Life works

How do local service and retail workers get by on less than a living wage? They tell us in their own words

John Abasta

John Abasta

Photo By Adrienne Rice

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A retail sales associate? A customer service representative? Unless you were an unusual child, chances are pretty good that these jobs were not high on your list—and yet chances are pretty good that’s exactly what you’re doing now.Services and retail now account for 75 percent of total U.S. employment, according to No Logo, a book by award-winning journalist Naomi Klein.

Service and retail jobs aren’t just for teenagers anymore; the majority of Americans now depend on these jobs to put food on the table and shoes on their children. But 57.3 percent of Nevada jobs pay less than a living wage for a three-person family, and 87 percent of the fastest-growing occupations in the state pay less than a living wage, says the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada in a report titled Working Hard, Living Poor.

How do these people get by? And do they like their jobs? We spoke with several people in service and retail jobs to find out. Here are their stories in their own words.

John Abasta, 43, is a sales associate at Sears. He also works at the Cal Neva-Virginian casino making sure the change booths and carts always have money.

I’m divorced. Four children. I’ve been here in Reno for two years. I moved here to get out of the California area, just because I needed to get away on my own. And part of the reason I’m working at both jobs is because it’s basically survival. Like a lot of divorced fathers, I do have child support. It’s not hurting me financially 100 percent, but it does cut into my cost of living.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s in a nice area right near the river. It’s not the most extravagant, but it’s not, like, low-income. I’m not having to worry about a lot of graffiti or a lot of noise. It’s really nice for a single person.

Financially, I’m not real comfortable, but at least I’m not struggling. Like a lot of people, even though I work two jobs, I still sometimes live check to check. Part of that is the commission basis [at Sears], because you can feast or famine on commission. Unfortunately, in retail this year, with the events of the 11th last month, but mostly the whole year, retail has been on the down. A lot of people I know have gone out and gotten a second job, if anything at least part-time.

At Sears, I work a minimum of 30 hours up to 40, and at the Cal Neva, I work a full 40 hours a week. So the least I’ll work is 70 hours a week, and I’m working seven days a week, so I really don’t have a day off from both jobs. It’s not so bad. I’ve been doing the Cal Neva job for about four months, and so everything’s kind of clicking. My body clock is working better. I know when to take catnaps.

I’ve been working at Sears almost eight years. I enjoy people. I like, as you can tell, talking. I find life interesting. And at the Cal Neva, it’s a totally different flip. There’s no percentages I have to meet. I’m not saying that Sears is stressful, but we have requirements we have to meet, whereas at the Cal Neva, there’s not a lot of demand. You have a time frame where you have to have certain things done, but that’s not stressful.

It keeps me going, and it keeps me out of trouble. I’m working so much I don’t have time to get in trouble.

[At Sears], I sell ranges, dishwashers and over-the-range microwaves, and window/air, the type of air conditioning units that go in the window. The only reason I knew something about it is because when I started at Sears, I wasn’t in the retail end. I was more in the support team, warehousing, delivery. So you learn the product that way, but I didn’t know anything, really, about sales.

And sales, ironically, is the one thing I never wanted to get into. And then I had the opportunity one day to decide if I wanted to try it, so I said, “Well, it couldn’t hurt.” I could always rely on labor type of work if I wanted to go back and do something else.

It’ll be five years [in sales] this November, and it paid off. I enjoy it. It’s better pay. You just have to be more diligent at what you do.

Denise Rodriguez

Photo By Deidre Pike

Most of your training is on the floor. And I was very fortunate to have several people around me who were very knowledgeable sales people, and they took the time with me, and most times you don’t find that in the retail end. You get out on the floor, you train for two weeks, and then you’re on your own.

Again, I have the gift of gab. I just relate to people. A lot of times, when customers come in to make a purchase, it doesn’t matter what dollar amount they’re spending. I just get a self-gratification knowing that I’ve helped them—gotten them what they wanted or needed. A lot of times people come in, and what they’re looking for may not be in their price range, so my job is to find them what they need and to fit their budget.

