By GRANT SMITH and WENDI C. THOMAS
The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ A month after Natalie Vazquez lost the best-paying job she’d ever had, it looked like her luck was about to turn.
At a job fair on a sunny Tuesday, the 27-year-old Miami native sailed through a screening for a $9-an-hour job at a suburban call center.
That afternoon, she made it to her first shift at a Midtown barbecue restaurant, where she makes $7.25 an hour. She hadn’t worked in food service since she was a teenager, but she was out of money. Her phone bill, rent and car note were almost due.
The next morning, as Vazquez drove to an interview for the better-paying job at the call center, her car ran out of gas.
Across town in a South Memphis rooming house, Lydia Omogun touched her head and made a confession: The reddish curly hair is a wig.
Last fall, her home health care employer paid her $4,000 less than she was owed, she said.
Unable to pay her bills, Omogun, 54, was evicted from her duplex with a view of a tree-filled park. Her car was repossessed and her hair surrendered to the stress.
Embarrassed by her appearance but with no money to spend on food, Omogun borrowed a wig from her son’s girlfriend.
Vazquez and Omogun are two of the nation’s 16.7 million low-wage workers.
Officially, the Great Recession ended in 2009. In Tennessee, unemployment rates have dipped.
Yet income inequality _ defined as the gap between what the poorest make and the wealthiest bring home _ is as high today as it was in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression.
America has promised its citizens that in return for hard work, workers will earn enough to buy a home, save for their children’s education and their own retirement, President Barack Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address.
“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive,” he said. “No challenge is more urgent.”
But even as corporate profits soar, housing and transportation costs devour a growing share of the working poor’s income. The economy is adding millions of new jobs, but in low-skill occupations that pay sustenance wages.
Rising income inequality translates into shrinking economic mobility. Research shows that 70 percent of Americans born into poverty never make it to the middle class.
In no other large U.S. city is poverty more pronounced than in Memphis, the poorest metro area in the nation.
Forty-six years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while fighting for better wages for black city sanitation workers.
His death derailed the multiracial Poor People’s Campaign that would marshal the collective strength of “those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs” and demand from Washington an economic bill of rights.
“No matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty,” King wrote in 1967.
For the working poor, economic stability must feel like a game of Jenga. Just a few wrong moves _ shortsighted choices, factors beyond their control or a combination of both _ and things fall apart.
Rarely considered by policymakers is King’s prescription to cure poverty: a guaranteed income for all workers, “pegged to the median income.”
The numbers are sobering: At $36,817, the median household income in Memphis is $14,000 lower than the nation’s. Nearly 48 percent of Memphians _ or more than 115,000 households _ live on less than $35,000 a year. That’s more than three times the number of households that make between $35,000 and $49,999 and four times the number that make more than $100,000.
Just over 20 percent of Shelby County residents live below the federal poverty level. In Memphis, the rate climbs to 26.2 percent.
Those figures don’t include Omogun and Vazquez, who earn too much to be counted in the official tally of the poor, but make too little to get by.
Vazquez found that New York employers weren’t impressed by her fluency in English and Spanish.
But bosses in Memphis might jump at the chance to hire a bilingual worker, especially one as easygoing and hardworking as she.
So last spring, she left her 9-year-old son with her mother in East Tennessee. “I refuse to bring him to Memphis, because the education system sucks,” she said.
A month after she arrived, she got a job answering inbound calls at a home warranty company.
At $13.50 an hour, 25 hours a week, it was the highest paying job she’s ever had.
Her charm and quick wit soothed irate customers. “I don’t mind getting cussed out,” she said.
The company had a strict tardy policy _ three strikes and you’re out.
A two-hour bus ride took Vazquez from her North Memphis apartment to the East Memphis call center, but the bus wasn’t always on time.
Strike one and strike two came quickly.
“If public transportation is late,” she said, “then you’re late.”
Soon part-time hours turned into full-time hours. A steady income meant she could buy a car _ a 2005 PT Cruiser.
“I know that car isn’t worth what I’m paying,” she said, but a poor credit history left her few options.
