"[If] I don't get three days this week I'm looking for storage," says Dave, a heavy set 40-year-old with a red baseball cap, to no one and everyone in the small smoking room. "I can't go back to the streets when I'm ready to leave. Who wants to sell me their number?"
Most of the dozen middle-aged men sitting at the two picnic tables ignore him. A few ask how much he's willing to pay.
"Give you five dollars tomorrow if I work today."
"Man, I ain't worked in four days. I got my own problems," says a thin black man. "Don't pull that jailhouse in here."
"I am serious," implores Dave. "I am almost gone and I got to move up to get another day."
"You may move up alright. Just kill us all and hope nobody notices."
It's 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. Seventy men – white, black, Latino – sit in the four areas of the Fort Worth Day Labor Center, waiting for contractors, home owners and apartment managers to begin coming in looking for day workers. Each of the men has a number. Those with the good numbers, 1-30, sit on folding metal chairs in the dreary dull white front room where the contractors enter. The rest of the men, with little chance of getting out that day, sit in a large room with cafeteria tables, two televisions, a magazine stand and a computer, the ante-room, where the 10-cent coffee is sold, and a fenced-in outer area is set aside for smokers.
If it's raining, less than a dozen men will get out. Electrical work, ditch digging, fence running, cement pouring, construction and lawn work isn't done when the weather is inclement. If it's a good sunny day maybe 30-40 guys will get out. Those who do may get lucky and work two or three days on a job. Once in a while somebody nails a month or two on the same gig. Those who go out come back in and move to the end of the number line again. The rest move up. Number 65 on Monday may be number 28 on Tuesday, and get out on Wednesday. Unless it's raining. Then number 28 may only move up three or four numbers. Rain all week and nobody works. Rent and mortgages don't get paid. End of the month guys are trying to move up slots by cleaning around the center to try to get that rent money together.
A lot of the guys have held full time jobs most of their lives. Some are here because they're casualties of company layoffs and at 45-50 they're not in real demand anymore. Others are new to the US, don't speak English and probably aren't using their own social security numbers. Some are casualties of their own personal wars with bad marriages, booze, drugs, an inability to deal with authority. A few of them are just drifting through, some just don't like regular work and a couple are a little crazy.
The combined skills they possess could build a city: cement workers, electricians, plumbers, jackhammer operators, heavy machine operators, tool and dye men, steel workers, painters, landscapers, designers. And as the economy does its imitation of an accordian the skills increase: When it's good and everyone who wants to work has plenty, day laborers tend to be less skilled. When it's bad and second jobs evaporate, day laborer skills expand. According to Warren W., one of people who run the center, right now the economy isn't good. "Lots of skilled people here now," he says. "You got a lot of fellows been looking for real work for months and who come in a few days a week just to make gas money to keep looking."
Gas money is about what they'll make: Few contractors come in offering more than $10 an hour and most offer seven or eight. If you get out twice in a week at eight bucks and do full days it only comes to $112, before Social Security is taken off. Still, it's paid by the day, so if you're feeding yourself or kids you can make do. And if you were looking for beer money, it'll work. Just so long as you don't come in smelling like it the next day – nobody looking stoned or smelling like beer or marijuana goes out. It's one of the rules they give you at orientation on your first day.
Learning the Ropes
"Hello, my name is Diane and I work here," she starts, taking a seat at a cafeteria table in the center's big room. She's talking to two men who've never done day labor before and both, one white, one black, look as if they'd rather be anywhere but there. "We open at 6:30. Contractors generally start coming at 8, but some come earlier. We don't send anyone out for less than $7 an hour but most guys pay a little more than that. Some of the work is backbreaking, some of it is skilled. Don't go out on a job you don't know how to do. Don't learn on the job. If you do, the contractor might not pay you."
She explains the numbering system and the bag lunch. "But I am not your mother, your sister or your girlfriend. We have a bathroom where you can clean up, wash your hair, whatever, but if you mess it up, clean it up."
The two men look at her, their eyes glazed. The black man is middle-aged, lean and good looking and dressed in clothes he bought someplace nice. "How do we get paid?" he asks.
"The contractor pays you directly. Keep track of your hours and take his license plate number just in case he decides not to. We'll follow up."
"How many days a week do the guys get out?" asks the white guy, also middle-aged and lost.
"That depends. We'll get you out as your number comes up, but if a contractor has someone he wants, he's doing the hiring, so he might jump the list. Also, some contractors don't want blacks, or Mexicans or whites, and there's nothing we can do about that. Once you know some contractors, if your work is good, they'll ask for you."
