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Dean Olsen is the health-care reporter at GateHouse Media’s State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. The 54-year-old journalist, who hasn’t had a raise in seven years, works at McDonald’s part-time to support his family.

“I work there almost every Saturday and Sunday, seven to nine hours a day. I rarely have a day off. I haven’t been able to do much around the house [because of the work schedules]. My lawn hasn’t been cut in a month.”

Olsen was hired by McDonald’s in May after he job-hunted for six months and applied at dozens of places.

“I know it’s ironic” that a health-care reporter is working at a fast-food restaurant, he tells me, “but I need to support my family and I’ll do whatever it takes.”

He has three kids, including a special-needs child who is home-schooled by his wife.

“Our situation is a little unique because we are not a two-income family. My wife’s priority needs to be with our son.”

Olsen is also chairman of the Springfield unit of the United Media Guild, and is trying to get GateHouse to start giving raises. It’s not looking good, though.

“We know the company has money, but raises just aren’t in their plan.”

Still, the newsroom union is urging get GateHouse to at least match salaries paid at the Peoria Journal Star, another GateHouse paper. For that to happen, younger journalists would have to get double-digit pay increases.

“Our focus is on the younger people because we’ve seen them become disillusioned and leave” because of the low salaries.

The union is proposing no raises for veteran reporters in the first year of the contract, then 3% for the second and third years. The current salary range is $26,000 to about $65,000.

Olsen makes $60,000, but his family is still struggling. (His take-home pay at McDonald’s is $230 every two weeks.)

“We had a hard time paying our property taxes,” he says, “and I hope we can keep our home.”

Bruce Rushton, an Illinois Times reporter who worked at the State Journal-Register with Olsen for five years, describes the journalist as “a hard-working, careful and experienced reporter” who “did not take a job at McDonald’s for anything other than economic necessity. This is not a publicity stunt pulled to generate sympathy for himself” or colleagues who have gone without raises for years.”

How long does Olsen figure he’ll be working at McDonald’s?

“I really don’t know,” he says. “It’s quite an experience, and you don’t realize how hard those people work and the abuse they put up with from the public.”

Olsen’s job is working the front counter and sometimes taking drive-thru orders.

“I’ve had sources come up to the drive-thru and they’re quite surprised to see me. Some think I’m working on an investigative project.”

It’s nothing like that, he assures them.

Update: I invited State Journal-Register publisher Clarissa Williams to comment on Friday. She sent this statement on Monday afternoon: “We are conducting negotiations in a positive and straightforward manner in good faith. Our intention is to look out for all 141 employees’ best interest. I’ll continue to operate the State Journal-Register with the best interests of our readers, advertisers and employees top of mind.”

* State Journal-Register medical reporter also works at McDonald’s (illinoistimes.com)
* Update: Comments from my Facebook friends and subscribers (facebook.com)