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Life's Basics More of a Stretch

Regino Romero has been working for the Hilton Hotel in Crystal City for almost 14 years, and at a salary of 13.84/hour, he is struggling to support himself and his three children.Video by Nancy Donaldson/

For Romero, 42, just paying for everyday items brings him to the financial brink, even though he has been steadily employed for more than two decades. Now a U.S. citizen, he started working as a dishwasher in a Capitol Hill restaurant when he arrived from El Salvador in 1985. Not long afterward, he started helping out in the kitchen and liked it.

He landed his first job as a cook a few years later, and after changing jobs a couple times in search of higher pay, he started in the kitchen at the Hilton near Reagan National Airport in 1994. Each workday, Romero wheels his 14-year-old Dodge Caravan into the hotel parking deck before sunrise. By 5 a.m. he is in the kitchen, preparing breakfast and room service orders and items for the morning buffet. Later, he makes lunch.

He enjoys the work, even though it has grown both more demanding and less financially rewarding. Romero made $9.40 an hour back in 1997. At the time, he considered that decent pay. Nearly 11 years later, his salary is just over $13 an hour, which he calls barely enough to survive. "They give you what they are going to give you, and you really have no choice," Romero said.

Despite the meager pay increases, Romero still counted himself fortunate because his job commanded benefits that are becoming increasingly unusual for low-wage workers: medical and dental coverage, sick time and vacation, as well as an employer-funded pension plan. The survey found that three out of 10 respondents lacked health insurance and a similar portion does not get paid vacations. More than four in 10 reported having no retirement plan or paid sick leave.

Romero said that if he had to pay any more than he does already for benefits, it would be disastrous for his family. Since he and his wife separated, they have been stretched nearly to the financial breaking point.

While he was married, he dipped into his home equity twice just to keep up with bills. He was forced to tap his home equity a third time last year to pay his divorce settlement, which gave him primary custody of his three children but forced him to pay $100,000 to his former wife for her share of the townhouse. Now he owes $293,000 for his home, which he estimates is about $13,000 more than its declining value.

Romero is seeking child support from his ex-wife, who worked at a supermarket deli counter before she left. (She now lives in Prince William County.) Meanwhile, the divorce has left Romero with no financial cushion and an inadequate salary. To save money, he often serves his children sandwiches or other meals that he can prepare without using the stove. "My utility bill is something like $260. That's more than half my [weekly] check," he said.

Romero finds himself constantly thinking of ways to save money, or earn more. It is a trait common among low-wage workers: The poll found that six in 10 think of money at least once a day. But as much as he focuses on ways to accumulate some money, life's demands always seem to require more spending.

He pays two college-student neighbors to alternate and get his youngest children to school on the weekday mornings he works; he has to be on the job early and his 17-year-old daughter Veronica leaves for school nearly two hours before her siblings. The squeeze had gotten so tight that Romero applied for food stamps earlier this year, the first time he has turned to the government for help. But he was rejected because his income of nearly $27,000 last year put him just beyond the income criteria. County social workers urged him to seek help from private charities, where the eligibility requirements are generally more flexible.

Surfing the Internet, Veronica learned that he could get free food from the Lorton Community Action Center, a nonprofit social service agency. So for the past several months, Romero has gone there every Tuesday, leaving each time with several bags of bread, produce and canned goods to stock his pantry. The center serves 350 families a week in the Lorton area. "The majority of the people we serve here are working," said Maryam Ulomi, the center's director of emergency services.

The financial struggles leave Romero at a loss for what lies ahead. His daughter graduates from Hayfield High School next year and wants to go to college, but Romero has no idea how he'll pay for it. Also, his mortgage rate will reset in 2012, and he doesn't know how he'll pay for that, either.

Still, he remains hopeful. He is active in Alexandria's Calvary Road Baptist Church, where Veronica works periodically as a $7 an hour babysitter and where his other children, Jason, 7, and Lezlie, 9, have attended camps free of charge. "I always believed that if you give good examples for the children, you are going to have good children," he said. "That's why I keep them in the church. I think it teaches them respect."

Lately, he has been thinking anew about taking a second job or working extra hours, as six in 10 of the poll respondents have done to make ends meet. "Maybe I can get something flexible," Romero said. "Delivering pizzas or delivering newspapers. Something that would give me some money, but allow me to get home quickly if I need to."

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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