CHAMPAIGN — Kartila Brooks has no wiggle room.
After providing for her four teenage children and paying the bills, the 34-year-old Champaign woman is left with about $120 from the two paychecks she gets every two weeks.
Paycheck to paycheck. It's Brooks' reality despite the fact she holds two jobs and works 40 hours in a week: at Barkstall Elementary in Champaign, where she has worked for seven years, and at Haymaker's on South Neil Street, where she's worked every day for the past three.
Schedules, routines and plans have to work out "almost perfectly," she said, for bills to get paid on time, needs to be met and mouths to be fed.
"If they don't, it gets frantic and I'm like, 'What am I going to do?'" Brooks said.
So every time something happens that's out of her control — whether it's her car breaking down, a medical emergency or a faulty furnace — she's not able to afford a way out. Like 40 percent of Americans, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Board, Brooks can't afford a $400 emergency.
But what hurts Brooks most about her work situation, she said, is that she's unable to get enough hours at either of her jobs to qualify for or afford health insurance she desperately needs to deal with an ongoing health issue.
"There's no way I can afford to buy health insurance on my budget, on my salary," Brooks said. "I don't have dental insurance. How can I afford it on my budget? I don't get those things but still work 40 hours. So what am I to do?"
By the numbers
A recent bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to raise the minimum wage from $8.25 to $15 an hour by 2024 will gradually raise the wage floor for people like Brooks. But for many, the prospect of having two or more jobs remains.
For Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the first thing to understand about underemployment is that it is involuntary.
"It's a situation where workers are working fewer hours than they desire," the labor education professor said. "They're usually working less than full time, but are capable of and pursuing more hours at one of their jobs. So it's not uncommon at all for people to find second and third jobs to support themselves."
Despite gradually declining in the U.S. over the last eight years, "the rate of involuntary part-time work remains stubbornly high in the state of Illinois," according to a 2017 Penn State study.
The state ranks 10th in the number of involuntary part-time workers, and the rate of labor underutilization "has 1 in 10 workers either fully or partially unemployed, still well above the pre-recession rate and the U.S. national average," the study says.
In Illinois, the number of people involuntarily working part-time jobs rose from about 100,000 to well over 400,000 in 2010, and to date, the number remains well above 200,000.
Bruno said those who can't get supplemental part-time work "find themselves in a constant panic" requesting that their employer change the schedule or give them more hours. People who work unstable schedules with fluctuating hours and shifting workdays have it the worst, Bruno added.
"If the hours are inadequate on a consistent basis, as well as the uncertainty of when you will work those hours, then your capacity to supplement that work with another job becomes much more difficult," Bruno said.
That has implications on where you can live, what you can afford and the lifestyle you can lead.
Housing Authority of Champaign County Director David Northern said it's "very common" for underemployed people to seek out his agency for help with housing.
He said it takes almost 78 hours of work for an individual who earns the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour to pay for a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That puts stress on families, said Sue Grey, director of the United Way of Champaign County.
"Imagine being a single parent in that situation," Grey said. "When someone is underemployed, they're constantly on that ledge. They're on the precipice all the time. So they have to constantly think about what will pull them over the edge."
Grey added that there's often a misconception about people who who receive assistance because of their precarious work situation.
"A lot of times, people will assume that those who receive services or get assistance are just being lazy, or that they're not doing anything to help their situation," she said. "But if you talk to most service providers in Champaign County, you'd find that many of them work with people who either already have a job and it's not enough, or they're looking for employment. We have homeless families that have jobs but find that it's not enough."
At the Cunningham Township office on Green Street, there are a half-dozen people in the cramped waiting area with more streaming in.
The brisk business is no surprise for those who work at the township, which provides general assistance to eligible people living in Urbana and gives funding to other nonprofit agencies also serving low-income people.
Darcy Sandefur, a township advocate, said "you don't realize until you're here the pressure people are under to survive."
Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth said many people who go to the township for assistance "are working multiple jobs and piecing money together to afford things."
"There's a woman who we're working with right now that grew up in the shelters of Chicago and her and her three children are homeless in Urbana," Chynoweth said. "She's working her tail off at a local food-service place, but she's not making enough money yet, so we've assigned her an advocate to work with her to boost her income so she does qualify. She's basically sleeping in a car or going from house to house."
Stories like that are common at the township, which had about 113 general assistance participants, 38 of whom are homeless, and which helped avoid evictions at 22 households at the beginning of the year.
At the City of Champaign Township, Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom said basically all rental-assistance program recipients are underemployed, too.
"It's the number-one reason," Quarnstrom said. "Many times they're seeking help because they're making just enough money to pay rent, but not much else. Just one thing can go wrong and they're behind."
Of the 87 families who received rental or eviction-prevention assistance from the township at the beginning of the year, "there were probably 20 to 30 that didn't meet our qualifications," despite still working. Quarnstrom said there seems to be a fairly high level of economic inequality in Champaign-Urbana even though the unemployment rate is low.
"There's such a lack of availability of high-wage jobs to support a family," Quarnstrom said. "There's part-time fast-food jobs that don't pay enough or give enough hours, so if something happens with child care or a medical expense, it just becomes a slippery slope."
Brooks wakes at 6 a.m. Her kids are dressed by 6:30, "hair brushed, teeth brushed, face washed, clothes on, shoes on, out the door by 7:25, 7:27 at the latest, 7:30 at the very latest," she said. "If they're late for school, it throws everything off."
Her children's father picks them up from school and stays with them until Brooks gets home from Barkstall. From 4 to 11 p.m., she works at Haymaker's.
It's been like this last three years.
"It's a tight pull, but everything usually works out if we work together like we do," she said.
Still, emergencies take a toll.
It cost $400 to fix her car's broken alternator, but she couldn't pay for it. So Brooks had to ask for rides to work, take Uber or catch the bus.
Brooks tries not to talk about money or bills with her children, and keeps her stress level low because "when I'm stressed, my kids are stressed, and that doesn't make the situation any better."
But Brooks' kids aren't babies anymore; they're 12, 13, 15 and 17, and perceptive.
"I've had my 17-year-old ask me, 'Do you need money for bills?'" she said. "And I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever say yes. It is never his responsibility to pay any bills. I don't care if it's $75 for a phone bill, that's your money, keep it. I've never asked him for money, but he asked me because he saw a disconnection notice."
Her children keep her going.
"I make it. I squeak by, but I make it," she said. "They're OK, so I'm fine. It's hard though. You get a bump in pay, but it's only a quarter. And it's like, 'Seriously? Come on.' I have a job I've worked for seven years, but I only get bumped up to $10 an hour? Seven years.
"It's a lot to deal with. Every day I'm fine, though," she added. "I never cry. I never cry in front of my kids, in front of other people. But it's hard sometimes. I deal with people all day and I keep a smile on my face. And I don't mind it; I don't. I'm fine. It's just ... I'm not fine."