‘Paycheck’ peeks at life on the brink
HBO documentary, tracking single mom, puts spotlight on low-income women in workplace
By Carla Meyer
Katrina Gilbert did not set out to get her name in the title of an HBO documentary.
The certified nursing assistant and single mother happened to take her three children to a Chattanooga, Tenn., daycare center being scoped out by Emmy Award winning filmmakers Nick Doob, and Shari Cookson. “She just jumped out at us as somebody who was very articulate, and in an unpushy way,“ Doob said. “She has no vanity.“
When Doob and Shari Cookson asked to chronicle her life, Gilbert roll with it, just as she had when her marriage failed, and she became her family’s sole breadwinner while making $9.49 an hour working at a nursing home.
“I agreed to do (the movie) to hopefully inspire somebody else, ““ Gilbert, 30, said by phone from Tennessee “with struggles, you can get through it. You’ve just got to be strong and be a hard worker.“
“Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert“ premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on the primetime cable channel and can be streamed for free Monday through March 24 at www.hbo.com and www.shriver report.org.
“Paycheck” is part of the Shriver Report, a nonprofit media initiative, focused on issues affecting women and led by Maria Shriver.
In January, the Shriver Report and the Center for American Progress released the book- length report “A woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink”. It was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” the architect of which was Shriver‘s father, Sergeant Shriver.
“Brink“ follows women who “churn in and out of poverty, and in and out of the middle class,“ said Shriver Report, editor-in-chief and CEO, Karen Skelton, who lives in Sacramento and edits the report out of an office on 16th St. Skelton is the coordinating producer on “Paycheck,“ executive produced by Shriver and HBO‘s Sheila Nevins.
The women in the report “are in the space between about $23,000 and $47,000 a year for a family of four,” Skelton said. (The federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,550).
About 42 million women and 28 million children live on the spring, according to the report and US Census data.
Women living paycheck to paycheck can be toppled financially by such small things as taking a sick day.
“Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are women, and 70percent of them don’t get a single day of sick leave,“ Skelton said.
Gilbert loses a day’s pay each time she stays home with a sick child. When the film was being shot last year, Gilbert could not afford insurance that would cover regular check ups necessitated by an ongoing thyroid issue. Skelton said Gilbert embodies the Shriver Report’s struggling class of women.
“These aren’t women who are incredibly poor,“ said Skelton, a lawyer, and longtime political strategist, who worked for the Clinton White House. “They are people we know. There is someone in our lives who lives paycheck to paycheck. That’s what Katrina’s all about. She brings to life the reports academic research.“
Shot over nine months, “Paycheck“ takes a fly on the wall approach to Gilbert‘s life as she works full-time at a nursing facility, cooks for her children (daughters Brooklyn and Lydia are now 8 and 6respectively; son Trent is 4) and tries to have a relationship with a single dad with four kids of his own.
Gilbert at first questioned the directors about why they chose her. Cookson said “I don’t think she thought she was remarkable — that this is a life that would play on screen,” Cookson said .
But as the filmmakers followed Gilbert, the hits kept coming. At the films start, her estranged husband would like to help out, but he cannot find a job or pay child support and lives two hours away. On one occasion, Gilbert has to provide gas money for him to be able to pick up the kids.
The rare piece of great news in her life – she passed a College entry exam – is double- edged. It turns out there’s a hangup with her financial aid because she had enrolled in college before, but had to leave because of her thyroid problem.
When making a film about women on the edge of poverty, “you think you are going to turn the camera on, and there is poverty – (that) you are going to see something dramatic,“ Cookson said.
But for Gilbert, the stress is not acute it’s constant and insidious. “The small things control her life,“ Cookson said. “She carries a tremendous emotional weight at the end of the day.“
Though the audience’s spirit flags on her behalf, Gilbert rarely visibly despairs. She jokes with her kids, shows them endless patience and offers a kind face to the nursing home patients with whom she works.
Doob and Cookson looked in different parts of the country for documentary subjects to illustrate the Shriver report. They visited Chattanooga‘s Chambliss Center for Children, where Gilbert takes her kids, because it is such an unusual operation, Doob said. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it accommodates parents on every work shift and charges on a sliding scale. As Gilbert says in the film, without Chambliss’ reduced fees, she would spend most of her paycheck on child care.
Gilbert and working women like her offer “the exit ramp for our economic, slow down,” Skelton said. “Eight percent of consumer decisions get made by women. When women aren’t struggling economically –when you put money in women’s purses – they are going to spend it on their families.”
If Gilbert earned more, received paid sick leave or could receive the financial aid that would allow her to attend college and improve her earning potential, she could contribute more to the economy.
“If you just close the wage gap between men and women, you would cut the poverty rate in half for working women, and you would raise the GDP by 2-3 percent Skelton said. (Widely cited Census Bureau statistics from 2012 showed women earned 76.5 cents for every dollar a man earned.).
Yet “when people talk about the loss of the middle class, and when they talk about economic, inequality, they usually talk about it without mentioning women,” Skelton said. “What we did was put a lens of women on it.“
Skelton said “Brink,“ the most recent of three Shriver reports published since 2009 (others focused on women in the workforce and Alzheimer’s) already has had an impact. In January, Shriver, Skelton, and report co-editor Olivia Morgan met with President Barack Obama at the White House along with Tina Tchen and Valerie Jarrett of the White House Counsel on Women and Girls. In his State of the Union address later that month, Obama called for an end to the wage gap and for paid family medical leave for workers.
“This is his story,” Skelton said. “When we met with him in the Oval Office, that’s what he said. “He was raised by a single mom, who struggled. … In the State of the Union, when he talked about ‘when women, succeed, America succeeds’ that was echoing our theme exactly.”
Assemblywoman, Lorena Gonzalez D-San Diego, recently introduced a B 1522, which calls for California employers to offer at least three paid sick days per year. Gonzalez cited as Shriver Report poll in which 96% of single mothers said paid leave was the workplace policy that would help the most.
Gilbert would stand to benefit from a similar policy in Tennessee. She already benefits from the Affordable Care Act. She signed up last month for insurance through the government program. She does not have to pay for the insurance, or for the check up she needs for her thyroid issue.
Gilbert, who still works at the nursing facility seen in the film and still waits for her financial aid to come through for college, visited the White House last month with Julie Kaas, a Tacoma, Wash., preschool teacher also featured in the Shriver Report.
Gilbert and Kaas met Obama and watched as he signed an order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10.
Though that wage increase does not affect Gilbert, Obama backs Democrats’ efforts to raise the federal minimum wage for all to $10.10.
“This is just a step in the right direction,“ Gilbert said. “I’m hoping before too long it will be for everybody.“
Gilbert was “in shock“ to be meeting the president, she said. But this unexpected development in the past year full of them was “wonderful,“ she said. “It was great being there.”
It was also great, she said, to see the finished documentary, which helped lend perspective on her own life.
“I step back, and I was just like, ‘wow,’” Gilbert said. “Sometimes you think, when you’re struggling so much.(that), ‘Well, I could do more for my kids,’ and this, and that. And you know, just watching the film, I do so much. … After watching the film, it’s like ‘I am a good mother, I can see that now.’“
The Sacramento Bee
Dictated Transcription: S Cookson