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The working poor aren't invited to the recovery

MARY JO MELONE
Published October 5, 2003

In the good times, Michael Surles didn't mind working seven days a week. He was pulling down $12 to $18 an hour.

Even though the heights unnerved him, he could live with being so far above the ground. He was an ironworker. It was his job to erect the big metal frame of new buildings.

Surles sports a long red ponytail. His face is creased, and it makes him look older than he is, at 31. Maybe the lines are from working so much in the sun. Or they might come from the anxiety that gnaws on him, now that the good times are so much smoke.

Surles, from Temple Terrace, has hardly worked since he was laid off eight months ago. He's tried other things, like electrical work or demolition. "But the jobs fizzled out," he said. He even tried day labor. But that usually pays minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, far less than half of what he once brought home to his wife and daughter.

I met Surles last week at the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance Career Center in North Tampa. He was looking for job leads and, you could say, a way out. He wants to get ahead. He is not getting ahead. He fears he will never get ahead.

"I feel like I'm in a room with 50 doors," he said. "Twenty five of them say Do Not Enter, and the other 25 say Not An Exit, and I'm trying every damn one."

Since he lost his job, Surles said he has been forced to decide between paying the insurance on his '78 Camaro or the electricity on his Temple Terrace apartment. He paid the electric bill.

He's canceled his phone service; the cable, as well. Even though the police could pull him over for this, he let his car tag expire.

His wife works two jobs, one at a Big Lots and the other cleaning the grounds of the shopping center where the store is located. Her contribution to the family income has done little to reduce the stress Surles feels. "Bills pile up, the car breaks down. Next thing you know," he said, "you're arguing over salad dressing."

The economy runs on the backs of people like Michael Surles. Yet, when the real estate companies advertise in this newspaper about developments featuring houses starting at $100,000, they don't have Surles in mind. When the department stores feature sales of designer jeans, they're not aiming at him.

Surles is the guy you'll find scanning the classifieds. He's the guy who goes to garage sales and secondhand stores. Nobody else wants his business, yet business so needs him - to produce its profit margins.

People like him are invisible, until they show up as statistics in government reports. One such report, issued at the end of September, said that more and more Americans are slipping into poverty. In Florida, that's more than 2-million people. That's working people - in this state, people who get the grand sum of $8 an hour or less. Surles surely qualifies to be among them now. They are one-fourth of the state's workforce.

Under the circumstances, talk about economic recovery makes no sense. The notion of recovery needs redefining, to acknowledge that we couldn't make it without bleeding dry the thousands like Surles. They live just one paycheck from the street.

I asked him whether he was prepared to lose his apartment. He had thought of it. I asked whether he was prepared to have his family living out of the Camaro. He wouldn't stand for it. He'd find them a trailer, he said. He had to care for his daughter. No matter what else they might lose, "she's got to have a place to shower and look pretty."

He really wanted out of ironwork. "I saw a buddy fall," Surles said. "He'll never be right."

So he had this idea of a job in which he might be able to just run a piece of heavy equipment, a job "where you don't have to wonder if you'll come home at the end of the day."

But after a couple hours, all he had were leads for jobs in ironwork or the sheet metal trades. If he was disappointed, he didn't show it.

He left the center willing to try another door, hoping that this one would not be closed to him.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.

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