It is one thing to safely give stump speeches based on data, and anecdotal evidence. I have listened to the stories of an economy that fails most Kentuckians and Americans consistently throughout my travels over the past 6 months. I hear the sincere pain and frustration expressed by my fellow Kentuckians, and I am deeply moved. But it is another thing to immerse yourself in that economy and see if you could survive (without relying on my military pension and my wife’s active duty military salary). The short answer is NO; I could not have survived the past couple months at the “entry level” of America’s economy in which an increasing majority find themselves trapped.
For the past couple months I worked for United Parcel Service, Louisville Kentucky, as an “air handler” loading and unloading cargo aircraft – MD 11s, Airbus A300, Boeing 757, 767, and 747s. For the majority of this employment my co-workers knew nothing of my candidacy for US Congress. I did this for the same reason that I gave up a comfortable and safe desk assignment at the Army Office of the Surgeon General in Washington DC in 2010 and volunteered to return to a combat brigade at our 3rd BCT here at Fort Knox – heading to Afghanistan formy 4th combat tour. I did it to ensure I do not lose a clear understanding of the realities and many adversities faced by the most vulnerable in our society – whether it is our Soldiers in a combat environment, or an average Kentuckian and American simply trying to build a life and future for him/herself and their family. Here is what I found and experienced:
Like a growing number of Kentuckians and Americans I worked less than full time though I sought full time employment for this period. I averaged about five and a half hours nightly. America is increasingly becoming an economy of part-time and/or “independent contractors” without benefits, without job security, and for most -far from earning a living wage.
Starting wage at UPS (and for a year without increase unless the Teamsters can secure a new contract) is $8.50 per hour – only $1.25 or 17% over Minimum wage and NO benefits for one year. As a seasonal employee I did receive time and a half for time beyond 5 hours nightly – thank you Teamsters local 89. If ever there was a fact that demonstrated how our economy has failed for most workers over the past 30 years, this is it. I worked for UPS in the mid 80’s while earning my undergraduate degree in Agriculture Science and major in education. Then, in 1986, the national minimum wage was $3.35 and as a part time employed college student I was paid $8.00 an hour by UPS (about $17.00 in inflation adjusted 2013 dollars) – $4.65 over minimum wage/ 239% of minimum and had healthcare and vision benefits for me and my wife and education benefits for me after 90 days – now no benefits for 1 year. Please keep in mind that the work out on the “ramp” is hard, physical, and potentially dangerous work – ( UPS stresses safety, trains and orients workers with an emphasis on safety, but can not mitigate and eliminate all risks.) This is a starting wage of only 17% over a way too low minimum wage despite great responsibility for personal and crew safety as well as responsibility to operate heavy equipment (belt loaders and K-loaders capable of lifting and moving 16,500 lbs. of cargo at a time) without causing damage to multi-million dollar aircrafts. The ramp personnel – air handlers must ensure a load in proper sequence and by proper procedures to avoid damage to the aircraft or imbalances that can tip these same multi-million dollar aircraft onto their tail causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage if not rendering the aircraft un-repairable. These employees must work hard and fast to meet tight load/unload time windows for 100s of thousands of lbs. of cargo per aircraft (individual cargo containers weighing upwards of 12000 or more lbs) to ensure synchronization and flawless flow of high value payloads throughout the world - UPS works to “synchronize the world of commerce”, and does this superbly. For only 17% over minimum wage (and a minimum wage that has dropped in real inflation adjusted dollars over time and falls far below a “living wage”) I and my fellow UPSers worked in an exposed environment – experienced rain, sleet, snow, and absolute temperatures as low as 7 degrees during my seasonal employment experience. Those remaining beyond the holiday season will experience brutal heat and humidity throughout the summer months fully exposed out on the tarmac. All are exposed to extremes of noise, potential jet blast risk, exposure to de-ice solution sprayed liberally onto aircraft, cargo containers, and sometimes inadvertently drifting or dripping on us.
Employees out on the airfield risk being struck by vehicles as they negotiate on foot around aircraft and equipment among refuel trucks, maintenance vehicles, crew vans, K-loaders, belt loaders, tugs and cargo dollies traffic moving constantly throughout the airfield and around aircraft. Within the first two weeks of working out on the “ramp”, one of my fellow new hires nearly fell through an excessive gap between the loader and the aircraft some 30 feet above the concrete, and another new hire had her foot crushed between a moving cargo container and a cargo latch on the aircraft load floor. I thank my load crew for being always vigilant to keep me out of harms way and teach me how to best avoid injury. This level of responsibility, skill, and risk demands appropriate compensation.
