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Special report: Many Tucson jobs are low-pay

Special report: Many Tucson jobs are low-pay

Some parents incur big debt to train for better work

  • Updated

Camille Lujan works 40 hours a week processing worker's compensation claims for an insurance company. But she would be unable to pay her bills and support two children without the help of food stamps and a child-care subsidy.

Her $13-an-hour wage is simply not enough to get by.

She considered finding a second job, but the additional wages would put her over the earnings threshold for the child-care subsidy, and without it, her financial situation would be worse.

"It's not that we want to be rich, and it's not that we want to take advantage of the system. We just need help," the 35-year-old single mom says. "It's the little things, like diapers and dish soap."

Lujan is in a growing class of Tucsonans - many of them single parents - who have jobs but still struggle to pay their bills. About 80,000 Pima County households rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. That figure is double what it was six years ago.

Many of those workers balance their desire for higher wages or more work hours with the threat of losing the assistance that helps pay rent and child-care bills. Call center workers, for example, regularly ask to decline performance or incentive pay in order to maintain their government benefits.

As of May 2012, Tucson workers made, on average, about 7 percent less per hour than the national rate, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. And the gap is getting bigger: A year earlier, the difference was 5 percent.

Jobs in manufacturing and production - industries touted for their promise of upward mobility for workers and their ability to create even more local jobs - are found here at a rate that's about half the national average.

Early city leaders favored tourism over manufacturing, a decision that promoted a cleaner environment but a greater proportion of low-wage jobs.

Tucson's job growth substantially lags Phoenix's, and the state predicts that about a third of the 3,000 jobs expected to be created here this year will be in leisure and hospitality.

The median wage of a restaurant cook is $10.63, a housekeeper $8.82, a landscaper $9.87 and a tour guide $10.42. Many of the rest of the anticipated jobs are in construction.

Looking 10 years ahead, economists predict openings here for retail clerks, cashiers, waiters and customer service representatives - all positions unlikely to pay the minimum needed to support a family, even with a partner earning similar wages. A shift toward a part-time and temporary work schedule has consigned many workers to economic insecurity and stagnant wages - and it's their children who suffer most.

Research shows a clear and consistent relationship between housing and job instability, poverty and the "toxic stress" in children that can impair cognitive development and social adjustment. Poverty in the first five years of life is associated with long-term problems such as less employment success when those children reach their mid-twenties.

Unstable employment

Lines of people stretch from the doors of Arizona Department of Economic Security offices hours before they open. Many of those in line have gone through training programs in fields local employment specialists say are in demand.

Shading their eyes with their income and expense paperwork, their children crouched in the still-hot shadows, they are truck drivers, pharmacy technicians, home health aides, phlebotomists. Some work in retail, others in fast food.

Few have full-time jobs, but many used to. They were laid off, or their hours were cut - changes many say their employers attribute to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

No employer contacted by the Star confirmed it was shifting workers from full- to part-time for this reason, but Jay Heydt, vice president of local consulting firm Crest Insurance Group, says companies are at least considering it. Some he works with have decided to hire primarily part-time workers to compensate for attrition.

By 2015, employers with more than 50 full-time workers must provide insurance to anyone who works 30 hours or more a week. "If they work less than that, you don't have to provide insurance and don't have to pay a penalty," Heydt says.

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that more than half of Arizona's part-time workers would prefer a full-time job.

For employers, the shift to part-timers makes easy sense. But for workers - many of whom have taken out loans to get the training that qualified them for jobs they thought would lift them out of poverty - it is devastating.

Juggling two or more jobs multiplies the child-care and transportation expense challenges low-income workers already face. It also reduces their chances of moving up the income scale.

In an economy where midlevel jobs are increasingly scarce due to technology shifts and off-shoring, Tucson has been hit hard. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, with its major airport and better-trained workforce, Tucson has a tough time attracting company headquarters and the high salaries they bring.

Jobs are clustered at the lower end of the income scale, and they are more likely to be temporary. Temp jobs have boomed as the country claws its way out of the recession, and Tucson is among the metro areas seeing the most dramatic trend.

More than one-third of the new jobs in Tucson since 2009 were temporary, data from economic analysis firm EMSI show. Nationwide, that figure is 15 percent.

The average annual earnings per temp job in Tucson is $22,161, compared with $33,327 nationwide, the company's data show.

Temp jobs comprised 11 percent of Phoenix's new jobs over the past year, and the workers in them were paid an average of $35,326.

In debt but without a job

Low-income Tucsonans who interact with government caseworkers - most often in applying for food stamps or defending themselves after a child abuse or neglect complaint - are often encouraged to go back to school, frequently for a medical career certificate.

Depending on the training program, that can mean a chance at a better-paying job. But it can also mean accumulating debt that workers likely to make $9 or $13 an hour are unable to repay.

Repaying student debt is uniquely unavoidable. The federal government can withhold tax refunds, garnish up to 15 percent of a paycheck and take away portions of some federal benefits, including Social Security. Private loan providers can sue debtors indefinitely. Unlike other debts, there is no time limit on suing to collect student loans.

