What It's Like To Live On Low Pay In A Land Of Plenty : All Tech Considered Employees at Silicon Valley companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook are highly paid and enjoy a wide range of perks on the job. The security guards who watch over their workplaces earn around $16 an hour, a tough wage to get by on in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area.
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What It's Like To Live On Low Pay In A Land Of Plenty

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What It's Like To Live On Low Pay In A Land Of Plenty

What It's Like To Live On Low Pay In A Land Of Plenty

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It turns out, some of these big tech companies like Google, Apple and eBay all share a home: California, Santa Clara County, which has one of the highest median incomes in the country - $91,000 a year. And yet, according to one estimate, a third of the households in the county don't make enough for basic living expenses, and that includes people who work at some of those huge tech firms.

NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile of a security guard at Google.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Manny Cardenas is accustomed to the ride from his low-income apartment complex in San Jose to Google's sprawling corporate campus in Mountain View.

MANNY CARDENAS: It's a pretty easy drive. The freeway is right by my house.

SYDELL: Cardenas, a stocky, soft -spoken 25-year-old, has been working as a part-time security guard at Google for the last year and a half. He takes me to the parking lot there, were he often works as a guard during special events at the nearby Shoreline Amphitheater.

CARDENAS: So, I would guard this nearby Google parking lot and make sure that none of the people, like, were parking in Google's parking place.

SYDELL: How long would you stand out here?

CARDENAS: Most of those events were eight hours.

SYDELL: Cardenas gets a lunch break and a chance to dive into Google's famous free gourmet food buffet. He would like to bring a few snacks home for his five-year-old daughter, but as a contract worker, here he can't.

CARDENAS: I see people taking to-go boxes. They give you to-go boxes if you ask for them, but we weren't allowed to do that.

SYDELL: Cardenas says it's strange being on Google's campus, watching the regular employees drive around on company-supplied bikes and scooters and taking food home.

CARDENAS: You know, you feel like you're different, like, even though you're working in the same place, you're still, like, an outsider, you know. And it's weird, because you're actually protecting these people.

SYDELL: Cardenas shares custody of his daughter Zoe with her mother. He picks his daughter up from school four days a week. Today, I joined him on his drive from Google to his daughter's school.

CARDENAS: Oh, is that the snowflake that you made?

ZOE: Backwards, my name.

CARDENAS: It's backwards?

ZOE: Yeah.

CARDENAS: Can I see it?

SYDELL: Cardenas earns $16 an hour, and has no benefits, and never gets more than 30 hours a week. On a good month, he brings home about 1,400 bucks. If he didn't live with his mother, he says he probably wouldn't have a roof over his head. Sometimes Cardenas doesn't make enough money to feed himself and his daughter, which feels strange, working at a place like Google.

CARDENAS: Like, I was thinking, wow, like, if I was just one of them, you know, I wouldn't need to do any of that. You know, they get to eat whatever they want, however they want it.

SYDELL: Cardenas turns the car into a parking lot.

CARDENAS: This is where we come to get some food.

ZOE: Oh, yeah. I remember this place.

SYDELL: You do?

ZOE: Yeah.

SYDELL: We arrived at Sacred Heart Community Service, a food pantry. We get out of the car and enter a one-story building, where volunteers are preparing holiday food packages for families. It's actually common for someone like Cardenas to seek help here, says Poncho Guevara, the executive director of Sacred Heart community service. Last year, Guevara says 38 percent of the jobs created in Silicon Valley paid $18 an hour.

PONCHO GUEVARA: That sounds like a considerable salary, but it's really not enough to be able to make ends meet, even when you're working on a high-tech campus, working for a subcontractor that's providing, you know, food or security or plenty of other types of services.

SYDELL: It's expensive to live here. According to the nonprofit Working Partnership USA, a single person with no dependents needs to make $16.50 an hour, plus benefits, just for the basics of living. Cardenas works for a security contractor called SIS, which has contracts at big tech companies including Apple, Twitter, eBay and Google. According to SIS, more than half its workers are part-time, with no benefits. NPR reached out to Google, Apple and Twitter about pay for their security guards. None responded. Cardenas tried to bring a union to SIS. There are some unionized security firms in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that do provide benefits and paid time off. But Cardenas finally finished college this semester, after seven years. On Monday, he's starting a new, full-time job at a nonprofit. But he says many security guards are much older than he is, and it would be hard for them to find another job.

CARDENAS: I feel like I was one of the lucky ones to have help from my mother. These other people don't have that, and sometimes I think about if I were in their position, it'd be, like, 10 times harder. It's like you're trapped.

SYDELL: Cardenas says he hopes he doesn't have to return to the food pantry for help, though he would like to go back to help others. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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