man reaching for a grip while he rock climbs on a steep cliffEvery day I receive Google alerts about topics relating to jobs, HR and recruitment. My “jobs” alert brought a very tragic news story today.

It was about Maria Fernandes, a New Jersey resident who was found dead in her vehicle Aug. 25, 2014. According to the story, Fernandes worked four jobs, including shifts at two different Dunkin Donuts.

The story said Fernandes frequently pulled alongside the road to catch a few hours of sleep in between her jobs. On Monday, she pulled off into a lot on Route 1 & 9 in Elizabeth, NJ to take a nap.

Apparently, Fernandes left her vehicle running, and was overcome by carbon monoxide mixed with fumes from a container of gasoline she kept her in small SUV for refills.

She was only 32, the story said.

“This sounds like someone who tried desperately to work and make ends meet, and met with a tragic accident,” Elizabeth police Lt. Daniel Saulnier said.

The news story also quoted Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, as saying many people in New Jersey work multiple jobs.

“These are folks who would like to work full-time but they can’t find the jobs,” Van Horn said. “They wind up in these circumstances in which they are exhausted. More commonly it creates just an enormous amount of stress,” he said.

This story is extremely sad, and it is also very telling of the current state of many in our nation. Today, many Americans are working two and three jobs in an attempt to make ends meet—and with the increasing cost of living and difficulty securing full-time, permanent roles—these attempts are usually overpowered by defeat.

24/7 Wall St. created a list of the top 10 states where people work multiple jobs. Those include:

  • South Dakota (9.5%)
  • Vermont (8.6%)
  • Nebraska (8.5%)
  • Kansas (8.2%)
  • Maine (8.1%)
  • Minnesota (8.1%)
  • North Dakota (8%)
  • Montana (7.5%)
  • Iowa (7.3%)
  • Wyoming (7%)

The story references the latest census data that showed that in 2012, roughly 5 percent of the U.S. workforce worked at more than one job.

We all know about the American Dream: get an education; land a good job, create a balanced professional and personal life; and then you’ve achieved success and happiness.

But what do stories like Fernandes’s and others say about our American Dream when people work two and three jobs just to barely stay afloat—and many times at the expense of their health and family life?

According to a Huffington Post story, “…employment doesn’t guarantee a life above the poverty line; according to census data, more than one in 10 Americans who work full-time are still poor.”

Another article from the site revealed that, “4 out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

Even more workers are beginning to lose hope in the so-called American Dream. According to CNN Money, 6 out of 10 people who took the CNNMoney American Dream Poll said our nation’s dream is out of reach.

They feel the dream—however they define it—is out of reach…Young adults, age 18 to 34, are most likely to feel the dream is unattainable, with 63% saying it’s impossible… Some 63% of all Americans said most children in the U.S. won’t be better off than their parents.

The story about Fernandes said that she worked at four jobs, two being at different Dunkin Doughnuts. The majority of food & service workers make at or below minimum wage, which certainly makes achieving the American Dream much more difficult.

According to the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, in 2013, 75.9 million workers (or 59% of all wage and salary workers) in America age 16 and over were paid hourly wages. Among those, 1.5 million workers earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour while another 1.8 million earned wages below the federal minimum.

And while we understand that not all hourly workers earn minimum wage, that doesn’t mean that they are exempt from financial adversity and the pursuit of the American Dream (in this context, stability).

People work, work, work—and sometimes multiple jobs—and many can’t even afford to save for retirement. A USA Today article revealed that 36 percent of workers have less than $1,000 in savings and investments that could be used for retirement—and the two biggest reasons they gave for not being able to save were cost of living and day-to-day expenses.

And even working multiple jobs to try to earn more income can negatively affect employees as many companies don’t offer retirement plans to part-time workers.

The plight of many workers today—especially those affected by layoffs, long-term unemployment and part-time only openings—is extremely unsettling. It makes me think back to a question my cousin—dealing with her own job search difficulties—recently asked me, Are we all becoming the working poor?

There are many like Fernandes who are overworking themselves in an effort to stay above ground. Many of the people’s comments on the story about her fate echoed the same thing: They hope the reality behind what really caused her death will not go unnoticed.

This contradictory issue of “working poor” led me to a quote from David K. Shipler’s, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Shipler writes:

Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. Their wages do not lift them far enough far enough from poverty to improve their lives and their lives, in turn, hold them back. The term by which they are described, “working poor,” should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works should be poor in America.

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