There’s a joke about the employment scene in Vermont: “What do you call a Vermonter with two jobs? Lazy.”
In other words, it can take three or more jobs to make a living in Vermont. At one point that was the case for Susan Boston, of Woodstock. Several years ago she worked as a church secretary, as a bookkeeper for the Woodstock Historical Society and as H.R. director/office manager for a startup.
“And I had friends who teased me: ‘So how many jobs do you have today, Susan?’" she says. "And then I found out that I wasn’t the only person in Vermont that had three jobs. There are a lot of people.”
This is true. In 2015, Vermont's "multiple-jobholding rate" (calculated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics as the percentage of individuals holding more than one job) was 7.2 — higher than the national average of 4.9.
What Susan wanted to know was: Why? So she put her question to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast. Every month we take on a question about Vermont that’s been submitted and voted on by members of our audience, and Susan’s question is our latest winner.
“I think more broadly a lot of people are combining jobs because they want to stay in Vermont,” Susan hypothesizes. “I think of people who either stayed here after college or came up to ski and end up staying, I think that that was the necessity to mix and match jobs...I mean I think all three parts of the question are pretty interesting … the combinations of jobs and how people make it work and and the why."
For the why part of Susan’s question — why do so many Vermonters have three jobs? — it seems like the easiest answer has to do with cost of living. Out of the 50 states, our state ranks 45th for affordability — this is according to U.S. News & World Report. And we have the 16th highest state and local tax rates in 2017, per the Tax Foundation. In other words: It’s expensive to live here.
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But then, when you talk to individual people, you realize there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
Take Rachel Grigorian, of Granville. Rachel is on maternity leave right now, but her normal working life goes something like this: From February through November, she works for a landscape design company, doing design work and on-site project management. From roughly November through March, she waitresses at the Flatbread in Waitsfield. And then, typically three times a year, she does modeling shoots for Duluth Trading Company.
Duluth Trading Company sells clothes for rugged outdoors people and tradespeople, and features women such as Rachel who work in the outdoors. She started her career at a firm in Connecticut, where she’s from.
“Even though it had the job security of having one single job all year round, I really just loved having my hands in other things,” she says. “And so when I moved up to Vermont, landscape design work was really seasonal up here, and so I started waitressing in the winters to kind of off-set the seasonality.”
Rachel’s husband also works in the trades, and neither of them gets benefits. They manage their own health insurance, and “retirement’s on us, if we want to do it.”
But despite all this, Rachel says they live comfortably and within their means. She’s able to put all her modeling wages aside for family trips or home repairs. And she says at this point she doesn’t actually need to work three jobs. She wants to.
“It’s enjoyable to me to mix things up throughout the year,” she says. She likes being social, and being outside. And just having something to do.
“I have a hard time sitting still and just hanging out," Rachel says. "In Vermont, you know, you can either live very simply, but it is expensive to live here, especially in the Mad River Valley. So money definitely does play a part in it. But I could also just … try harder for a job that would pay what I needed to, but I enjoy the variety. So I’m kind of content with where I am.”
A portrait of satisfied industriousness. If only it were so for all the Vermonters hustling with multiple jobs.
We put a call out to Vermonters who are working multiple jobs, and asked them to get in touch with us and share their stories. And we heard such a range of experiences:
We wanted to dig deeper into some of these stories — especially to explore the other part of Susan’s question, about how people working three jobs make it work. So we spent time with three Vermonters, from different parts of the state and different walks of life.
Profile by Erica Heilman, host of Rumble Strip
It takes Beth a while to list all the jobs she’s had over the years: “I’ve been a nanny, a cashier, a bartender, scanner, stuffing envelopes, retail clothing stores, bank teller, cash office, I was a dispatcher for 911, I did Medicaid billing, worked in a slaughterhouse…”
Beth is from the town of Orange, and right now she’s got four jobs, some of them under the table, which is why we’re only going to use her first name. She’s 38, and says she’s had multiple jobs ever since graduating from high school.
“Before I had kids I was working almost around the clock,” she says. “I had two private duty [home health care] jobs, I had a nanny job, and just anything else to fill my time. I loved [my life then]. I had so much money. I didn’t have any time to spend it, but it was really good money and I loved my jobs. It was crazy money.”
It was “crazy money,” partly because Beth was working around the clock. She had day jobs and overnight jobs and all of them hourly pay, and none with benefits. Even through her first pregnancy, Beth worked full time at multiple jobs, as a private duty nurse and a pharmacy tech. And after her daughter was born, she went back to work.