Then one morning in February, she overslept. When the company let her go, she cried.
“I’ve been working since I was 14,” she said. “I’ve never been fired.”
In March, Vazquez and about 900 others lined up at a job fair held by Conduit Global.
Conduit plans to bring 1,000 jobs to northeast Shelby County by 2018.
Of the 300 first hires, 250 will be call-center agents. With bonuses, their pay could climb from $9 an hour to $13 an hour, but the average is around $12 an hour.
Job candidates who met the basic qualifications _ a high school diploma or GED and previous call-center experience _ were sent to a quick pre-screening. Asked to describe herself in three words, Vazquez said she’s outgoing, energetic and a listener.
She left with an interview scheduled for the next morning.
That afternoon, she started her first shift at Central BBQ in Midtown, where a friend, who also works at the restaurant, got her a job as a server.
Carrying trays of barbecue nachos, Vazquez shouted the order number into the din of customers.
“Twenty-three?” she asked, scanning the room. Her voice climbed higher but not louder. “Twenty-three?”
New workers must put in 90 days to get their share of the cash tucked into the tip jar at the counter.
The next morning was her Conduit interview. On the way there, her car ran out of gas.
Her risk-benefits analysis was quick: The call center job would pay more, but its location in the suburbs could be a problem. She’d already lost a good job because of unreliable transportation.
Central BBQ was closer to home. In a pinch, her friend/co-worker might be able to give her a ride. Plus, she could stretch the free meal she gets each shift into several meals if her refrigerator is working. It usually isn’t.
She gave up on the Conduit job. For now, she’d stick to barbecue.
Like 34 percent of low-wage workers, defined as earning around $10.10 an hour, Omogun and Vazquez have some college education. Omogun finished one year of a two-year nursing program. Vazquez dropped out after two years studying hotel and restaurant management at a state school.
The nation’s frenzy to funnel all high school graduates into some sort of postsecondary education ignores reality: Many of the jobs being created are low-wage, low-skill jobs.
Of the 20 occupations the U.S. Department of Labor predicts will add the most jobs between 2012 and 2022, eight require a high school diploma or GED. Eight others don’t even require that.
By 2018, 63 percent of jobs nationwide will require postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
In Tennessee, just 54 percent of jobs will require more than a high school diploma.
The news gets worse: Tennessee now has a larger share of minimum wage workers _ 7.4 percent _ than any other state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year’s wage dispute left Omogun with an income just above the federal poverty level for a household of one, $11,490. Her 2013 W-2s show she earned $11,628.
In August, she began working for a new home health agency. But soon her pay was cut from $15 an hour to $12. Then her hours were cut in half. And her checks didn’t show the number of the hours she had worked.
She continued to report for duty, caring for an elderly woman in the patient’s North Memphis home.
She clocked in and out by phone from the patient’s home as required. She also started to keep her own records, logging her hours on a scenic landscapes calendar.
The dispute grew into a three-way blame game, between the home health care agency, the patient and Public Partnerships, which processes the agency’s payroll.
Omogun’s greatest fear: That her daughter, Folasade, who is in her first year of law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, might drop out and move back home.
“I’m not helping her like a mother should,” said Omogun, who also has an adult son. “I failed the whole family.”
Not surprisingly, her daughter doesn’t see it that way.
“I think it stems from being a single parent, she feels like she’s never doing enough,” Folasade said.
“I hate that she feels like that, I really do. I try to tell her every day, `Look, everything is going to be OK. We’ve been through stuff before.’ ”
Folasade, who worked as a labor organizer for the AFL-CIO for two years after college, called the state and federal department of labor for help with the pay dispute, only to learn they couldn’t help.
Meanwhile her mother, a Nigerian immigrant who came to the states in the 1980s, worried herself sick. The family has a history of high blood pressure, and Omogun’s was through the roof.
It was her doctor at the Church Health Center, which cares for the working poor, who connected her to Kyle Kordsmeier.
Kordsmeier is the organizing director for Workers Interfaith Network (WIN), which investigates wage-theft claims and advocates for workers’ rights.
