Just try telling Laura Holderness that she’s working a temporary, low-skill job. Go on. I dare you. Especially if you’re rappelling off a rock ledge and she’s holding your belay rope.
Holderness is just one of Missoula Parks and Recreation’s “seasonal” employees, though she’s been working for the city full-time since May 1998. Her job titles—and she has several—include outdoor program instructor and rockclimbing instructor. Her job requires that she have at least three years of climbing experience and state certification as a wilderness first-responder.
At age 30, Holderness already has her bachelor’s degree and puts in 40 hours a week, six or seven days a week, at $6.15 an hour, with no health benefits. Though her job sounds fun, it’s also physically demanding and requires concentration, patience and a keen attention to detail that keeps her students from plummeting face-first into a gravity storm.
This week, Holderness testified before the Missoula City Council to express her support for Missoula’s living wage initiative, on the ballot for Nov. 2. If approved by Missoula’s voters, the initiative will require companies that receive financial assistance from the city to pay their employees at least $8 an hour if they provide health benefits, and $8.80 an hour if they do not.
Specifically, Holderness took exception to a Sept. 15 memorandum by Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas to members of the City Council, in which he outlined his reasons for opposing the current living wage initiative.
“I want it understood that I am not philosophically opposed to the notion of a Living Wage,” wrote Kadas. “There are versions of the Living Wage proposal that I could support and advocate. Unfortunately, the version on the November ballot is not one of them.”
“I’m 30 years old and I feel like I should be earning a living wage,” said Holderness. “I’d like to be able to buy a house some day.” It would be nice, she added, if the city offered her health benefits so she could go see a doctor once in a while.
Her comments, as well as those of other Parks and Recreation employees, were directed at Kadas’ characterization of their jobs as “temporary, generally low-skill jobs” that are “an opportunity for young people to gain work experience and training in recreation and land management fields, and to earn income between school sessions. Generally, these employees are not single parents or welfare recipients to which the ordinance is aimed.”
In fact, plenty of Parks and Recreation employees in “seasonal” positions don’t fit the neat stereotype of students earning extra pocket change and living off their parents. According to Gail Verlanic, personnel analyst for the City of Missoula, seasonal employees often work four to five days a week for as many as 10 months at a time each year, making it difficult if not impossible to be full-time students.
“A lot of our seasonal employees have been here for years,” says Verlanic, “and I can think of at least one of them who has been here for 10 years or more.”
But even 10 years on the job as a seasonal employee won’t land you health benefits through the city, and they’re hardly affordable on their pay. So if you’re like 19-year-old Nora Walsh, earning $6.15 an hour as a seasonal park attendant, and you’re the single parent of an 8-month-old boy, you don’t go see a doctor unless you absolutely have to. As for her infant son, Missoula taxpayers are already paying for his day care and medical expenses through Medicaid and other social services.
“They don’t want us single parents on welfare, but they won’t pay us enough to live on,” says Walsh.
Personally, I’ve seen and worked under the euphem-ism of “seasonal” employee before. I saw it in corporate law firms on Wall Street, where “temporary” paralegals work the worst hours year-round for $15 to $20 less per hour than other employees. I saw it in the Missoula Post Office, where “casual” clerks perform the same backbreaking work as “regular” employees but earn half the pay, no benefits, no sick days or retirement credits.
And I saw it in a county park system in Texas, where “seasonal” employees worked 12 months a year for years on end but never saw a raise, a vacation day, a sick day, an overtime check or a doctor they didn’t pay for themselves. I quit that job when the county refused to pay me for serving jury duty in its own courthouse.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of seasonal and temporary employment in its monthly numbers. These workers simply fall through the statistical cracks, counted only when they appear (as they inevitably do) in the numbers of people visiting food pantries, applying for Medicaid and drawing food stamps.
If Mayor Kadas has concerns about the language of the living wage initiative, he should be aware that of 34 other living wage ordinances enacted nationwide, not one has ever been challenged in the courts due to its wording.
Support in principle means support in practice. And Mayor Kadas should know that.