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KCBS Cover Story Series – Getting By In Silicon Valley

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Google headquarters in Mountain View on April 7, 2011. (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images)

Google headquarters in Mountain View on April 7, 2011. (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images)

DougSovern20100908_KCBS_0208r Doug Sovern
Doug began his career as a copy boy at the New York Times, and then...
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Doug Sovern’s KCBS Cover Story Series: Getting By airs on KCBS 740AM/106.9FM through Friday at 6:30am, 8:30am, 12:30pm and 4:30pm, March 24-28.

MOUNTAIN VIEW (KCBS) – Silicon Valley is a land of unimaginable riches, with many in their mid-20s becoming overnight millionaires. But it is also a place of heartbreaking poverty, and of plain working folks struggling to get by on middle-class paychecks, which haven’t kept pace with inflation.

Tech companies like Apple and Google have their headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley, but not everyone is sharing in the prosperity.

“Half of the kids in our schools are either receiving free or reduced lunches,” said Meghan Fraley, with Mountain View-based economic justice group Politically Inspired Action.

Her colleague, Gail Nyhan, said these are the children of the people who feed and clean and clothe all those dot-com millionaires.

“They’re working in restaurants. They’re working as clerks in retail establishments. They’re working as cooks,” she said.

And they’re guarding these gleaming technology campuses. Security guards at Google, Apple and eBay have been protesting, because most of them get paid only $15 of $16 an hour, and they’re kept below 40 hours a week to avoid being paid benefits.

Michael Johnson is one of the lucky ones – he’s a supervisor who just got a raise to $18 an hour.

“I get by by the grace of god,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of friends that will give me food during the week, so that saves me a lot of money on dinner. I know how to use the coupons and work the deals. In fact, today, I’m missing out on a two-for-one at Popeye’s.”

Johnson has two degrees and spent ten years in IT before the bubble burst, but for the last decade, he has been guarding places he used to work – with no benefits, no sick days, no vacations.

“If you have to leave and have to not be there, you call your creditors and tell them it’s going to be late this month, or I can make a partial payment,” Johnson said.

He still has $80,000 in student loan debt and thinks the dot-coms should insist their security contractors pay the guards a better wage.

“We’re the people that respond to all the emergencies, we’re the first people that greet your guests, we protect your assets, both human and material,” Johnson said. “If we were getting a decent wage, we could actually buy some of their products!”

The tech companies said technically, the guards are not their employees. But Fraley said they should take economic responsibility anyway. “A big part of the problem is invisibility. Pulling up the drawbridges and sectioning ourselves off into our own economic demographic, and not seeing the people around us.”

“I’m not saying I want a handout or anything for free. I just want something fair and just,” Johnson said.

Nowhere is the Bay Area’s income disparity more apparent, than at the places where low-paid workers sort through what the rest of us throw away.  That’s the focus of Thursday’s “Getting By” report in our cover story series.

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