Bottom Rung: Two Idaho Workers Talk About Life On Low Wages

By Molly Messick

Wages are lower in Idaho than they are in most states.  That’s often chalked up to Idaho’s rural nature and low cost of living.  But recently, the state has lost ground.  A federal report shows that Idaho has the largest share of minimum wage workers in the country. 

This story has a simple guiding question: What is it like to earn minimum wage or close to it in Idaho? One of the people who agreed to answer that question is a 19-year-old named Hailey.

Where I work, actually, it’s through a temp agency? So the temp agency sends us down there, and we’re never actually hired on as full time.

Hailey is small – delicate looking – but she does hard work in the warehouse of a local charitable organization. She unloads trucks filled with donations, and spends a lot of time sorting used clothes.

We don’t get benefits or raises or anything like that. And there’s, like, a high rate of people leaving and coming and all that, so…

When I ask what her job covers, she lists off the small rent payment she makes to her stepmother, plus groceries, gas, car insurance… Then she explains she also has to pay the costs of drug court. That’s the program she was funneled into more than a year ago, when she was addicted to opiates and committed a felony.

It’s an amazing program, you know. It’s saved my life. But it’s an expensive program, and it’s one I have to pay for on my own.

We’re talking at a picnic table outside a counseling facility where she attends classes and likes to spend time. I ask what her experience of work, so far, makes her think about work in general.

Currently, it’s just kind of a way to get by, but what I hope for it to be in the future – I want to help other people. I want to make a difference. I want to feel like I’ve done something of meaning in this life.

She wants to work with kids, and help them avoid what she’s been through. She’d like to start college in January. So far, she’s put away 300 dollars.

Hailey’s story is one we might expect to hear in a series about low-wage workers. She’s young, and she’s aiming for a better life. But there are other stories, too. John is 52.

My life’s kind of split into two distinct paths, I guess.

He’s a tidy dresser with an open smile. He works as a clerk at a small retail shop in Boise.

One of them was a military path that I did in the reserve components, and I served for 20 years. And the other path I took, on the civilian side, was more in a computer background – information technology.

In 2003, he was an IT director making 80 thousand dollars a year. Now, he makes between $7 and $8 an hour, no benefits. He rents a room in a house. He can’t afford a car, so he rides his bike or takes the bus.

John tells me he wound up here over the course of a decade. He was laid off, but got work with a web development company. Then, he was laid off again when the recession hit. He was already in debt. He lost his home and filed for bankruptcy.
John says he’s not unhappy. He says he’s on a Zen-like journey. But he’s realistic.

If you’re working just to make ends meet, there is no real quality of life. You’re working to satisfy some debt of some sort. It’s not an environment that lends itself to optimism, things like that, because you’re constantly worried about keeping your job and – just making a living.

It’s hard to find minimum and low-wage workers who will talk about their jobs and lives on the radio. That’s at least partly because of what John is talking about: the precarious positions people are in. One worker couldn’t be interviewed after a supervisor threatened his job. That’s why we’re only using John and Hailey’s first names.

John says his financial situation affects everything, even the friends he makes.

We call ourselves the working poor, for lack of a better term. But that type of level, then, become my circle of acquaintances, mostly. Where before it might have been upper cla, er – middle class, upper middle class, management types, whatever. It changes.

He says what he’s experienced makes him think differently than he once did. He worries about the gap between people who have money and people who don’t.

This imbalance that’s keeping people poor, it’s only going to go so far. You can only stretch that rubber band so far, and something’s going to snap!

For John, there are better days ahead. When he turns 60, he'll start receiving a military retirement. He daydreams about moving to South America, and living better on less. Most people don't have that reprieve.

Over the next few days, we’ll ask: “Why?” Why does Idaho have so many low-wage jobs? At least in part, the answers lie in Idaho’s shifting demographics and policy priorities.

State Impact Idaho 2013.

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