For years, Mee Lin Youk could calculate her professional worth to the penny: $21 an hour, plus perks like free flights and health insurance to soothe the pain from loading planes for American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport.
Nothing has changed about the fleet service clerk's physically taxing job except the pay: An outsourcing firm is now offering just $8.50 an hour with no benefits, if Youk and her coworkers decide to reapply.
After writing three columns in a row about how the unemployed remain a legion of suffering in spite of jobs reports and campaign claims, I found Youk's overnight economic devaluation to be an equally infuriating story of our time.
As worried as she is about being laid off, can any 54-year-old with a mortgage afford to stay on the job under such onerous terms?
"Good workers make good companies," Youk reasons, "and good pay makes good workers."
But, as we know, pay and people are under siege in every industry. On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Daily News editorialized about America becoming a land of low-wage "second-class jobs," a place where underemployment should be feared as much as unemployment.
New Jersey political players are dismantling the Camden Police Department in favor of a larger force made up of some of the same officers receiving reduced benefits and less overtime. Teachers, of all professions, have been vilified for what they earn. Given this climate, the only people likely to emerge from American's controversial bankruptcy better off than before are the executives.
"This is corporate terrorism," Youk alleges, "and they're holding our society hostage."
Good work for hard workers
Youk was standing in line at a Philadelphia unemployment office when she heard American was hiring. The 24-year-old had completed a training program aimed at placing women in nontraditional (read: physical) jobs. Strong and determined to crash into the middle class, she was game for anything the airline could throw at her.
She started at $6.50 an hour part-time in 1983. She saw her last raise, to $21 an hour, in 2003. For those slow to crunch the numbers, the airline wants her 2013 pay to be just $2 an hour more than her entry-level wage was 30 years earlier.
"I deice planes and load and unload freight and hazardous materials in 100-degree heat," Youk explains when I ask how she spends her shift. "I lift 100-pound bags and coffins with military bodies. The last few months, I've touched $9 million of Federal Reserve money every day - 150 blocks, each weighing over 50 pounds."
Along the way, Youk has suffered injuries to her knees, back, neck, wrist, and thigh. But thanks to gradually rising wages, she has had the means to buy a home in Southwest Philadelphia, become a spoken-word poet, mentor neighborhood children, and amass 25 credits toward a degree in psychology.
"I was an at-risk kid, but I bettered myself," Youk tells me over the yapping of her pug puppy, Moi Moi. "I became an asset to my community as a result of building up my economic independence."
Out the door at 54
Then, and now, "ramp" workers like Youk have been represented by Transit Workers Union Local 501.
The national union questioned whether American should even file for restructuring, given that the airline had billions in the bank. Initial plans called for laying off 9,000 workers, mostly TWU members. That number has been whittled to 1,800 - 600 mechanics and 1,200 fleet workers like Youk, who received their WARN notices last week.
The union vociferously supports a proposed merger with US Airways, which vowed to spare the jobs. But for now, the bankruptcy case presses on and Youk has accepted being shown the door at 54.
"I'm finally No. 1 in terms of seniority," she laughs, "but to stay would be stupid."
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, email@example.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.