by Jordan Green

“There are three or four thousand dollars worth of medical bills at Grace Community Church that are probably not going to be paid,” says Reid James. “I’m going to have to talk to Moses Cone and tell them to put me on their charity plan; otherwise I’m going into default.”

A diminutive woman rarely seen without a backpack and a large to-go cup of coffee, the 44-year-old James presents a demeanor that is equal parts headstrong determination, measured compassion and nervous energy. As a former substance abuser in recovery, she is one step off the street. She also faces some mounting health challenges. And while she harbors no illusions that reentry into the job market will constitute a complete remedy, James has thrown herself into the search for work with single-minded focus.

Healthcare is, understandably, her first concern. A recent MRI confirmed that a condition of degenerative disk disease diagnosed a couple years ago has progressed robustly.

“I have neural problems going down my arm,” James says. “These two fingers are half numb. Two years ago it was one vertebrae instead of four. If I let it go now, I could run into some serious physical problems.”

She considers her best employment prospect to be a cashiering position at Earth Fare, a high-end natural foods grocery. At the end of her second interview on May 11, the interviewer inadvertently drew an arrow next to James’ name before concluding the meeting. James expects to learn whether she was hired this week. Pay had not been discussed, but she figures she would likely start somewhere in the range of $7 to $7.50.

“For somebody who doesn’t have specific skills, even if you can work with computers but your typing skills aren’t that great, or you don’t have knowledge of specific office system, you’re screwed,” she says. “I’ve got physical situations with my arthritis, so I can’t really do physical stuff like maid service. My fields are natural medicine and coffee.”

She gestures towards the counter at Tate Street Coffee, where two baristas pour coffee and chat with customers.

“How often do you see turnover here?” James says. “Natural medicine – I don’t know enough to practice.”

She stays in a recovery house with some other women in the UNCG area. What food the house does not provide, James supplements with food stamps. For the moment, Grace Community Church covers the costs of her housing – not to mention healthcare – but that arrangement will not last forever. If she’s lucky enough to get hired, James will eagerly accept any additional hours that come her way to help her complete the transition.

“I’d let them know flat out that I want more hours,” she says. “That’s basically leaving yourself open to their disposal. If someone calls in sick, you let them know you can be there. You work your schedule around the job.”

The wage James expects to earn will be better than the state minimum wage, but she doesn’t expect it to cover basic needs. It will be a start on the road to self-sufficiency, and that will be a triumph in itself. A proposed citywide minimum wage of $9.36 would radically change the terms of survival for her.

When presented with an estimate of upwards of $4,000 as the annual differential between working for $7.25 and $9.36, James’s response is, “Ouch…. Because that’s how much I’m losing. That’s the expenses for owning a car for a year instead of relying on GTA.”

She would probably spend some of that money to improve her quality of life, James says. She can’t remember the last time she went to the beach. And she wouldn’t mind buying some new clothes at Wal-Mart. All the same, she imagines herself living pretty frugally.

“The situation I’m in, I’d probably be saving the money because of my previous experience,” she says. “I don’t have any plan for the future. I don’t have any retirement to supplement Social Security. I know I can live on what I could minimally spend.”

In many ways, James is starting over again. If she’s contending at the entry level of the job market now, a decade ago her employment situation had all the appearances of a secure, even commonplace livelihood.

Around 1996, James started a cleaning service, but she gave that up when she began to develop arthritis. In the late nineties she worked for about two years at House of Health, and started learning about natural medicine there. That job paid $17,500 a year – a denomination James considers a living wage for the time.

Her mother’s illness and a subsequent bout with substance abuse eventuated a gradual tumble off the edge of the economy.

James’ mother had developed arthritis and spinal problems, but Alzheimer’s disease was the monster that robbed her independence and eventually took her life in 2004. James had lost her father three decades earlier; he died as a result of a series of small strokes.

An aunt, who lives outside of Greensboro, made it clear she would not contribute as a caregiver, leaving James as the sole caregiver.

“When my mother got ill that was the beginning of the end,” James says. “I’d find my mother had put a potato in the microwave for ten hours instead of ten minutes, and the microwave had burned up. You can’t leave a person like that alone…. That started making more and more demands on my time. The more demands her health took on me, the more unreliable I became as an employee.”

James doesn’t hesitate to own her share of responsibility for her situation.

“I developed substance abuse problems once my mother passed,” she says. “That made it worse. It became more and more difficult to find a job. Once you develop a six-month gap in employment, people start to get suspicious. I was working at Leon’s on Lee Street cleaning up the parking lot every other week last summer. They paid me twenty dollars – some spending money for cigarettes and food. Getting a job when you’re homeless is really hard. Most of the employers know the address of Urban Ministry or the Beloved Community Center.”

These are days of promise for James, but this current stretch of path is not without potential snares.

“You get a job that’s thirty hours a week at $6.50 per hour, and your food stamps get cut by half,” she says, “and you’re still not making a living wage.”

Once fully employed, James will also forfeit her place in transitional housing to the next worthy aspirant and seek shelter on the open market.

She paid $290 in monthly rent for a place on Silver Avenue in Glenwood before she wound up homeless. Rent has since been raised. Given the current availability of affordable housing, James expects to land in a similar place once she gets back on her feet.

“On a full moon, watch out,” she says. “Close your windows lock them, and pray. I was broken into once. I was raped once.”

The idea of uniformly raising wages strikes her as a bright prospect, but one carrying an unwelcome potential side effect. She sees fast-food restaurants closing, or laying off workers and forcing fewer employees to do the same work to tamp down escalating labor costs. She sees more employers offering cash under the table to circumvent labor regulations. And James sees the door to employment shutting in the face of the likes of she.

“I would be one of the first people to cheer for it,” James says of the proposed minimum raise increase. “I’d want to find a job before it raised. I wouldn’t want to be looking for a job after it raised.”

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