And then came twins. And the twins got sick.
“They were very healthy when they were born, but then both twins got really sick with RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] and pneumonia and they were on life support for 10 days,” Beth says. “It gives me goosebumps. So I wasn’t able to work. I wasn’t able to return, because I had been out for so long … I mean, we’re talking almost a month and a half.
“It drained my savings. My parents helped a lot. All of the jobs that were under table…it’s great when your paycheck comes in, but when someone gets sick in your family and you need to take time off, you have nothing. Nothing at all.”
The twins got better, and Beth is now a single mom, working off-and-on for an insurance company in central Vermont. It’s better money — a little more than minimum wage — but it’s never quite enough hours to make ends meet, and never enough to save.
“We moved back into my parents’ house…so now me and my three kids and two cats are living in my parents basement right now,” Beth says. “Working multiple jobs. Four on the table right now. But we still can’t make ends meet. You know, 40 hours a week with this insurance company for a little bit more than minimum wage isn’t a whole lot. I mean, I’ve got an SUV. It costs $60 a week in gas just to get back and forth to this one job.”
Beth is also working on a 700-hour certification in phlebotomy, so she can advance in her career in that field.
“[And] a little bit of private duty on the side, which is maybe $50 a week,” she says. “It’s not much, because the lady can’t afford much. And once a month I do DNA testing — paternity testing.”
At all of these jobs, Beth estimates that she takes home $1,100 a week. And she says her life costs “a lot more” than that.
“Three kids — three growing kids who eat a lot,” she says. “And it’s expensive to eat healthy. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a 2-liter bottle of soda than it is to buy a gallon of milk. And it’s cheaper to buy McDonald’s than it is to buy all the stuff you need for a salad. We get a little in food stamps but it’s not enough. But you make it work. You have to.
“And it helps to know farmers. There’s a farm here in Barre that loves to barter. On their end they’ll give fruits and vegetables, in exchange for work.”
Beth says she learned about this by asking the farmer.
“I saw him out in the field one day, driving his tractor, digging potatoes, so I parked my car and ran across this field to the farmer and said, ‘What do I have to do to get some of these potatoes to feed my family for tonight?’ And he asked me to dig potatoes for an hour, and he would give me one of the bags that I filled. So I got 50 pounds of potatoes for one hour of work. It was a pretty good deal.
“In my head, our future looks like a big beautiful house in the country with a white picket fence and the dog and the kids and everybody’s happy,” Beth says. “But in reality, I really don’t see much changing. Every single penny we have to spend. We don’t have a choice. We need gas in the car, we need food on the table. When I get a little bit extra it seems like something happens. The car needs repair right away or my kid ripped his coat and it’s un-repairable, so I need to buy a new coat. That’s not a huge expense, but when you are rolling pennies for gas, it is a very large expense. We don’t have room for error.”
When asked to respond to Susan’s question directly, Beth says this:
“We have three jobs because we’ve got to make ends meet somewhere. There’s not many jobs out there that will offer you 40 hours plus benefits and all the other good stuff that comes with a good paying job.”
That’s the world she grew up in, Beth says.
“My parents both worked 40 hours a week. They were home by 4 o’clock every night. They left at 7 a.m. and were home by 4 p.m. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she says. “It’s not … you run home from one job, you get the kids fed and then you’re off to another job. That’s not how it should be. You should be able to read a bedtime story to your kids. Brush your teeth with — I know that's ridiculous, but those are things that you treasure when you are in and out the door all day long [and] you see your kids just in passing. It’s hard.”
Profile by Liam Elder Connors
Josh Farr is a young guy — 29 years old, originally from Maine. He studied photography at the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
After he graduated, in 2011, he was scouring Craigslist for jobs.
“And I just stumbled upon this ad for a gallery manager at this nonprofit photography gallery in downtown Brattleboro,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, somebody who works remotely in the field that they studied.’ How exciting would that be?”
To his surprise, Josh got the job. He was going to be the executive director at the Vermont Center for Photography.
“I mean, I had never worked in arts management, let alone nonprofit management," Josh says. "I, admittedly, I didn't really know at that time the extent of what the job meant."
Turns out, the job meant a lot of different things.
“It’s really just me, myself and I doing everything from hanging the exhibits, to painting the walls, to organizing fundraising and annual appeals and managing the dark room and doing digital printing services and organizing workshops and guest speakers,” Josh says.
The thing about this job is that it’s only part-time.
