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Low-Wage Living

We set out to hear the realities and perceptions of people working in low-wage industries in the Pittsburgh region. Here’s what we learned.

America is experiencing its longest bull market since World War II.

What does that mean for those earning $7.25 an hour? Or even $15?

Many of the workers propping up the economy aren’t riding the wave. This project will explore the lives of some Pittsburgh-area workers earning low wages and the policies and practices that affect them.

This project will last through June 2019, but our efforts to cover the experiences of all people in our region won’t end. Are we missing something important? Help us tell these stories.

Click ALL STORIES in the bottom left for a list or navigate through each story using the arrows.

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KeAnna Weathers loss and instability with three children by her side

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For two years, KeAnna Jones carried around a backpack with sheets and blankets in case she and her children had to sleep in the park.

Now, she lives in a three-bedroom house in Homewood with her children: Aubrey, 8, Christopher, 6, and Kadin, 4.

This is the first stable home of their own since 2013.

In the past six years, KeAnna experienced the deaths of two partners — both heart attacks. She lost housing and couldn’t keep her job in child care while also making sure her own children were cared for. She recently found a job in home health care that pays roughly $7.50 an hour.

Just seven months ago, KeAnna and her children were waiting for a Section 8 housing voucher. They were homeless, relying on family and friends to house them.

Sometimes they camped in a Shadyside park. Kadin, then 6 months old, would sleep in his stroller. Aubrey and Christopher would sleep on the ground or bench. KeAnna never really got any sleep.

"I wanted to cry. I never wanted to go through that with my kids. It was really, really hard to have to even think like that with my kids. It’s a really scary thing.”

Section 8 (formally the Housing Choice Voucher Program) is a federal program that assists those in need of affordable housing by paying a portion of their rent.

It is common to wait on the Section 8 list for years.

KeAnna waited for two years.

KeAnna’s late husband, Chris, worked in housekeeping at Children’s Hospital.

After his death, KeAnna couldn’t afford rent on her own. Job troubles followed.

“After he passed, I started to lose everything. My son [Christopher] was 3 months old, and we had to go to a shelter.”

KeAnna is a former daycare worker. She’s been working in child care since she was 13.

Before her husband’s death, she was working in daycare as part of the Americorps Program, helping kindergartners with their reading and math skills.

When her children’s fathers were alive, KeAnna would pay for daycare out of pocket at the school where she worked.

“It is hard because you can’t get child care if you're not working, but you need child care to start working.”

Six months ago, KeAnna found a job as a homecare worker.

“I have a client whose house I go to and take care of him.” She cooks, cleans and keeps him company.

KeAnna still doesn’t have child care for her kids, though.

The kids “are all in school but I still have to get my youngest son and take him to work with me.” He naps while she finishes up her shift.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Pennsylvania is $673 a month.

KeAnna works eight-hour days, five days a week. Her weekly paycheck comes to about $300.

When schools are closed or a kid is sick, KeAnna must call out of work. She loses her pay on those days.

KeAnna hopes to eventually apply to the Board of Education and get a job in child care again. She’d love to work in a school, which may also provide relief in terms of child care if her children could attend.

“That’s the only way it’s gonna work.”

Working in a low-wage industry and the issues that come along with that haven’t distracted KeAnna from what matters most to her — the kids.

Christopher wants to be a scientist. Kadin calls his T-Rex toy his baby and says KeAnna is its grandmother.

Aubrey collects dolls and her favorite class in school is choir. She has the same music teacher KeAnna had when she was a girl.

“My daughter still makes honor roll. She can still make academic honor roll with it being so stressful. She’s the second mom..."

"That’s what keeps me together, it’s them.”

Joey, a Deaf man, struggles to advance in the workforce

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Joey D’Auria grew up in the rural village of Mount Braddock in Fayette County. He once dreamed of working for a golf company like Titleist. But at 29, he still lives there with his parents and works full time as an accounting clerk at a casino.

Joey is Deaf. He believes the related societal barriers have stalled his professional life.

Despite his college degree, Joey makes $14.21 an hour and feels like he can’t advance in his career. After making car and insurance payments, buying gas and tending to other living expenses, he said there’s not enough money left over to pay rent and utilities for a place of his own.