I worked along side co-workers with college degrees. One with an Aeronautics degree who despite now years of experience out on the air ramp in and around aircraft, prior experience as an air crew member in the US Air National Guard (and deployments to Afghanistan) has been unable to gain employment that fully utilizes and compensates him for his specialty skills, training, and experience. Another fellow crewmember has an Ecology and Environmental Science degree – yet years post graduation continues to work at UPS with no comparable wage and benefit opportunities found to utilize his degree and specialty training. Both represent an economy that fails to leverage a workforce to its greatest benefit. This is a microcosm of the greater economy – an economy that has produced the “lost generation” of young Americans (18-34 year olds) with an unemployment rate of nearly double the national average. A generation for which under employment is the norm. A generation often burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in education debt, and unable to secure employment and compensation commensurate to their skills and education despite doing all the right things, doing what almost ensured success for prior generations of Americans. Look throughout the world and take warning from the turmoil hopelessness and eventual radicalism and violence that grow from the long-term disenfranchisement of a generation of young people. Calculate the penalty our economy will sustain over the working lives of this generation and the greater difficulties faced to get our state and federal fiscal houses in order when the potential contributions of an entire generation is not fully realized. We cannot afford this.
What is the cost of employment? Cloths – I am fortunate to have a stockpile of sturdy all leather boots, and cold weather clothing retained from my multi- decades of Military Service. Had I had to purchase essential clothing and boots I could easily have had to spend well over $200.00 – exceeding a single week take home pay just to be able to work. Gas – Driving from just east of Brandenburg KY my round trip was approximately 76 miles – this cost me approximately one hour nightly in wages just for fuel. AAA puts the current operating cost of a small car at 46.4 cent per mile for 15000 miles annually, or about $35 per day for my commute. Fortunately I have access to a dependable and fuel-efficient newer car (a Detroit built Ford Focus). Given these wages, I would not have a near new car if it were not for my wife’s income and my military pension. This has a ripple effect. At these wages I would likely be driving a 10-15 year old beaten up car with multi-hundred thousand miles on the odometer – using more fuel and not helping pay the salary of a long auto supply line, assembly workers, and dealership employees driving our economy. Add to this the greater than $120 paid in various taxes over this employment period, and my real take home wage shrank to less than 6 dollars per hour. Once I account for auto insurance, cost to eat – which included no fast food or dinning out (I could not afford to stimulate the economy in this manner – again, it all has a ripple effect), I essentially worked for nothing as a seasonal employee over the past couple months. Luckily I do not have childcare costs, I have health insurance as a military retiree (and was treated for bronchitis and near pneumonia I developed out at night on the airfield), and faced no automotive repairs. Otherwise I would have likely lost money by working! Is it any wonder that nearly 1 in 3 Americans of prime working age have dropped out of the US work force? We cannot, as a nation, afford an economy that compels so many to simply give up. Meanwhile, and consistent with the trend nationally and across all sectors of our economy, UPS gave its chairman and CEO compensation valued at $10.7 million last year – or about 200 times the national median income or 250 times the median annual income here in Kentucky.
As I drove home my final morning form UPS, I realized that every employee I may encounter at any stop on my journey home would very likely be working for poverty wages and qualified for SNAP, Medicaid and other state or federal benefits even if working full time. The waffle house I pass with employees working for $2.13 per hour wage – which has not increased in decades – plus tips. The clerk at the Speedway I stop at is working for minimum wage. The McDonalds’ employees are encouraged from corporate headquarters to hold down multiple jobs, avoid fast food, and seek SNAP/Food Stamps to survive – rather than expect a living wage.
What I confirmed during my couple months as an undercover candidate for US Congress is what the data clearly tells us and more importantly what the hard working families of my Kentucky 2nd US Congressional District have been telling me – We have an economy in which people and our families have become expendable. We no longer have an economy that rewards hard work or playing by the rules. We are increasingly becoming a nation of declining fortunes for the majority and a nation in which the American dream is increasingly beyond reach and social mobility is one direction – down – for a growing majority.
In the U.S. Army, our service men and women are expected to exemplify the values contained in the Acronym LDRSHIP. Loyalty-Duty- Respect - Selfless Service-Honor-Integrity-Personal Courage. I believe our political and corporate leaders must adopt these values if we are to have a Kentucky and America that works for all of us. The sheer greed of many politicians and Corporate Leaders is disloyal and a disservice to our communities, workers, Kentucky families and the best interest of our Nation. The ever- widening disparity in America is unethical, disrespectful to working men and women, dishonorable, and completely lacking in integrity – and is absolutely unsustainable. If America is to maintain our position in the world, we need leaders not looters. Anything else is immoral, inconsistent with our American values and truly puts Kentucky and the United States at a competitive disadvantage. If morality escapes our corporate leaders – as it appears to, then we must have folks in government that will not fail to protect the American Worker, our Families and the long-term economic health of our nation. We need Representatives with the Personal Courage to stand up for US.
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Candidate for US Congress
Kentucky’s 2nd US Congressional District