The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Life on $7.75 an hour

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

Sherry Allums talked her husband, Roy, into selling their house in Euclid and moving to Ashtabula County so their grandson, Dylan Christian, could attend better schools.

The plan seemed entirely feasible, although Roy would have to give up his $15.89-an-hour factory job. He was certain he’d be able to get a job at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution and his wife would be able to make up the difference by finding work.

Nearly three years later, Sherry Allums regrets her decision and the implications it had for their family.

“I apologize to my husband all the time. ‘I’m sorry I did this to you,’” she says. “I destroyed my husband’s life. I took away his beautiful home; I took away his good-paying job. Now, we are going to lose it all.”

Sherry, a native of Pierpont, says she wanted Dylan to have the kind of education she got in a small, caring school. They have guardianship of their grandson because his mother died of cancer. Shortly after her death, Dylan developed cancer at the age of 2. He went into remission, but another kind of cancer was diagnosed in him just two months after the family moved to Conneaut. He required weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment in Cleveland, which was covered by Medicaid. But the incidental and travel expenses wrecked the family’s fragile budget.

Further, Roy couldn’t pass the physical for the prison and was unable to locate work elsewhere in the county. A class A die polisher, Roy discovered his skills were not a good fit for the few job openings in the county.

Roy turned to a temporary agency to find work. He discovered most of Conneaut’s major employers use Infinity Resources to screen and hire new employees. Roy worked for Wayne Dalton through Infinity, but eventually was put on a leave of absence as the family dealt with Dylan’s cancer.

“We got behind,” Sherry says.

“We got way behind,” Roy clarifies.

In a matter of months, the couple went from being middle class to poor.

Roy applied through another agency, Career Concepts, which found a job for him in Fairview, Pa. Now an employee of the plastics molding company, Roy makes $7.75 an hour on third shift. The wage is just enough to keep the family from receiving many government programs but not nearly enough to live on. Their house payment alone is $754. Roy and Sherry say that’s a worry that they probably won’t have; they’ll probably lose the $88,000 house to foreclosure this year because there simply is not enough money to cover the payment.

Sherry says they’ve exhausted every safety valve in trying to keep their house. Their credit cards are maxed out, and those creditors hound them daily. When their furnace died and needed $900 in repairs, Sherry had to turn to her retired parents for a loan. She pays them back at $50 a month, but Sherry admits she often has to cheat on that bill and borrow $20 from her mother, even as she gives her $50 for the furnace.

Their Christmas was courtesy of United Methodist Churches and Girl Scout Troop 671.

The family has cut expenses to the bone, but $7.75 an hour doesn’t go far when gasoline costs $3.35 a gallon and it’s at least 15 miles to work. To help save commuting expenses, Roy car-pools with two other workers.

Roy has had four heart attacks and needs to have a stress test, but that would involve missing a day of work and losing a day of pay. He takes at least five prescription medications.

“The cable has been shut off; the Internet service has been shut down. We try to cut corners here and there,” she says. “We don’t use the dryer in the summer. I’ve never lived like this. I’d like to recycle again, but I can’t afford the gas to go to the bin, so I can’t even recycle.”

Sherry has tried working various jobs around Roy’s schedule, but her options are limited because of a bad back and her responsibilities to not only Dylan, but also a granddaughter, 4, who has come to live with them. One of the jobs she took was scrubbing toilets for a motel; she made the equivalent of $2.35 an hour.

“I got that $60 paycheck, and I said ‘You’re crazy if you think I’m coming back,’” she says. “But I did it. And I cried every night when I came home.”

Before dropping her Internet service, Sherry sold items on eBay for extra cash. Now, she holds two or three yard sales to make a few extra dollars off stuff family and neighbors donate.

To save money on food, Sherry plants a garden, cans some of the produce and sells the rest. They hit the jackpot when a friend’s vehicle encountered a deer. They strung up the carcass in the back yard, gutted it into a wheelbarrow and used a hacksaw to cut through the rib cage. Sherry makes no apologies for claiming and eating the dead animal. She did it once, and she’d do it again if the opportunity presented itself.

“It was something we needed to do because we needed to eat,” she says.

The family has no entertainment budget, despite having two young grandchildren in the household. They do budget $2 a week for Dylan’s allowance. Sherry says their grandson saved his money so he could treat the whole family to a night at the movies.

“Do you know how hard it is to save $12 on what he makes to take your kid to the movies? You can’t afford to entertain your kids any more. You have to set your kids in front of a television set to entertain them,” Sherry says.

In January, Sherry did something she’d never done before: She went to the Conneaut Food Pantry to get an order.

“Conneaut is going to fold,” predicts Roy. “They got no fair-paying jobs here, so people are going to leave the area.”

At this point in their lives, Sherry feels their only hope is to win the lottery. “But we don’t have the dollar to play it,” she says.

Sherry says she used to look down her nose at classmates who had stayed in Ashtabula County after high school and scraped out a living.

“I used to say ‘How can they live like that?’ I was snotty at one time because I had it,” she says of her prior life. “Now, I’m walking in their shoes, and it’s not a nice picture.”

Roy and Sherry already know what they’ll do with the rebate checks Uncle Sam is planning to send them in May: pay bills, just as they do with their income-tax refund check. The only decision they’ll get to make is what bill will get paid.

The couple has no provision for retirement, aside from living in a tent. Roy says it will have to be along a river.

“You got to have running water,” says Roy, who maintains a sense of humor.

Then again, on $7.75, surviving another day is difficult enough without thinking about the future.

“We’re just two grandparents trying to keep heat on for our grandson, a roof over his head and his belly full, and we can’t do it because there are no jobs,” Sherry says.