Americans are working harder than they used to to stay afloat. After adjusting for inflation, the average two-parent household in the U.S. earned 23 percent more in 2009 than they did in 1978. But they did so by working 26 percent more hours. Discounting those extra work hours, wages have remained stagnant for the median family for nearly four decades.
In 2012, 5 percent of workers in the U.S. held more than one job. Lina Estepan is one of them. She works at least 60 hours a week at two jobs to make ends meet: one as a full-time bus cleaner, the other as a part-time cafeteria worker in a high school. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Estepan about how her cafeteria job is connected to her dream of working in the restaurant industry and how she manages her busy workload. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What brought you to start working in a school cafeteria?
Lina Estepan: My dream was to be a restaurant owner. I went to school and got an associates degree in hotel and restaurant management. When I graduated, I found out that there were not a lot of jobs out there for that position. The restaurant jobs that they were offering me were minimum wage, so I went to work for New Jersey Transit. I wasn't making enough money at New Jersey Transit to cover my bills, so I end up getting a second job with the school.
I'm a full-time employee at New Jersey Transit. I work 40 hours a week over there. At the school, where I work part-time, it’s 20 to 25 hours a week. I work at the school from 9 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., and for New Jersey Transit I work from 8 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. I sleep when I have time or when I can, and after that you just have to pick up the pieces. Working in the restaurant industry was my passion, and it still is. But I couldn't survive the hours and the money they were paying. I still can’t, so I had to go elsewhere and find another job.
Green: What are your responsibilities at each of those jobs?
Estepan: At the school, I prepare food for the kids and also clean in the kitchen. At New Jersey Transit, I clean buses. I’ve been working these two jobs for five years. I love both my jobs, and I'm making a little bit more money, but I'm barely surviving.
I have an excellent relationship with the students. We're there to serve the food and make sure that they have a nutritious meal at the end of the day, and that they're not at school for eight hours and starving. We have a lot of kids [that have come to school without having eaten]. We have over 100 kids that come for breakfast every day. That's how I started, serving breakfast. I'm a mother myself; some of these kids, their parents are just like me, struggling to make it.
Green: You have two children. What is your work-life balance like?
Estepan: My personal life begins when my work ends. Right now, I pick up my kids from school, make them dinner, and help them do homework. I take my kids to the park sometimes, or to the movies, as much as I can afford. After that, I get ready to go to work.
Green: What do you think is the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of your jobs?
Estepan: The most challenging is feeling like we're not really getting paid enough for the work that we do. The most rewarding is you know that you get up every day and you go and you get to see these amazing kids. With the New Jersey Transit job, it's not that I don't value my job or appreciate my job, but I couldn't say that's my career. I'm sweeping and mopping buses, so I see that as a job. [For my food-service job,] what makes me want to go to work at the school is knowing that I'm actually kind of fulfilling my dream of working in a restaurant.
Estepan: I see my school job as what I want to do, but right now, that is just the way for me to support my family. I don't think that makes me less motivated. Everyday, when you come to work, some way or somehow you have to love what you do. If you don't, it's going to be miserable. I'm not saying I'm miserable, I love the people I work with and when it comes to the school, that's what I envisioned about my future myself when I was in high school. The problem is that we’re working and we can't even feed our family with the money we're making.
Green: How does that make you feel?
Estepan: Unhappy. If you have to support your family at $10.05-an-hour salary and you cannot live in that county where you work, don't you feel like there's something not right in that picture? I grew up in Bergen County, I work in Bergen County, but I don't live in Bergen County because I cannot pay the rent in Bergen County with the money I make. That's the experience of everybody I work with. I'm serving food to hundreds of kids. Meanwhile, I can barely put food on the table for my kids.
Green: Do you feel like people value the job that you do?
Estepan: When these kids come to us and they say thank you, and they appreciate what we do. The kids value our job, but I feel like our employer does not really value our job.
Respect is not signaled by a number with a dollar sign, but I don't think our contract is right. I'm a union member, and we are actually part of the $15 minimum wage movement for New Jersey. I won't say that I'm going to be doing what a millionaire does [if I made $15 an hour], but I'd be a lot better off than I am right now.
Another reader notes the challenges of “making it” in America as a single mother:
It's not possible for a poor single mother to "make it" in America. I put myself through school—undergrad and graduate school—while raising my daughter. Even with an MFA, the most I've ever made in a year was $28,000. I am always living paycheck to paycheck, and that's with $100,000 student debt in deferment. I have to rely on food stamps, state health care, and section 8 housing to avoid homelessness. I don't see how I can possibly "make it" when I'm always trying to stay afloat.