High gas prices really sting low-wage workers
Joe and Jim Barth run their landscaping business on gasoline. It powers their trucks, lawnmowers and weed-whackers, and now it threatens to run the father-son operation out of business.
As gas prices soared well above $2 a gallon in recent months, the two owners of Jebco Horticultural Services watched their monthly fuel bill jump 50 percent. That bill began eating away at their profits, their future and the future of their 10 workers, who earn roughly $10 an hour.
"If we don't get any relief we might not see another year," said Lorna Barth, who founded the business with her husband, Joe, a quarter-century ago. "We put our lives on hold waiting to make sure the business keeps going."
The threat is a sign that sky-high gas prices are rippling through the Seattle economy. Not everyone is getting pushed to the brink -- some drivers are just canceling vacations or taking the bus. But those with low-wage jobs or little financial cushion can face dramatic lifestyle changes, especially if they have no choice but to drive to or for their jobs.
Ana Rosales, for example, is considering leaving her Delridge neighborhood so she can be closer to her 10-month-old daughter's day care. It's 15 miles away, and Rosales, 23, drives another 15 miles to work. She loses a chunk of her pay as a cruise line reservation agent every time she pays $30 to $40 to fill up her 1986 Camry.
"Having to kick out all this extra money on gas -- it just kills us," said Rosales, who earns $11.60 an hour. "I am pretty much living paycheck to paycheck."
And prices may stay high, according to industry types who keep a close eye on energy futures, complicated financial markets that offer a glimpse of future gas prices.
Crude oil futures -- basically educated guesses on how much oil will cost in the future -- are down a bit from a record level reached earlier in April, but may not fall much further.
"The chances of any big move in oil prices are slim," said Trilby Lundberg, whose California-based research firm surveyed 7,000 gas stations. Retail gasoline prices are likely to be "somewhat stable" in coming months.
The Barths hope the odds-makers on Wall Street are wrong.
That's because oil permeates their Duvall-based landscaping business. Their four pickups log 400 to 500 miles a week, petroleum is in their PVC irrigation pipes and even woven into their fertilizers.
When Lorna and Joe Barth started Jebco Horticultural in 1980, though, they had little idea how factors surrounding gasoline -- taxes, war and public policies -- could threaten their livelihood.
A gallon of unleaded gasoline sold for $1.22 that March, falling as low as 80 cents a gallon in December 1986, according to AAA data.
Yesterday that same gallon of gas averaged $2.51 at pumps around Seattle, Bellevue and Everett, according to AAA. And it wasn't hard to find gas priced even higher.
At current prices, the Barths' debt load gets heavier every month. One Jebco credit card holds $7,000 worth of charges for gas.
"We are not talking about just not being able to go on vacation -- we are talking about losing everything: a lifelong family business," Lorna Barth said. "There is no room to cut anymore."
Mary Scott doesn't have much room to cut as a part-time janitor making $9.15 an hour. A year ago, Scott put aside $30 every two weeks for her 22-mile daily commute. Now, she reserves $50.
She is dipping into her individual retirement account, as she hopes for more hours at the Everett and Lynwood office buildings she cleans from 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
"I haven't changed my spending habits a lot because there is not much room for change," said Scott, 62. "It just hurts a little bit more."
Mayra Ubieta isn't about to lose everything. But, like other local drivers, she is stunned by prices at area gas stations, even if she is unsure what she can do about it.
Every other day, the West Seattle property manager pumps $10 worth of unleaded gas into her minivan just to drive 10 to 14 miles.
"It's sickening, and they're raising it again," Ubieta said yesterday.
Ubieta was referring to the 9.5-cent gas tax that state lawmakers approved over the weekend. The government will phase in the new levy over four years, adding 3 cents to a gallon of gas in July.
Tim Hamilton, who represents independent gas station owners, argues the impact of gas prices extends far beyond the number of miles people put on their cars. When people pay more for gas, they spend less at the movies, shopping malls and elsewhere, says Hamilton, Olympia-based executive director of AUTO, which represents independent gasoline retailers.
The cutbacks can curtail economic growth and reduce tax revenue, particularly in states like Washington that rely on sales taxes, according to Hamilton.
Hamilton says higher gas prices reach as far as real estate, since the Federal Reserve has been known to raise interest rates to guard against inflation, and gasoline is a key driver of prices.
Not everyone is screaming about the cost of gas, however. Todd Dougherty, who has delivered Zeeks pizzas around Seattle for years, takes a far more stoic view.
He says some of his customers realize it costs more to deliver their pies, and some even sweeten the tip.
Despite the public outcry, the veteran driver also hasn't noticed a big difference from last year, not that he could do anything about it.
"It still sucks."
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