"I'm doing like three full-time jobs in one part-time job,” he says. “I have to accept a certain amount of the fact that it’s a labor of love, and I’m putting in a lot more time on my own time that I do because I want to and because I love to.”
But it didn’t take long for Josh to realize that he would need more than just a part-time job that was only 20 hours a week.
So, he found some side gigs: making bagels, working at the co-op, cleaning a bank — "which was surprisingly sort of meditative and like my own little world I could just go in."
Eventually, Josh found a part-time job doing web and graphic design for another artist in town. And it was a great job — he even got to do some photography. Plus, the office was close to the New England Center for Circus Arts.
“Through that proximity I was also introduced to and took a year and a half's worth of sort of professional clowning classes,” Josh says. “I’m also a clown. I’m just going to sprinkle that on top of everything. That’s how it goes in Brattleboro.”
So, not counting clowning (it’s really more of a hobby), Josh had two part-time jobs. And for a while, that was fine.
“But, you know, it doesn't take long to realize that, 'Hey, my bank account doesn't have quite as much in there as I need, and my gosh, those bills just keep coming,” Josh says.
So, he got a third job working at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.
“They sort of just have me tucked in their quiver as an everything man, whether for photographing events or exhibitions — mostly lately it's been assisting with installation and delivery and pickup of artwork from galleries,” Josh says.
Josh admits, he’s not great at budgeting — he just spends money when he needs to until there’s a perfect storm of expenses.
“It only takes one $500 car repair to all of a sudden make me realize that I can't pay my next bill on time,” he says. “I get in this sort of frantic whirlwind where I sit down and sketch out every single expense and every single income and try to make it work for that week or that month.”
Josh says he’s pulling it off — working long-hours, paying bills, spending time with his girlfriend, watching their two dogs. But he says he can get really stressed out.
“I mean, I sort of stopped counting burnouts after the first dozen or so I guess,” Josh says. “But every time I'd have what I think of as a burnout, I'd think, 'Wow, that's got to be the worst it'll ever get.' And then it gets worse and it gets worse. I think that when there's a certain level of residual stress, it becomes your normal.”
Despite the stress and the burnouts, Josh says he loves his work. All three of his jobs connect him to the arts community in Brattleboro. But that doesn’t mean he wants to stay with these three jobs forever.
“I can play this piecing-together puzzle game for X more years, but I don't know if I could do it for the rest of my life,” Josh says.
One day, Josh says he hopes to have one job that he loves.
“Oh, God, I am so jealous of some of my friends who have like a 9-to-5 ... predictable-with-benefits-paid-vacation-health-insurance job,” he says. “I've never had health insurance or benefits. And I know that if I had that and I lived that for several years, I probably could very well ask to undo that and go back to where I am now.”
Josh says that he’d like to stay in Brattleboro, and he wishes he could be more certain about settling down there. He says if could make his job at the Vermont Center for Photography full-time, he would.
“It's always been a dream of mine to make this into a full-time job that would support me indefinitely," he says. "I mean, one of my biggest challenges about thinking about staying in Brattleboro and starting a family in Brattleboro is whether or not there are the financial circumstances to support me indefinitely.
"If you were going to ask me what’s the next five to 10 years, [I'd say] high potential of children, of picking that place to raise a family, and of course landing that dream job that you always wanted."
Profile by Lynne McCrea
“You know, if you told me, OK, ‘Ten years from now you’re going to be working as a paraeducator, coaching three sports a year, and on weekends working in a facility doing maintenance,’ I would have said, ‘No, I don’t know what you’re thinking,’” Bill Belmonte says. “But that's what happened.”
Bill lives in Rutland, and his working life has had two very distinct chapters. He got his first job just out of college in 1984, at Killington Ski Resort. And for the next 23 years, Bill says he worked his way into upper management and made a great salary. Life was good.
“Traveling and skiing, and having time off,” he recalls. “Bought things without thinking twice, and stuff like that. I was a lot more charitable.”
Then, the resort changed ownership. In 2007, there were layoffs.
“When I got let go of my job up at Killington, I remember that day, it was a terrible day,” Bill says. “People just walking around filling boxes, packing up their offices, and the people that didn't lose the jobs — they were actually more upset.”
Over the course of the next few years Bill found — and then was laid off from — three different jobs.
“You know, going on a job interview when you haven’t been on a job interview in 23 years — oh my God! There's … no antiperspirant that works on days like that. I was never so nervous. And, you know, you're older. And you just lost a job, and you know in the back of their mind is, ‘Why did they get rid of this guy and kept the other ones?’”
