UNLV workers caught in bind

Could you afford to lose $160 a month?

Annette Amdal cannot.

That is why she sometimes must skip church right before payday if she doesn't have enough gasoline.

Or eat microwave popcorn for dinner when she runs out of money.

How did this happen to a 55-year-old woman with three grown children? A woman who has worked her entire adult life, who is proud and private and, frankly, embarrassed by all of this and is scared to death of coming off sounding like she's whining?

She works for the state of Nevada.

Amdal, an administrative assistant at the Women's Research Institute at UNLV, is one of 1,198 full-time classified employees at the university.

Those employees, although they work at the university, are state employees. The rest of the 3,234 full-time workers -- professional staff and faculty -- are employees of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

That means that when lawmakers mandated a 4.6 percent pay cut by imposing a once-a-month furlough for all state workers, the only people in the higher education system who took a pay cut were the classified employees such as Amdal.

They answer the phones, mow the lawns, empty the trash, clean the floors, fix the computers. They are the people who make the campus run.

And some of them are angry.

"I have gotten hundreds of letters with the most heartbreaking stories I have ever heard," said Susan Summers, a budget technician in UNLV's English department who helped coordinate some classified employees' testimony before state legislators.

There is Kathleen Norton, an administrative assistant in the office of sponsored programs. She said her husband was laid off in December. They've lost their house. One of their cars is broken down and they have no money to fix it. They have a teenage daughter in high school.

Or Sandra O'Brien, whose sister lost her job and had to move in with O'Brien. She's also caring for her terminally ill mom, and is sharing her car with her daughter.

"What would more cuts mean to me?" she wrote in an e-mail.

O'Brien said she would have to stop taking her medication if her pay were cut again, so her mother wouldn't have to do without.

Then there is Julie Thomas, an administrative assistant in the student health center. Thomas is a single mom whose daughter is a freshman at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

She wrote in an e-mail that the pay cut forced her to rent out a room in her house. She drives a 20-year-old car and said she sometimes runs out of food before payday.

Just like Amdal, the woman who finds herself eating popcorn for dinner.

Amdal makes a little over $40,000 a year, which comes out to about $38,000 after the pay cut.

She takes home $1,200 twice a month.

Out of that $2,400, she pays her $1,000 mortgage, her car insurance, $75 to a friend of hers for the Honda Accord the friend let her buy on a payment plan after her old car wouldn't go anymore, her utilities, gasoline to get from her house in North Las Vegas to UNLV five days a week and $700 a month in medical bills left over from her husband's long, brutal illness and death four years ago.

There is almost no room for food in that budget. That's what was cut. That's where the 4.6 percent used to go.

Her financial problems started a decade ago. Her husband Michael's kidneys were failing. There were no family donors, so he went on a transplant list and survived for six years on dialysis.

Insurance covered 80 percent of the bills, but it wasn't enough. They cashed in their retirement money, but that wasn't enough either. The debt piled up.

Before Michael died while waiting for a transplant, he advised his wife to use his life insurance money to pay down the mortgage on the house because he didn't want her to lose that, too. So that's what she did.

She was left with a pile of medical bills. She arranged to pay some of the accounts $15 or $20 a month, but others wouldn't take such a small amount, so they began to garnish her paychecks.

Amdal said she couldn't have them doing that because it left her no money to pay her other bills. That is why she put all the medical debt on credit cards.

"It will take me the rest of my life to pay them," Amdal said, but she is determined to pay them off herself.

She was making it, but just barely, before the pay cut last summer. She would not consider bankruptcy because, she said, she is not one to shirk her responsibilities.

"It's not the way I was raised. I can't. I can't get my head around that."

She cut out almost all recreation, even the free events she loved going to, because she can't afford to use up her gasoline. She must make getting to work her top priority.

She never told her children about her financial problems, but they got word of it all recently anyway. Her 31-year-old son wants to move back in with her to help her get by. She is terribly embarrassed about that.

"I'm in my 50s," she said. "I don't want my kids helping me. I'm supposed to be the one helping them."

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.