Joey was born Deaf and attended the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf from preschool to second grade, living in a dormitory with other Deaf students.

But Joey and his parents wanted him to have the same education as his hearing peers.

“I needed more of a challenge ... I felt like I maxed out there and I didn’t want to delay my education.”

He transferred to the Frazier School District where he attended with support services, such as interpreters and English teachers provided by Intermediate Unit 1.

“Most of the time I was with hearing peers in my class. We were equal in intellectual ability.”

He joined the golf team and ran track at Frazier High School, where he graduated in 2008.

Joey and his parents decided the next step would be to attend a mainstream university.

“We decided that I needed to find a degree that fit my goals, not just go someplace because of the communication.”

In 2012, he earned a degree in sport management from California University of Pennsylvania, with a concentration in professional golf management. It seemed like a perfect fit, combining Joey’s love of golf with his academics.

But Joey had doubts about his ability to work in the field. An internship at a local golf club showed him much of the customer service work depended on speaking with clients in person and by phone.

Being Deaf slowed down his response time. “The process wasn’t expedient so the line backed up.”

He took a step back to reconsider career options.

The Washington County Office of Vocational Rehabilitation assigned him a job coach, who was also an interpreter.

Joey worked for a local grocery firm for five months, recording barcodes to measure inventory.

He was hired in June 2013 at his current casino job as an auditing and accounting clerk, making $12.01 per hour.

He’s gotten raises over the years — an additional $2.20 an hour since starting nearly six years ago — but no promotions.

Others with less education have advanced past him.

Joey applies for other jobs that fit his credentials. Employers reach out online. Sometimes there’s interest for an interview.

Interest wanes when he requests an interpreter for the interview.

“They’ll say, ‘Yes, we’ll get an interpreter.’ But then things change and they will say the position is filled.”

A phone interview would be possible with Joey using an app that connects him with an interpreter. But it rarely gets to that point.

He feels certain it’s discrimination. “But what else are you going to do? What can I do?”

“I think when they hear the word ‘Deaf’ it changes how they view me.”

“It’s a hearing world, you know.”

Joey still tries to golf once a week.

Last year, he helped organize the Southeastern Deaf Golfers Association Open at the Totteridge Golf Course in Greensburg.

But he figures any career advancement will be for an office job in finance, accounting or auditing, which he has come to like.

He’d like to earn enough to move out of his parents’ home, to support himself and eventually a family of his own.

He’d like to work as an equal in the hearing world but maintain ties to his Deaf peers.

“My goal is to be able to find a job with good pay and to be also able to socialize with the Deaf community.”

An illustrated look at data on labor and poverty in Pittsburgh and beyond

The Pittsburgh economy, like the rest of the country, is humming along. But after a decade of steady growth, that prosperity hasn’t filtered down to everyone.

About two out of every five people nationally don’t even have $400 on hand to weather a small financial shock, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. For many, that’s because their wages are low and benefits nonexistent. These workers often don’t know their work schedules until the last minute and aren’t offered a full week’s worth of hours. Low wages leave them struggling to pay for basics like health insurance, housing and transportation. Many depend on government assistance to stay out of poverty.

To show the trends impacting low-wage workers, we’ve assembled data from government agencies and academic sources tracking measures like unemployment, union membership and racial inequality. Because of geographic limitations in some data sets, the graphs below display a mix of information from the nation, state, Allegheny County, City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Metro Area. The metro area includes Allegheny County and the surrounding counties of Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland.

If there is another piece of data or graph that you think captures the predicament of today’s low-wage workers, send it to natasha@publicsource.org.

People are working

The unemployment rate in the Pittsburgh metro area is lower than it’s been for nearly 50 years. There are about 1.2 million workers, and fewer than 50,000 of them are currently unemployed. And more than half of those will no longer be unemployed within six months, according to the Federal Reserve.

(Source: Federal Reserve)

But not as many as they say

Low unemployment is not the whole story. Some workers have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, in addition to those who are working part time but want to be working full time. By that measure, about 101,000 workers in the Pittsburgh metro area were unemployed or underemployed as of August 2017, according to the Census Bureau.

