×

Jim Kenyon: Vacation Index Shows It’s Hard to Get Away

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

The unemployment rate is practically nil, the stock market is booming, and massive tax cuts may be on the horizon. Life is good in America.

Or so the leading economic indicators tell us.

But Cheri Bustos, a congresswoman from rural blue-collar Illinois, has come up with her own economic index — one that is quite applicable to the Upper Valley — to get a better idea of how working-class Americans are faring in today’s economy.

Bustos, 55, holds what she calls Supermarket Saturdays. While walking the aisles in her congressional district’s small-town grocery stores, she asks shoppers what they do for fun and whether they’ve taken a vacation in the last year.

“That gets down to whether they have any discretionary income,” Bustos said during a recent interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

After paying for housing, child care, cars and groceries, is there anything left from their paychecks for a dinner out or a family vacation?

I hadn’t heard of Bustos before catching her on Morning Joe. Bustos is a former newspaper reporter with three children. She’s married to a deputy sheriff.

Democratic Party leaders started to take notice of Bustos after she won a third term last November, beating her Republican opponent by 20 points. A remarkable feat, considering Donald Trump carried her district.

Last Thursday, I decided to conduct my own Bustos test by driving around the Upper Valley to talk with people who were on the job — motel housekeepers, general store clerks and construction workers to name a few.

It was an eye-opener. I started with a woman named Lisa, who asked that her last name not appear in print. She’s a domestic violence victim who doesn’t want to make it easier for her ex to track her down.

Lisa, 35, wore latex gloves and carried a clear plastic trash bag as she picked up nails, candy wrappers and cigarette butts in front of a recently renovated apartment building.

“This is the first job I’ve got with benefits,” said Lisa, who started working for an Upper Valley housing developer last month. “You hear all this stuff about unemployment being low, but the jobs don’t come with benefits.” She’s worked mostly temporary and seasonal jobs in manufacturing and customer service that pay $10 to $12 an hour. “I haven’t done a vacation in 10 years,” she told me. “I work too much and don’t make enough money.”

A Windsor High School graduate, Lisa doesn’t have children, but her partner, who is currently out of work with a back injury, has twins. “The last time we did anything fun was to go apple picking,” she said.

Kristyne McFarlin, 24, is a home health care worker and her husband has a job in manufacturing. They live in Bethel, and she drives 25 miles to clean rooms for extra money at the Super 8 motel in Hartford.

Does she take vacation?

“Never. I’ve got three kids. We don’t really have a lot of spare time. I work six days a week.”

Jeff Starcher, 31, works for a Newport, N.H., construction company that does “dirt work.” Starcher, wearing a green hard hat, was installing sewer and water lines in a neighborhood off State Street in Windsor.

Time, not money, is what might prevent him from taking vacation. Last year, he flew to California to visit Yosemite and other national parks. A few years ago, he went skiing in Colorado. (And returned home with a broken wrist.)

Other than in winter, it’s tough to get away from work — particularly when there’s plenty of work. “We’ve been fortunate these last few years,” Starcher said. “Business is good.”

This winter?

“I’m thinking about taking a cruise,” he said.

Driving into the parking lot of West Fairlee’s general store, I noticed a car’s bumper sticker: Keep Working. Millions on Welfare Depend on You.

Erin Cilley, who was working behind the store’s counter, told me it was her car. “I’m fine with people getting help who need it,” she told me.

But when she sees people pulling out government-issued debit cards that entitle them to free groceries with new smartphones and buying $4 energy drinks, she draws the line.

Meanwhile, Cilley and her husband, who works for an excavation company, go without health insurance.

She took a week’s vacation this year. “I didn’t go anywhere. I cleaned the house. Nothing fun.”

Cilley and her husband have three children, including a 10-year-old autistic son. For fun, there’s a swimming hole in the brook behind their house.

“We have no satellite TV, no cellphones,” she said. “It’s hard for the working class to make it.”

David Locke, lunch bag in hand and his work boots covered with dust, walked past Dartmouth’s Berry Sports Center, on the way to his car. Locke, 55, is an Upper Valley electrician now working for a Massachusetts company that’s renovating the college’s downtown Hood Museum.

He started in February and hopes the work continues until next spring. The job pays north of $30 an hour. Benefits include paid vacation and health insurance with a low deductible — a package he didn’t get working for Upper Valley contractors.

Locke and his partner, Ginny Macomber, a waitress at Lou’s in Hanover, took a “mini vacation” to Maine this summer. He also made a solo trip on his motorcycle to the famed Sturgis Rally in South Dakota in August.

“I’m going to do it while I can afford it,” he told me. “Who knows about next year?”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.