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Working for minimum wage: ‘There’s no room for advancement’

airport wheelchairsCreative Commons/Daniel Lobo

Part of a series of first-person accounts relating to news events of 2013.

Life could be different for Darcy Landau if the Minnesota Legislature had agreed this year to raise the minimum wage beyond the federal-mandated $7.25 an hour. (The House was willing to match the $9.50 an hour called for by advocates for the poor. The Senate bill offered a 50-cent-an hour increase. Compromise efforts failed, but don’t doubt legislators will hear the plea increase again in 2014.) Age 56 and a college graduate, for the past six years Landau has worked minimum-wage jobs at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport cleaning aircraft and jet-ways, running a warehouse forklift and now is employed as a traveler’s aide.  

I’ve worked a warehouse job for six years and now I’m pushing wheelchairs for going on eight months. I’m college-educated and been in the military and newly engaged. I’m doing all this on minimum wage.

I help out the handicapped, elderly, disabled, men, women, children. I’m the guy you see helping people in and out of the aircraft or getting them to the next gate or helping them get a bite to eat at the local restaurant. I like the work; it’s very honorable work. It’s honest work. I love my life. I can’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life. I get $7.25 an hour.

It has always been a struggle for me to find a job that pays very well. That’s why I went back to college, to try and break the mold. I took some courses, consolidated them, went back to school when I was 37 and graduated when I was 43. I have two degrees [in world history].

I thought I could get into a company and work my way in [with] like customer service. I’ve applied for customer service jobs with sporting retail stores. I’m an outdoorsman.

I thought about doing some tutoring. It takes a master’s to do that. I did very well in school. I graduated with a good grade point average…about a C-plus. I might go back to school, get a master’s degree.

[Out of the military] I worked a year and a half and then decided to go back to school. I continued on in vocational colleges, trying to find a skill I could do. It took me a lifetime to figure out I’m not a hands-on type of guy. I was pursuing a career in sheet-metal fabrication or blueprint making.  All they want is your money. They don’t tell you straight out if you’re right for the course. The same thing applies to going to college, in a way.

Right now they’re cutting back my hours because things are kind of slow but it should go back to 40 hours once things get busy with the holiday season. [Right now] I work five days a week, 8 in the morning until 2:30.

Minnesota Moments 2013I’m living off money from a disability I have. I have a little tinnitus, ringing in my ears.

I get tips on my job. Last year I made about $17,000 working for the warehouse at the airport. Disability is about $100 a month. The money goes toward my car, student-loan payments, rent and food.

I don’t like going to the food shelves because they don’t understand I’m diabetic. They don’t understand a diabetic diet and my need to eat healthy. They’ll send you some where else if you rely on them more than once a month.

I go out to eat occasionally, but don’t travel. I use my disability to take the light rail. I pay about $410 a month [in rent]. I live in VA [Veteran’s Administration] low-income housing….

I’m newly engaged. She makes more money than I do. We’re not living together yet or married. We’re planning.

I [advocate with] Take Action Minnesota [for] SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. We’re trying to increase the minimum wage by going to MAC [Metropolitan Airports Commission], letting them know about our dilemma.

I’ve tried real hard to get into management. It seems like it takes a lot to get by in a world that frowns on kindness. It’s a cut-throat world, especially in the job market.There’s no room for advancement, whether it’s pay-wise or moving up in management. They figure once you’re poor, you’re always poor.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/30/2013 - 09:22 am.

    A sad tale

    but raising the minimum wage won’t open a career ladder for Mr. Landau or anyone else.

    With all due respect, sir, you seem to have some unrealistic expectations regarding both your abilities and the role others should play in your life, whether that be educational institutions, food shelves or employers.

    Rather than lobbying MAC for an increase in the minimum wage, perhaps your union should be negotiating with your employer. Perhaps a strike is necessary. Perhaps another job change is in order, as depressing and disheartening as that prospect may seem at the moment.

    Harsh words for the holiday season, perhaps, but I truly believe that any change in your life must begin with you, whatever the outcome of efforts to raise the minimum wage. Good luck, sir.

  2. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 12/30/2013 - 02:39 pm.

    Who says he hasn’t tried?

    James Hamilton: Harsh words indeed, for any season.

    Who says Darcy hasn’t tried to change jobs? He has two college degrees. But you seem to have overlooked what likely is the biggest single impediment to getting a better job: He’s 56 years old.

    Like the Republicans who want to raise the age for full Social Security to as much as 70, you do not show an understanding of how difficult is is — bordering on impossible — to get anyone to hire you when you’re 56. It’s hard even for those over 40. Most of the time, your application won’t even bring a drop-dead response.

    Unfortunately, degrees in world history don’t tend to match jobs available in engineering, nursing or many other occupations where there’s still a demand for workers. But they do show an ability to think and to communicate. Surely he could “bring value” to some employer — one who could see farther than the wrinkles on Darcy’s face or the age that applications ferret out without violating the law by directly asking.

    Some people do make wrong choices or have self-defeating traits. But without evidence showing those, we should not blame the victim for finding himself or herself in an undesirable situation.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/30/2013 - 03:45 pm.

    Expectations

    I agree that this individual does appear to have made some poor career choices, and have some unreasonable job expectations.
    Two college degrees in World History have limited market value, and a C+ is below average at most colleges. I’m not sure a case has been made that he is overqualified for the positions he’s been in.

    At age 56 he’ll run into age discrimination breaking into a new career; he’s unlikely to get any real sort of managerial position (everyone at McDonald’s seems to be a manager).

    So I’d say that he is one of the individuals who -would- be helped by an increase in the minimum wage, since he seems destined to spend the rest of his career in low end jobs. It won’t change his life, but might make it a bit more comfortable.

    He could have used some counseling in high school, the military, and in post secondary schools, but I’m not sure that he would have taken it. It’s possible that he got and ignored it.

    If (and this is a big if) this were a typical example of people working at minimum wages, it’s more an indictment of our educational system than it is of our economic system.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/30/2013 - 04:54 pm.

    Wages

    Minimum wages won’t necessarily create a career ladder for someone, but they could. If you’re just getting by on next to nothing, a couple of extra dollars at the end of the month could make the difference to afford schooling. And for those who don’t have the ability or education to advance, a raise would give them a slightly more comfortable life.

    Let’s be honest here: not everyone is going to work their way up the ladder to become a corporate lawyer. There will always be people who don’t have the education, skill set, or cognitive abilities to make it into a middle class job, yet they still need to eat, pay rent, and survive. To make it doubly difficult for them, most minimum wage jobs are deliberately structured so they’re part time and the vast majority do not include vacation days, sick days, nor health insurance. That means they have to string together several part time jobs in order to make ends meet, which increases their commute time and decreases their time at home to spend with family or study for that better life.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/31/2013 - 05:19 pm.

    Mr. Gendler is correct about age discrimination

    When I returned to the work force at just under 50 I learned very quickly to take anything that hinted at my age off of my resume.

    I quit my last job at age 60 knowing that I could operate my own company but if I would have had to look for a job it would have been a disaster.

    I don’t know that a minimum wage raise is the answer but I certainly believe that there is a greater disconnect between wages and productivity than there ever has been particularly at executive levels.

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