(Source: Federal Reserve)

And wages have not kept up

When unemployment is low, wages typically rise as companies vie for the best workers, a relationship economists have modeled for decades. During the current economic expansion, wages have risen more slowly than in the past. So the people who have jobs now aren’t necessarily well off: Only 3.9% are unemployed but, according to the 2017 census, about 27% of people in the Pittsburgh metro area are in or near poverty — meaning they live on 200 percent of the poverty level or less. For a family of four, that means they earn fewer than $52,000.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

When you don't make a living wage

Without a living wage, it often means employees are sending most of their earnings to a landlord or mortgage and, therefore, can’t be sure they’ll have enough food to eat or financial savings to deal with a major health emergency. More than two out of three lower-income Pittsburghers pay at least 30 percent of their income on rent, the maximum amount considered sustainable, according to census data. Around 170,000 residents in Allegheny County are food insecure, according to a 2016 study by Feeding America.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Why poverty feels harsher in some ways

In 1963, a person in poverty was making about half as much as the average worker. But now a person at the edge of poverty is making about a third as much as the average worker. Although someone in poverty may have access to some kinds of food and technology that they would not have had in the past, they now earn comparatively less than their middle-class neighbors.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Minimum wage

How can it be that people are working and yet living near poverty? One answer: In 2018, nearly 100,000 Pennsylvanians were earning the minimum wage or less, which in Pennsylvania is still $7.25, the national minimum. The minimum wage has not increased with inflation, so it doesn’t go as far as it used to. About one in six minimum-wage workers are raising at least one child. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage, who didn’t take a vacation all year, would earn $15,080. That is below the poverty level for a household with two people.

(Source: Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry)

Unionization declines

The stagnating wages of average Americans has coincided with a rapid decline in unions. The percentage of union workers in private companies fell by about half in the United States since 1983. Many of these were manufacturing jobs, like Pittsburgh steelworkers. And the service jobs that have replaced them tend to be non-unionized and pay less.

(Source: U.S. Department of Labor)

Racial inequality

While there are low-wage workers of every background, black Pittsburghers are much more likely to earn low wages. Black workers were also more likely to be unemployed in 2017; the percentage of unemployed black workers was more than twice as high as unemployed white workers. And over the past five years, between two and three times as many black residents as white residents were in poverty. White households in the city had a 2017 median annual income of $55,671, more than twice that of black households at $22,010.

(Source: City of Pittsburgh)

In the state

Income inequality has grown even more in urban areas. Allegheny County had the second highest inequality rate in the state between 2013 and 2017. About one in every five workers makes $114,000 per year or more, while one in five workers earns $22,000 or fewer per year.

To study income inequality, researchers break the employee population into fifths and compare the highest-paid fifth of workers (80th percentile) to the lowest-paid fifth (20th percentile). In counties with lower inequality rates, the gap is smaller between incomes earned by employees in the 20th percentile and those in the 80th percentile.

***

A previous version of the story misstated the number of workers in the Pittsburgh metro area who were unemployed or underemployed.

Text and data by Oliver Morrison.
Illustrations by Christina Lee.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.
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A job is no longer enough:
Jordan’s cycle of low-wage jobs and his aspirations to buck poverty risk factors

A job is no longer enough:
Jordan’s cycle of low-wage jobs and his aspirations to buck poverty risk factors

Jordan Simpson. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

It was still dark out in December as Jordan Simpson helped his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., pull his shirt over his head and get ready for day care.

The only light in the living room came from the muted cartoons. Simpson lives with his mother in Braddock, and she was still asleep.

Jordan Jr. told his dad he was tired and the couch they slept on was uncomfortable.

Last fall, a flood in the basement ruined their floor mattress. Simpson, 24, had not yet been able to afford a new one, so they had taken to sleeping on the couch. That night, Jordan Jr. fell asleep to “The Land Before Time” wedged between his dad and his dad’s girlfriend, who was spending the night.

Simpson is one of the millions of workers across the country who don’t have enough savings to weather short bouts of adversity and they don’t have a secure enough income to pay for some of life’s basics, like a mattress, heating or transportation.

