Seattle's low-wage workforce is barely getting by
Millions have been forced to rethink the way they live and spend in the fallout from the longest-running economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
ROB NYBERG gets scared sometimes.
When cash is short and the rent is due, he wonders if the jobs he cobbled together over the past couple years are enough.
Nyberg washes dishes two nights a week at Sutra, a vegetarian restaurant in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, DJ's when he can and watches children for friends, among a growing list of part-time jobs. Until recently, he worked a few days a week at a frame shop that, before the recession, provided him with a full-time job and financial stability.
The new jobs don't pay well, but Nyberg is grateful for them.
"Right now, I'm fishing — trying new things — and perhaps one of them will turn into something bigger," says the 46-year-old yoga student who tends to see the bright side, even of a busted economy. "The beauty of it is, it's making people think more creatively and think about what's truly important."
Nyberg is one of millions who've been forced to rethink the way they live and spend in the fallout from the longest-running economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Although economists say the recession is over, and corporate profits have climbed most quarters, 12.7 million people remain jobless. Others in Nyberg's situation are doing what he has done — taking what jobs they can get and making do until something better comes along.
That work — house cleaning, taxi driving, burger flipping, child care — forms the crucial bottom rung of our economic ladder, the first one people step onto when reaching for the American dream, and the last to catch workers who made it higher up the ladder only to fall in tough times such as these.
Parts of the bottom rung were chewed away by the recession.
In the Seattle area alone, tens of thousands of the lowest-paying jobs — less than $12 an hour — disappeared after the bottom fell out in 2008.
In large part, it's the ripple effect from middle-class workers who've either lost their jobs, experienced cutbacks or worry they will, says Howard Greenwich, research and policy director for Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit that works on job-quality issues and affordable housing for the low-wage workforce.
"When those people feel good and have money in their pockets, they go shopping, eat out and have personal services like paying someone to walk their dog. So when that goes away, those jobs go away," he says.
And when those jobs disappear, competition for the remaining ones soars. People cobble. Or settle for a part-time job and hope. They struggle to pay bills, go without cellphones, cars, enough clothes for their children — even places to live.
ANDREW SMITH-MORELAND was coming along pretty well, attending Seattle Central Community College in physics and working in the school's computer lab to make his way. Then, last summer, his hours were cut, and he had to quit school.
He started hunting for a job — retail sales, fast food, anything. But it wasn't happening. In need of cash, he sold his television, Xbox and sound system. His cellphone went next and, eventually, the apartment he loved on Capitol Hill.
His family had left Seattle, and Smith-Moreland didn't think he had much chance of finding a job in Hawaii, where his mom lives. So for months he slept on friends' couches, initially taking along his family's 21-year-old cat, Annie, who died about six months into the vagabond life.
Without a home or a phone, job hunting became trickier.
A friend let Smith-Moreland use his voice mail for potential employers to leave messages, not that they called much.
To save money, he stopped getting haircuts and walked whenever he could, instead of taking the bus. He kept a hand-built computer but had no printer, and early on lost a job because he couldn't get his résumé printed before the position was filled.
To pass the time, he read a lot, and was finishing the 805-page "Illuminatus! Trilogy" when he finally landed a job this spring making sandwiches at Jimmy John's for $9.25 an hour.
It was just good luck that the interview came shortly after his hair had gotten so wild that he paid for a haircut.
He has a cellphone now and a room of his own. Having recently turned 24, he wants to go back to school in the fall.
"Until then, I have this job to make money and make myself a little more stable and a little more presentable with freshly washed clothing and freshly ironed shirts."
As bad as it got, Smith-Moreland was lucky to find restaurant work.
In the Seattle area, the recession eliminated 2,416 dishwashing jobs and 13,225 food-prep-and-service jobs.
Although restaurants are bouncing back, CEO Anthony Anton of the Washington Restaurant Association doubts the lowest-paid jobs will rebound completely. New restaurants tend to be smaller, and the industry has become so tight with money that owners now do the same work with fewer people.
He says an entry-level person, or someone who "needs a break, needs experience or a job between jobs — our industry has been challenged to provide that with everything that's going on."
This new reality came as a shock to John Choate, a longtime dishwasher and prep cook who once loved how free those jobs made him — able to quit for new work, new cities, a bit of train hopping.
"This used to be a high-turnover industry, the easiest place to get a job. You could get a job in a day," he says wistfully.
"Now they want a résumé, a cover letter and references. They ask about gaps in your résumé," says Choate, who at 32 has experience, good references and formal training from the Seattle-based FareStart program for the disadvantaged.
