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As the rich get richer, more workers are serving their needs

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 9/22/2019 Katie Johnston
a person walking a dog on a leash: After the travel industry shifted from under her, Kathy Pepe of Roslindale makes do caring for pets and taking tickets at Fenway. © Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe After the travel industry shifted from under her, Kathy Pepe of Roslindale makes do caring for pets and taking tickets at Fenway.

As the well-off get better off, the army of workers taking care of their needs is growing.

Dog walkers and house cleaners and personal chefs come to their front door, letting themselves in with a spare key and leaving before anyone gets home. Personal trainers and massage therapists and skincare specialists take care of their bodies. Financial advisers and tax preparers tend to their wealth. Manicurists make their nails sparkle.

The ranks of these personal-services providers are swelling, especially in the Boston area, where the high-wage tech sector is thriving and so-called wealth work expanded by 30 percent from 2010 to 2017, twice the national rate, according to a data analysis by the Brookings Institution. More workers are shifting to these jobs as demand grows and technology reduces the need for people in better-paying occupations that don’t necessarily require college degrees, such as production and administrative support.

These wealth work jobs — mostly part of the “personal care and services” category, the fastest-growing sector in the national labor market — are largely safe from automation because they are so hands-on, economists note.

There are many downsides, however. They are performed by workers who are disproportionately women and Latino, often don’t come with health insurance or retirement benefits or consistent hours, and don’t pay particularly well, averaging around $36,000 a year nationwide in 2017, well below the average wage for all occupations of nearly $51,000. Uber, Instacart, and other online platforms in the gig economy are also contributing to the rise of these jobs.

And with high-end jobs growing alongside these lower-paying occupations — and middle-skilled jobs increasingly being gobbled up by technology — the divide between the haves and the have-nots widens, particularly in the famously unequal city of Boston.

Among the 387 US metropolitan areas with the highest share of wealth work analyzed by Brookings, the Boston region came in 80th, behind a mix of vacation destinations (Barnstable, on Cape Cod, was number 12; Pittsfield, in the Berkshires, was number 68) and affluent urban areas such as San Diego, Miami, and New York.

“With the explosion of high-end wealth in the country, there’s simply more demand for these convenience jobs,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings. “It’s one of the ways that the winnings of the wealthy cycle back through the society. . . . The real issue is they’re simply not very good jobs.”

Kathy Pepe spent 17 years in the travel industry before she got laid off in 2002 as more people started using the Internet to book their travel plans. She started walking dogs and now works with about 20 animals, including a few dogs and cats she takes care of when their owners are away. She supplements her income with a seasonal job as a ticket-taker at Fenway Park and estimates she makes around $40,000 a year.

Her clients include corporate lawyers, designers, and nurses who own single-family houses in West Roxbury and Roslindale. Pepe, on the other hand, rents an attic apartment and qualifies for subsidized health insurance through the state. She often runs into housekeepers and gardeners doing work for her clients as she’s picking up their dogs: “We have a secret handshake,” she joked.

Pepe, 57, loves what she does but has less than $100,000 saved for retirement from her time in the travel industry.

“I’m always worrying,” she said, on a recent overcast morning as she walked three dogs in the Arnold Arboretum, their collars clinking as they stopped to sniff the trees. “I’m one of those people that’s going to be living with six other old ladies in a big house.”

One of the dogs Pepe was walking, Cisco, a 12-year-old Corgi-hound mix, belongs to Chris Daly, an administrator at Emerson College, and her wife, a psychologist. The couple pays Pepe $400 a month to walk Cisco five days a week, plus more when Pepe stays overnight with Cisco.

Daly, 47, and her wife are conscious of the fact that Pepe isn’t making much money and has no benefits, while the two of them live in a big house and can afford to have their dog walked and their house cleaned and their yard tended to — “indulgent, decadent, rich people things,” Daly said. They do what they can to help, and have even considered asking Pepe to move in with them.

“We’re very mindful in our community of these enormous income inequities and here’s an example of it right in front of us,” Daly said. “We wrestle sometimes with, ‘Are we contributing to this cycle?’ ”

David Autor, an MIT economist, helped coined the phrase “wealth work” to describe new jobs that he and a colleague found popping up in Census data that provide a kind of “supportive infrastructure” for people with means. Among those added in the past few decades: fingernail former, oyster preparer, horse exerciser, and golf cart mechanic.

“It creates a much more bifurcated economy,” Autor said. “There’s a substantial class of highly educated professionals who have much more money than time, and they’re rushing from activity to activity. And basically it’s work, work, work, and then consume, consume, consume: restaurants, plays, child care, vacation, back to the office for the next 90 hours. And then the other folks who are . . . mostly there for the care and comfort and convenience of the affluent.”

Phoebe Azucena, 28, works as a part-time assistant manager and massage therapist at a spa in Gloucester, where she makes a 30 percent commission on each $80 hourly massage she performs. She gets no benefits and is on MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, which occasionally drops her when she makes too much.

Money is tight for Azucena and her husband, who is also a massage therapist, and their 1-year-old daughter, and she recently got a certificate in Web development in an attempt to break into the tech world. Azucena is acutely aware of the disparity between herself and her clients. “A lot of people come in and complain about their problems, which is fine,” she said. “But if their problem is ‘My patio furniture got rained on,’ and my problem is ‘I don’t know if I can afford groceries this week,’ it’s hard to relate.”

Of course, some people performing wealth work are doing just fine. Personal chefs Katie and Richard Chudy, of the Skinny Beet, recently bought a home in Waltham and are about to take a trip to Spain, although they work 50 to 60 hours a week and usually only take one weeklong vacation a year.

A number of workers noted that they choose their clients carefully, making sure they are affluent enough that they won’t balk at a price hike — and might even be willing to invest in their future.

Personal trainer Mike Cloutier started out as a strength and conditioning coach in Troy, N.Y., accepting bags of coins as payment from kids who couldn’t afford his services. Now Cloutier, 31, works at the Boston Sports Clubs gym in Wellesley, mainly training high school athletes whose parents shell out $95 for an hourlong session. He also works with some of those parents in their home gyms, including a car dealer who has shared his courtside Celtics seats.

Cloutier, who lives in Swansea and has a 3-month-old son, is learning from his clients’ success — and potentially partnering with them to open his own business.

“I surround myself with people who have the financial freedom that I’m looking for,” he said. “The next move for me is, hopefully, the one that gets me the nice house and the nice car.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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