Couple struggling to get ahead on two salaries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every Friday morning, Peter H. Madera Jr. clocks in to work, rips open an envelope and scans the bottom right corner of his pay stub: After taxes, there's about $20 more on the bottom line this year, but somehow the math doesn't seem to add up. "Am I really seeing any more in my pocket? I'd have to say, 'Not really,' " said the 32-year-old whiskey blender at the House of Seagram pTC bottling plant in Relay.

"When I started at Seagram 14 years ago, I started at $8 an hour. I'm making about double that now, but I think the earning power isabout the same because everything's gone up."

Gas . . . utilities . . . food . . .

Mr. Madera isn't the only one striving to catch up. He is just one of thousands of Maryland manufacturing workers struggling to make ends meet despite rising wages in an improving sector of the state economy.

After seven months of decline, the industry regained momentum, setting records in average hourly wages in the final quarter of 1994.

Seagram Co. itself has made adjustments to the changing economic climate, diversifying beyond the production of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum and other alcoholic beverages. The Montreal-based company has acquired about a 25 percent stake in chemical giant Du Pont and a share of Time Warner Inc., the media-entertainment conglomerate.

Mr. Madera and his 400 co-workers at the Seagram plant deal in smaller quantities. Last August, his pay increased from $15.71 to $16.34 an hour, a 4 percent bump for operating forklifts and rolling 500-pound whiskey barrels.

"For blue-collar workers, we make a good wage," he said of himself and his wife, Donna, who also works at Seagram. "Things are good for us right now; we're sort of stable in our employment. But you never know."

So he plans. It's part of the family Friday evening ritual -- talking about personal finances around the sturdy old maple kitchen table in their rented townhouse in Anne Arundel County.

Like so many other working couples, they have a wish list: A house of their own. A new kitchen set. New clothes.

But then, they look at the numbers. Health insurance co-payments -- doubled to $30 a month this year. College tuition -- in two years for their 16-year-old son, Neil. Parochial school -- in two years for their 3-year-old daughter Brandi. And Christmas.

"Buying clothing for me and Donna is a luxury because we're concerned with the kids," Mr. Madera said. "We want to make sure they have what they need."

Over the holidays, that meant an $1,800 computer for Neil and a $150 Barbie motorcycle for Brandi.

The pay raise stretches only so far. For a dual-income family, the Maderas find themselves doing what many other working couples must do: supplementing their income.

Mr. Madera works overtime; so does Mrs. Madera. She also sells Avon cosmetics, flowers, vases and other home products at living room parties among friends.

Between the two, they try to eke out some savings in the hopes of buying a house. Mr. Madera imagines a home office of his own, with a desk and chair, a place where he could conduct business as warehouse shop steward for Local 34 of the Distillery Workers Union.

For now, his office is essentially the brown leather wallet in his back pocket, where he keeps a stack of business cards, including those of David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Oriole owner Peter G. Angelos.

Yet he isn't bemoaning his situation -- his home office can wait. He has a job. "We have nice furniture, we have four TVs, we're not destitute," he said. Even more, Mr. Madera can still afford a little treat, like a fifth of Seagram's $20-Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey.

But only once every three months, or so. After all, he said, "The price goes up on that every year."

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