When William Slisz was earning $10 an hour as a steelworker, he never realized that someday he would be glad to accept a job stocking a local department store for the minimum wage of $3.35.
Coming to the end of his unemployment benefits, and after 11/2 years of unemployment in the last five, Mr. Slisz took the job at Glosser Brothers Inc. in Johnstown, Pa.
Mr. Slisz and other displaced workers are taking low-paying jobs that they wouldn't have considered several years ago. But even these jobs, offering fewer benefits and less opportunity for advancement, are becoming scarce.
Those who usually fill minimum-wage jobs in retail sales, janitorial duties, or food service - the young, minorities, and illegal aliens - are finding stiffer competition for these jobs from more educated or more experienced workers.
One reason competition for lower-paying jobs seems more intense in the present recession than in previous downturns is the timing - back to back with the 1980 slump. Since many were previously out of work, only 40 to 45 percent of the unemployed collect unemployment insurance, according to Dr. Allan Hunt, acting director of research at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., as contrasted with 67 percent in 1975. The rest, including some who have been out of work for more than two years, swell the ranks of those competing for the available jobs.
''A lot of our people are running out of benefits,'' explains Charles Drese, president of United States Steel Local 1557 at Clairton, Pa. ''They will be going down to the McDonald's and the Eaton Parks to apply for work.'' Some of the steelworkers, laid off in October 1981, are just one or two checks away from the end of the 65 weeks - including Pennsylvania extensions - of unemployment insurance benefits. ''They will be flooding the (minimum-wage job) market.''
According to Tom Cole, co-manager of a K mart store in Indianapolis, in the last year or so applications for each available job have been more numerous - 15 to 35 instead of the previous 10 to 20.
Due to an overabundance of applications for retail sales positions, Glosser Brothers has been accepting applications only every other month, says William Glosser, corporate secretary of the chain of retail stores operating throughout central western Pennsylvania.
And Stephanie Skurdy, a spokeswoman for a McDonald's headquarters in Southfield, Mich., reports, ''We are finding that this is not the first work experience for a larger number of people coming to us.''
Many, especially those with families, would find it very difficult to maintain even a drastically cut standard of living on the minimum wage.
''I have to pay rent, I made a commitment,'' attests Andrew Niklos, a steelworker laid off from US Steel in Clairton. Locked into rent and truck payments which consumed three-fourths of his unemployment insurance benefits every month, Mr. Niklos could not afford to give up the $198 weekly unemployment insurance benefits in favor of the net $110 offered by a minimum-wage job. Under a union contract requirement, after his election as union grievance representative Mr. Niklos was relieved to be called back to work - as a janitor with a pay cut of $480 a month from his original job.
''I'm working for (an extra) $20 a week,'' says Larry Quick, a laid-off auto worker with two children at home in Cheektowaga, N.Y. After 11/2 half years of unemployment, having exhausted unemployment benefits and reluctantly accepting welfare payments for two months, he was persuaded to take his current job, driving a local delivery truck for Great Lakes Plastic Company, at $3.85 an hour. Even after a recent raise, the difference between the take-home pay at his current job and welfare benefits (including food stamps) is only $80 a month. He would rather be working than stay on welfare.
''Some employers may be reluctant to take spoiled workers who may find their new status unacceptable,'' says Von Logan, a spokesman for the Michigan Employment Security Commission.
This often happens with employees coming from better-paying positions, according to Mr. Cole at K mart. Workers accustomed to a 9-to-5 job tend to become dissatisfied with weekend and evening hours and leave more frequently than ''regular'' employees, he explains. This can be expensive for the company in extra training time and overtime for other employees during the transition.
Mr. Glosser, however, disagrees. Hugh Wakefield, a laid-off steelworker hired as a janitor by Glosser Brothers at minimum wage two years ago, now manages the night cleaning crew. Mr. Glosser indicated that Mr. Wakefield and other previously laid-off employees are valued for their mature work attitudes and skills gained in their previous employment - a bonus for their present employers.