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September 1, 2014

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economy:

For under-employed, life is paycheck-to-paycheck

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Justin M. Bowen

Marianne Berger was laid off from her job as a licensed practical nurse at Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center in November.

Marianne Berger looks like a woman who has been caring for others for more than 30 years. Her shoulders are slumped. Her graying hair is pulled back away from her face, which seems weary, but most of all, disappointed.

For the last 21 years, she worked as a licensed practical nurse at Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center in central Las Vegas, where her coworkers were like family and she made up to $85,000 a year with overtime and weekend bonuses.

After being out of work for three months, she took a 50 percent pay cut to take a similar job and get back to doing what she loves.

Berger, a union worker at Desert Springs, often worked 60 hours a week at the hospital. She was laid off in November, along with seven other LPNs who worked in direct patient care.

Hospital officials haven't returned calls seeking comment.

"They told us it was for economic reasons but I really don't believe that," said Berger, 50, of Las Vegas. "It would've been different if there was no work for us, but I was still working at least one more day a week and so were some of the other girls."

Her voice is absolute and deep as she quotes facts and figures about her finances without flinching, despite how grim they are.

Unemployment in Clark County continued to inch up to 10.1 percent in February with a record 102,500 workers jobless, the state Department of Unemployment announced Friday.

Staring at dead ends, she applied for jobs beneath her experience level and skill set, far beneath the wage she needed to live comfortably.

She even looked outside of the medical field, but there were no good options.

"Everything they were looking for, they wanted some experience," Berger said. "But I don't know how to do anything except be a nurse. I suppose I could work at McDonald's. I did that when I was a teenager. I thought about going back and learning something else, but there wasn't anything else I wanted to do."

The job loss was especially unsettling because she, like many in the medical field, was told the demand for health care workers would never cease.

Berger is one of the lucky few who found work in her field. In her roughly three months of unemployment, she and her husband (who was also out of work) spent what they had in savings and took money from their 401k accounts.

Now, she's making about $40,000 a year — less than half as much as her previous job paid — at a rehabilitation hospital. She's doing almost the same work, she said.

Cashing out the retirement savings — which shrank to $11,000 after the market crashed — hurt even more because taking money before retirement comes with a penalty. They used the money to pay monthly bills that were more than 2 1/2 times what unemployment was paying.

Her husband, a security guard, is now working part-time.

The Bergers' bills are about $3,600 a month; combined, they're bringing in about $3,000.

Berger said she hopes she can make ends meet close enough to keep her home.

She and her husband have a fixed-rate mortgage on their condo. They bought before the boom years when prices were low, and they didn't refinance. And they're not carrying a balance on the credit card — yet.

The new job not only pays a lower base salary, it also offers fewer opportunities for overtime. She turned down overtime the first time it was offered to meet with the reporter for this story.

"I sure could've used the extra money," she said.

Berger is working about 36 hours a week — including weekends — and doesn't know how she and her husband are going to get by. Her husband wishes his job was full-time, she said.

Like many families in Las Vegas, they'll supplement their income with money from their 401k accounts that had been tucked away for retirement. Berger jokes that maybe she'll die before she would need it.

Like many families in Las Vegas, they'll live paycheck to paycheck.

Like many who have lost jobs, she can only repeat: "It's not fair. I've worked hard all my life."

Becky Bosshart can be reached at 990-7748 or [email protected].

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