All Tech Considered
2:04 am
Wed December 18, 2013

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

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 12:11 pm

This week, we're exploring the San Francisco Bay Area and the way income inequality is affecting the region. Check out the other pieces of the week, aggregated on this page.

Santa Clara County, Calif., is home to Google, Apple and eBay. So it's no surprise that the median household income was $91,000 a year in 2012, one of the highest in the country. Yet one-third of the households in the county don't earn enough for basic living expenses, even when they work at some of those big tech companies.

Take Manny Cardenas, a security guard at Google who lives in low-income housing in San Jose and commutes regularly to Google's sprawling corporate campus in Mountain View. Cardenas, a stocky, soft-spoken 25-year-old, has been working as a part-time security guard at the search giant for the past year and a half.

Most of the time, he guards a parking lot during special events at the nearby Shoreline Amphitheater.

Cardenas says his job is to "make sure none of the people were parking in Google's parking place." He says he usually stands in the lot for eight hours and gets a lunch break. That gives him a chance to dive into Google's famous free gourmet food buffet; he would like to bring a few snacks home for his 5-year-old daughter, but as a contract worker, he can't.

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

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

"You feel like you're different," he says. "Even though you're working in the same place, you're still like an outsider. And it's weird because you're actually protecting these people."

Cardenas earns $16 an hour, has no benefits and never gets more than 30 hours a week. In a good month, he brings home about $1,400. If Cardenas didn't live with his mother, he says, he probably wouldn't have a roof over his head.

Sometimes Cardenas says he doesn't get much notice if his employer wants him to work a shift, and because he shares custody of his daughter Zoe with her mother, and he picks her up from school four days a week, that can mean turning down money.

"If they call me for a shift on the same day I have to pick up my daughter, I can't do that shift, and therefore I'm not going to get paid," he says, "so it's very difficult and to then be a parent."

Sometimes, Cardenas says, he doesn't make enough money to feed himself and his daughter, which feels strange, working at a place like Google.

"Like, I was thinking, 'Wow! If I was just one of them, I wouldn't need to do any of that.' They get to eat whatever they want, however they want."

Cardenas has had to rely on a food pantry — Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose — a few times. According to its executive director, Poncho Guevara, it is common to see others like Cardenas there.

Last year, 38 percent of the jobs created in Silicon Valley paid $18 an hour, Guevara says. "It sounds like a considerable salary," he says, "but it's really not enough to be able to make ends."

It's expensive to live in Santa Clara County. According to the nonprofit Working Partnership USA, a single person with no dependents needs to make $16.50 an hour, plus benefits, just to have the basics of living.

Cardenas works for a security contractor called SIS, which has contracts with big tech companies including Apple, Twitter, eBay and Google. According to SIS, more than half of its workers are part time with no benefits. NPR reached out to Google, Apple and Twitter about pay for their security guards, and none responded.

Cardenas tried to bring in a union to SIS. There are some unionized security firms in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and those companies provide benefits and paid time off.

He finished college this semester, and on Monday he's starting a new full-time job at a nonprofit. But he says many security guards are much older, and it would be hard for them to find another job.

"I feel like I was one of the lucky ones to have help from my mother," Cardenas says. "These other people don't have that, and sometimes I think about if I were in their position it [would] be like 10 times harder."

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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