Hollywood man refuses to give up.

September 25, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Todd Little, a West Hollywood resident, was unemployed for more than two years. Now he has a job, but the pay is still not enough to cover expenses.
Todd Little, a West Hollywood resident, was unemployed for more than two… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

The big change in Todd Little's life is this:

For a long time, he was unemployed and unable to pay his bills. Now, he's employed and unable to pay his bills.

And we know he's not alone.

Sure, the sky-high unemployment rate and rising poverty in California and the nation have grabbed headlines. But in this economy, that's only a piece of the discouraging picture. People with low- and middle-income jobs are seeing their hours and purchasing power decline, according to a report from the California Budget Project.

I visited Little in West Hollywood last October when he had been out of work for two years. I think it's fair to say he was both desperate and depressed.

Little had enjoyed a successful career as a retail display designer. But a promise to look after his dying mother led to frequent treks to Northern California, wearing him out physically and financially, and his job prospects dried up.

Little was three months behind in his rent and two months behind on his car payment when I met him. I traveled with him to the Jewish Family Services pantry on Pico Boulevard, which had become a lifeline for him. In a crowded waiting room, Little sat for nearly an hour before his name was called to receive handouts of rice, macaroni, soup, tuna, vegetables and bread.

Looking for work, and struggling to survive, had become his full time, unpaid job.

Then, this past spring, he finally caught a break.

"I accepted a job with Macy's Santa Clarita," he emailed me in March, saying the hours were limited and the pay was only $8.50 an hour for re-tagging merchandise when prices change.

When I saw the recent news that 6 million Californians live in poverty and one in five people have no health insurance, I thought of Little.

Was he still at Macy's?

Yes, he said. But seven months into the part-time job, things are still hard. The cost of gas to trek from his Hollywood home is burning nearly half his paycheck. A healthcare plan is offered, but he can't afford his portion of the cost.

Little is an on-call employee, never knowing exactly when he'll be needed, averaging around 20 hours a week. At 46, he's still behind on his rent and barely holding on to his home through the flexibility of the owner and the kindness of friends who spot him a few bucks now and again. He stopped going to the food pantry, he said, and would go hungry but for $176 monthly in food stamps.

It's amazing, he told me over coffee near the Santa Clarita Macy's, how many things you learn to do without.

Like what? I asked.

"Cleaning products for the house. Light bulbs. Paper towels."

Light bulbs?

"You just don't have as many lights on."

With no washing machine, he launders his clothes in the kitchen sink. If he's feeling like a big spender, once a week or so, he'll go to El Pollo Loco, having traded down from the more expensive Norm's diner.

The way people in his income bracket survive, he said, is to split the rent with roommates. But solitary living is the one luxury he's trying to hold on to as long as possible, hoping he'll get lucky and land a job that will return him to the life he once knew.

Little has been trying to transfer to a Macy's closer to home or to move into the visual display department. But he is philosophical about his situation and grateful to have a job at all.

"I have no regrets. I can't. I'm thankful this job presented itself" after months of rejections. "If I hadn't gotten this job, I probably would have jumped off a cliff."

It may be a grunt job, he said, describing it as a treasure hunt. He goes through the store with an electronic device, marking down sale items, and he reorganizes clothing scattered by customers. His feet ached, he said, until he found guaranteed relief.

"I could be a spokesman for Advil."

But back in March, he leapt at the offer, reasoning that having a job — any job — would make it easier to eventually land a better one. He said he enjoys the company and spirit of fellow employees who are struggling to make a go of it, just as he is.

"I love this job, and I'm giving 100% because that's just who I am," said Little.

Carol Fuhrman, his manager, said Little made a good first impression on her.

"I liked his attitude and his personality, and I could just tell that he had an ability to do whatever you asked of him," said Fuhrman. "I have to tell you, of all my employees right now, he probably has one of the best attitudes of anybody, and he has created such a camaraderie among our team members, he's a real asset to our store."

After meeting with Little I checked with Jewish Family Service to see if more Todd Littles are coming through the doors of the agency's three pantries these days. Margaret Avineri told me a record-breaking 13,000 people visited the pantries in August, and the need is so great, services have been expanded. Social workers are now on duty, trying to help clients who are "holding on by their fingernails."

That still describes Little, who, through it all, has managed to hold on to his pride.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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