‘Your own employees are struggling,’ homeless San Jose worker says
Amanda Maulding in a renovated shuttle-bus she now calls home. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose city zookeeper Amanda Maulding never thought securing her dream job would lead to her being homeless, but within two years of starting her job it became clear she was never going to make enough to pay rent.

    Now Maulding, 43, who has worked for the city since 2018, is living in a van that she parks in and around the zoo’s employee parking lot. Maulding was even promoted last year to zoo registrar, responsible for the maintenance of various records relating to animals and their care, and it came with a pay increase — but she said it still isn’t enough.

    “It’s really frustrating because I think I’ve done everything quote unquote right,” Maulding told San José Spotlight. “This is probably one of the poorest times I’ve ever had in my entire life and it’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m finally in a senior level position and I’m relying on friends to help take me out to dinner a couple times a week.”

    Maulding considers herself ‘houseless’ as opposed to homeless. She makes $27 an hour, or $56,000 annually, but said even renting a bedroom on that salary isn’t an option.  Many of her coworkers are facing a similar dilemma, and have either moved out of San Jose – enduring long commutes from places like Tracy or Stockton – or have just left the state for different opportunities because the pay doesn’t match the cost of living, she said.

    “So many people are working two or three jobs  just to try to make ends meet,” Maulding said. “I think in the years I have been here, I’ve seen the team completely turn over three times except for a couple folks.”

    Mayor Matt Mahan said the city has a “moral imperative” to provide immediate solutions to those struggling to stay housed, and encouraged people like Maulding to contact his office to help access housing and other services.

    “It’s the need to protect core services like these that make employee wage conversations challenging – they require tradeoffs,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

    Huascar Castro, housing director with nonprofit Working Partnerships USA, said Maulding’s story is a glaring reminder that homelessness could impact anyone, even a full time city employee.

    “If the city does not invest in their employees by paying them family sustaining wages, we will be at risk of witnessing a mass exodus of city workers leaving for other municipalities that offer better wages and benefits,” Castro said. “We already see that happening.”

    Maulding said she can’t get herself to leave her job because it “finally feels like home” and is a role she could see herself in for the rest of her life, even though the burdens of juggling the demands of the job and life have become overwhelming.

    “I had to max out all of my credit cards and like absolutely spend every last cent I had to try to keep things afloat,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’m still trying to recover from that time where I was having to just basically hemorrhage money trying to keep things going here.”

    Amanda Maulding shows where she pulls down her bed in her van, which doubles as her home. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Fight for better pay

    Instead of quitting, Maulding is focusing her attention on the fight for better salaries. She’s one of the thousands of city employees who say they are ready to strike because of stalled salary negotiations with the city. This week, the city’s two largest unions – IFPTE Local 21 and MEF-AFSCME Local 101 – began conducting in-person voting of members to authorize a three-day strike.

    The two unions are demanding a 7% increase for 2023-24, 6% in 2024-25 and 5% in 2025-26, a battle that has been ongoing since March. On Tuesday, city council directed staff to see if it can offer raises closer to the union demands ahead of a looming strike – the largest the city would experience in 40 years, potentially leading to a shutdown of several city services.

    Last year, employees in her union received a 4.5% increase, but Maulding said “it didn’t even make a blip on any of our paychecks.”

    Mahan has yet to disclose whether the city will provide another offer to unions.

    “We’ve successfully negotiated fair deals with four bargaining units already this year, and we’re working hard to finalize deals with our remaining unions that are fair to both our workforce and our residents,” Mahan said.

    The city is counter-offering with a 5% increase for the 2023-24 fiscal year, 4% in 2024-25 and 3% the year after. But the unions, along with Maulding, say that is not enough.

    “We’re your own employees. We’re your own people,” Maulding said. “How is it okay for you to know how badly your own employees are struggling and to still be digging your heels in the ground to not (negotiate and) make it better for them?”

    Workers need a living wage

    Castro said while a 7% raise is not enough to combat the soaring costs of living and housing crisis, it can help stabilize people so they don’t lose their housing or are priced out of the city they serve.

    Nearly 800 jobs — or 12% of full time positions — in San Jose are vacant. Unionized employees say this growing issue is due in large part to workers being overworked and underpaid — and in the case of people like Maulding — not paid enough to even live in a home.

    A recent report by Working Partnerships USA found that San Jose could afford to increase wages without cutting services by using the budget surplus created from the nearly 800 jobs — or 12% of full time positions. This could amount up to $28 million, according to the study. Unions are asking that those savings go toward pay raises, but the city previously said it cannot reallocate the money set aside for vacancies.

    Unionized employees say the ongoing hiring hole has workers overworked and underpaid.

    “City workers aren’t just employees — they’re also residents and integral members of our community,” Castro told San José Spotlight. “We need to come together as a city and support them.”

    Union workers will vote whether to strike in the coming days. The decision will be made public on Aug. 7.

    “We’ve reached that point where we have to take a stand and put our foot down,” Maulding said. “We have been making sacrifices for years because we love this job, but it’s getting to the point now where we just we can’t sacrifice anymore.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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