The head-spinning pace of media reports today often means stories come, go, and are quickly forgotten – often without follow up or a meaningful sense of closure.
Such is the case with the tragic death of Maria Leonor Fernandes, a New Jersey woman who was found deceased in her vehicle in 2014 in a Wawa parking lot.
What made Fernandes’ death especially gripping was her backstory: She worked three jobs and frequently took short naps in her SUV between shifts, a habit that resulted in her eventual death.
But shocking as her story was, Maria Fernandes is no longer news, and she remains just one of millions of Americans working multiple low-wage jobs in an effort to make ends meet.
> The fumes, reeking of gasoline, poured from the white Kia SUV as soon as an emergency medical technician broke one of the rear windows. Inside, the body of a dark-haired young woman with a beauty mark on her left cheek reclined in the driver's seat, keys dangling from the ignition.
> But who was she? How was it that her life had ended here, in the corner of a convenience store parking lot, less than a mile south of Newark Liberty International Airport's runways?
> Waiting for the vapors to clear so they could search her belongings, police noted the most obvious clue: She was wearing a familiar white-and-brown uniform. By that night, co-workers and friends had identified her as Maria Leonor Fernandes, 32 years old and single, who worked minimum wage jobs at three nearby Dunkin' Donuts shops — often grabbing an hour or two of sleep in her car between shifts.
Fernandes was not without skills or talents – she spoke Portuguese, French, Spanish and English fluently enough to converse with customers at the bakery where she worked – nor was she without aspirations.
But after her dreams of becoming an actress fell through and she didn’t make it to beauty school, Fernandes settled into work at Dunkin Donuts.
> Maria Fernandes' working life tracked a carefully choreographed schedule. From 2 to 9 p.m. most days she staffed the counter at a Dunkin' kiosk inside Newark's main train station. Then she headed to a second shop, open around the clock in downtown Linden, where she worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, she added an 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift at a third shop in Harrison, picking up additional hours when asked.
> In Harrison, she usually worked at the sandwich preparation station, chatting with fellow employees, sometimes showing them snapshots. Alaaddin Abuawada, a co-worker who also holds a second job at a thrift shop, said Fernandes often appeared exhausted.
According to her friends and family, Fernandes was exceedingly generous, often helping others – like the time she bought a tent for a homeless man near the donut shop or the numerous times she helped friends who needed some extra cash – even though she was a woman of little means.
On the day of her death, Fernandes spoke on the phone one last time with her boyfriend and then settled in for a short nap between shifts.It was just after sunrise on August 25, 2014.
Several hours later, an employee of the convenient store noticed the woman he’d seen early in the morning was still sleeping inside her car and notified authorities.
Fernandes was already dead.
Four years later, there is a multitude of Americans living the same existence as Fernandes.
According to the Department of Labor, more than 7.5 million Americans worked more than one job in 2017, up slightly from the year before. Both years represent a sharp reversal of a decades-long downward trend.
Komal Sri-Kumar, an economist who runs an independent macroeconomic consulting firm, wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider last year that the low unemployment rate is hiding crucial truths about the jobs situation in the U.S. – one of them is the number of Americans holding multiple jobs.
> The principal reason workers hold more than one position is that no single job provides a sufficient income. In a robust economic recovery, the number of full-time workers should be rising, and the number of workers employed part-time or holding multiple jobs, should decline.
Four years after Fernandes’ death, the number of Americans working multiple jobs continues to grow.