The Wake County Justice Center was all but closed by 4:45 on a recent Thursday afternoon. Court clerk Renee Wilkins was alone with her files between the dark-paneled walls of Courtroom 204, organizing the paper trails of the 200-odd cases she’d worked that day.
She sorted the motions and records into boxes and envelopes, stacking each into a bright red cart. As she made final rounds through the bright new courthouse offices, the usual jokes came:
“Off to your next job?” an officer asked in the lobby. “You’ve got to get your energy up,” a Superior Court clerk told her as the two of them crossed the pavilion.
For Wilkins, awake since 5 a.m., the day was only half done.
Trapped by glacial state wages and sparse promotions, the deputy clerk works four jobs to sustain herself and her two sons. She serves dinner most nights at Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub and tends bar at Bodi and Rush Lounge.
Like public and private employees across the state, she has found her pay throttled since the recession: Wilkins, 36, has worked for the state for 10 years, since she moved here from Washington, D.C. She has no college degree and makes $33,000 a year. She has had only a 1.2 percent raise since 2008, while inflation has made life 9 percent more expensive during those five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Clerks’ pay is largely governed by the state, and they have relatively few opportunities for promotion, making them particularly vulnerable to tight state spending, says Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County clerk of court.
Legislators blame stagnant revenues, and managers in state government and public schools report mounting troubles: plans to quit, second jobs. It’s not hard to find teachers who have left for other states.
Most nights, Wilkins sleeps less than two hours. Sometimes she’s home at 4:30 a.m. and up half an hour later for her sons.
“I know I wouldn’t be, like, juggling all these jobs – if I had a raise every year that I was there, I wouldn’t be in this situation. I would think that I could cut back,” Wilkins said in an interview. “I’ve always had two jobs to help, to make it. But just lately I take two steps forward and I get pushed three steps back.”
Little time for sons
On that recent Thursday, Wilkins had two more shifts scheduled – the bar, then the nightclub – after her day at the courthouse. Wilkins took on her fourth job, tending bar at Bodi, 11 months ago.
In all, the extra work can bring in between $600 and $1,000 per month.
“I usually don’t start getting tired until about 11:30, midnight,” she explained brightly. “People ask me, ‘How can you work at the club and at the courthouse, too?’ I need money, so I do it.”
First, though, she was headed home to snatch a little time with her kids. She walked quickly away from the courthouse, through a back lot and past the auto shop where they let her pay at the end of the month, waving to the guy outside.
It’s a 15-minute drive down Poole Road to her town house, just inside the city limits. As they are most days, her boys were waiting at the kitchen table. Ramello, the elder at 13, set himself to cleaning and reorganizing – an everyday routine to make things easier.
Damarco, 8, sat for a homework check at the kitchen table. This would be his closest moment with his mother today, except for the early morning rush.
“If you turn this in, how is she going to know who it’s from, if you don’t put your name on it?” Wilkins teased.
Then she was gone upstairs to get ready for a few hours at Napper Tandy’s and Rush Lounge, the boys still at the table.
When their sports aren’t in season, the boys spend many afternoons and evenings by themselves. It’s hard for Wilkins to get them to after-school activities, so her friends take them some days; during some school breaks they stay with family and their father, Darryl Wilkins. He is unemployed; he and his family contribute up to $1,000 per year for the boys’ care.
Ramello and Damarco have “brother talk” when they get too lonely, and both boys’ eyes well with tears when they talk too much about their mother’s schedule. Ramello wants to be a mechanic – to be his own boss, so he can give himself time with his kids.
The family of three is most likely to be together on Saturday mornings and Monday nights, when Wilkins doesn’t have to go back to work until late. They’ll lie in bed to watch a movie, or Wilkins will sit on the stoop as the boys play with friends.
On most nights, though, they see each other only briefly. Otherwise they communicate by phone and whiteboard messages.
So half an hour after she came home that weeknight, Wilkins was hustling back down the stairs, looking like a different woman – no glasses, her hair in a flourished bun, short black sleeves partially revealing a tattoo of her sons’ names.
Damarco tried to hide his tears, staring at a mobile video screen as his mother hugged him. Ramello said goodbye and watched their mom leave again. They’d be asleep when she returned.
Years with no raise
Wilkins remembers a similar routine with her father, just grasping for the few minutes she could get. When he worked the late shift with the U.S. Postal Service, she’d wake him up about 8:30 each evening. Then she’d sit with him, pretending to like the coffee they sipped.
Now, as the parent, she finds ways to make it work. One of Wilkins’ girlfriends will care for Damarco sometimes. When Ramello gets too frustrated – when he stops bottling it up – he and his mother talk things over at Denny’s or IHOP, wherever she has a coupon.
