City of Greensboro uses low-wage, outsourced labor

by Jordan Green

A young laborer named Patrick Jones stood with a group of mainly African-American men in the alleyway behind Labor Works Source before dawn on a recent Monday waiting for his work assignment as saturated clouds occasionally released a warm drizzle. The alley along the backside of the building was set off on one side by a chain-link fence topped with concertina; it led from a side parking lot to the hiring hall, where about 20 others dozed in a mix-and-match assemblage of metal folding chairs and institutional furniture as television news played on a mounted television in the corner. On the street side the agency’s storefront on Lindsay Street remained unlit, giving the roadway the appearance of uninterrupted slumber. “If you get down here after five o’clock, ain’t no guarantee that you’ll get a job,” Jones said. For two or three years Jones has been showing up here to take day-labor jobs. Although he saves on housing costs by staying with his parents, he has a four-month son to support now. Among the jobs that come his way are garbage pick-up assignments for Republican Waste, Waste Industries and the city of Greensboro, along with flagging duty at road construction sites. He said he didn’t know what kind of job he would be called to that day, but the impending rain was promising. “I hope it’s something easy,” Jones said. “Pretty much when it’s raining you don’t have to work hard.” Jones and other laborers said they typically get paid $6.15 per hour, the state minimum wage. “It don’t go too far,” said Andre Cook, 39. “If you work eight hours, it’s right at forty-seven or fifty dollars.” By the time expenses for food, lodging – in Cook’s case, a residential hotel – and transportation are taken into account, he said there wasn’t much left. Cook hasn’t tried to find a better paying job lately. “I haven’t really had a chance to look, trying to survive day to day,” he said. “If you miss a couple days here, you sure enough come short. And if you turn down what they give you, nine times out of ten you go to the bottom of the list.” The difficulty of covering living expenses on limited incomes in this northeast section of Greensboro is a topic of frequent conversation that is well represented in mass media. At a nearby McDonald’s restaurant on Summit Avenue the television was tuned to a call-in prayer program hosted by Houston evangelist Kerney Thomas. As Jones and Cook left for their job assignments, the program broadcast a scene of Thomas taking phone calls and declaring that God’s intercession was already working to address problems of health, family dysfunction and money. Many of the callers expressed a need for “a financial blessing.” Thomas responded by shrieking, speaking in tongues and providing a running social commentary. “Right now the main way the devil is tormenting God’s people is with financial difficulty,” Thomas said. By Jones’ account, one of the beneficiaries of the bottom tier of Greensboro’s labor hierarchy is the city itself. Jones said he was paid $6.15 per hour by Labor Works Source to handle curbside garbage pickup for the city. Invoices provided by the city show that Labor Works Source billed the city $8.35 an hour for work performed by Jones and Cook in July and December 2006. While not disputing Jones’ figures, John German, a manager at Labor Works Source of Greensboro, said by telephone that he did not know how much the laborers were paid. Should a ballot initiative pushed by the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee succeed, Labor Works Source would be among the employers forced to raise hourly wages from $6.15 to $9.36 per hour. The increase would almost certainly cause Labor Works Source and other agencies to charge the city more for outsourced labor. Garbage pickup comprised a relatively small part of the city’s overall spending on outsourced labor in fiscal year 2007. Of a total of $520,856, the largest share of the city’s spending on outsourced labor, $155,262, went to street cleaning; followed by housekeeping, at $110,450; and compost facilities services, at $108,581. Other services performed for the city by contingent workers include environmental compliance and monitoring, event preparation, athletic field maintenance, legal services, and work in the city’s lead hazard control program. Greg Dingman, the city’s solid waste disposal manager, said laborers employed by Trojan Labor receive $6.15 per hour to de-bag yard waste at the landfill. Trojan Labor bills the city an additional $2.24 per labor hour. Calls to USA Staffing and Patriot Staffing, which handle housekeeping and street cleaning for the city, were not returned.