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Immigrants Cope With The Stress Of Long Hours, Low Pay

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Office where cleaning equipment is stored and where Roberto meets with his employees.
Marc Adams
Office where cleaning equipment is stored and where Roberto meets with his employees.

They are the people that come into the downtown office buildings as most others are flooding out. Many work late into the night, taking out the trash, vacuuming the carpet, and mopping the floors. They are the army of office cleaners charged with keeping office buildings throughout Washington, D.C. looking pristine. Many are immigrants, both documented and undocumented, working for a chance at providing a better life for their family. But with long hours, low wages and sometimes separation from loved ones, cleaning an office or doing any other low wage job in the city can take its toll.

Few know the stresses more intimately than Mario. He works 13 hours a day, 6 days a week to both live in Washington, D.C. and to send money home to his wife and two sons who live in El Salvador. Mario works one job cleaning offices for about $12 per hour and another cleaning a fast food restaurant for minimum wage, which is $8.25 per hour. He admits it can be grueling work, but for him, being separated from his family for the past five years has been the hardest part.

"It's difficult, very difficult because I was a person who walked with his sons down the street, in the shops." Mario says. "I would like to be with them to do that again but I can't. They're very far away."

Because he is undocumented and always living with the fear of possible deportation, Mario has declined to disclose his real name.

"I have my two sons," he says. "They depend on the development of the life I lead, my economic achievements. They depend on a big percentage of money I send so that they can have a better life than I had when I was a boy."

But Mario's decision to work in the U.S., and specifically in Washington, D.C. hasn't come without a cost, both emotionally and physically.

"I've felt headaches and pain in my chest," he says. "But they did all the medical exams and I didn't have anything, thank God," he says. "The doctor recommended I relax, get some rest and eat better."

Working to support and survive

Mario is one of more than 1.2 million immigrants in the Washington, D.C. metro area. As an undocumented immigrant, it's incredibly hard for him to make much more than minimum wage. But, even for some legal immigrants, it's not necessarily any easier, especially when education is lacking.

That's something Roberto has come to know all too well. While Roberto is his real name, his last name is not disclosed to protect the identity of his employees, some of whom are undocumented. He is a building supervisor, but does every bit as much cleaning as the people he oversees. That's just one of his two different office cleaning jobs, which has him working every weeknight, starting at 5 p.m. and finishing around 7 a.m. the next morning. It's a nightly grind he's done for years.

"At first it was hard, but I guess things that you need to accomplish make you do what you gotta do," Roberto says. "I have a daughter. I have a family. I have bills and all that other stuff. I gotta do it some way. I don't know how I do it, but I do it. It gets tiring at times though."

Like Mario, Roberto was born in El Salvador. But at the age of 4, Roberto came to the U.S. with his parents and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Despite the opportunity to gain a free U.S. education, he decided to drop out of high school to help his parents financially. Now, years later, he finds himself without a diploma or GED--nothing but two low wage jobs to help support his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

"Throughout the week, I'm stressed out," he says. "But at the end of the week, like on Fridays, I know that I'm going back home to them," he says. "I take advantage of them two days to spend time with my family."

Roberto and Mario are just two of the roughly 100,000 low-income D.C. residents struggling to make ends meet. According to Jenny Reed, policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the gap between high wages and low wages in the city is the largest it's been in 30 years.

"D.C. really is a tale of two economies where if you have a bachelors degree or higher, you're probably doing OK, even in the wake of the recession," she says. "If you don't have a bachelor's degree, you're probably struggling to get by."

Reed says because the average two bedroom apartment in the D.C. Metro area is about $1,500 a month, a person would have to make a minimum of $29 per hour, working 40 hours a week to afford it. Taken another way, the person making minimum wage would have to work 141 hours a week to keep that same apartment.

"I think for immigrants in very low wage work, they're probably facing a lot of the same financial stresses," Reed says. "They're probably having a hard time affording decent housing. They're probably having a hard time putting food on the table. For any low wage worker in D.C., the cost of living is just so high, and those low wages just don't go very far."

She says that even though much of the low wage work keeps the city going, the people in those jobs are increasingly finding they can't afford to live there.

Still, Mario continues on. It may be hard work, but he's grateful he has a job.

"A lot of people are worse off than me, without a job," he says. "The worst that can happen to someone here is to be unemployed."

He says he wants to return home to his family in El Salvador as soon as possible, but he concedes he has no idea when that day may come. For now, he simply works one day at a time, doing everything he can to provide for his wife and two sons no matter the personal cost.

[Music: "Stand By Me" by Prince Royce from Prince Royce]

Photos: Immigrant Stress


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