Mark Hayward's City Matters: Day laborers care more about work than who wins
Bill Sheehan of Manchester waits in the lobby of Labor Ready with other day laborers Wednesday. Most days, he can expect to land a minimum wage job. (Mark Hayward/Union Leader)
President Obama brings his campaign to Manchester today, his fifth visit to New Hampshire this year.
Of course, he will talk about jobs and unemployment; the Romney campaign will issue a statement. They will point fingers, and another news cycle will spin along.
But if either candidate wants to go beyond the rhetoric, they should put on a warm jacket, set their alarm clock and visit the end of Willow Street early in the morning.
By 4:30 a.m., a half-dozen people will be gathered outside the temp agency Labor Ready, hoping to land a job for the day. They wear sweatshirts, jeans and work boots. They smoke off-brand cigarettes and hope for eight hours of work, most likely at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Their unemployment checks have dried up, but not their determination to work. Their work history lacks the pizazz to survive the screening software at employment offices.
They hope to hold on to what is left before it too is lost.
“Everyone says 'How can you go on?' I can't quit. I have a family,” said a 43-year-old Manchester woman who did not want her name used, in part because she is waiting word on a permanent job.
In September 2011, she lost a $30-an-hour job at Elliot Hospital as an x-ray technician.
Her unemployment ran out in July, she said.
Her recent day jobs have included cleaning rooms at a Meredith hotel and driving cars at an automobile auction house.
Her husband's disability check provides enough to cover the family mortgage and all but $40 of their car payment.
Her day labor provides the rest.
“I just do whatever I can to get food on the table or pay the lights so they don't go out,” she said.
Bill Sheehan came dressed with a reflective vest. He's a certified flagger, which gives him a leg up on jobs at roadway construction sites. They usually come with a bonus — a 12-hour shift.
Sheehan said he can't find regular work because of the new world of job searches. Applications are entered into computers, and databases make cuts based on odd matrixes of skills, experience and key words.
“You don't get a chance to talk to someone face to face,” he said while scanning Labor Ready's copy of the morning newspaper.
Four years ago, Sheehan said, he was working landscaping through a temporary placement firm in Arizona, earning $7.75 an hour, thanks to that state's higher minimum wage.
He said he lives in a Market Street rooming house. He eats at the New Horizons shelter and hits up the food pantry once a month. He said his church, Gospel Baptist on Beech and Merrimack streets, won't let its members go hungry.
He sees a doctor through the city's Healthcare for the Homeless program.
Of the four people interviewed, three say Obama inherited an economy in shambles.
“He's trying to repair the damage of George Bush,” said Brian McCullough.
They save their scorn for the Republican congress.
“Anything he's pushed in Congress, they fought hard. It's just politics,” said Sheehan, who compared Congress to children in a playground spat. “I might get in trouble for this, but I think the only reason they don't want him for President is because he's black.”
And of course, he said, Congress won't even think of raising the minimum wage.
But Kenny Jacques, who said he lost a $13-an-hour job at a direct-mail firm in Allenstown, blames Obama.
“You can't do any worse than he's done,” Jacques said.
None planned to attend Obama's rally today.
The x-ray technician hopes to get work at the Salem automobile auction. And while Sheehan defends Obama on the economy, he disagrees with Democrats when it comes to abortion.
By 5 a.m., the crowd has doubled and the Labor Ready staff enters the building. The managers turn on a blue sign, back-lit by fluorescent bulbs. Its frosty glow dominates the corner until the sun rises in about two hours.
The workers sign up and say they have to wait an hour before they are called. They sit on chairs in a lobby. A string of plastic American flags rings the room. A television news station is on low.
One man reads a book as Sheehan returns the agency's newspaper to its plastic sleeve and puts it on the counter.
The system, they said, has started to come down on them.
Hospitals provide a doctor at reduced cost if they get sick. But they have to pay for medication, McCullough said.
The Elliot worker said she can't afford a $400 prescription for reflux, forcing her to alter her diet and suffer through some nights.
Sheehan said he's seen restrictions tighten for fuel assistance and food stamps.
And the latest challenge — employers are now demanding credit scores from applicants, the former Elliot worker said.
“They get away with a lot more than they did in the old days,” she said.
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Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com on Thursdays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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