Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
DAY WORK - Better Than Nothing but Not by Much
by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved
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 AM on a Monday morning. Seventy men—white, black, Mexican—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 have a number. Those with the good numbers, numbers one-through-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, or a fenced-in outer area 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.
“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. We’ll give you a number when you come in and that number moves up as guys go out. We roll the numbers over for the next day at 11 AM. If you’re not here you lose your number so don’t plan on leaving before then. After roll over we have a van and we’ll take you to the Salvation Army or a church where you can get a bag lunch. But I am not your mother, your sister or your girlfriend. I’m not taking you to your friend’s house, your sister’s house, the place where you camp out. We have a bathroom where you can clean up, wash your hair, whatever, but if you mess it up, clean it up. And if you come in smelling like pot or alcohol or looking raggedy or stoned, you’re not going out and you’re losing your number. Any questions?”
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 in shape up 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.
I got back out the third and fourth days as well, back to the condos and watering the thousands of plants and trees in the seven building complex. Twelve hours, $110, after social security, over three days. Not bad. If I could do that every week, I think, I’d be doing $440 a month, nearly enough to make up the difference between my regular work and keeping my little house.
The black guy doesn’t get out for the rest of the week.
Fort Worth opened the Day Labor Center three years ago, at the insistence of Assistant City Manager Libby Watson. 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. But there’s an organization down near Vickery called Southside Inc., which already has Jack Brown’s—another day work place—and the bunkhouse, where a lot of the guys stay, and I think Manpower may be there as well.” And Southside Inc is looking to get those business out, not bring in new business like the Day Labor Center
The location she finally got was 15thAvenue on the westbound service road of I-30 at the Summit Ave. exit. It abuts a police station. Not easy to find, not near a bus route and not near where the guys had been shaping up. The 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—perhaps from our need to distance ourselves from them—than one rooted in reality. Closer to the truth is that most of the guys are ourselves.
“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. And Lockheed, which contributed to that number, is nowhere near finished laying off the 3,000 they’re planning to layoff altogether.”
Kratky’s work involves trying to get people looking for work matched up with available jobs, and keeping tabs on who’s employed and who’s not. “The real unemployment and underemployment figures are impossible to get. When 2,180 full-timers are let go, there’s also a cut in overtime. Then there’s the loss of second jobs people have, part time jobs that are not reported. And of course with so many companies using temp agencies to get people, where those people don’t count as employees for the first three months, well, if those people are let go—or never officially hired—they don’t show up anywhere. And then people who are still unemployed after their unemployment runs out are taken off the work roles, adding to the total unemployment. So that job loss figure really indicates that a whole lot of people are out of work or working less than they need or want to work.”
Juan, a Latino-American day worker who was born in the Fort Worth area, is not atypical 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.”
The other places that use day labor don’t pay nearly as much. The guys talk about Jack Brown’s as a place where you can work but the money isn’t very good. Brown has a concession for cleaning up the stadiums after Texas Ranger and Dallas Cowboy games, and supposedly takes care of one of the speedways too.
“Four hours work, $19.80 in your pocket,” says Dave Parker, a book-carrying electrician from Houston getting back on his feet. “Easy work. Problem is they expect you to give them 12 house for that four hours work.
He explains that you’re expected to sign in for the work at noon, even for night games, then sit until it’s time to take a bus to the stadium near the end of the game. “Then you clean up, get transport back and 15 minutes later he gives you your money. Pain in the neck but it beats begging for food.”
The first place I tried was Labor Ready, over in Mansfield. The place was a single sparse room with a sort of hotel lobby desk at one end. Probably 20 guys were milling about when I entered, mostly black, a few whites, few Latinos. The guy behind the desk had me wait while he sent nearly all the men out to work at the new Home Depot and Target construction sites on Wilshire Boulevard in Burleson. As they left they were told not to forget to put on work boots or they’d be sent home payless.
After they were gone he called me over and made photocopies of my driver’s license and social security card. “Why you here?” he asked.
“Need some work.”
“Get a job.”
“Got a job. I’m a freelancer. Just need some extra money a couple of days a week.”
He passed me what looked like a calculator and a sort of photo binder. “This is a qualification test,” he said. “Seventy-five questions. Just press the button with the number of your answer on the pad then press the blue “go” button when you’re ready for the next question. Got it?”
I opened the book and began the test. The questions dealt mostly with what street drugs I’d used recently, how often I’d hit employers and co-workers in the last year and with what, how I rated my fighting skills and how much I’d stolen in the same period of time. The same questions were asked over and over with slightly different phrasing. “If an employer curses at you, do you a) hit him; b) threaten his family; c) slash his tires; d) walk off the job. There were not many options for saying you’d probably ask him what was wrong or try to get him to stop cursing at you by simply suggesting he try another approach.
I finished the test and was told to wait a few minutes. Another fellow took it immediately after me. He was still working on it when the dispatcher called me over to the desk and said: “You didn’t qualify.”
“I didn’t qualify? Why not?”
“Computer don’t say why. Just that you didn’t qualify.”