Both men sit all morning, the last numbers on the list. The other men look them over but don't pay them much attention. Just two new guys. Both guys get out the second day: the white guy to watering plants at a condo complex on Belleview; the black guy on a clean up crew. The lawn work pays thirty dollars for three hours because the guy has his own truck. The clean up crew makes $42 for six hours of dirty work.
Workin' for a Living
Fort Worth opened the Day Labor Center three years ago. Teresa Carreon, who heads up the Center, says she and Watson worked on the project for two years before it opened. "The guys were waiting for day work on Vickery and Main and along Hemphill, tying up traffic," she says. "So we decided to open the Center for both economic reason for the guys and for traffic flow."
It took two years, she says, because the city wasn't quick to commit the funds it would take to run the center – about $230,000 annually from the general fund – and once funds were committed it was difficult to find a neighborhood who wanted it. "We wound up compromising on our criteria," she says. "We've got a great building but ideally we'd be on a bus route near where the guys worked on the street, where the contractors were used to picking them up."
The NIMBY (not in my backyard) problem, she says, is that the traditional image of day workers is that of surly drunks and druggies. It's an image created more in our imagination than reality. "The stereotype of the drunk or druggie day worker just isn't true anymore," says Debbie Kratky, of Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County. "In the first six months of this year alone we lost 2,180 full time jobs here in Tarrant. "Sixty-three separate large companies contributed to that, either by going out of business or downsizing. And the real number is considerably higher, since small companies don't have to report layoffs."
Juan, a Latino-American day worker who was born in the Fort Worth area, is typical of the guys at the center. He's close to 50, good looking, clean and smart. "It's hard to find a good paying job right now," he says. "Lost my job of 22 years a couple of years ago. I was working at Texas Steel and they closed it up and sent all the jobs to Mexico, so now I'm here, trying to make a living. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The irony is that my job went to Mexico and now I'm here competing with Mexicans for day work."
He's asked why he wound up at the center. "It's not like most of us want to be here, you know? Things happen. You lose your job you lose everything, really. You're used to making $1,200-$1,500 a week, that's a whole lot different than $250. You start losing everything. First your home, then your cars. We tried the Salvation Army and stayed together as a family for a while, till she decided to move on by herself. That's where we're at as a family."
Juan's got 11 kids, some of them grown. "My oldest boy is in Iraq. He's been there for six months now and he's got to do another several months before he can come back. He wrote to us a few months back that there are mortars and rounds flying around every day where he was stationed. Every time I pick up the paper and one of our soldiers is killed it gets me to thinking I may never get to see him again. I just don't know." He doesn't speak about his circumstance with any self-pity. "As far as coming down here, it's alright. We're in the air conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter. We get work maybe 2-3 days a week if we're lucky, maybe $65 or $70 a day if it's a good job."
In Warren's estimation, about half the guys who pass through would take a regular job if it were offered. The other half couldn't handle the responsibility. Some guys get the offers but the jobs don't make economic sense.
Juan says that he turned down a contractor who wanted to give him a regular job recently because the pay was low. "One guy from here wanted to hire me on full time for $6.50 an hour, but no benefits," he says. "For 35 hours that comes to $227.50 a week. By the time they take taxes out and you pay for transportation, you're still on the street. When I started at the steel mill in 1978 they were paying me $9.89 an hour as a helper, and that money went a lot further than it does today."
"That's an issue with a lot of guys," says Warren. "A lot of the men, by the time they get here, they already lost everything. And they know they can't make it back on $6.50. Can't buy a car, and if you can't get a car, you can't work." Some of the problems the men have are fixable; some aren't. Curtis Parrot, an 18-year-old with no kids and a place to stay, had a regular job until his boss got into a car wreck. "I heard about this place and came down and I'll work out of here until my boss is ready to go back to work." Unless his boss has found somebody else to replace him in the meantime.
Phil – he didn't want his last name used since he's from Fort Worth – a tall, strapping 50-year old who looks more like a contractor than a day worker, says he's almost gone as well, but for different reasons. "I'm either off the streets for good in the next year or I'm dead. If I don't have cirrhosis I'm close to it and another year banging around will finish it." He's been on and off the streets since 1991. "At that time I'd had a real bad heroin addiction for 12 years. You make two or three or four bad choices in your life and you've got a real problem. Especially if you lose your support system, your family, and drug addiction will make you lose that. I went to jail about three years after that on a misdemeanor – I pleaded guilty to go to jail because I wanted to get off methadone and heroin and I did. Problem was, I got out and started drinking. I worked labor halls for a couple of years, but you can't go on with that forever. All you do is make enough to stay drunk, buy cigarettes and a place to stay that night."
