Jon Ohlson at Cosmos Coffee
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In February, Kara Jones (not her real name) finally broke out of a six-year stretch of being unemployed and landed a job at a Burger King fast food drive-thru in City Heights.

“Now?” She says. “I’m a burger cook.” She and her husband have four children. They range in age from one to seven years old. They all live with Kara’s dad in Lemon Grove. Kara herself is 25. She earns minimum wage. Her dad gave her a used car, his own gas-guzzling Ford Explorer. It’s better than nothing, she explains, and practical if only from the standpoint that it can convey the entire family. Every day she works, Kara picks up her mom over in Otay Mesa and brings her back to Lemon Grove. Her mom handles daycare for the two youngest children. Her mom and her dad are divorced. They are not friendly. It makes, Kara admits, for an interesting dynamic.

Kara declines to use her real name for fear her husband, who is undocumented, will be deported to Mexico. He works at a printing shop. “He cleans off the boards that they use. He’s 30. I’ve known him for, like, eight years. He gets $200 a week from his job. Cash. Under the table. He works more than 40 hours a week. His boss knows he’s undocumented. If he got deported, I don’t know what would happen. We talk about that. It costs too much money to get him legalized.” She thinks around $4000 in legal fees. “Before that, he did gardening, plumbing, and construction. It’s hard for him to get a job,” Kara says.

“I had two interviews in six years,” she explains of her time off work, “but they never called me back.” Before that? “I lived in L.A. I worked at a trophy place. You know, where they actually make trophies? They had these little tubes I would cut, and then put them together. Just like a puzzle.” She giggles a little. “And before that, I did daycare.”

Life on minimum wage for a family of six: for an hour or so, Kara and I talk about what that looks like. Dressed in jeans and an oversized sweat shirt, her long brown hair is pulled into a pony tail. She is personable, alert, and she does not complain about her Dickensian lot in life except once: she’d like more time on the job clock. As it stands, she gets roughly 15 hours a week. “They said I can’t go over 60 hours in two weeks, so I guess I can’t go over 30 hours for one week. Why? She [the manager] hasn’t told me. She said we’re not allowed to go over on our hours, or else she would get in trouble. I have asked her for more hours, and then she just goes and hires more people. I think there’s one lady besides me that gets less hours. Everyone gets more hours than me.”

The lowest salary allowed by law, is how one of Karen Russell’s characters described the minimum wage in her novel Swamplandia. In real life, minimum wage is more often described as entry-level pay for an entry-level job by the employers and policy makers in favor of maintaining a low hourly rate of pay. But that paradigm appears to have shifted in recent years. Now, more and more people who don’t fit the description of an entry-level worker occupy those so-called entry-level jobs. For example, over one-third of minimum-wage workers have some college in their backgrounds. The Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley found that a full 30 percent of the countywide minimum-wage work force at present can claim some college time, while another 14 percent have completed bachelor’s degrees and eight percent have completed associate’s degrees.

Kara finished the 11th grade, but she dropped out of high school to have her first baby. She would like to go back and finish. “I’ve always wanted to do forensics, or immigration.” Is she looking for a better job? “Not right now, no.” She usually works from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., “but sometimes I come in at 9 a.m. I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if you call that dinner,” she says, putting some weight on the word dinner. “They put me on breakfast, and I didn’t know how to make anything, so I just kinda had to follow how everybody else was doing it. It’s a stress job. I make food to order. There’s not really a time limit, but the drive-thru? We have to be [finished in] under three minutes. So, um, it’s kind of hard when they come in and order, like, 20 Whoppers.” She giggles again. “There’s two clocks. They start running when they start ordering in the drive-thru. They have speakers. We can hear them. That’s when we have to start making food. But sometimes, they cancel it, and then we have to go back and start the whole order over again.”

Burger King paychecks come biweekly. “Last week, my check was pretty big for me. It was $370. That was for working two weeks. Usually, it’s around $240 to $270.” She says those totals are after taxes have been taken out. “We receive assistance from the government. Cal Works.” She says assistance checks cover the rent. “Sometimes my dad has to help out with food. I eat at work sometimes. I try not to spend so much money on fast food. When there are days we don’t have enough money to go to the [grocery] store, we get pizza. Little Caesar’s pizza, because it’s cheap.”

