Work in the Gap

Workers find wages don't measure up


Nicole Cole counts five boxes of Gain laundry detergent among her blessings. She figures the two large and three small boxes of donated soap should get her family of five through at least a couple months of laundry. That's a couple of months she won't worry whether she and her husband can stretch his Wal-Mart paycheck far enough to cover clean clothes.

"Most things, people with money take for granted," Cole says. Even if it is just a box of soap. The food stamps that help pay the family's food expenses don't cover the cost of soaps, detergents, shampoo. If donations from groups such as the Idaho Community Action Network didn't stock Cole's laundry supplies, she and her husband would have to make his paycheck and her disability payment stretch even further. And that's if they have any stretch room at all.

"It's hard. We struggle. We fight for what we have," says the mom of three.

The Coles are among thousands of working Idaho families who must make hard choices and sometimes go without because their full-time wages don't cover the necessities of life, let alone the occasional emergency, says a recent report by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (NFCO).

The report, "Searching for Work that Pays: 2005 Northwest Job Gap Study," found that 78 percent of all Idaho job openings do not pay a living wage for a single adult with two children. A living wage allows families to meet their basic needs without public assistance and provides them some ability to deal with emergencies and save some money for future expenses. The report calculates that in Idaho, a living wage for a family of four is $18.96 an hour. A single person would have to make $9.30 an hour to earn a living wage, according to the report. Nicole's husband David earns around $8 an hour, well below a living wage for a family of four, at his Wal-Mart assembly job where he assembles toys, equipment and furniture.

When a real wage doesn't match a living wage, families are forced to make decisions between heath care, balanced nutrition and paying the bills, says NFCO regional organizer Will Pittz. "People need to understand that there is a crisis facing working families and they are making sacrifices no one should have to face: decisions to put food on a table or buying prescriptions," Pittz says. Health care is usually the first to go, he says. It's also the biggest variable in determining a living wage.

The study calculates living wages with the assumption that workers are covered by some kind of health insurance. But the reality is that more and more jobs cater to the service industry and many of those jobs do not offer employee benefits, health insurance or pay a living wage--a trend some call the "Wal-Martization of America." When someone starts paying out-of-pocket medical expenses, the money they would need to make to earn a living wage is even higher than the living wages calculated by the report.

"Most people are just one health care emergency away from catastrophe," Pittz says.

The job gap study found that in Idaho, two job seekers vie for every household living wage job available and eight job seekers vie for every job that pays a living wage for a family of three.

"The competition is really fierce and many people get left out," says Bill Whitaker, a Boise State social work professor. "One consequence is many of the people who don't have a living wage don't have heath insurance. So this means they're putting off the heath care they need . . . They wait until it becomes a dangerous situation."

And a living wage may be even more difficult to attain as some folks see their heating and gas bills spike by 30 to 50 percent this year, Pittz says.

"People will look at the choice between heating and eating," Whitaker says.

Minimum wages simply do not support workers and cover all of their needs, the report says. Pittz notes the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour represents an attempt to provide a basic standard of living, but that wage is not indexed for inflation and increases are passed only at the will of Congress, which hasn't approved a minimum-wage increase since 1997. The inflation-adjusted value of the current minimum wage was 26 percent lower in 2004 than it was in 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

"The purchasing power of minimum wage has eroded over the years," Whitaker says. "As a first step, we really need to increase the minimum wage."

After a several-year struggle, lawmakers in Idaho finally passed legislation in 2001 granting farm workers a minimum wage. Now there's talk that another minimum wage bill that would boost the state minimum by $1 could surface this legislative session.

"That would be an important step but that would be an inadequate $1," Whitaker says.

A dollar pay-raise might help the Coles buy slightly more soap, but it would still leave David Cole's hourly earnings nearly $10 short of a living wage for his family. And a $1 raise still wouldn't give the Coles much of a game plan should they find themselves in an emergency. But Nicole Cole welcomes any debate that "opens eyes to the truth."

"Sometimes I wish (lawmakers) could walk a month or two in my shoes," she says.