He’s not surprised Omogun didn’t just quit when the problems first arose. “Low-wage workers don’t have a lot of other options and employers _ bad employers _ take advantage of that.”
In a letter dated Nov. 20, WIN asked Public Partnerships to pay Omogun $4,378 in lost wages.
In March, a day after the company was contacted by a Commercial Appeal writer about Omogun’s case, WIN called Public Partnership. The Boston-based company told WIN it would be willing to review her hours.
On a chilly March Monday, Vazquez surveyed the aftermath of a break-in at her apartment, the second in less than a year.
Her clothes are scattered across the floor. A handful of already scratched lottery tickets litter the secondhand couch like Monopoly money.
At $250 a month, the rent is the most she can manage at the small complex she’s nicknamed “zombie town.” All but a handful of the units are vacant, the doors and windows covered with plywood.
“I’m stuck like Chuck,” she said.
The maintenance men took nearly three hours to board up a broken window. Vazquez was late for her 4 p.m. shift. It was only her fourth day on the job.
Before the alleged wage theft, Omogun lived in a brick duplex in East Memphis. It had a driveway, a fenced backyard and a view of Audubon Park, where she exercised.
“It was nice, you know?” she said, a rare smile creeping across her face.
But unable to pay the $650 monthly rent, she was evicted.
Home is now a rooming house, where $480 a month gets her a tiny bedroom so narrow it can barely hold a full-size bed.
It came furnished _ only the suitcase by the door, a small table and a 12-inch TV are hers. She shares a bathroom and kitchen with the other tenants.
“It’s just not me,” she said, wiping away tears.
Taped in the hallway is a list of rules: If you have more than two beers, stay in your room. No cooking from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. No borrowing money.
There’s an unwritten rule: No kids. As far as the landlord is concerned, that includes Folasade, who is 25.
Omogun has a new, full-time job working the third shift at a nursing home for $10 an hour. Folasade has an internship in Memphis lined up when the school year ends.
“I’m really in need of a place before she comes back for summer or I’m going to be in a bad shape,” Omogun said.
These stories are common for low-wage workers, particularly in cities like Memphis, said Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
“The housing costs aren’t really that high, but the wages are super low,” Pendall said.
“You really need to look at income if you’re going to make serious progress on what looks like a housing problem.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, households that earn between $10,000 and $19,999 a year spend a higher share of their income on housing and transportation than those who make between $50,000-$69,999.
Vazquez’s car note is more than her rent, but it’s not as illogical as it sounds, she insisted. “That’s why I don’t mind sleeping in my car. That is rent.”
A few days before her apartment was burglarized, something went wrong with her front driver’s-side wheel.
The brakes work, but she can hear metal grinding on metal.
The car has a 15,000-mile warranty, but she’s late on the payment, so she can’t take it in for repairs. She can’t catch up until she gets paid, so for now, she’s bumming rides to work.
For Omogun, getting a car wasn’t a challenge. Keeping it was.
After the pay dispute, she fell behind on her car note. One day in November, while she was at work, her SUV was repossessed.
“The only winter jacket I had was in that car,” Omogun said.
Missed payments plus late fees added up to $1,200.
With money saved from her union job, Folasade paid the bill.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In his 2014 State of the City address, Mayor A C Wharton announced his “Blueprint for Prosperity,” a bold plan to reduce the poverty rate from 27 percent to 17 percent in the next 10 years.
“We must bring an end to this tale of two cities,” he said, “one city for those with means and one city where opportunities are scarce for those without.”
If all goes well, Omogun will move to a one-bedroom apartment by the time Folasade’s internship starts. In June, she plans to resume classes in a nursing program.
“I’m trying to get to where I was,” Omogun said, “but I feel like I’m so behind.”
Vazquez isn’t sure how long she’ll stay in Memphis or where she’d go if she leaves. Maybe a city that’s more ethnically diverse, bigger, perhaps out west. “I apply to call centers in Colorado all the time,” she said.
Where does she see herself in five years?
“I ask myself that all the time,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears.
“I don’t have a plan. I just wing it.”