Keep in mind, the Great Recession was now in full swing. And Bill didn’t know it at the time, but he was one of those people who would never quite get back to where he’d been.
“[I’d] send out 100 resumes and hear back from maybe 10,” he says. “That was scary. That was scary.”
One of the jobs Bill got during these years was managing a temp agency in Rutland.
“You just would go out and try to make sales and find business that day, and there was just nothing out there … It reminded me of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman when he just, you know, just couldn’t sell anything.”
At one point Bill says he actually had to lay off other workers.
“And everybody was in the same boat, but nobody wanted to admit it," he says. "We all wanted to say ‘No, no, we’ll get through it, we’ll find a way.’”
Bill himself was eventually laid off from that job. He says one thing he learned during those years is the real meaning of resilience.
“Got really good at being the new guy,” he says. “If you ever want to be humbled again, go get a new job, and be there the first day … when you've got people half your age that are your supervisors.”
And at some point, Bill realized he was going to need to reinvent himself. So he put his degree in education to use, and, starting five years ago he became a full-time paraeducator at Rutland High School.
He also channeled his love of skiing and running into a second job: He coaches after-school sports. Between these two jobs, Bill is at school from 7 a.m. until about 5:30 p.m., when practice ends. On days when there’s an out-of-town race, it’s even later.
“It's a lot of fun," he says, "but getting off the bus at 9 o’clock at night and waiting for that last kid to get picked up, and then going home, and saying hi to your wife and cat who have been sleeping for a little while … And then you're back here at 7 o’clock the next day … But it's — it's fine.”
It’s “fine,” maybe, because Bill says he loves his jobs, working with kids. But he makes a lot less than when he was at Killington.
“Oh, I make half of what I used to make right now,” he says. “Actually a little less than half.”
And that’s what prompted Bill to pick up a third job. This one is on Saturdays: Bill does cleaning and maintenance at a local retail outlet.
“The first two jobs I do to make ends meet,” he says, “and the third job I do so I can start to put money away for — who knows what oil is going to cost, and I’ve got a 12-year-old truck, and our house hasn't had the attention I wish it could have had the last few years.”
So this is the second chapter of Bill’s work life: three jobs, for a lot less money, working a lot more hours. Pretty dramatic turn from chapter one.
“I used to be fun,” Bill says with a short laugh. “I used to have a lot of activities that I’d do, but, you know, now there’s certain things that I can't justify paying for. [I’m] fortunate that I did a lot of fun things when I was younger.
“At my age – I’m 55 – you get pretty tired. You get pretty tired … What’s fortunate is the physical fitness that I do after school is really helpful, that really keeps my head clear. And my wife and I have been together for almost 31 years, and so thank God for her.”
This is part of how Bill makes his three jobs “work”: He keeps a positive attitude. Remember that he coaches high school sports. And listening to him talk, it’s almost like he’s coaching himself:
“It's made you have to appreciate what you don’t have anymore, and try to look at it in a way that, “Hey, I didn’t lose those jobs, I found other ones.
“I bought a passport last year. And I’ve never had a passport. And some people said, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘I don't know, but I’ve got a passport now.’ And if I win the lottery, or something comes down, I'm ready. And so, buying that was kind of a way to say ‘don't lose hope.’
“Just not having the time is the tough part – to just kick back. And the feeling that I can't take my foot off the pedal. And just always looking towards the next little bit of stability.
“And sometimes I feel like I'm a failure. You know, it's like, what did I do, you know? But … you look at all the other people in the same boat or worse, and they didn't do anything wrong. It's just — it happened to a lot of people.
“I’m still not over the fact that the people that caused Wall Street to collapse are making more money than they know what to do with right now. They got away with it. And then you see schools closing, police departments cutting back, and it’s just like, 'well wait a minute!', you know? And while a lot of people never got affected by it — they stayed in the same job — and a lot of people are doing fine right now, a lot of people aren’t."
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.
Editing this month by Lynne McCrea, Henry Epp and Angela Evancie. Engineering support from Chris Albertine.
Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Music in this episode by Vermont musicians Mike Donofrio, Brian Clark and Marie Helene Boulanger. Additional music by Podington Bear, used under a Creative Commons license:
- "Electric Car"
- "The Confrontation"
- "Stars Are Out"
- "Ice Pack"
- "Warbled Reflection"
- "We Make a Good Team"
- "Little Black Cloud"
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Correction 11:09 a.m. 12/11/17 The original version of this story misspelled Rachel Grigorian's last name.