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An honest man finds value in hard work

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Thursday, June 26, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Robert (not his real name) has to work at not feeling sorry for himself.

“The worst thing,” he says, “would be to become a whiner.”

Robert, who wanted to remain anonymous and worried that using even his first name would give him away, once managed a department for a big company. When the company failed he started his own and kept it going 12 years, “wearing all the hats,” as he says. Now he freelances as a consultant when possible.

But most days he drives his 19-year-old Buick to a supermarket parking lot, where he puts on a T-shirt and apron gaudy with the supermarket's logo — and goes to work in the meat or produce department. The pay: $7.40 an hour.

One week he logged only 16 hours: four days of four-hour shifts. He doesn't learn until Friday afternoons how he'll be scheduled the following week.

There's been a lot of talk about the “underemployed” in America's labor force, but surprisingly no official count. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says it lacks “objective criteria” to define this sort of employment half-way house. Trickier yet would be to pinpoint the number of folks who “job down” to something beneath their skill level just to get by.

Robert earns 15 cents an hour above the national minimum but $10 a week union dues out of that. He loses 20 percent of his pay to deductions.

Over a five-year period he sent out 100 resumes and came up zero. “I have to think it's my age,” he said by phone from the eastern city where he rents a small bachelor apartment. He's 66 and is not supposed to be discriminated against. Yeah, right.

At times he's been desperate. He has stood in line at a food kitchen and been tempted by a “payday loan” but fled from the interest rate (“200 to 400 percent”). Unable to afford a $50 copay, he was grateful for free samples of diabetes medicine from a doctor's office.

Among his admitted “bad decisions.” he says, were two divorces and “getting burned” at day-trading in the late 1990s tech bubble.

“Bankruptcy killed my credit,” he said. “Taking Social Security at 62 (with lower payments) was a no-brainer at the time; I needed the money. Now I wish I hadn't.”

More importantly, however, he does not feel that wage labor has brought him “down in the world.”

“The physical work gets me out of the house and up from the computer. And it's more interesting than you might think,” he said. He's been impressed at how seriously a food store must take cleanliness and rotating stock. He's unexpectedly proud of learning to tear down, sanitize and reassemble a meat grinder in 10 minutes. And to quick-defoliate a popular veggie on special. “It's such a power trip,” he said with a laugh, “knowing that with a swipe of my cleaver I can triple the value of an ear of corn.”

“I believe in hard work,” sums up this member of the numberless underemployed. “It's an honest way to make a living.”

Jack Markowitz is a columnist for Trib Total Media. Email

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