$10 an hour, with no way out

An 11-hour shift with a Baltimore security guard in Harbor East illuminates how low-wage work turns into a trap

Travonn Barnett, 20, during his rounds as a security guard in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

BALTIMORE — Travonn Barnett is eyeing a pair of designer jeans, the kind artfully stacked on the wooden shelves of Urban Chic, an upscale boutique in Baltimore’s ritzy Harbor East neighborhood.

Wearing the neon green windbreaker and blue cargo pants that are standard issue for his job as an officer with contractor Brantley Security, Barnett is having a hard time fathoming why anyone would drop $300 on pants — a whole week’s pay for Barnett.

“If you’re wearing a $300 pair of jeans, you crazy,” he says flatly. “I don’t care how rich you is — that’s some high-priced jeans. That’s a pair of jeans you’re gonna grow out of.”

On a recent tour of his professional stomping grounds, Barnett, 20, points out many of the oddities he has observed since taking the job six months ago, patrolling about four blocks of Harbor East. His province extends from the newly built Four Seasons on one end, past the elaborate gold statue at the center of the traffic circle commemorating the Katyn Massacre of the Polish at the hands of the Soviets in 1940, past the high-end furniture and clothing shops to Harbor Delight, where occasionally he will take a break from the cold, catch the score of a basketball game and snack on 10 wings for $10.

Most of the time, his workplace seems a universe away from the Baltimore that Barnett grew up in — the women who do acrobatic yoga in the window of Lululemon, the drunk homeless man he had to remove from the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott on a frigid night when temperatures dipped to single digits along the East Coast, the condominiums that one tenant told Barnett he pays $5,000 a month to live in. The sheer quantity and variety of lentils sold at Whole Foods.

“They don’t sell this kind of stuff in the market near my house,” Barnett observes.

Barnett on duty.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., three days a week, rain or shine or blisteringly cold, as the case has been lately, Barnett wears the same thin uniform — the one that feels on the worst winter nights as if he’s wearing nothing, even with a ski mask wrapped around his face — and earns $10 an hour for his toils. It’s not the elements he minds as much as the tedium. The most exciting thing that has ever happened at Harbor East is a spooked police horse got loose and went galloping down the street.

“I ain’t gonna lie — I be bored, I be praying something happens,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Somebody, please come steal something.’”

His weekly checks range from $189 to $308, after taxes and depending on his schedule, giving him an annual salary of about $15,000, if he works every week of the year.  

After paying the $675 monthly rent on the two-bedroom apartment in East Baltimore that he shares with his girlfriend, Latisha; their daughter, gurgling 5-month old Tra’mia; Latisha’s mother, who provides child care; and an assortment of nieces and nephews who stay with them sporadically, there’s not much left. Latisha pitches in with her $8-an-hour job at Royal Farms, a local convenience store, but lately the company has been cutting her hours.

The family gets by with the help of government assistance; food stamps offset the cost of groceries, and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program provides formula for Tra’mia.

“I try to save up a little bit, but sometimes, I buy one thing and it’s all gone,” Barnett says.

Brantley Security, the third-largest contractor in Baltimore, has a contract with Harbor East that is estimated to be worth $1.8 million, according to officials at SEIU 32BJ, a property service workers' union that is attempting to organize the workers. Brantley Security did not return requests for comment about worker conditions.

At bottom of the pay scale

Barnett’s experiences and those of low-wage workers like him are a new battleground as policymakers and legislators around the country turn their attention to why the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow, why wages have stagnated for those at the bottom of the income ladder and what policies could help Barnett and his family reach some semblance of economic security.

He in many ways typifies the circumstances and dilemmas facing the 28 million low-wage workers who would receive a raise if the federal minimum wage was raised from its current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 — a proposal being championed by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.

“I would say that the typical profile that people have in their minds is very inaccurate,” says John Schmitt, senior economist for the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It’s not usually teenagers making extra money to put gas into their cars to go on dates on the weekend.”

Like the average low-wage worker who would be affected by the proposed minimum-wage increase, Barnett is responsible for about half of his household’s income. Like a quarter of low-wage workers, he supports a child on that income. Like 44 percent of them, he has some college experience under his belt. And like 14 percent, he is black. At 20, he is much younger than most low-wage workers, whose average age is 35.  

There is no definitive economic research on how long a worker like Barnett stays in his kind of work at that kind of pay, but Schmitt says it is not always a stepping stone to something better. In service and other low-wage industries, raises are often measured in change. Barnett’s last job was at a deli that paid the minimum $7.25 per hour.

“It’s very important for us as a society to make sure everyone has an opportunity to fully realize their potential, but it’s also important to recognize that workers at the bottom of the pay scale need to be OK even if they stay where they are,” Schmitt said.

Robert Lerman, a fellow in labor and social policy at the Urban Institute and a former Labor Department official, believes the minimum-wage debate is an easy way out of grappling with more difficult issues that keep workers like Barnett hovering near the poverty line.  

Increases in his and Latisha’s earnings if a minimum wage hike is passed would result in corresponding decreases in federal benefits, including food stamps and the earned income tax credit, potentially canceling out the bump.

Moreover, there’s the more difficult question of how employers can be prodded to create higher-quality, better-paying jobs and how workers like Barnett can earn the credentials to land them so they won’t have to spend their days chasing away bike thieves and illegal parkers.

 “No one begrudges the security guard making a decent living. But you know, the question is how best to do it,” Lerman said.

Clipped ambitions

What would Barnett do if he could do anything? He pauses. Maybe open an auto shop with his father. For now, just being up and out of his current paycheck-to-paycheck existence would be a welcome relief.

Given his still boyish face and the prom photos littering his Instagram feed alongside videos of Tra’mia learning how to crawl, it’s difficult to remember that Barnett is not a teenager with the luxury of time to figure out his next steps but a young man with very adult responsibilities.

At every turn, circumstances seem to conspire to hold him back.

Barnett shows off a ring he earned for winning the state basketball championship.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

He tried community college for a while, until something went awry with his financial aid and the school asked him to pay $1,500 to round out his course load so he could continue to play basketball. His bank account is frozen after he tried to cash a check for more than a $1,000 that arrived addressed to him in the mail. Barnett thought it was a windfall; more likely, it was fraudulent.

And like many 20-year-olds, he can be shortsighted with his finances. Despite his incredulity at $300 designer jeans, he sheepishly admits he spent his first week’s pay from Brantley on basketball shoes at City Sports, his favorite haunt at Harbor East.

For now, he is looking for a second job, although it’s hard to make much progress without a car and without much in the way of savings to get a car. On a good day, it takes him about an hour to get home from his shift at Harbor East.

He is counting down the days until his 21st birthday, when he hopes to get a gun license so he can be an armed guard, a job that he has heard pays double, or to eventually work as an officer with the Maryland Transit Authority, where the benefits are purportedly better.

In Barnett’s world, it is easy to slide back. Basketball kept him out of trouble and in school — his diploma hangs in the center of a wall in his living room — but his twin brother is incarcerated, like so many young African-American men in Baltimore.

For a while, Barnett was living in a nice town house with his father and stepmother in suburban Parkville in Baltimore County, but there was a dispute about rent. One day, Barnett says, he arrived home, and everything was gone — furniture, appliances, his every possession.

“It’s been over two years now, and they still trying to deal with that in court,” he says. “I don’t want to come home and have everything be gone one day.”

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