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Living on minimum wage, living on the edge

By Heather Appel   |   May 14, 2012 at 11:15 AM   |   Comments

SEACAUCUS, N.J. (WOMENSENEWS)-- Rosalina Miranda balances seven trash bags on a wheeled plastic garbage can as she weaves in between forklifts, buzzing machines and pallets stacked with wood and plates of glass. When she gets to the compactor, she stands on her toes and strains to stuff the trash bags into the overhead opening.

It's one of the last tasks of her three-hour shift cleaning the facilities of a glass manufacturer in Secaucus, N.J. But her evening is far from over. She has two more buildings to clean after this one.

It was a two-person job until the second cleaning woman left four months ago. Since then Miranda, a soft-spoken, cheerful Salvadoran woman approaching 50, is covering janitorial duties solo for two floors of offices, five bathrooms, three kitchens and the break room for the men in the warehouse attached to the offices.

There are nearly 25,000 maids and housekeeping workers in New Jersey, according to 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The vast majority are women. Like Miranda, many have left their homelands to scratch out a living and send money back to their families.

For Miranda, a green card and 26 years in the country give her some security, but limited English skills and no formal education offer few other work options.

"I work like a crazy person," Miranda said in Spanish. "But if I stop working, I get tired. I have to keep moving."

The financial payoff for working like crazy is minimal.

"I've been with this company 15 years," said Miranda. In all those years she's never had a raise. She earns the New Jersey minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, with no health benefits, paid sick days or vacation. The only benefit provided by the employer is temporary disability coverage, which is required by state law.

A Potential Boost

Miranda could get a boost if the New Jersey Legislature increases the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. The proposed legislation, introduced in January of this year by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-East Orange, has been hotly debated, with opponents arguing that it will lead to job cuts and scare small businesses away.

Miranda runs a mop over the floors, wiping away her footprints as she goes. She winces as a man emerges from his office and treads over the newly shiny floor.

"That guy always ruins my floor," she whispered.

She is not employed directly by the decorative glass company or the bank branches in Teaneck and Leonia, whose offices she also cleans. The company she works for, Nemco, Inc., contracts with hospitals, banks, warehouses and other companies for cleaning services.

She receives three separate paychecks for her work that amounts to more than 40 hours a week, which makes her look like a part-time employee for tax purposes. Miranda said her employer told her this payment system is to her advantage because it reduces her total income taxes. But she added that the trade-off isn't worth it -- she would prefer to be paid as a regular full-time employee with benefits, even if it means higher withholdings.

Despite the meager wages, Miranda appreciates the flexibility of her schedule. "I don't have a boss on top of me," she said. "Sometimes I can get six hours of work done in four."

It doesn't leave her with much down time, however. "I stayed awake until 3 a.m. last night, and I had to wake up early – at 7 a.m. At 8 a.m. I had to leave to clean a house," she said.

The private houses she cleans supplement the roughly $350 a week she earns from Nemco. Her best job pays $100 for two or three hours of cleaning, and in a good week, she can bring in an additional $300 to $350 that way.

Latinas' Lagging Wages

Nationally, Latina women's wages lag behind counterparts. In 2011 the median weekly earnings for Latina women was $518, compared with $703 for white women, $595 for black women and $751 for Asian women, according to the federal Current Population Survey, which is sponsored jointly by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Miranda's case, any income that's left after paying rent, gas and car insurance gets sent home to El Salvador, to three daughters she left behind decades ago.

"I married very young in El Salvador, at 16, and my husband maintained me at first," she said.

The marriage only lasted five years. As a single mom, she worked briefly as a child care provider in El Salvador. When she came to the United States, her daughters were 4, 5 and 6. The youngest is now 30 years old. The three were raised by Miranda's grandmother back in El Salvador and two of her uncles and have stayed in close contact with their mother.

She was able to send enough money home to put them through parochial school and all three have found stable careers. One is a social worker and town councilwoman, another is a public accountant and the third works as a hairdresser.

"Thank God I never lost contact with them," Miranda said as she wipes down the counters and refills paper towel containers in the company's small kitchen. "They treat me like their mother and like a friend. They don't keep secrets from me."

She lives alone but finds community at a local Central American organization called CEUS that offers English classes, women's groups and cultural programming. In March, she joined a committee that organized a potluck meal and program for International Women's Day. When it comes time to apply for citizenship, CEUS can loan her the $680 for the application and then she can repay it in installments.

Nervous at First

After the interior offices are mopped, dusted and at least 40 tiny waste bins and recycling containers are emptied, Miranda moves into the break room in the warehouse to begin collecting the trash and mopping that floor.

"You should see the men's bathroom," she said. "It's disgusting."

As the only woman working among the men in their hard hats and work boots, she was nervous at first, but has built a rapport. "They're respectful to me, thank God."

Miranda said her supervisor also allows her to take a month off each year to go to El Salvador. But she wishes her boss would recognize her hard work and give her a raise. "I've been here a long time, and they should recognize that."

She has heard about the proposal to raise the minimum wage on the news. "If they increase it, I hope I'm the first one to get the raise," she joked.

As she's doing a final sweep of the building, Miranda gets a text message from her daughter Brenda in El Salvador telling her she's using the money Miranda sent to take her 2-year-old grandson out to Pollo Campero, a popular chicken chain.

"I always send them money," she said. "They have enough to cover their basic expenses, but sometimes they need some money right away."

In time, Miranda hopes to join her daughters and grandson in El Salvador. She dreams of one day opening a beauty salon with her youngest daughter. She doesn't see herself retiring anytime soon though.

"Yo soy como una hormiguita," she said. In English, "I'm like a little ant, always working."

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