Not designed for careers

“When I was a kid? Jack in the Box was not a career. So I’m sort of stuck on that idea.” Brian Pollard took a shot at a city council seat and lost in 2013. He has since re-invented himself as a community activist in Council District four, the neighborhoods that comprise Southeast San Diego. Traditionally, Southeast has the highest rate of unemployment in our area. “I don’t think those kinds of jobs were made for careers, but more as feeders into bigger jobs, better jobs. And I think that’s what’s going to be the sticking point for many of the voters. People my age remember when those jobs were created back in the ’50s, the ’60s, and the ’70s. Those were never designed to be full-time career jobs.”

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QueenMe Dec. 17, 2014 @ 4:21 p.m.

I personally think the current unemployment problem, in our country, was caused by the knuckleheads/elected officials, who thought it was such a terrific idea to allow so many jobs to go overseas. AND, the reference to the "men with East African accents," in the article also reminded me, WHOSE brilliant idea was it to bring all of these unskilled foreigners over and put them on public assistance, courtesy of the taxpayers??


JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:21 a.m.

elected types don't "allow" jobs to go overseas...they drive them there through burdensome regulation, retarded work rules, etc. the unions also had a hand in that. they spent the last 70 years driving the cost of even no skilled workers past their value to an employer. GM is the best example of how a union can BITCH-SLAP a company.

illegal alien're right. lose the bulk of them and by the law of supply and demand the wages will rise


Ponzi Dec. 17, 2014 @ 9:37 p.m.

The U.S. does not have an illegal immigration problem, it has a quasi-legal immigration problem. H-1B, O Visa's, Student Visa's, so many other special interest "Visa's" that various groups qualify for have taken jobs that qualified U.S. citizens should have filled. H-1B visa's number some 200,000 per year. The U.S. has recently had job growth of close to 200,000 per month. Most of those jobs are service jobs and retail sales. But, 200,000 plus another 300,000 other visa's are issued each year to foreign nationals. America has been up for sale for two decades. Even if we "create" 2,000,000 jobs a year, the U.S. has "legally" admitted some 500,000 plus foreigners who have, invariably, filled many of those jobs. This "visa" immigration, or so-called "legal" immigration is unsustainable. It is WHY college educations are unaffordable for U.S. citizens because we are drunk on the money from wealthy Asian and Arab families sending their wealthy students into our colleges, pushing out U.S. citizens. Jobs for computer programmers and engineers going to cheap Indian imported labor (not outsources, but brought here on the guise of temporary - but they become permanent.)

Want a simple job like assistant manager at Trader Joe's? They require a bachelors degree. Yep, to push carts, ring sales and stock shelves you need a college degree these days. Thank you "free trade" but you are not cheap.


JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:28 a.m.

wrong. we (colleges) are drunk on money from student loans granted to folks that cannot afford the loans they take. the same kids that cannot buy lunch without a co-signer are granted TENS OF THOUSANDS IN LOANS FOR SCHOOLING. all those consumers of college have driven the cost up...not foreign students


Bob_Hudson Dec. 18, 2014 @ 10:04 a.m.

"while another 14 percent have completed bachelor’s degrees.."

I always wondered where the Women's Studies and English lit majors got jobs.


JackMurphy Dec. 18, 2014 @ 11:09 a.m.

so many folks in this story are making poor decisions that it's hard to feel bad for them. the gal at SDSU can get her general ed out of the way FAR cheaper at a community college. going into debt for those classes is a dreadful bad idea and she has NO ONE to blame but herself if she does so.

if you work a job that can be taught to someone in a week or two it is NEVER going to pay well...WHY WOULD IT?

karen wilson bought a condo we learn she cannot afford. really? good god, boo hoo. sell it.

miss mccaster...THREE convictions for fraud and identity theft? were the first and second incarcerations not miserable needed a third stay in jail on our dime to drive it home that a common thief is not popular amongst the honest. now you gripe that you cannot find employment alongside those who can and have lived without being serially sociopathic. the core of christianity is forgiveness but you'll understand i am sure if you grant us the time to wrap our heads around THREE convictions


RickBurgoon Dec. 18, 2014 @ 12:11 p.m.