This isn’t supposed to be the case in an economy where the unemployment rate is at its lowest level in decades, in both Pittsburgh and the country as a whole. But for Simpson and many low-wage workers like him: having a job is no longer enough.

Jordan Simpson helps his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., get his shoes on before heading to day care. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Between 1980 and 2016, the number of Americans in poverty grew by 17 million. That growth largely came from working-age adults, according to the Brookings Institute.

In 2017, there were about 6.9 million Americans who worked but didn’t earn enough to get out of poverty, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the number of people who work and live close to poverty is even greater. In the United States and in the Pittsburgh metro area, more than a quarter of residents live at, below or near the poverty level — meaning that they earn less than 200% of the poverty wage or about $25,000 for a single person and $52,000 for a family of four.

At his current wage, it’s hard for Simpson to imagine a future.

“If I do get married, I won’t be able to buy my girlfriend a nice ring,” Simpson said.

Last summer, Simpson had two months left in a job training program where he learned landscaping and professional skills. He decided he needed to find a way out of the cycle of low-wage jobs.

“I have two months to figure out what I really want to do,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to waste time and keep doing these jobs. I want to start a career. It’s either going to be plumbing or physical therapy.”

But the way forward for workers like Simpson isn’t easy. By December, he had taken another temp job as a janitor and now works at a gas station.

Barriers to advancing

Although the unemployment rate is at one of its lowest levels since 1969, if you factor in inflation, the wages of low-income workers like Simpson have barely budged for five decades. That doesn’t mean the country hasn’t been getting richer. But most of the economic growth has gone to the wealthy and very wealthy, according to a 2016 analysis from the Congressional Research Service.

For years, workers have made no more than they did the year before, and that’s turned into decades where health care and and housing costs have gone up but salaries have stagnated.

“They treat me like I am a nobody, if I’m honest. They are always threatening to fire you if you do something wrong.”

The relative value of minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation or productivity. The 1968 minimum wage of $1.60 would, in today’s dollars, be worth around $11.55. But if the minimum wage were set to keep pace with the productivity of the rest of the economy, the rate would be more than $20 an hour, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Simpson wants to become a plumber because it’s a steady, well-paying job that doesn’t require any formal education. About 25% of plumbers are in unions, two and a half times the national rate for workers. The average plumber makes about $50,000 per year, well above the average salary for all workers.

One of the big reasons wages have been declining for workers like Simpson, many economists believe, is the number of private sector union jobs has crashed. Those jobs were better paying than average. In 1979, about one in three workers in the private sector were union members. By 2013, it was one in 10.

So there are fewer unions jobs available now and Simpson hasn’t been able to land one. The plumber’s union told Simpson they only accept workers into their training program who score the very highest on the entrance test.

The test requires mathematical aptitude, and Simpson hopes his girlfriend will tutor him.

Simpson didn’t finish high school, and according to a 2014 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, no other industrialized country penalizes workers for not having a basic education like the United States. About 48% of adults who didn’t graduate high school earned a poverty wage in the United States. No other developed country was worse than 40% and the average was 28%.

The challenge isn’t only the low pay but also the instability. Simpson was being paid $15 an hour at his temp job as a janitor at Dura-Bond Industries in December, several dollars more than his previous job working security at a mall. But Simpson would only receive his schedule a few days before he had to work.

Sometimes he’d have to work the late shift and needed someone in his family to put his son to bed. Sometimes he had the early morning shift and needed help getting his son to day care.

His income is also unpredictable. Some weeks Simpson was offered 40 hours of work at Dura-Bond, some weeks only 24. The number of unemployed workers in the economy is about twice as high as the official rate when you include workers like Simpson who would like to work full time but can’t.

Jordan Simpson drives his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., to day care.
(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Some underemployed workers have transportation challenges or caregiving responsibilities, which make full-time work challenging. Simpson cares for his son every other week, when Jordan Jr. is not with his mom. To manage parenting duties, he relies on family help and a subsidized childcare center in Braddock that costs $25 per week.

