ST. LOUIS (WOMENSENEWS) — Shawntay Nicole keeps a check for $100,000 at her desk at the information-technology company where she works as an office manager and is one of three employees.

The check is symbolic.

She wrote it to herself to keep in mind the annual salary she both deserves and needs, considering the job responsibilities she juggles while caring for her two children.

Four years ago, Nicole fled the home she shared with an abusive partner and later, after surviving homelessness, landed her current job. At first she was thrilled. But after two years of employment, the 30-year-old is fed up with her $11-an-hour pay rate, which can’t possibly cover what she needs for clothes, rent, electricity, cell phone, car and student loans.

“My daughter has gone through five pairs of shoes since September,” Nicole says of her eldest in kindergarten. “And school is not even over yet.”

For a 30-hour week, Nicole earns $1,320 a month, or about $16,000 a year, which is $3,000 below the federal government’s poverty threshold. Her job offers no health benefits, vacation, sick time, overtime or retirement savings plan, so Nicole receives food stamps and Medicaid to survive.

Nicole’s title is office manager, but the company is so small that she says her actual job has her filling both lower-ranked clerical functions and higher management duties.

“I’m responsible for any HR matters,” she says, referring to human resources, which in her case includes administering payroll and hiring and training a sales representative. “I design all the advertisements, marketing and sales, and I find new leads. At one point, I was doing so much, I had to stop. I got burned out.”

Nicole is one of the leagues of U.S. women who dominate the occupations of secretary and office manager. Women were 90 percent of the country’s nearly 1, 956,000 secretaries in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and nearly 70 percent of the country’s 1,365,000 office managers.

In 2011, the mean annual income for secretaries was $33,020, or about $15.87 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The mean pay for office managers was $52, 330 or about $25 an hour.

Working Part-Time for the Kids

Nicole works part-time so she can pick up her children from school. Compared with counterparts working the same hours, Nicole makes two-thirds the mean income for secretaries and less than half of the mean income for office managers.

To supplement her earnings, Nicole receives Medicaid, or public health insurance; food stamps totaling $375 a month, and Section 8 housing, which cuts the cost of rent to $232 a month.

Now Nicole frets that her student loan bills might go into default. If she doesn’t resume her $80 a month payment soon, the federal government will take the money directly out of her annual tax refund check.

Nicole graduated from a prestigious private high school, completed two years of college and later earned a certificate in biotechnology while homeless. She says she tried to get a high-paying corporate job in the field but discrimination barred the way to an elite job.

“I had all of these first and second interviews, but never got the job in corporate. It boiled down to the fact that I’m a black woman with little experience but plenty of determination. Some may see my strength as a threat to the image of corporate America.”

Nicole is now planning to open a business of her own, a natural-hair care company. On the side she also performs amateur stand-up comedy, which she says she treats like therapy.

Busy Juggling

On a recent Wednesday, Nicole was busy juggling her responsibilities: answering phones, writing down messages and whipping up a proposal assigned to her at the last minute.

A combination of needing the job and hesitating to ask for better pay leads many women like Nicole to shoulder heavy workloads without additional compensation, says Tiffany McDaniel, founder of Amani Coaching, a St. Louis-based empowerment company focused on female entrepreneurs. “If you have a job offer, you can lose that opportunity if you ask for a higher salary…You feel like it’s the only option. Of course it’s not the only option, but what if you have two children and you have to feed them today?”

Shortly after finishing the funding proposal, Nicole left the office to pick up her aunt and drive her to her own place to babysit her children. Then she headed to the social services office to renew her food stamps.

It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the office was crowded. Nicole grabbed a ticket and waited, and waited and waited. Nearly two hours later, a clerk told her all the caseworkers had gone home.

Nicole threw a fit. Why didn’t anyone say the case workers had gone?

The clerk griped about staff downsizing. With 2,000 people coming into the office that day, Nicole was just one in a sea of people.

The clerk suggested Nicole fill out an application and call to check up on the renewal.

Later that night, Nicole stood on the stage of Lola, a comedy club in downtown St. Louis, where a crowd of about 50 people, African Americans of all ages, looked on.

“Who else is on food stamps!?” Nicole asked. Hands in the crowd shot up. “Can I borrow a book until I get mine on the 11th?”

Some in the crowd laughed and drew in closer to hear her riff on her bad day in the food-stamp-renewal office. Once off stage, Nicole met with a promoter who was considering booking her for a show that would pay her three times what she makes in a day at the technology company.

A week later, Nicole spent a portion of a Friday night at an advisory panel for budding entrepreneurs in St. Louis. At the event, she met McDaniel, the empowerment coach, and gave her a copy of her business plan.

“I am pretty much in the future already,” says Nicole. “This is all circumstantial. I am just focused on what’s ahead of me.”

Malena Amusa is a freelance reporter based in St. Louis.

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