Cover Story


What people make

by Jim Hight
Photos by Brandi Easter

What do you do for work?"is one of the first questions people ask of a new acquaintance. "How much do you make?" is a question rarely asked and often speculated about. And in the tradition of journalists who'll ask anybody anything, The Journal sought out people in a variety of jobs in Humboldt County who would tell us how much they get paid. We found 20 people willing to part with the cherished numbers.

The data is by no means a statistically valid survey. But along with information from job-tracking specialists at the Employment Development Department (EDD) and the Private Industry Council (PIC), the details about salaries and benefits from our 20 sources provide a sketch of the region's job market, today and in the future.

Among the facts and projections:

Our sampling of local jobs and wages ran from $5.50 an hour to $66,000 a year, or $31.75 an hour for a 40-hour week (See photos for descriptions of benefits).

Fast-food restaurants, motels and retail stores usually start workers at minimum wage or slightly higher; and pay increases are slow in coming for many workers.

Robert Stickler, crew person, Taco Bell, $5.50/hr. No benefits. 
Maria Garcia, housekeeper, Quality Inn, $6/hr. Partial benefits.

Maleia Grabinski, manager, Ramone's Bakery and Cafe, $8/hr. No benefits.  

 Pina Melville, cashier, Waremart, $11.50/hr. Full benefits.


Jim Huffman, relief driver, City Garbage Co., $11.05/hr. Full benefits.


Debbie Mayer, production worker, Humboldt Creamery, $14.51/hr. Full benefits.

For example, after four and a half years changing sheets, vacuuming carpets and making bathroom tiles sparkle, Maria Garcia still makes less than $6 an hour as a housekeeper at Quality Inn, Arcata. Occasionally, she says, someone leaves a tip of $1 or, even more rarely, $5.

Some who start at low wages move up the salary scale much more quickly. Meleia Grabinski started working for $4.75 an hour as a counter person a year ago at Ramone's Bakery in Wildberries market, Arcata. She was recently promoted to manager, with an $8 hourly wage and the opportunity to "make tons of changes" like rearranging bakery equipment and finding tasks for employees who want to work more hours.

While only a fortunate few move up as fast as Grabinski , some retail employers offer more gradual but consistent increases. At the sprawling Waremart supermarket in Eureka clerks start at $6 an hour but receive 50-cent raises every six months. After five years, Pina Melville makes $11.50 an hour as a cashier, with a "great retirement plan, wonderful health benefits" and three weeks paid vacation.

Retail is the largest employment sector today and EDD expects all retail trade industries in Humboldt County -- from car dealers to clothing stores -- to add 1,000 jobs by the year 2001, rising to total employment of 11,360. But despite the net increase in jobs, the growth in retail is not entirely good news.

Retail jobs paid an average annual wage of $14,290 in 1996, less than $7 per hour and far below the county average of $21,565, or $10.37 an hour. "If these are the sectors that are going to be growing, that will bring down the average wage in the county," said Anita Kimbrel, EDD's labor market analyst for this region.

Ben Davis, plumber, Wayne Maples Plumbing and Heating, $30,000. Full benefits.  

 Terresa Porter, garment worker, Kokatat, $5.40/hr. plus piece-work pay; annual average: $13,000. full benefits.

Harold Hagans, sawmill relief, Simpson Timber Co., $35,000. Full benefits.  


David Moulton, home heath care worker, Humboldt Home Health Services, $10.23/hr.
Full benefits.


Leslie Abbott, eligibility worker, Dept. of Social Services, $20,400. Full benefits.

 Cheryanne Sanford, secretary, Humboldt State University, $26,000. Full benefits.

Sandy Darnell, box clerk, window relief, U. S. Postal Service, $36,500. Full benefits.  

 Mary Ferrell, maintenance worker, Caltrans, $28,800. Full benefits.

Workers in a number of blue-collar occupations are earning significantly more than their counterparts in retail. A City Garbage driver earns up to $11.05 an hour under his Teamsters' union contract. And at Humboldt Creamery in Fernbridge, Teamster member Debbie Mayer earns $14.51 per hour setting up and tending an ice cream packing line. Mayer, however, faces periodic layoffs as ice cream demand fluctuates with the seasons.

Topping our informal survey of manufacturing workers was Harold Hagans, a 25-year Simpson Timber sawmill employee who estimates his annual income at $35,000, including about one day per month of overtime. Simpson is the only unionized timber company in the county, but others pay similarly high wages. EDD calculated the average 1996 salary in a sawmill at $33,400, although that includes all management employees.

EDD projects that 300 new sawmill jobs will be available by 2001, with total sawmill employment increasing from 3,700 to 4,000. But those data are based on statewide surveys of lumber and wood products employers and don't reflect the particular business plans of the county's half-dozen major timber employers. For example, Pacific Lumber Co.'s projections of lower employment after the sale or liquidation of its remaining old-growth timber were not considered in the estimates.