Low-wage workers often depend on government benefits, like subsidized housing and health care or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps). Without federal benefits, the percentage of Americans living in deep poverty would jump from about one in 20 to one in five, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An individual in deep poverty lives on fewer than $6,250 per year, according to the most commonly used definition of deep poverty.

Because there isn’t a lot of reason to stick around for a job that doesn’t pay very much or provide health or retirement benefits, Simpson has been through a revolving door of low-wage jobs. Since dropping out of high school six years ago, he’s found work at such places as GetGo, Walmart and Wendy’s.

The low pay doesn’t just make everyday living a challenge; it also makes the work itself less enjoyable. Simpson said one of his bosses reminded him regularly that he was disposable, he said.

“They treat me like I am a nobody, if I’m honest,” Simpson said at the time. “They are always threatening to fire you if you do something wrong.”

Rough start

When Simpson was 13, his mom, Kellie Tinsley, and his stepdad were having an argument. His stepdad shot himself.

Simpson woke up, went downstairs and saw his stepdad give him a peace sign from a stretcher. He died on the way to the hospital.

After that, Simpson’s mom wasn’t herself.

“It seemed like she was just gone,” Simpson said. “She would go to therapy for it but she was just gone for a couple of years.”

“I know a lot of people who sell drugs. But I want to show my son you can do it the legal way, the right way.”

Around that time, Simpson started cutting up at school and smoking marijuana.

He dropped out and started working. He earned $300 per week and half of it would go to weed.

But in early 2018, tired of the expense and some of the side effects, he gave up smoking and set his sights on a better paying profession.

“I know a lot of people who sell drugs,” he said. “But I want to show my son you can do it the legal way, the right way.”

Risk factors

Simpson has all of the four biggest risk factors for ending up in poverty, according to sociologists at the University of California:

  1. He didn’t graduate high school.
  2. He had a child at a young age.
  3. He’s a single parent, splitting parenting duties with his child’s mother.
  4. And he’s had a number of stretches of unemployment.

He’s also had a couple close calls with the criminal justice system that have made his life difficult but doesn’t have the kind of criminal record that would make it even more challenging.

In high school, he ran into a teacher running through the hallway and was referred to the criminal justice system. He had to pay a fine. A couple years ago, he was caught driving before he passed his driver’s test and wasn’t allowed to get a license for a year. But no one counseled him about what to do, so it took him two years to get through the legal paperwork that would allow him to finally get his license.

That means Simpson hasn’t been able to apply for some jobs that require a license. Sometimes he takes the bus. And at other times, he’s had to borrow his girlfriend’s car to get to work, despite the legal risk of driving without a license. He had to turn down a landscaping job because it was too far away.

“I would have already had a better job now if I would’ve had my license,” he said. “Something I would really like doing.”

Kenny Johnson, Jordan Simpson (second from left), John Jones and James Ellis take a break from clearing trails last summer as part of Landforce, a work development program. Simpson was offered a landscaping job at the end of the summer but said he couldn’t take it because he didn’t have transportation. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Despite all the obstacles, Simpson is motivated to work. His girlfriend has been encouraging him to go back to school, like her. He likes the idea of becoming a physical therapist because he had a rare neurological disorder that paralyzed him temporarily when he was a teenager. Therapy helped him recover his ability to move.

But he isn’t sure how he could support his son and pay tuition.

He lacks the family wealth, education or connections that help his middle- and upper-class counterparts work their way up the income ladder.

So even though there is some stability in Simpson’s life, it will be difficult to overcome all the obstacles he faces on his own.

Soon after Simpson’s son was born, he and Jordan Jr.’s mom got matching tattoos of his name tattooed in Chinese characters. And Simpson got another tattoo on his own that reads:

“It’s my job to lead you to success and if you fail, it’s because I failed, not you.”

***

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Tom Lisi.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.
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Raising minimum wage in PA:
How can we make progress even if our state Legislature doesn’t?

Raising minimum wage in PA: How can we make progress even if our state Legislature doesn’t?

