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The working poor who fight to live on $10 an hour

They are the waitresses, cleaners, clerks, and caregivers — one illness, rent hike, or layoff away from the very bottom

Michelle Chaudhry prepares dinner with her daughter Nadia, 9, earlier this summer in their shelter housing in Hyde Park.  She recently enrolled in a free 11-week college prep class.

Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe

Michelle Chaudhry prepares dinner with her daughter Nadia, 9, earlier this summer in their shelter housing in Hyde Park. She recently enrolled in a free 11-week college prep class.

They are waitresses, department store clerks, and fast-food workers. They clean office bathrooms and airplane cabins, care for the elderly, and serve hors d’oeuvres at high-end fund-raisers. One in five workers in the state, the majority of them over 25, make $12 an hour or less.

As employers squeeze costs, these low-wage earners frequently can only get part-time work without benefits, some with irregular schedules that make second jobs and child care arrangements difficult. They have no protections from having hours cut and they receive no severance pay if they are let go without warning.

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Many don’t have cars, making it hard to get to work when public transportation isn’t running. Those who have cellphones can’t always afford minutes, so employers struggle to reach them. Few have college degrees.

For workers in this precarious position, there is a thin line between survival and catastrophe, and one unexpected event — an illness, a rent increase, a layoff — can be devastating.

Increasingly, they are speaking up — working with union organizers, demonstrating for higher wages.

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In Massachusetts, the minimum wage will rise to $11 an hour by 2017, the highest in the nation. But for most, it still won’t be enough.

Here are stories of the working poor, some cobbling together multiple jobs, others trying to advance by improving skills, all struggling to get by.

Larry McCain, 52, airport worker

‘Basically I’m out here floating on the boat by myself.’

Michelle Chaudhry,  a mother of three whose husband lives in Pakistan 
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Larry McCain says he started working as an 8-year-old, sweeping barbershop floors and running after golf balls in Franklin Park. He went on to earn as much as $19 an hour operating an engraving machine, but then companies began shipping manufacturing overseas and jobs dried up.

“That’s when the floor fell out,” he said.

McCain landed temporary jobs as a groundskeeper and a security guard, making $10 to $12 an hour, but never enough to get back on his feet. He spent one winter sleeping in his Nissan Sentra, sometimes sneaking into buildings to keep warm.

“People buy Starbucks coffee and three gallons of gas with what I have left,” said Larry McCain, who worked at Logan Airport until his firing last month.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“People buy Starbucks coffee and three gallons of gas with what I have left,” said Larry McCain, 52, who worked at Logan Airport until his firing last month.

In 2012, he got a position at Logan Airport de-icing planes, then another cleaning airplane cabins. Last year, for $9 an hour, he started inspecting trays of sandwiches and drinks before they were loaded onto flights. When McCain was moved to a 2:30 a.m. shift, when buses don’t run, he had to walk 2½ miles to work.

Working 30 hours a week and bringing home about $700 a month, McCain could barely afford his $600-a-month room above a jewelry shop in East Boston — a price that includes a discount for cleaning the rooming house’s shared bathrooms. McCain’s 10-by-13 room has a bed, sink, mini-fridge, microwave, and dresser with a TV on top. Pictures of Halle Barry, Beyonce, and Barack Obama adorn the walls.

After paying his rent, he said, “People buy Starbucks coffee and three gallons of gas with what I have left.”

He sometimes gets groceries from a food pantry at a nearby Catholic church — mostly spaghetti sauce and macaroni and cheese — telling them he has two children so he can get more.

McCain, 52, does have two daughters who live nearby, although they have children of their own. He doesn’t see them much. “I can’t even afford to buy them Christmas gifts,” he said. “I don’t have anything.”

Last year, McCain started talking to 32BJ SEIU, the union trying to organize airport workers. He called a federal workplace safety agency to complain that he and fellow workers had no water to drink and no proper gear to wear in the rain. He spoke out about poor working conditions at a Massport board meeting.

Last month, without warning, McCain was fired. His employer, G2 Secure Staff, declined to discuss his situation.

For now, he gets by on $114 a week in unemployment assistance, $100 of which goes to his landlord. He has applied for groundskeeping and construction jobs, and continues to search.

“I don’t care what kind of work it is,” he said, “as long as it’s work.”

Katherine, 57, food service worker

During the week, Katherine works in the kitchen at a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, earning $11.25 an hour from a food service agency to make sandwiches and salads for meetings. On the weekends, she works for two temp agencies, often cooking at Suffolk Downs or catering events on college campuses. She fills in the gaps by participating in paid focus-group surveys, preparing food at church, and cleaning people’s homes.

Still, Katherine is barely afloat. The 57-year-old Dorchester resident asked that her last name not be used because, like many working poor, her situation is fragile. She fears getting fired, and getting in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service for earnings she doesn’t report.

Last winter, Katherine’s landlord raised the rent on her Roxbury apartment from $1,000 to $1,200, forcing her and her fiancé, a part-time janitor, to move into a friend of a friend’s house in Dorchester for $900 a month.

When work is plentiful, Katherine chips away at the several thousand dollars she owes for past utility bills and tries to set some money aside. When work is scarce, she gets food stamps and stocks up on canned goods, pasta, and rice from church food pantries. Her daughter in Seattle pays her cellphone bill and sends money when she needs it.

“There’s a lot of people that are stuck in the same situation that I am,” Katherine said. “Every other person that I work with in the kitchen has a second job.”

Katherine grew up in New Jersey, the third of five children raised by a single mother. Her father was in and out of prison. Katherine married at 18, but she said her husband was abusive, and she fled to Boston – pregnant, with a 1- and 2-year-old in tow.