Despite that, Arizona does not factor in student loans when calculating safety-net benefits.

"They say, go to school, go to school, but once you do that, you end up in more debt, and they don't take that into account," says Lujan, the claims processor who has $18,000 in outstanding debt.

Motivated by a desire to be a good role model for her kids, she returned to school for both medical assistant and phlebotomy certificates but never landed a job in the field.

She couldn't pay for the certification test administered in Phoenix and had no way to get there.

Getting to work

Among the most common obstacles job seekers in poverty face are child care, work-related expenses and the lack of "soft skills" such as punctuality and access to transportation.

Getting to and from work can be an odyssey. The most recent Sun Tran on-board survey, in 2004, showed that 79 percent of riders had no vehicle.

About 52 percent of Tucsonans can reach the typical workplace in 90 minutes using public transit, a rate the Brookings Institution ranks as fourth in the country.

But call center and hospitality workers - especially new hires - often get early or late shifts that begin or end when buses don't run, and their shifts aren't consistent.

It is not uncommon for people to take three buses and three hours to get to work - and then have to beg a ride or walk home.

Several call centers and resorts have contacted the Pima Association of Governments seeking a way to make transportation easier for their low-end workers, manager Ruth Reiman says.

But those same employers rejected all the options proposed - offering employees incentives to participate in ride share programs, or running vans or shuttles to transit centers - because they would have to shoulder part of the cost.

"With so many people out of work and so much competition for jobs, the people with the most flexibility are likely to get those jobs," says Patti Caldwell, executive director of Our Family Services.

Some single parents decide to buy a car despite the chunk it takes out of their monthly budget because they see no other way to stay employed. Lujan was among them, after finding that it took her more than three hours to get to work and drop her youngest daughter off at daycare, and she feared being penalized for arriving late. She spent half of her tax refund on a car.

The United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona has honed in on the transportation problem. It's fundraising to partner with the national organization Ways to Work to help low-income, employed parents buy used cars.

Participants will be able to buy a used car for up to $8,000 at an 8-percent interest rate, former manager Cheryl O'Donnell says. Cars will be checked by mechanics before the purchase, and participants receive intensive financial counseling.

"Studies show that the longer your commute is, the more likely you are to be unemployed or underemployed," she says. "It really is a problem in our community."

There are no planned expansions in bus service or hours because of tight municipal budgets.

Trying to end the spiral

Despite small improvements in the job market, a steady, well-paid position seems like a faraway dream to some Tucson job seekers, even after graduating a retraining program.

Like Lujan, Traci Carmichael graduated from a medical assistant and phlebotomy program.

She went to privately owned IIA College, now Brookline College, in 2008, after being encouraged to enroll there by a Child Protective Services caseworker.

"They told me I'd have a better chance of getting my kids back if I was in school," she says.

But she got a single interview in more than a year and a half of job searching.

"It was very competitive with so many graduates flooding the market every nine months," the 41-year-old former waitress says.

Even with the schooling, Carmichael lost custody of her three children amid the breakup of an abusive relationship.

Her later wages from a housecleaning job were garnisheed toward the $10,000 she owes on student loans.

She was laid off after she failed to show up for work for medical reasons, and now that her unemployment insurance benefits have run out, she relies on food stamps, plasma donations and friends' couches.

Carmichael says she feels that instead of improving her life, going back to school made her worse off.

"You don't take someone who's used to barely making it by on minimum wage and pressure them to take out a loan," she says. "I have to take the bus, and doctor's offices open early. It's hard to get there. You need to wear nice clothes, and I don't have those things."

Carmichael stopped looking for a medical job after she applied for a phlebotomist position at the plasma center and an employee told her workers there had received no formal training.

She is searching for a waitressing or customer service job but fears a recently pulled front tooth is harming her chances, and she can't pay for more dental work.

In the meantime, she takes home $14 to $19 for each plasma donation.

An employer's perspective


Tucson Medical Center regularly hires for entry-level health professions.

Certified nurse assistants and patient care technicians must have passed the state licensing test. But the hospital does sometimes hire people who don't have experience, recruitment manager Tiffany Rivera says. Because working with patients can be stressful, TMC administrators recommend that people interested in healthcare professions volunteer in the field first to know if it's a good fit. They also need to show a high level of empathy and be prepared to talk about that during their interview.

Successful candidates at TMC can benefit from several programs intended to help them get to work and continue their education:

  • Employees can get half-price monthly bus passes or join an employee-based carpool.
  • Certain workers are eligible to be reimbursed for 75 percent of tuition for approved programs.
  • The hospital offers TMC-U, which covers tuition and books for employees in a nursing associate degree program taught by Pima Community College teachers on the TMC campus.
  • The hospital partners with the Joint Technical Education District and Tucson Youth Development to provide a competitive five-week internship in patient care technician training or phlebotomy.

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at or 573-4197. On Twitter: @carlibrosseau

Read more of the Losing Ground series here.


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