What's It Like to Work a Low-Wage Job?

These employment numbers are just one glimpse at the lives of people trying to make it. Yemane Asfaw, 57, is one of them. He is a former teacher, who emigrated from Ethiopia 12 years ago, and now earns $9.50 an hour as a security guard.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

These new employment numbers offers just a glimpse into the lives of thousands of Americans trying to make it. Yemane Asfaw is one of them. He's 57, a former teacher who emigrated from Ethiopia 12 years ago. Since then, he's taken many jobs to support himself, including driving a cab. And today, he's worked his way up to $9 an hour.

Mr. YEMANE ASFAW (Security Officer): I've been a security officer for the last three years. All these time trying to get by; it's not easy. The money I make - almost 80 percent of that money goes to pay my rent. So that's the most difficult thing. And the 20 percent left, I use it for transportation and food, and it's not enough at all. So it's always struggling, struggling.

CHIDEYA: So where do you live?

Mr. ASFAW: It's a studio for $900 a month.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. And do you live there alone?

Mr. ASFAW: No. I live with - I have a roommate.

CHIDEYA: So there's two of you in a studio apartment.

Mr. ASFAW: Yeah. But it's not - the management don't allow - only one person, so the other person, you know, hide or something like that, because I can't afford by myself.

CHIDEYA: That must feel very unsettling. You must feel sometimes worried because you're not even supposed to be there with a roommate.

Mr. ASFAW: That's my - biggest worry is to pay my rent, you know. You get evicted; you'd be on the street anytime. And probably 10 years - most of the security guys I know, they live with their mother. You know, they are, like, 34 years old because they couldn't afford the - so it's a very serious problem.

CHIDEYA: What do you hope could be different? Do you think that - have you looked for other jobs that pay more, that might have benefits?

Mr. ASFAW: Yeah. But I need some skills, you know, to get. But I don't have no time. I mean, I'm just trying to survive right now. So we - right now, we working to form a union with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU. Those workers who are members of the union, they make more money and they have medical benefits. So, that's my hope right now.

CHIDEYA: So since you don't get benefits right now, what happens when you're sick?

Mr. ASFAW: I go emergency, then they send the bills. There's nothing I can do. And I don't have enough sick leave, so I just pray I get sick on my day offs, you know. If I lose one day wage, that creates big problem. So I waited until my day off. You know, the hospital takes eight, nine hours.

CHIDEYA: Oh, yeah.

Mr. ASFAW: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, the emergency rooms take a long time. Does it ever get you depressed that your life is this difficult?

Mr. ASFAW: Oh, very much. I mean, constantly, I'm worried, especially at the end of the month. Sometimes, I come short to pay my rent. Sometimes, I work overtime like 16 hours overtime. That will give me a little room, you know. Otherwise, just a regular 40 hours a week. I'm worried about the future, too. It's got to the point where I cannot live like, you know, I cannot live like this.

CHIDEYA: Why do you stay here? Do you think, I mean, do you think, for example, that life would, in some ways, be easier for you back in Ethiopia?

Mr. ASFAW: You know, in Ethiopia, people work 16 hours to make $10. That's really not - a worse place to be right now.

CHIDEYA: So, even though this is difficult, it's still, in some ways, gives you some opportunity, I guess.

Mr. ASFAW: Oh, yeah, very much. I mean, like this talk, you and me, it's impossible over there. It'll cost you a life. So this is a democratic country. We just still have to, you know, push to make some changes, I think.

CHIDEYA: Now, what would you like to see in terms of changes? Would you want to see a different health care system? Would you like to see job training for people like you so you could get better jobs? What do you think would help you specifically?

Mr. ASFAW: I was teaching English back home. I have two years college. If I get some help, if I get my degree, you know, I probably make more money. I work with PacWest Security Company almost 10 months now. I only missed one day work. I'm there 15 minutes before my shift. So like everybody else, you know, I do my best but still struggling.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Asfaw, thank you so much for coming in.

MR. ASFAW: Thank you very much. I really appreciate this opportunity.

CHIDEYA: Yemane Asfaw is a 57-year-old security guard. He lives and works in Los Angeles, and joined me here in our NPR West studios.

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