But other signs point to a healthy timber industry. "All of the major (forest products) companies have made new investments, millions of dollars worth," said Phyllis Lammers, an independent analyst who has done economic studies for Humboldt County. "That indicates that they're not anticipating that they'll be closing down. I would hope that they'd be offering stable or increasing employment possibilities, (but in some cases) they may be mechanizing to reduce their labor costs."

Jobs in the health care professions are also increasing, although the fastest increase is in lower-paying jobs. "The general trend in the industry worldwide is to get more cost-effective use out of their higher paid personnel," said Lammers.

One health-care occupation that's growing fast is home-health-care workers. "We do everything involved in the care of people who have difficulty leaving their homes," said David Moulton of Humboldt Home Health Services. "We assist with bathing, meal preparation, light housekeeping, dressing changes. ... Some people I see once a week, some every day. The usual visit is one to two hours."

After 17 years with the company, Moulton earns $10.23 an hour; new hires start at about $7.40 per hour. He says that the pay is supplemented by the "intangible benefit of helping people who need it."

That's how Leslie Abbott feels about being a welfare eligibility worker in Humboldt County's Department of Social Services. Her favorite part of the job: "The clients. There's so much diversity, each person is so different." Abbott started as a clerk in 1989, then worked up to eligibility worker three and a half years ago. She makes $20,400 a year or $9.80 per hour.

State and federal government workers make higher than average wages in Humboldt County. Cherylanne Sanford, a secretary at Humboldt State University's Office of Extended Education, earns $26,000 per year after 20 years on the job. Starting pay for her job classification is $21,600, and top pay for an HSU secretary with the highest job classification is $35,000.

These wages are much higher than secretarial jobs at other employers in Humboldt County. The Private Industry Council surveyed employers in 1995 and reported average annual payroll for a secretary after three years at $18,500. Pay for the same job in Sonoma County is $25,400; in Napa County it's $23,000.

In addition to the university other state agencies like Caltrans and Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pay wages with no "Redwood Curtain Discount."

Likewise the Postal Service, Forest Service and other federal employers pay wages set at national standards. Sandy Darnell, a familiar face at the downtown Eureka Post Office, earns $36,500 working as a box clerk and window relief. "I'm at the top of my (job) level," said Darnell, who has logged 30 years with the Postal Service.

But these high-paid state and federal jobs are comparatively hard to get.

"We don't have very much turnover in this area," said Tom Neeson, Caltrans district maintenance manager. "Quite frankly, if a person wants to come to work (for Caltrans on the North Coast), they're going to find it much easier to get into our department in one of the metro areas, then transfer up here."

Humboldt County's labor market is notoriously tight. EDD estimates that the county's unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in 1996, compared with 7.2 percent statewide and 5.4 percent nationally. Those estimates may be somewhat inaccurate, however, given the Bureau of Labor Statistics sampling methods. But people looking for work certainly know that jobs are scarce.

On a recent visit to EDD on 4th Street in Eureka, there were about a dozen jobs posted. Most paid $5 or $6 an hour with no benefits; several were part-time. Of the four jobs that paid $10-plus an hour, all required five years experience: a diesel mechanic, machinist, production manager and logging equipment operator.

In mid-March, the Help Wanted section of the Times-Standard advertised about 70 local jobs (and 35 newspaper delivery routes), with much more diversity in pay, skill and experience levels. But for skilled blue-collar or white-collar jobs, the competition in Humboldt County is usually intense. HSU recently advertised for a gardening specialist job paying about $24,000 a year; the university received more than 90 applications.

People who decide to invest time and money in training for a new career -- especially one that will let them remain in Humboldt County -- the need to be particularly careful about what profession they aim at.

"In the past ... everyone thought electronic technicians was going to be such a hot field," said Steve Hughes, job development specialist for Private Industry Council. "(College of the Redwoods) has an excellent electronics program, but their grads have trouble finding a job (locally).

"We just don't have the manufacturing base (that large metro areas in California have)," he said. As one example, he noted that Hewlett-Packard in Sacramento was recently seeking more than 300 employees for component testing and repair. "Here we have one guy in a computer store and he fixes them and sells them. ... He might have one or two employees."

For people who meet its guidelines, PIC will set up a training program and pay all tuition, transportation and other costs but no living expenses. But first, the job-seekers must review PIC and EDD data and do other research to be sure that they're going to be committing to a career path that will actually lead somewhere.

"Every person is asked to interview potential employers, really go out into the labor market themselves to make their own determination. ... You're talking about a person investing a couple years of their lives and several thousands of taxpayers' money, neither of which should be wasted."


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