He worked the old day-work corner in downtown Ft. Worth for a while, and after a couple of years got himself a good job. "Construction. Mostly demolition and remodeling. I did that about four years but I kept drinking. Mostly I come down here when I have to and do what I have to do to survive, like most people. But then I'll make contact with someone I've worked with before and I'll be gone for a couple of months. Then I'll start drinking and pretty soon I'm back down here."
Some problems at the center go beyond substance abuse. During the Reagan presidency budgets for institutions caring for the mentally handicapped were radically slashed, forcing tens of thousands of people who would probably be better served in an institution out onto the street. "Some of those guys," says Juan, "Just don't belong on the street."
One of them, a fellow named Abdullah, who used to come to the Day Labor Center, was good when he took his medicine, but like a lot of mentally challenged people, sometimes forgot. "He was the fellow knifed to death under that bridge a couple of weeks ago," says Juan. "He was alright, but he didn't belong out here."
"You'd be surprised," says Warren, but there's a whole sub-culture of predators who prey on the day workers. "They're the ones asking you where you're staying, how many days you worked, where you're getting dropped off at night. If they know you're working, they know you have cash, and a lot of these guys make easy targets."
But predators and the mentally challenged aren't the primary difficulties keeping some of the guys out on the streets for long periods. "Child support and domestic issues are what mainly puts Anglos and African Americans on their behinds," he says. And DWIs. Man, you get that DWI and they impound your truck and your tools. If they keep you locked up for a month, you know your tools are not going to be there when you get your truck back. You just lost all that. So that brings a lot of guys here. You work construction and you don't have tools, it doesn't matter if you have the skills. You can't move with the job, you don't have a job.
Child support comes up regularly in conversations. A number of the men say they quit their regular jobs over it. One fellow who wouldn't even give a first name says he's $40,000 in arrears. "I can't work. She'll find me and I'm going to jail. Hell, I didn't mean to run away from my responsibility, but my ex never did spend the money I gave her for the kids on them. She made me so mad – that's why I quit my job I the first place." Others echo his sentiment, though Juan says a lot of them send money home. "I try to support my children too. Even the ones that are grown up, they ask me for money. Before I lost my job I always had money. Nowadays I'm giving them $12 or $50 instead of three or four hundred. That's all I'm giving them cause that's all I've got."
Raining on My Parade
It's been raining since about 8:00 a.m. Two dreary hours and three 10-cent cups of coffee later only three or four guys have gone out. I overhear one guy saying he once sat three weeks without working. Another guy, a first-day man, grumbles after an hour and after two stands and announces "I'm outa here. I can make more money panhandling than sitting on my ass in this place," then storms out.
Two days of rain later, the men are getting desperate. When contractors come in everyone jockeys for their attention. A contractor comes in looking for someone who can use a paint-spray rig. "If you can't use one, or if you make a mess, no pay," he announces. Another guy comes in looking for people who use jackhammers. Next guy comes in looking for three people. Warren talks with him for a minute then calls three young Mexican kids – way out of turn – and gives it to them. "Those kids are going to be standing in water past their knees shoveling muck all day," says Warren, as justification for going out of line. That was the last contractor who didn't know who he already wanted for the day.
"If a contractor doesn't know you, and you're a black or white American," says Phil, "chances are he's not going to take you. There's too many of us who are here because we've messed things up for ourselves one way or the other, so they don't want us. On the other hand, they figure the Mexicans are just here for work – maybe their papers aren't in order – and so they get picked. Just the way it is."
Warren admits that a lot of the work does go to the Mexicans. "But there's a reason for that," he says. "A lot of anglos and African-Americans are asking for an advance to buy smokes or something before they even start work. Sometimes they say the work's too dirty or they want more pay. Heck, I'll be sitting here with a contractor telling him he's got to pay better than he's offering for the kind of work he needs done and these young Mexican kids are already out the door and getting into his truck."
Asked if he's seen a change in the type and quality of worker coming through the door in the last three years, Warren says there's no question about it. "A lot of my guys have issues with alcohol. But every day we're seeing more clean cut guys in their thirties coming through. Maybe they lost their job to the economy, or maybe they lost their second job. Lots of people can't make it on one job, so they come in here for work. I get nearly 1,800 men a month through hereI get some women as well but I call them at home if something comes up that's right for them. A lot of those guys never thought they'd end up here, needing a day's work to feed their kids or keep the electric from being shut off."
Phil agrees. "There's no question that the majority of the white and black Americans here contributed to their problems. But like everything else in life there are other factors. It's not one hundred percent. You don't have to be a sorry, stupid son of a bitch to end up out here. You can get a divorce and end up here. You can have a couple of debts and end up here. You got a lot of people with education out here. And I'll tell you what: There's a whole shitload of people in Fort Worth right now who are just one or two paychecks or one bad break away from being out here." Take a number. Get in line.