If they can walk away getting the best for their money and they’re satisfied, it’s personal satisfaction [for me]. I enjoy it. I like seeing people get what they need, or what they want, and if they get it for less than what they’re expecting, it makes them even happier. It just makes me feel good to have taken care of something for somebody.

There’s hard sales and there’s soft sales, and I’m more of a soft salesman. There’s been lots of times I’ve talked myself right out of a sale, because I’ve talked too much, and because [I wasn’t] listening. They tell you, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should be listening twice as much.” So me, with the gift of gab, I just tend to go on and on, and I’ve talked myself out of many sales, and I know it. But lately I’ve learned to listen more and still take care of what they’re there for.

I was 19 when I got married. I had kids right away, so the first thing that’s on your mind is a job. I started working at an office furniture business, delivering and setting up office equipment, and I just fell into the labor part of it. So when you fall into that type of a labor thing, you really don’t make a lot of money. But you’re going to do what you have to do to support your family.

And that was my whole thing. I am what they consider a supporter. It’s a part of my personality. It’s part of my horoscope, or whatever you want to call it. I’m a provider. So I’ve been in the labor part of it, working warehousing, construction, this and that, to support the kids and the wife. So basically, I’ve never had a career. I’ve always wanted one, but I never went back to school for it. Not to say that I still can’t. But I just haven’t pushed myself in that direction. I always wanted to be a teacher.

Denise Rodriguez, 18, is a sales associate at the Anchor Blue clothing store in Meadowood Mall.

I was just looking for a job. I went in, and they hired me on the spot. I transferred to the Reno store from an Anchor Blue in Southern California—Del Rosa. I moved here because of my boyfriend.

To work there, you take a test. I don’t know what the test is called. It’s a personality test, actually. They ask you, basically, questions to see how you would deal with a customer, how you act outside work and if you’ve ever stolen anything—basic questions like that.

I was 17 when I started there. When I went in, it seemed so down to earth. The main reason I wanted to work there was the manager was so nice. And I had friends that worked there. I was excited about working with them.

The main benefit to working there is that every person I’ve ever worked with is so awesome. They really are. And I get paid considerably more than minimum wage. I love my job, I really do. I love it. The only problems? We have to really keep an eye out for thieves. I’ve personally never caught anybody. But we all keep our eyes open.

Since I transferred here, I work back in the stockroom. In the mornings, I’m the main cashier. You get people who try to bring stuff back that you know they’ve worn. It’s not new. They’re bringing it back just because they don’t want it anymore. Once it’s been worn and washed, though, you can’t take it back. Make a note of that. Tell people not to do that.

I plan on working at Anchor Blue for a while. If I stay there, I might get to be an assistant manager. I’ll stay there until I get through college. I haven’t started college yet. I’ll start next semester. I’m going to go to Truckee Meadows Community College for at least two years. I’m going to get a degree in criminal justice to be a parole agent. I wanted to be a parole officer, but an agent makes more money. My uncle is a corrections officer. He was talking to me about what was going on. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I started to learn more about criminal justice. When I heard about it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Stacy Cusack

Photo By Adrienne Rice

Stacy Cusack, 24, works three jobs: She’s the juice bar manager at Wild Oats Community Market, a clerk at Sam Goody (a record store) and a barista at Esoteric Coffeehouse and Gallery. It’s against company policy at Wild Oats to speak to the press without permission, so Cusack spoke to the RN&R primarily about her other two jobs.

I work so many jobs, not so much to make money and make ends meet, but it’s a self-discipline thing. That way, when I do go back to school, I can handle it. I won’t mind being busy with school.

I’m interviewing to be a cocktail waitress; then I can get rid of the other two part-time jobs. I’ll make more money from that one job than from the other two combined. I haven’t heard back on that. The guy that was going to interview me doesn’t work until Friday.