Last winter, it took so long to find work that he ended up sleeping in shelters.
Choate's job hunt then had to compete with his search for beds without bedbugs and places to eat and shower.
He recently landed work at a pizza place in Ballard and found a room to rent.
ONE STROKE of good luck is that Choate's new job is full-time.
As painful as unemployment is, there is another, almost equally disturbing layer: 8.2 million people work part-time because they can't find full-time jobs.
Eunice Martinez, a 28-year-old single mother, once found full-time work easily at the YWCA's Family Village day care in Redmond.
When she applied in 2006, "I wasn't really even looking for a job," Martinez recalls. She asked if they were hiring on a Friday, and by Monday she was employed.
But she left in mid-2010 for what looked like a better job with a construction company. She was laid off last fall.
Getting back into child care proved to be a challenge. The recession took a huge bite out of this piece of the employment pie. Between 2008 and 2011, the Seattle area lost 1,781 child-care jobs, almost a quarter of that workforce.
Martinez was rehired, but now she works part-time and fills in when other workers are sick or on vacation.
"I'm not happy that people get sick, but it helps me out," she says.
Martinez works as many days a week as she can. Most times, that's about 24 hours, which at $14 an hour is hardly enough to cover her expenses.
She tries to stretch out her payments on bills, and puts a priority on her son's kindergarten bill, which was reduced to $60 a month. But it's hard.
She misses payments, especially on the 2007 Dodge Caliber she bought in better times. She doesn't drive it, because she can't afford insurance, and walks to work. But she hates to give up a car that's almost paid off. Where's the gain in that? she reasons. "I don't want to lose it for a few thousand bucks."
The wrenching part comes when her son, Owen, who's growing fast, needs new clothes. She can't buy them without weighing the risks.
She used to buy three or four pairs of jeans for him at a time, but now worries about running out of money when she buys just one pair.
Talking to Owen about money can bring tears.
"Sometimes he forgets we can't be buying," Martinez says.
They don't order out pizza as often as he'd like, and she has to remind him about their limits. Then he offers her his piggy bank to help, "and I'm like, you're going to make me cry."
Martinez wants to get certification to increase her pay, but that is no guarantee of employment.
"Before the recession, there was some power, in the minds of employees, that if you let me go, you'll lose me," Martinez says. "Now it's, 'Please don't let me go, because if you do, I'm sure there are five other people who will take my job.' "
ONE NOTE of hope for low-paid workers is that, unlike manufacturing and some other middle-class jobs, restaurant, child-care and other low-wage work is difficult to outsource.
"I don't think these jobs are going away forever, but until the economy is healthy again you don't have the same demand for a lot of these services as we had four years ago," says Robert Plotnick, a professor in the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
Still, he says, "They're more protected than something that can be done anywhere or that a robot can do. With child care, for example, the child's here; you can't do that from the Philippines."
Rob Nyberg, the dishwasher at Sutra in Wallingford, latches onto the hope.
Even losing the hours at his frame-shop job didn't dishearten him.
"I like having extra time, so I look at it as a blessing," he says.
He's also volunteered — at a couple of restaurants before getting the part-time job at Sutra, at a local farm that supplies Sutra, and at FareStart.
"Working for 'free' doesn't necessarily mean working for free, because you're getting something out of it," he explains. "There's the community and food and awareness."
At Sutra, Nyberg also enjoys "the energy of the style of dining that's there, with a four-course meal and a kind of very ceremonial dinner compared to going to a regular restaurant."
The good energy at Sutra, and his gigs DJ'ing and taking care of friends' children, helped him take the giant step of leaving the frame shop — which was no longer as rewarding — this spring. He subsequently found more part-time work in child care, as an on-call caterer with Skillet and at a T-shirt booth in Pike Place Market.
To cut costs, he moved into a group house.
Greenwich of Puget Sound Sage notes that while we've heard about college grads moving back home to deal with the recession, folks closer to the bottom of the economic ladder turn to communal living.
"They're moving in with their brother's and sister's family and their uncle," Greenwich says. Several families will share a two-bedroom apartment, "which is a lot less cozy than your kid moving back after college."
But Nyberg views his move to communal living in his typically optimistic way.
The dearth of jobs "is making community naturally start happening now, that's how it is for me personally," he says. "We don't need that much space to live in."
Melissa Allison is a Seattle Times business reporter. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.
Seattle Times reporter Drew DeSilver and researcher David Turim contributed to this article.