(WOMENSENEWS)--Early one recent morning--on one of her only days off that week--Ingrid Monterousse, a licensed cosmetologist, was rushing around her apartment in New Jersey getting ready for her daughter Lillie's 8th birthday.
Between picking up kids and family members and last-minute party details, there was a lot to handle. One thing nagging her was the venue. She'd wanted to hold Lillie's party at American Girl Doll, but it was too much money. Instead the party was at BounceU, a less expensive kids' party place offering inflatable toys. She needed to watch costs.
The erratic scheduling and long hours are not the hardest part of Monterousse's world as a retail worker, where she joins the ranks of about 4 million Americans, according to 2012 statistics from the Bureau of Labor, the latest year for which data is available. These days, the reality is she might have to file for bankruptcy.
"I can't seem to actually get rid of my school debt," said Monterousse, in one of several phone interviews held at odd hours that she squeezed into her hectic schedule. "I need to get rid of the unnecessary and start over so I can actually be approved for a credit card one day or a new apartment. I hardly get approved for anything. It is a real pain."
Monterousse has about $17,000 of debt hanging over her. Much of it, she said, is accumulated interest. "You have all this added-on interest. It wasn't worth that much in the first place."
The bulk of the debt came from courses that Monterousse took when she thought she was working toward a film degree, before she decided the degree would be too expensive. Hospital and car bills added on, along with some other miscellaneous purchases.
Her debt burden means she cannot get approved for a credit card. Monterousse pays cash and lives paycheck-to-paycheck.
Monterousse, 33, has worked in retail for about five years. Since September 2012 she has worked full time, five days a week, for Clinique, the New York-based cosmetics company, in the Lord and Taylor flagship store in Manhattan.
Above Average Earnings
Her annual salary of about $38,000 is higher than the 2012 median salary reported by the Labor Department of $20,980. But in the relatively expensive New York region, she said she is barely able to keep up with her living costs and depends on some forms of public assistance.
Monterousse was just recently offered health insurance through her company, but for the time being she and her daughter still rely on Medicaid, the public health program. She also receives a small monthly amount from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. She applied for Hurricane Sandy emergency stamps and has been getting help ever since the November disaster to help cover lost income for when she was unable to work.
On any weekday Monterousse is up at 7:30 a.m. getting Lillie ready for school.
She has been separated from her husband for almost a decade and receives Social Security money for Lillie through his benefits.
Monterousse is currently living with her partner of two years and is very grateful for her cousin, who lives in the same apartment building and helps care for Lillie. By 8:30 a.m. either Monterousse or her cousin will have Lillie at school.
At some point later in the day, dressed in the Clinique dress code of black shirt, black pants and a black lab coat, she will take a 30-minute bus commute from New Jersey to Manhattan. She has a car, but she said the bus is faster.
Her shifts start anywhere from 9:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. She said she is in the work building for at least nine hours; a shift is about eight and she gets an hour break.
The earliest Monterousse would be off work is 6:15 p.m. and the latest is 9:15 p.m., which gets her home around 11 if she misses the 9:15 bus. Night buses run about every hour.
If she is unable to pick up her daughter from school, her mother or her cousin will get her. She said this all changes, of course, during the holidays.
Monterousse lives in Carteret, N.J., her hometown. After graduating from the local high school she attended a few colleges--including Columbia College in Chicago--before settling down to cosmetology, which she found she enjoyed.
She has not been on vacation in a few years and would love to get away for her own mental health. However, the most important thing right now is trying to pay down her loans and her bills.
If she does file for bankruptcy, she has a dream of building a retirement plan.
"I want a future that I don't have now," she said. "I really need savings. I don't have emergency funds. I want to build that."
She said she might be able to move up in leadership at her job or move to a different store to make more money.
Monterousse believes eventually she will find a job that can provide her and her family with more comfortable living because of her experience and hard work ethic.
"I have a lot to offer," said Monterousse. "God willing, I will find something."
Monterousse said she often enjoys her work. "I love working in retail because of the numbers and the abundance of people you meet." She said she loves talking to different people and learning new things from them. She also enjoys the fast-paced work.
But some days she feels the cons outweigh all that.
Erratic hours are tough. Monterousse also feels disposable; easily replaced. Her cosmetology degree from a Piscataway, N.J., vocational school hasn't given her the "one-up" she'd hoped it would.
The quality of her interaction with customers doesn't seem to help her advance when employers are focused on the sheer size of the customer base. "The customers, the clients, in retail, they're just numbers," she said.
She said jobs are insecure unless workers achieve "outrageous and unrealistic numbers." The worst part, she added, is that workers have nowhere to turn; no union and no one in their companies to listen to their hardships.
Monterousse did find the New York-based Retail Action Project, which has approximately 3,000 members, according to Yana Walton, communications director at the project, who connected Women's eNews with Monterousse for the purpose of this story.
In October 2012 the project launched the Just Hours campaign, initially called the Sustainable Scheduling campaign, to help workers fight erratic scheduling that comes from "on-call" shifts. Its most recent campaign is petitioning Juicy Couture, the clothing company based in Los Angeles, for eliminating full-time positions and replacing them with part-time jobs to avoid giving workers health care.
Maggie Freleng is an editorial assistant for Women's eNews; she lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter "at" dixiy89.
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