But Wilkins wonders how long this can continue. She has no savings. She won’t have her head above water until spring, she said, and even then her 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier is just waiting to die.
“I hate the situation that I’m in,” Wilkins said as she drove to her next job. “Of course, I never pictured myself being this way, divorced and raising two kids on my own.”
“My life is like ‘Groundhog Day,’” she said. “I wake up and do the same thing every day. I don’t have ‘me’ time.”
There are no figures available on the number of state employees working multiple jobs. But it’s clear that some state employees have been losing ground when compared with workers in the private sector; private-market salaries for similar jobs have outpaced state employees’ raises in all but two of the past 10 years, according to the Office of State Personnel’s 2013 report on compensation and benefits.
During the recession, fewer people have quit state jobs, most likely because of a difficult job market. The state’s wages report found the private equivalents of public jobs also have suffered stagnant wages since the recession hit. But Freeman, Wake County’s clerk of court, reports that her turnover rate is rising – and that those who don’t leave are being left behind as the economy recovers.
About a quarter of the Wake County Clerk of Court’s 160 employees “are at the minimum pay range, minimum salary,” Freeman said. Though she loves her job, Wilkins had to be coaxed back to it in 2010, when she left for five months out of frustration.
“What we are seeing, unfortunately, is that the clerks statewide, our turnover rate is rising, and rising pretty substantially, and so we are losing experience,” Freeman said.
State Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, a lead Republican budget writer, said wage stagnation was a result of the economic downturn and previous fiscal miscalculations.
Wages have largely been frozen since “you really had the teeth of the effects of the recession take hold,” he said. Republicans in the General Assembly avoided furloughs, he said, and were able to institute a 1.2 percent raise for public employees in 2012.
“We were wanting to be in position to do a raise this year, but the funds were simply not there,” he said. Dollar blamed earlier miscalculations regarding Medicaid for part of the budget hole – though a Republican-led change to the tax system also lowered revenues for the current two-year budget by about $500 million.
A 1 percent raise for state employees and teachers would cost $135 million a year.
Legislators could find money in the budget if they changed their priorities, said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. Cope added that while they scrambled for Medicaid money, lawmakers left in place, for example, a cap of $1,500 on sales taxes on boats, which costs the state $10 million in potential annual revenue, and cut corporate and personal income taxes.
And although the recent raise was “appreciated,” he said, it wasn’t a significant start on what he calls a crisis.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We have people who are literally on food stamps and child care subsidies. They can’t make it on their government job, on their salary.”
The legislature “fully expects” to raise pay for teachers and state employees next year, Dollar said. Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who represents Wake County, said the state should make several years of larger-than-usual raises, rather than an occasional election-year concession.
“I think that 20 or 30 years ago, people looked at state government as being a good job with good benefits and a fair retirement,” Jackson said. Now, he said, it’s hard to explain why state-funded employees’ wages are stagnant while tax cuts disproportionately benefit the state’s wealthiest residents.
Napper Tandy’s is almost the opposite of the new courthouse a few blocks away. It’s dark inside; the brightest lights, leaking beneath the kitchen’s swinging door, come from a board listing specials.
Wilkins arrived 15 minutes late on that recent Thursday. She’s almost always late, but the management doesn’t hassle her.
Most of that night’s crew held two or three jobs, a bartender explained. They’re younger than Wilkins, trying to scrape together their own livings, some supporting children. To them, the do-it-all clerk is some kind of hero or mother figure.
“You are famous because you don’t sleep. You are known because you don’t sleep,” Alyson Bailey gushed to Wilkins between drink runs. “You’re the captain of Team No-Sleep.”
Wilkins smiled and laughed, then hustled off to another table. It went like this for several hours – shuffling inside and outside, back into the kitchen to stoop and load onion rings and entrees onto a platter.
She didn’t stop for dinner. As usual, she took her free meal and stashed it for the next day.
Just before 11 came a break of sorts: A couple of comedians had bailed out of the show planned for Rush Lounge that night. It would be a slow night – probably slower than Monday, when she made $28 at one of her late-night jobs – and the management didn’t need her for her typical 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. bartending shift.
Half-relieved, she made for home, driving one more time along Poole Road. She found her town house dark except for the light from her window. At 11:30 p.m., this counted as a very early arrival.
Slipping inside, she saw the house mostly clean, except the pan and dishes the boys had left in the sink. She put her food in the fridge and walked upstairs to the bedrooms.
Ramello lay in the boys’ bunk bed, the television mute on a paused video game. Damarco slept alone in his mother’s bed, with all the lights on.
Video: Some public employees are making surprisingly big money, but not Renee Wilkins of Raleigh. After five years with just one raise, the Wake court clerk works four jobs. See how she does it.