Where’d my money go? | AspenTimes.com

Where’d my money go?

Joel Stonington
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Maria Rodriguez, a hardworking immigrant from Puerto Vallarta, has been a maid in Aspen for seven years, and her husband, Diego, is a cook. What would Maria buy if she earned an additional $2 per hour?”I’d spend it on diapers for junior,” she replies almost immediately. “A 4-year-old – diapers, diapers, diapers.”As working parents, they haven’t had time to potty train their son, so they keep going through the diapers. Maria generally works 40-hour weeks, though 90-hour weeks are expected during the holiday season. Diego typically puts in a 55-hour week.Maria and Diego (whose real names are being withheld at their request) are raising their two daughters, ages 9 and 7, and 4-year-old son while earning less than $15 an hour with minimal benefits (no health care, no 401(k), no overtime pay).

They typify an increasingly common Roaring Fork Valley demographic, that of the “working poor” family caught between low wages and a high cost of living, with little hope of advancement or earning a truly livable wage. Many young singles find themselves in similar circumstances, working multiple jobs to make ends meet until they burn out and seek better prospects.Maria stands in the tiny kitchen of their three-bedroom trailer as her 4-year-old son scoots in and out of the room on his knees, smashing a toy fire truck against the oven and making siren sounds. Each time he enters for another round, she shakes her head with a smile. Diego is stretched out on the living-room couch, watching TV and resting after another day in the kitchen of a popular Aspen eatery. “There is food in Mexico, but we eat better here,” she says. “We dress better here. I think about this in the morning when I get up to go to work. Here you can get ahead.”Barely. At $1,050 a month, rent takes the biggest chunk out of the couple’s combined paychecks. Food, clothes and other bills quickly eat up the rest. They are lucky to save $200 a month. A sick child or even basic health care can gobble savings in an instant. Last year, the mother had to get sutures after slipping on ice; she paid $500 out of pocket. After a bit, Diego gets off the couch and enters the kitchen to chat. He used to work for an Aspen hotel but was fired after a minor altercation. He is happier as a cook because he can work more hours and earn more money. Like his wife, he would spend an additional $2 per hour on his family: “I would spend it … for my son, on clothes, food for the kids. First, though, is the rent.”

As far as the Times can tell, the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour doesn’t apply in Aspen. Colorado prohibits county and municipal governments from raising the minimum wage locally, forcing wages to be decided by the free market.”I think the market should determine the wages,” said Michael J. Greenwood, an economist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I’m not sure I even think there should be a minimum wage.”In Aspen, the market supports unusually high wages because the cost of living is higher. “There already is the de facto minimum wage,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, on a recent day in the county building. “You can’t get anyone to do anything for less than $9 an hour. As for $5.15, even if you’re working 80 hours a week there’s just no way.”And though $9 per hour is well above the federal minimum wage, it doesn’t necessarily allow people at the bottom end of the wage scale to live a good life. Seventeen states and many city governments have already reached that conclusion and raised minimum wages to protect the lowest wage earners from poverty. Nearly half of the U. S. population lives in a state with a minimum wage that is higher than the federal standard. Washington ($7.63), Vermont ($7.25), and Alaska ($7.15) rank as three of the highest state minimum wages.Recently the City Council in Santa Fe, N.M., took matters into its own hands and raised the minimum wage citywide to $9.50. It will rise to $10.50 next year.Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and expert on livable wages has studied the effects of the law in Santa Fe and concluded that the raise has been positive for the working poor. “We calculated the workers below the living-wage threshold,” said Pollin. “What happens if you raise them all to the new minimum wage? How much would it cost business? The number for the whole city was $33 million. Then we say, if we take into account all the businesses, what percentage is that of total sales? It was about 1 percent of sales.”

In theory, then, raising the wage of the city’s lowest earners cost 10 cents for someone eating a $10 lunch. Someone purchasing a $100 television pays an extra dollar. Contrary to what members of the business community claimed might happen, there was not a statistically significant change in unemployment.Even the lowest wage of someone working full time should, Pollin said, enable a person to have a minimally decent standard of living and to participate in the community. “There is a moral component, as well as a technical component,” said Pollin. “You can live off soybeans and water for $200 a year. But that’s not a livable wage.”Under Colorado law, the city of Aspen isn’t allowed to do what Santa Fe did. But Aspen and Pitkin County could institute a livable wage for government employees, contractors and subcontractors. Most such livable-wage laws require companies that contract with the local government to pay hourly wages ranging from 100 percent to 150 percent of poverty measurement for a family of three or four, taking into account the cost of living. Ordinances range from a low of $6.25 in Milwaukee to $12 in Santa Cruz, Calif. There are more than 130 livable-wage laws in counties and municipalities around the country. Some recent examples include wages of $11.15 in Brookline, Mass., and $11.91 in Syracuse, N.Y.