FRIST-PERSON ESSAY BY Ilyssa Manspeizer

Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Livable minimum wage is a topic that is being debated in state capitols across the country these days. It has raised questions about how we value labor and, by extension, the people who do the lowest paying jobs in this country. Illinois recently passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill. It’s the fifth state to do so. California, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and New York are all implementing stepped transitions to the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

In Pennsylvania, there is no livable minimum wage law, though Gov. Tom Wolf has continually advocated for a minimum wage increase since taking office in 2015. In the absence of this legislation, are we, in effect, saying that it is acceptable for some people to live trapped in a cycle of poverty, subsidizing our enjoyment of the goods and services they deliver?

As employers, we have the power to make a different choice and lead the way forward even when our legislators may not yet be ready. A model from a unique collaboration in Pittsburgh can show us how to acknowledge the value of each others’ labor, agree to pay people adequately for the work they do, support their transition to better jobs, and no longer demand that poor people subsidize our fast food, our hospitals and even our green assets, through their entrenched poverty.

I come at this question because I run a small Pittsburgh social enterprise nonprofit called Landforce, which combines workforce readiness and environmental stewardship. With seven full-time staff and 24 seasonal staff (and my graying hair), believe me when I say I know what it means to worry about payroll. Yet, this year, with a dedicated board of directors, we are committing to raising the wages from $13 an hour to $15 for those seasonal employees who complete the initial training program. As a social enterprise, their wages will all come from the environmental stewardship contracts we work on.

“As employers, we have the power to make a different choice and lead the way forward even when our legislators may not yet be ready.”

So why would we ever willingly, without any pressure from our employees, raise wages to $15 an hour? Beyond the myriad of economic goals behind why a minimum wage increase is beneficial, there are two reasons: because we value our crew members’ labor and because we value our crew members.

Landforce crew members work hard in the heat, sun and rain to ensure that our region has a healthier, more welcoming environment. Crews construct trails; tend increasing numbers of rain gardens and green stormwater runoff areas; plant trees along slippery river banks or steep hillsides; remove invasive knotweed, vines and other plants from our woodlands; and construct garden beds for communities to grow fresh food. This is all hot, heavy, physically and mentally challenging work, which results in a host of environmental benefits and more livable communities we can all enjoy.

We also value the people who do this work. Our crew members arrive at Landforce, sometimes suffering from longstanding mental health issues or struggling with substance abuse, perhaps on their way home from incarceration, perhaps just never having successfully applied for a job before. What unifies all of our crew members is the constant, day-to-day worry about money — the where’s my next meal coming from, fear of eviction, how do I pay for the bus to work and buy diapers for my baby kind of worry. We have seen that this kind of constant, unrelenting anxiety has serious damaging effects. It affects our crew members’ ability to make good decisions, to follow through on a plan and, above all, to imagine that things will get better. How can our crew members work toward their professional goals — passing a driving permit test, clearing fines from licenses, registering for college courses, attending therapy, staying sober — if they need to work a second job just to pay rent? How are they supposed to make their own lives better if they spend their time running in place only to discover they’re actually sliding backward? It is soul destroying. And none of us deserves to have our soul destroyed.

Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

We are willing and able to pay a more livable wage because we depend upon a strong network of partners. We rely on three key collaborations: foundation, donor and governmental support for our training and coaching components; employers who are eager to hire former crew members; and public and private entities that contract with us to conduct the environmental work.

Seasonal crew wages all come from stewardship contracts with partners who, while making business decisions, also understand that we all need to have a hand in ensuring that Pittsburgh becomes a more just and equitable city. So while we are a nonprofit, the wage we pay our crew members is a business decision based upon what the market will bear.

While working on environmental projects for municipalities, developers or nonprofits, our seasonal crew members gain and practice important work-readiness skills they have learned during an intensive training period. All the while, crew members’ professional goals are supported by one-on-one career coaching. Last year, 92 percent of crew members who finished their terms with us were offered jobs by other employers within a couple of weeks of the end of the season.

And while there is room for debate if even this is an adequate living wage, it is a good place for employers to start to push the conversation and show Pennsylvania legislators that we value the people who work with us as well as the work they do. Otherwise, when we insist upon paying wages that don’t allow people to live with a modicum of safety and security, we crush them. We demoralize them. We demean them. And, we do this all while enjoying the fruits of their labor — the clean hospitals, the cheap food or the freshly cut trail. The way we function now, we can have those things because we are free riders on someone else’s poverty.