Lets see.... Name one male CEO with a nose piercing and pink fingernail polish.... Gee what company pays six figures to a high school drop out who couldn't keep her legs closed (OMG we can't judge, right? but we must pay...) with more kids than she and her illegal immigrant husband can afford? Golly, once we now add millions of non-English speaking workers in California (hey Jerry Brown, roll out the red you sit in your 24 hour security detail guarded mansion so you need not be bothered with the unwashed masses...but tell the rest of us that we must show compassion...) who will ONLY ever be able to secure minimum wage jobs, all these kids will be promoted to management, right? My dads mom raised 10 kids and the kids began working to help as dad at the age of 10. But they all went to school or joined the military. There was no Section 8 housing, or free food, or welfare.
Now the best many of the people in this article voted for Obama and Brown and Dems...only to now be told that the problem with America is white people who wear greasy baseball caps, the police and the GOP.... I have pity for those who join the system and have a tough time. I have NONE for those who drop out, pierce themselves, have kids faster than a rabbit on Viagra and cant understand why they cant get a job, or who get out of High School and travel to Australia and backpack across first trip to Europe was in my 30s after I saved for it and earned it. Gee...earning it, respecting our laws, our language and our Nation, staying in school, understanding that sex does, gee, make kids who cost tens of thousands of dollars, and working to achieve success. What a concept...


Rabid_Koala Dec. 20, 2014 @ 4:04 p.m.

How truly sad, I am just overcome with compassion for these poor victims of our cruel society. They are all victims according to the author, who seems to think that these poor, oppressed "workers" are worth more to a private business than the market will bear. This, of course, has to be rectified by government fiat, at the expense of the employer who has to live with the law of supply and demand as it relates to his or her business, but not the oppressed employee.

In the case of "Kara Jones", it would seem that she has yoked herself to a lifetime of minimum wage jobs due to her poor life decisions. Dropping out of high school to give birth to her first, then making three more? Then she marries an illegal, er, undocumented alien? How many more bad decisions will she make in life?

l would submit that there should be NO minimum wage, as it artificially excludes those at the very bottom of the food chain from gaining that first experience as an employee. Who would want to take a chance hiring a young kid at an inflated $15 per hour? I bet they would at $5 per hour. If they are any good, they will either make more or find a better job.

Mr. Good sounds like a shill for the Marxist left, and the Reader has dirtied itself by giving him a platform for his anti capitalist propaganda. I used to think the Reader was a decent publication, but those days are apparently long gone.


AlexClarke Dec. 23, 2014 @ 6:19 a.m.

The problem is that we do not appreciate hard work nor do we value it. We talk a lot about low wage jobs not worth anything but we subsidize the very employers who do everything they can to keep from paying a decent wage or providing benefits. We have made public colleges unaffordable and have sold the notion that a college education is the end all be all of employment. We are destroying the middle class and working toward a two class system in which anyone who works by the hour is poor. We send good jobs to third world countries with no regulations or protections. Who cares if factories pollute the air or water or that workers die young? We have fallen into the trap of being the world's police and paying no attention to America first.


jnojr Dec. 24, 2014 @ 7:24 p.m.

What, exactly, is "hard work" worth? One guy could spend days digging a ditch. That's pretty darn hard work! Or we could use a bulldozer and get it done in an hour. So why, exactly, should we pay the "hard worker" $15 an hour or whatever for dozens of hours instead of $100 for one hour?

It's the result of your labor that has monetary worth. Not you, and not your effort. What do you produce? Hamburgers and cups of coffee just do not generate enough revenue to pay you a comfortable living. If you want to do well, you need to learn how to do something valuable. And on top of much better pay, you'll have some pride instead of a hand held out, as well as a job that's enjoyable and challenging instead of plodding drudgery.

Lots of community colleges, ROP, continuing ed, etc. out there for free or cheap or heavily subsidized. Get cracking today for a better life tomorrow.


jnojr Dec. 24, 2014 @ 7:18 p.m.

Not making enough? Quit. Go get another job that will pay you what you're worth.

Wait, what's that? Nobody will pay you more? Clearly, it's a conspiracy to hold you down! Don't listen to racists telling you to get an education or job training! You just keep on drinking and using drugs and getting piercings and paying for iGadgets and cable bills, and above all, don't you dare stop having kids! The world owes you a living, and by God there's a union that will help you to get it! You deserve to enjoy your life. Greedy, selfish employers just need to pay you more. What a terrible country this is!


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