I make $6.18 per hour at Sam Goody. I’ve worked there for three years. At Esoteric, I make $6 an hour plus tips. I work anywhere from 35 to 38 hours at Wild Oats, nine hours at Sam Goody and nine hours here [at Esoteric].

On a typical day, I try to get up around 7 and have some time. I read a book, make breakfast, take a shower, get ready for work. Then I go to Wild Oats at 9 and work until 5, Monday through Friday. Tuesdays, when I get off at Wild Oats, I go to Sam Goody at 5:30 until 10 or 10:30, and then I go home and hang out and read or watch a movie or talk to friends. Once in a while on Saturdays, I come in to Esoteric and work 8:30 to 4.

I’m trying to save money. I’m thinking about [moving] somewhere they have a good art school. I want to get my master’s in fine arts one of these days. I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. I should, but I don’t. I took two years of school back home in Casper, Wyo. I was probably three classes away from having a bachelor’s, but I moved out here first. I figure I’ll make a lifetime plan out of it. One day, I’ll have my master’s in art.

Mostly photography is what I like to do. But I like to paint with watercolors or acrylics, stuff like that. I would really like to be a working artist, but it’s very hard to do. What I’ll probably end up doing is teaching. Whether it’s kindergarten or, like, college photography, I don’t really care. I love kids, and it’s neat to work with kids at such a young age. Some of the best teachers I’ve had were in elementary. And they sparked that interest in art for me. It was great. I’d like to return that.

None of my jobs really relate to what I want to do for the future. I mean, I enjoy the jobs. They’re all nice jobs. At Sam Goody, I like the people I work with. They’re great. A lot of them are friends. It’s just a fun place. You get to listen to good music and help people find CDs. It’s an easy job. There’s not much to it. Some people have trouble with it.

Sometimes customers come in, and they want “the song that’s on the radio,” and that’s hard to find. People say, “I heard this song on the radio, and I think it’s a female singer, but it could be a guy with a really high voice, and they play it all the time, and it has the word ‘love’ in it.” And you say, “Yeah, that’s right over there by that other CD.” [Laughs.] A lot of people sing. They try to sing a bar. Or I’ll ask them to sing it, and with the other music playing [in the store], they’ll say, “Well, I can’t figure out how it goes right now.” It’s entertaining. It’s an entertaining job. There’s no stress at all.

The mall is horrible to work at. I always say I’m never going to work at the mall, ever. But somehow I always find myself back at Sam Goody. During the three years I’ve worked there on and off, I quit for 10 months. Last October, I took my job back just to keep me busy and make a little money during the holidays.

At Esoteric, I fill in when somebody wants a day off. It’s a neat atmosphere. Again, the people who I work with are great. The people who come in are nice. It’s nice to work in an actual coffee shop rather than a corporation coffee shop, because you actually sit and get to know people.

You just basically make coffee all day long. You have good conversations with people. There’s a lot of tourists, which is kind of fun—people from all over the place who are trying to find good things to go do. It’s just coffee and tea, and you listen to whatever music you want.

Sometimes, you get customers who aren’t sure what they want. Some specify everything: “I want a non-fat decaf latte with whip.” Or “I want a latte with chocolate and sprinkles and everything you have.” I think it’s more almost that they don’t get to run their own life, like somebody else is in charge of them at work, so when it comes to ordering drinks, they have it down to a tee—exactly what they want and how they want it, even what temperature.

Jesse Krail

Photo By Deidre Pike

The two coffee shops that I work in, we don’t have that coffee lingo. So you’ll get people saying, “I want a Grande.” And I say, “We have a 12- or 16-ounce.” And they just look at me confused. “I just want a Grande,” they say. “Or a Venti. Don’t you know what a Venti is?”

