After a setback, Bellevue couple making ends meet

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In some ways, Bob Annan is a throwback.

Although the 33-year-old Bellevue resident is in a service industry instead of a factory, he is like many Pittsburghers of the 1970s in being able to earn a middle-class income with just a high school diploma, largely because he is in a union.

Working as a service and sales representative for Verizon Inc., Mr. Annan earned $77,000 in salary and bonuses last year. But his union, the Communications Workers of America, is involved in contentious, drawn-out negotiations with the company that could affect his pay and benefits.

Sandra Kmetyk, president of CWA Local 13500, said Verizon's proposals could cut her workers' pay by as much as 30 percent and would increase cost sharing on health care expenses while freezing the current pension plan.

In fact, union leaders have characterized the company's contract demands as an assault on middle-class security.

"Verizon seems hell-bent on destroying the middle-class jobs CWA and [the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] have fought so hard to create over the last 50 years of collective bargaining," fumed Tony Caudullo, president of CWA Local 1106 in New York City, in October.

Verizon spokesman Richard Young bridled at that.

"Right now we provide great jobs with a highly competitive salary and benefit package and we are quite confident after this process is over, we will continue to provide solid pay and benefits that give people middle-class lifestyles."

He acknowledged the company had proposed a cut in base pay combined with a shift to commissions, but said that plan would be voluntary. And, he noted, even though Verizon's land line business has steadily declined, many of the union contract provisions are the same as they were 40 years ago.

While Mr. Annan makes significantly more than the Pennsylvania average household income of about $66,000, his family faces some serious challenges even without the threat of company cutbacks.

His wife, Christina, is attending night classes to become a nurse, so for the moment, she is adding to the family's long-term expenses. The couple also has five children between the ages of 11 and 6, although Mr. Annan cheerfully says, "believe it or not, the kids are not overly expensive as long as you know how to do it. My friends call me the king of cheap. I grew up learning how to make things go farther."

The family lives in a roomy, older frame home in Bellevue that they are renting for $950 a month. With five bedrooms and three bathrooms, there is finally enough space for Laurel, Robert Jr., Autumn, Ashton and Raine, not to mention their friendly, lumbering Newfoundland, Buck, and Jill the cat.

On one recent evening, Mr. and Mrs. Annan took turns answering questions and negotiating sibling rivalries, homework assignments and whether the neighbor children could come over to play.

On weekends, Mr. Annan said, they often like to go to Sheetz and order chili dogs and sit outside to eat if the weather's nice enough. It's their version of dining out.

Despite their frugality, the Annans are still dealing with credit problems they inherited from a previous bankruptcy, which they filed in 2005 in order to walk away from a home they had bought in Sheraden that they couldn't sell.

Right now, Mr. Annan said, the family's credit score is just 520, and their only significant debt is a used car loan they are paying off to help boost their score.

Despite those obstacles, Mr. Annan is optimistic about the future. "Ten years ago, I was working in a convenience store for $6.75 an hour, so I've worked hard to improve that. Once upon a time, we were barely getting by. Now, we're living a comfortable life."

Robert and Christina Annan met when he was 20 and she was a senior in high school. He and a friend were teasing her in Market Square one day, he recalled, "and she said 'You just can't insult me and walk away,' so we started talking, and we realized we had a lot in common and so eventually we started a family together."

One thing they had in common was more than their share of family problems growing up.

Mrs. Annan's parents divorced when she was 7, and she began working at 16 in a McDonald's, helping to make ends meet. Because of that, she said, "I expected when we got married that we'd get to the point where my family had been ,where we'd have food stamps and we'd get by week to week. We were not rich by any means."

Mr. Annan moved to Pittsburgh from New York when he was 7. That year, his mother dropped him off at Braddock Hospital for a doctor's appointment, "and she never came back." He then spent time in group homes and with his grandmother.

His mother retrieved him two more times, but abandoned him on each occasion. By the time he reached high school, Mr. Annan was living on his own in Holy Family Institute in Emsworth.

"It's probably why you're so big on the family thing now," his wife said.

"When I was in Holy Family and other places, and when it got to Christmas, I would talk to all my friends at school about these awesome Christmases they had, and I'm sitting in this place and saying 'I wish I had that,' and so I promised myself that my kids would have the best of everything. That's it in a nutshell."

After they married 12 years ago, their first apartment in the Allentown neighborhood had a bathtub that leaked and "there were so many leaks in the living room that we put plastic on the roof to get the rain to run into one centralized bucket. But we were really proud of it because it was our own place."

They have lived in seven places in a dozen years, including the home they defaulted on in Sheraden.

They bought that home for $27,000 in 2002. "We probably should have done more research on the neighborhood rather than just buy a house because it was cheap and we were on a dead-end street."

After Mr. Annan saw one neighborhood girl stab another one at a bus stop, he decided he wanted to move, but couldn't find anyone to buy the home.

That's when they filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which discharged the house debt and other unpaid bills they had, but also has hurt their credit.

Mrs. Annan said that when she finishes school, she hopes to become a hospital RN. Maybe then, she said, they will have enough money to buy a home in Florida and move there with her mother.

Despite the rocky road they have traveled, Mr. Annan remains optimistic and determined.

"I don't look at what I have now, but I look at what's going to sustain us for the longest term. My biggest goal is to never move backwards. Even when we face adversity I still will find a way to work through it."

And he knows the value of being a union member.

If he held the same job without union protection, he estimates he would be making $40,000 to $50,000 a year -- at least 35 percent less than he does now.

Mark Roth: or 412-263-1130. First Published November 15, 2011 5:00 AM


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