Categorized | Bronx Tales

Employed in the Bronx… and Still Hurting

By Derek Simons

Unemployment was the topic of the day on Friday as national employment figures made headlines, but in the Bronx, where joblessness is also high, even people lucky enough to have jobs are having a tough time.
A Friday afternoon wander along East 161st Street near the Grand Concourse revealed some grim scenes.
At the Concourse Plaza, people lined up outside the supermarket — not near the entrance, but in front of the mini recycling center for cans, glass and plastic bottles. Most were bundled up against the cold, waiting their turn to make a few bucks from shopping carts and trash bags full of virtual nickels.
When Charlie Singleton arrived, he was more worried about covering his hands with heavy-duty gloves. His job is to empty the recycling containers. He heaved and struggled with a huge, open plastic barrel full of broken glass until it sat on a trolley, then wheeled it toward the company truck. A full load is 48 barrels.
“We used to be two doing this job,” he said. “Company can’t afford it anymore. Same job. Less people.”

Yamil Santiago stuggles to pay his bills.

Yamil Santiago struggles to pay his bills. Photo by Derek Simons

In a forgotten corner toward the back of the shopping center, Yamil Santiago is taking a smoke break outside a pet store. He started a year ago at minimum wage, then moved up the ladder. He now has the title of “Third Key,” or, as he puts it, the assistant of the assistant manager. This means the 21-year-old sometimes has to lock up the large store at night. The promotion earned him a 50-cent raise.
Married, with four children, Santiago said he takes home $270 per week. With his wife’s pay added on, they manage to rent a one-bedroom apartment on East Tremont for $1,500 a month. All six sleep in the same room. He can’t afford health insurance — it would take $60 off of his pay. Like many in his situation, the secret to getting by is not getting sick. Forget cable — he doesn’t even eat lunch at work. Dinner can be leftover leftovers.
“I don’t live in a land where dreams are made,” he said. “I have 30 friends and three of us have jobs.”
Yankee Stadium is four blocks from the store. Santiago says he loves the team but hates that he’s paying taxes for something he can’t enjoy in his own home, let alone from the bleachers.

“I don’t see anything getting done to make things better for people,” he said. “I make too little to live on and too much for assistance. And people are surprised when guys like me end up doing illegal stuff in the streets.”

With two old felonies and one more recent one on his record, the  employment options for Benjamin Morales are slim. Maybe that’s why he’s willing to dress up in a bright-green Statue of Liberty costume and hand out flyers to those walking toward the nearby subway station. He’s promoting a store offering to do tax returns, and the irony isn’t lost on him.

Benjamin Morales distributes flyers 60 hours per week. Photo by Derek Simons

Benjamin Morales distributes flyers 60 hours per week. Photo by Derek Simons

Like Singleton, Morales has a license for driving medium-sized trucks. It’s a qualification useful for higher paying jobs, but his license has been suspended because of his past. He started this job yesterday after shopping around his resume for months.
“I’m lucky a friend lets me sleep at his place,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d be living on the street doing more bad things.”
Standing there in the cold looking like a parody of a national symbol, he says his dream is to have his own room and a job he can be proud of.

One Response to “Employed in the Bronx… and Still Hurting”

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