For a moment it occurred to me that that was part of the test: If I leapt over the counter to throttle him, I’d fail. If I accepted my failure gracefully he’d call me back as I walked out the door.
The guys who’d worked at Labor Ready over at the Day Work center say I didn’t miss much. “Minimum wage, charge you for transportation if you don’t have your own car. Half the time they have you holding “Stop” and “Go” signs in the street.”
“The main difference between us and the other day labor places,” explains Warren, “is that they’re privately owned. They have to make a profit. Contractor is paying $8, the worker gets minimum, they take the difference. Here, we ask what they’re paying so they known we know, but if you can make a better deal with the man outside, that okay. The money is yours, not ours.”
Most of the guys, says Warren, a Human Services Coordinator with prior experience, stick around for a few months and then are gone. “I don’t know what happens after that. Hopefully some of them get back into the swing of regular life with regular jobs. A percentage just move on to other cities, and some of them move with the seasons. My feeling is that the biggest percentage find work with somebody for a few months.”
In his 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, when asked if Juan’s response to low-pay full time work is typical. “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 guys out of here hook up with regular jobs paying much more than that. How you get by all depends on your perspective. On a day like today, with 30 guys going out, someone is going to pay these guys a total of maybe $2,600. Some guys complain they can’t get work. Other guys say: ‘Hey, somebody is going to help someone out of a problem today. I’m gonna go get work and get some of that money to fix my problem.’”
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.”
Dave Parker is ready to leave Fort Worth and head back home to Houston, where he thinks he’ll find good work as an electrician. “I only got here about three months ago,” he says. “I was out of the day labor center in Pasadena. I’d finished 9-months in jail behind alcohol and I lost my cars and my tools to that, so I was out of work. I’d already lost my family to too much work—found out the hard way they need you a lot more than they need your money. Anyway, I hooked up with this guy who sells exotic birds at bird shows and I set up cages, showed the birds off, cleaned up. But by the time we got here, after about a month, the guy just drove me nuts. It was either quit or throw him off a bridge. So I quit. I picked Fort Worth because I thought I’d get good work, and it had good services—food and shelters—and I couldn’t go back to Houston till I got my tools and car out of hock and caught up on my union dues. Took longer than I thought it would because of all that rain we had in June, and you got to eat so you get set back on what you put away, but that’s life.”
Floyd Quinlan, white haired, small and wiry, is nearly gone as well: a roofer who lost his business to what he calls a “problem marriage” caused in part by his drinking is only weeks away from getting his social security. He’s been living under bridges for a couple of months since he returned to Fort Worth after a couple of years in El Paso, but says he’s looking forward to having his own room again. “I don’t like living on the street. It’s my choice, I guess, since I got family in Huntsville, Alabama I could go stay with but I don’t want to be a burden to them. When I get my money I’m going to go to Del Rio. I lived there for a couple of years before El Paso. I had a steady job there, working for a deputy sheriff, taking care of rent houses. It’s real cheap down there, a nice place. You can get along.”
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 cirrosis 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.”
Not every guy at the center has problems as fixable as those. 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 your 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.
“Then, some of these guys, they have a felony. There goes good work for most of them. It doesn’t even have to be a bad felony: could be you’re drinking and get in a fight, could be bad checks because you lost your job, or taking stuff from work.”
Child support comes up regularly in conversation during shape up. 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.”
Second week at the center starts off okay. On Monday my number is 65 and it’s a nice day so a bunch of guys get out. By rollover at 11 AM my number for Tuesday is 28. It should have been a gimmee that I’d be working, but when it starts to rain at about 8 AM, I’m not so sure. 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. The guys don’t pay him any attention.
Wednesday is a little better and after another four hours of sitting I’ve moved up to number 11. I was thinking I’d get a callback from the plant-watering condo but with Tuesday’s rain it doesn’t come. By Thursday I have to work. I’m already down over $20 in gas money just showing up and so I move from the smoking area to the front room, and when contractors come in I move in like a vulture and stand in front of them to make sure they see me. The problem is that everybody else is doing it too because they havn’t worked either. There aren’t many, and when a truck or car pulls up in front of the center we all make for the front room, regardless of number. But the few who come know who they’re looking for and ask for them by name. Only five guys from the list get work, leaving me number 6 for Friday. But Friday is another rainy day, and again nobody gets work. I move up one slot for Saturday.
Saturday was beautiful, with no hint of clouds in the sky. I’m there early. 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. I’ve never used one. Job goes to someone else. Another guy comes in looking for people who use jackhammers. My number again but I never used one so again the job goes to another guy. Next guy comes in looking for thee people. Warren talks with him for a minute then tells the guy he’ll pick his workers. He calls three young Mexican kids—way out of turn—and gives it to them. I ask him what’s what.
“That job’s not for you, Pete. Those kids are going to be standing in water past their knees shoveling muck all day. I tell him I don’t care what the work is, that I’m down $30 in gas and havn’t gone out all week. “I hear you,” he says. “You and a lot of guys.”
That was the last contractor who didn’t know who he already wanted for the day. Six days. Five hours of travel a day. Gas money. No work.
“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 here—I 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.