Worker wonders where the recovery is
St. Petersburg, Fla. — Ask Joshua Thevenin — who since last month has been a newspaper salesman, fireworks vendor and tele-marketer — what he thinks about assertions the economy is roaring toward recovery and you’ll get a sigh and a shake of his head.
“I don’t see it. If it is, I don’t know where,” he said.
Lately, everyone from economists to President Barack Obama himself are bullish on the economy. Labor Department statistics this month showed that a healthy month of hiring in December capped the best year for U.S. job growth since 1999, with nearly 3 million jobs added in 2014.
During the State of the Union speech, Obama acknowledged that “it has been, and still is, a hard time for many.”
He added: “But tonight, we turn the page.”
But those like Thevenin, who live in the economy’s shadows, know that it’s difficult to turn the page, much less begin a new chapter when you can’t find full-time work.
Seasonal and temporary workers are typically counted as employed if they have been paid for work in the past month — even if they are out of work just a few weeks later. That can make the unemployment rate, currently a nearly healthy 5.6 percent, look a bit rosy. An alternative measure of unemployment, which includes people who work part-time but want full-time work, and those who recently stopped searching for jobs, is at 11.2 percent. That is down from a peak of 17.1 percent in late 2009, but is still far above the 8.8 percent reading just before the Great Recession.
“During a recession, it typically is the low skill employees that get hurt the worst,” said Ray Schwab III, a University of Florida economic analyst. “Eventually, we will get back to the norm. We’re not exactly back yet.”
A 29-year-old St. Petersburg resident, Thevenin was doing pretty well for himself going into December. He had a management job selling newspaper subscriptions at large events for a marketing firm — think home shows and pro football games — and made around $500 a week. Granted, it was an independent contractor job that didn’t pay benefits, but Thevenin and his wife, who makes $8.05 an hour delivering pizza, had no trouble affording their $650 a month rent and his truck payment.
Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the newspaper ended its contract with the marketing company where Thevenin worked. He was out of a job, so that night he called a contact at Galaxy Fireworks to see if he could staff a tent for the two-week holiday season. He had done something similar for the Fourth of July and had made several thousand dollars.
Galaxy said yes, and Thevenin thought the seasonal position would buy him time and allow him to earn much needed income for the post-holiday season, when he would really need a job.
“This gives me an opportunity to hold out for a good job, a job I’m hoping for,” he said a few days before Christmas, as he stood in the tent surrounded by hundreds of boxes of fireworks with names like “Act of God,” ‘’Ninja Artillery” and “Waking the Deaf.”
That’s when he still had hope for the future.
But Thevenin knows he’s part of a working class unable to keep up with the transforming economy. From 2009 to 2012, inflation-adjusted income for the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households surged 31 percent, according to economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, income inched up just 0.4 percent.
“I think the economy’s getting better for the richer people,” Thevenin said. “But for the poor, I think we’re still drowning.”
The fireworks tent didn’t work out so well for Thevenin. He was plagued with bad luck almost from the start. His friend, who was also laid off, was supposed to help him staff the tent, but got the flu. So Thevenin had to hire hourly employees, cutting into his base salary and commission.
Then, a few days before New Year’s, Thevenin was robbed of $900 late one night.
Once he closed down the tent on Jan. 2, the fireworks company told him they would dock his base salary by $900 because of the robbery, which would leave him with a $350 paycheck for two weeks — despite having sold about $19,000 in fireworks during the period.
His life had begun a rapid downward spiral. He gave his truck back to the dealer because he couldn’t make the payments, figuring that would be better than having it repossessed. He and his wife didn’t make rent on Jan. 1. They had no savings, and immediately applied for food stamps, getting approval for $345 a month of the benefit.
And he was stuck without a job because he had spent so much time manning the fireworks tent, he had no time to look for a new employer.
“I’m trying to hope for the best, but that’s not how it works,” he said.
Thevenin recalls when he was 16-year-old fry cook at a buffet restaurant near Tampa, some 13 years ago.
“I was making $9 an hour,” he said. “Now the same job has the same pay.”
He did find a similar job for a shade more money, as a cook at IHOP that pays $10.50 an hour. But because he only had an expired Florida ID, he couldn’t take the required drug test.
The burly Thevenin stopped at a Taco Bell for a job fair and waited 45 minutes before walking out after no one acknowledged his presence. There were a dozen other people waiting.
Thevenin would like to attend college, but doesn’t have the money.
Thevenin now has a new job at a telemarketing service selling gas and electric energy services. He makes $8 an hour — but if he hits hourly goals, he can make $10-$12 an hour.
“Had to take what I can get,” he said, adding that he and his wife are still a couple hundred dollars short on rent.
When he arrived home from work Tuesday, he turned on the State of the Union, but quickly turned it off.
“I just got so upset. All I hear about is the middle class, the middle class. The people who need the help aren’t the middle class. It’s the lower class that needs help. What the President said wasn’t anything new.”
Chris Rugaber contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
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