We invite other employers to join Landforce and our partners to respect both the work and the worker by paying wages that allow people to live in dignity while together we enjoy the fruits of their labor.

***

Ilyssa Manspeizer, Ph.D., is the executive director of Landforce, a Pittsburgh social enterprise nonprofit that invests in people’s lives while restoring our environment.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.
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Amy balances coping with crisis and piecing together a future

Amy balances coping with crisis and piecing together a future

(Swipe through or use arrows)

Amy Gill sits on a bench at Bayne Park in Bellevue. She points across Lincoln Avenue at several locations that show her life story before more than a decade of hard times.

A home at Sheridan Avenue where she moved with her parents from Virginia Beach at age 14.

The site of the now-demolished house her great-grandparents lived in on South Fremont Avenue.

And, a home on Monroe Avenue she lived in with her two daughters. She rented it from her father and stepmother and lost it after her father’s death in 2005.

“Our mortgage was only $333 a month but, when my dad died, my stepmother sold the house out from under us.”

Losing the house was the final straw.

Looking back now, Amy notes that her resume following their housing crisis looks like a map of her addiction and decline in mental health.

She says she went from supervisory positions at a hotel and doctor's office to a cycle of low-wage, part-time jobs.

The family fell off the tightrope.

Amy, now 47, and Jalyn, her youngest daughter, became homeless. Amy battled addiction, and they slept on couches for four years.

Her oldest daughter, then 16, lived with another family in the school district so she could graduate.

“She went to stay with friends, and I couch-surfed,” Amy said. “Jalyn didn’t have a lot of stability until she was 7, but it was normal to her. We didn’t have space and privacy, staying in other people’s homes, but I tried to always keep bedtime and bathtime the same. Create a bit of normalcy.”

After about a year on the waitlist for low-income public housing, Amy’s family moved into a subsidized apartment in Allegheny Commons. It was 2011.

Amy started doing janitorial work for the Allegheny Center Alliance Church across the street, mixed in with work as a home health aide.

Over the course of five years, she got on her feet and decided to apply for a Housing Choice Voucher (or Section 8). In the fall of 2015, she and Jalyn moved closer to Amy’s roots in Bellevue. She’s clean now and gets support from Mercy Behavioral Health and New Horizons drop-in center in Bellevue.

Though Amy and Jalyn have their own rooms, they often sleep together in the living room. “We slept on so many couches, it just feels usual.”

Poverty, and people’s perception of it, is always on Amy’s mind.

She takes Jalyn, now 15, to Plato’s Closet to try to find her suitable used clothing. But if the teen wants her hair or nails done, she needs to earn money babysitting.

“She’s used to being poor, but she wants a better quality of life. She’s trying for what she thinks is normal.” Jalyn recently made the cheerleading squad and is fundraising to pay for the cost of it.

Amy’s take-home pay barely covers basic necessities most weeks. At a recent trip to the food bank, she picked up fresh fruits for a salad — a rare treat.

Life is a constant balancing act.

“I have $6 to my name and need to load $4 on my ConnectCard to get the food we need,” she said, referencing transportation costs to the food bank. “Will I have enough money to get to work Thursday? I don’t know, but we need the food.”

Until April, she was working in the Strip District at a retail store, but the three-hour round trip by bus made a job she loved difficult to access.

She began a new job at a store in Bellevue that she can walk to.

She texted excitedly, “Same rate of pay. Might even be able to work an extra 8 hours a week!!”

But with the additional eight hours, she worried she’d lose the $100 in food stamps they get each month. Her rent would increase $50 per month, too. “It’s a tricky, slippery slope.”

The job situation soured after a couple weeks. She has returned to intermittent work as a home health aide.

Though she’s made it back to Bellevue, Amy recently discovered that her landlord is selling their house.

She has no idea if it will stay a rental or if the new owners will accept Section 8 vouchers. Amy is overwhelmed but tries to remain optimistic.

“I just have to breathe.”