She went to night school at Fisher College and earned an associate’s degree in business management, with the help of a neighbor who watched her three daughters for $50 a week, plus a ride to bingo.

In 2009, she was hired by the state, making $18.98 an hour to help long lines of unemployed workers file claims. But after undergoing hip replacement surgery, she decided to take a voluntary buyout from the state to give herself more time to recover.

She regrets the decision to this day.

With help from the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a nonprofit community development agency, she and her fiancé have set aside $1,100 toward buying a house. They hope to qualify for a rehab loan to buy a property in disrepair or team up with others to buy a multifamily.

“The average person making $10, $11, $12 an hour, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “If I could make $15, $16 an hour, I could make it happen.”

Recently, Katherine was made full-time at the food service firm, with a 25-cent raise. She can’t afford the company’s health insurance, so she plans to keep her MassHealth plan — and continue working side jobs to save up for that home.

Michelle Chaudhry, 44, home health aide

Boston, Mass. -- 6/16/14 The Chaudhry family spends time together outside Monday evening, June 16, 2014. Nadia, 9, and Joel, 8, dig for worms in the front yard of their shelter house, while Michelle Chaudhry kisses her 4-month-old baby, Khalid, on the porch. Homeless and unable to survive on their own, the family now lives in a shelter home in Hyde Park. Zack Wittman

Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe

“Because I’m a single mother, I’m stuck in a box,” said Michelle Chaudhry, 44. “You’re trying to climb out of the box, but you’re slammed back into it.”

Michelle Chaudhry, partial to red lipstick, eyeshadow, and sparkly toenails, manages to look elegant even with a baby on one hip and her 8- and 9-year-olds nearby.

But since December, Chaudhry and her children have lived in an apartment in Hyde Park provided by Heading Home, which shelters homeless families. That’s when Chaudhry, who until recently made $10 an hour as a home health aide, ran out of money and lost her apartment in Danvers.

She stopped working after giving birth six months ago, getting by on $300 a month in food stamps, supplemented by trips to the food pantry. She recently enrolled in a free 11-week college prep class, which allows her to stay in shelter housing as she gears up to get a nursing degree.

Even when Chaudhry was working, bathing and feeding elderly clients, she brought home less than $200 a week. Her husband, a Pakistani native whom she met while working as a hairdresser on Cape Cod, was deported four years ago.

Estranged from her family in Danvers and Wenham, with her husband unable to send money from his job as a security guard in Pakistan, Chaudhry has no support system. “My sister said to me, ‘Oh you’re sucking off the government. I’m working all day; you’re getting food stamps,’ ” she said. “Basically I’m out here floating on the boat by myself.”

Before the baby was born — conceived during a trip to Pakistan last year, paid for by the sale of her husband’s family home in Pakistan — Chaudhry could only work when her children were in school. This limited her ability to work as a hairdresser, which required evening and weekend hours. She still owes $9,500 in student loans for cosmetology school.

“Because I’m a single mother, I’m stuck in a box,” she said. “You’re trying to climb out of the box, but you’re slammed back into it.”

As much as she loves her husband, Chaudhry is just about ready to give up on their relationship. There’s little chance he’ll be allowed back in the United States, she said, and she doesn’t want to move there. “I’m better being poor in America than being poor in Pakistan,” she said.

To get by, Chaudhry relies on what she calls her “inner champion.” She has had to do things she’s ashamed of, like driving her rusting Chrysler minivan with no insurance and sneaking to the Goodwill donation box during the night to take clothes for her children.

“You always put the smile on and act like these things aren’t happening to you,” she said. “But they are. And they’re crushing.”

Wileidy Ortiz, 24, retail employee

“I don’t want my son to think that working as a sales associate and making $8.50 an hour is OK,” said Wileidy Ortiz, who works as a retail employee at the Prudential Center.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I don’t want my son to think that working as a sales associate and making $8.50 an hour is OK,” said Wileidy Ortiz, who works as a retail employee at the Prudential Center.

Wileidy Ortiz dropped out of high school and got pregnant at 19, but her real troubles started when she was much younger. Her father was shot and killed in Puerto Rico when she was 3. After her mother uprooted the family to be closer to relatives in Boston, Ortiz lost her, too, to cancer.

Ortiz and her brother went to live with her aunt in Dorchester. Before long, as Ortiz puts it, “I was in my rebellious age,” skipping classes at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, then quitting altogether during her junior year.

She enrolled in Job Corps in Chicopee to get her GED and train as a certified nursing assistant, but after getting in fights with other young women, she dropped out. “I’m soft and I’m sensitive, so when there’s trouble, I just get away from it,” she said.

Ortiz found work at Old Navy and Stop & Shop, and eventually got her CNA license, and a job caring for elderly residents, at Marian Manor in South Boston. Then she got pregnant and moved to Louisville, Ky., to be with her boyfriend.

She ended up back in Boston alone after they broke up, with no child support. Taking him to court is “too much drama,” she said.

Last year, Ortiz found a retail job at the Prudential Center, where she makes $9.60 an hour (a recent bump from $8.50) as a part-time sales associate. She says she is close to nailing down a full-time job at a Massachusetts General Hospital call center, and hopes to eventually become a radiology technician.

She pays $150 a month for a subsidized apartment in Fields Corner, and gets by on food stamps, fuel assistance, and vouchers that provide free day care for her 4-year-old son, Brandon.

She also has enrolled in job training and search programs at Project Hope in Dorchester, an agency that assists low-income women.

Ortiz has an “everything happens for a reason” mind-set, but she is determined to create a better life for herself: “I don’t want my son to think that working as a sales associate and making $8.50 an hour is OK.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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