There was this girl who wanted a mocha, or whatever. [My coworker] said, “Do you want a 12- or 16-ounce?” She said, “Which one’s bigger?” And I’m thinking, like, “Did you graduate from high school, or what’s the deal?” That’s just sad.

Here at Esoteric, you have people who come on their way to work every morning at the little shops they have around here. And they’re always running late. On First Street, it’s a really nice little mellow atmosphere. A lot of the regulars are people who work in the art galleries or the little shops or business offices around.

Working three jobs makes me a little tired sometimes, but I still find time to hang out with friends. I have two roommates. I could definitely afford to live on my own, but I like my house. I don’t want to give it up yet. It’s a nice little house. My car is a 1982 BMW; it’s an old car that sometimes runs. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t have kids or significant others. I have my rent, insurance for my car, my bills … power, which is really expensive, especially in an old house. I don’t really have too many expenses. Not much, just food and rent. I’m fairly comfortable. Doing fine. Not quite where I thought I’d be at 24, but I’m on my way.

Jesse Krail, 39, is a self-employed furniture mover.

I load and unload U-Hauls and, once in a great while, I go to peoples’ houses and pack up their stuff. Hard to believe some of the garbage people move, stuff like furniture that’s completely falling apart.

I used to work for the major moving companies. I got started by working for a day labor office. I learned more and more about moving furniture. After five years, I decided to do it on my own.

You have to learn to be careful. There are certain ways to move furniture. There’s a trick to it. You always have to worry about space, how much space you have on the truck. It’s really simple, but in other ways it’s more technical. There’s an art to it, a certain technique. There are ways to carry furniture, and certain things you can use to help you. You can use dollies to make your job easier, but you have to know what you’re doing.

As a self-employed furniture mover, most of the problems I face are just like anybody who’s self-employed. You’ve got to learn how to budget your money. You don’t get work every single day. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. You have no idea from one day to the next if you’re going to be working.

I grew up here. I’ve lived in a lot of places. Went to Hug [High School]. Didn’t graduate. I have family in Reno, my mother, sister and brother. I live in an apartment. I’m certainly not getting rich. I’d make more at a 9-to-5 job. But doing this, I don’t have to work as hard.

I used to do telephone solicitation. I was a professional telephone solicitor, the one calling you and bugging you. But it doesn’t really pay the bills. It’s just an extra income, something to do at night.

I was a tree surgeon, too, for quite a while. Climbing trees, thinning trees, topping trees, removing trees. I got tired of being 80 feet in the air, held in by two spikes. It’ll give you gray hair pretty quick. When you’re 80 feet high and you hear something cracking, it plays mind games with you. You’re not on a boom or anything. You’re just up in the tree.

I plan to keep moving furniture, probably for the rest of my life. It’s a living. And, yeah, I like it. I enjoy what I do. About 90 percent of the people are very friendly. You get one in 10 that isn’t, maybe. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for anyone who was a complete … well, some people can be snooty. But now that I’m unloading U-Hauls, people aren’t as concerned about their furniture. You don’t get the upper-class personalities. People who move in U-Hauls are a little more down to earth.

One time I had to move a piano, and I didn’t know how heavy it was until I got there. When I got there, the lady told me it weighed 1,300 pounds. And it was just me and another guy with this old piano, made in the 1930s or ‘40s. That was probably the trickiest thing I ever moved. It was in a big Ryder truck, and they’re pretty high off the ground. That made it even trickier. It was so heavy that we had a hell of a time getting it onto the dolly with just the two of us.

My fees are pretty basic. I charge a flat rate. The rate depends on if you want the truck loaded and unloaded, if you live in an apartment or house. I only do local moves, maybe as far away as Topaz Lake or north to Portola. Anything in about a 70-mile radius.

Some weeks, I don’t get any calls. Other weeks, I get three or four. It varies. There’s no one average. One week, I’m a millionaire. One week, I’m starving. You’ve got to plan ahead and stay on a budget.