The average annual wage in accomodation and food service in Pitkin County is $22,123, just over $11 an hour. Most of the people earning that are immigrants, minorities and young people.The people in service jobs generally fall into three categories. There are those like the immigrants from Puerto Vallarta, struggling hard to support a family. There are foreign nationals who come to Aspen for the winter to work and save money, and then there are more traditional “ski bums,” mostly Americans, who are more focused on skiing than saving. Julia Damasio, a 20-year-old, is here on a four-month work visa from Brazil, where she will return to school after working 50-hour weeks on her “summer vacation.” She holds down one job at Ben and Jerry’s and another at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. She has a 40-minute ride to work, one way, because she couldn’t find housing in Aspen. She said she hopes to save $1,000 this summer.Lift operators, like Melissa Cook, 23, from Sydney, Australia, also fall into the “here on summer vacation” category. Because it’s her second year, she earns $11 an hour, plus a bonus of $1,200 or $1,500 if she stays for the whole season (depending on hours worked) and cheap employee housing.”For rent, we never want to take more than a third of anyone’s gross pay,” said Jim Laing, director of human resources for the Aspen Skiing Co. “Our philosophy is to pay people well enough so they can have one primary job and enjoy our valley and everything it has to offer when they’re not working.”Laing added that the $9.25 starting wage ($10, if the end-of-season bonus is figured in) does include benefits such as bus passes, housing and employee discount programs.”Most of us have second jobs,” said Cook, adding that locals often help out by working their connections. “You know people in town, they give you deals,” she said. “They appreciate we’re here.”

Then there are the ski bums, out here to get in a good winter. They don’t expect to save money, and they want to ski as much as they can. Beth Tronstein, who works at the Ute Mountaineer, earns $13.25 an hour and a ski pass.”I don’t save much,” she said, “especially working here, you spend all your money on gear.” She gets up on the mountain six days a week. Melissa, Beth, and Julia are classic low-wage earners in the valley. They also fit the norms for service jobs nationally. Fully half of American workers in restaurants, grocery stores and department stores are under 24.Some young local workers enjoy Aspen’s amenities, such as skiing, but many hold down two or three jobs, with no benefits, working 50 to 80 hours a week to support families or pay off school loans.Barbara Menendez, owner of the Big Wrap, in Aspen, said the same people she hired when she opened the store are still there nine years later. The counter help average $12 an hour plus tips, the kitchen workers average $15.20, and delivery workers $9 plus tips. Menendez said many of her employees do quite well. She strives to give them the best benefits possible, including bus passes for downvalley residents.”It’s one of the best jobs in town if you don’t want to wait tables,” said Menendez. She did say, however, that everyone who works for her has a second job. “Everyone runs from job to job,” she said. “It’s just the cost of living in Aspen. One guy in the kitchen is at 60-plus hours a week.”

So what if anything does this mean for the city of Aspen and Pitkin County?”I don’t even know what a livable wage in Aspen would be. I don’t know if what they have in Santa Fe, if $9.50 is something people can get by on here,” said Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud. “I think you have to put Aspen in perspective. People who live here choose to live here. They don’t have to live here. With other communities, people may not be able to leave. Financially they may not be able to move. Here, people are here by choice. It has always involved sacrifices.”Klanderud didn’t want to guess at what a true livable wage might be. But other local officials were more willing to put a number on it.”I think a livable wage is in the realm of $12 to $15 an hour,” said Ireland. “You can probably get by if you don’t have dependents. It’s a struggle, but it can be done.”Colin Laird, executive director of Carbondale-based Healthy Mountain Communities, doubts that many here are living under the federal poverty level, though with the high cost of living there are plenty who struggle. The main problem, he says, is housing. “It’s the biggest expenditure for everybody,” said Laird. “In almost the entire Parachute-to-Aspen region, unless you’re very well off, it’s a stretch to get the housing you need. Especially if you’re going to live in the community you work in.”In Pitkin County, the average 2,000-square-foot home is $1.25 million, more than double the cost in any other Colorado county.

A 2004 cost-of-living report by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments shows that Pitkin County renters earning $10 an hour will spend 50 percent more money on rent than the national average.It’s even more difficult for a would-be home buyer. A family of four with a single wage earner at $30 an hour will spend 683 percent more to purchase a home than the national average.This is reflected in the large amount of rent the family from Puerto Vallarta is paying. It is also reflected in the long waiting lists for affordable housing, and in the fact that most Aspen workers live downvalley. “For now,” said Maria, “I’m happy staying here.”She and Diego combine their incomes to support three children. They work enough and earn enough to support a family of five. But a major illness or loss of a job could sink them in an instant.”Our basic service workers have such a struggle,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “If you can’t hardly make it, then you hardly have quality of life.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com

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