Profiles in Survival: A factory job holds out promise of independence

by Jordan Green

It’s not a bad job as far as jobs go.

From midnight to 8 a.m. Queenasia Wray tends the washing machine. She catches the various plastic containers – Clorox bottles, roll-on deodorant dispensers, for example – that issue from its confines, packs them in cardboard boxes and tapes the package shut. The top of a bottle might get caught, in which case she has to stop the machine and cut the top or knock the bottle out with a stick. Repetitive though the job may be, it doesn’t give her much chance to get off her feet.

Greensboro remains North Carolina’s most manufacturing dependent city, according to the Debbage report, an economic report card commissioned and much discussed by the city’s civic elites. Intertech Corp., where Wray earns $7 an hour through a third-party labor contractor, may be as emblematic of the Gate City’s manufacturing sector as any other enterprise, what with the collapse of the once mighty textile industry a decade ago.

Manufacturing jobs don’t carry the same cache in Greensboro that they once did, when Cone Mills and Burlington Mills stood tall; the Debbage report found that wages in every sector of Greensboro’s economy except retail lag behind the rest of the state.

On a recent Saturday afternoon she sat on the stoop of her cousin’s house overlooking Ray Warren Homes. A New York native who earned her general equivalency degree at GTCC after dropping out during her sophomore year of high school, the 20-year-old Wray has held half a dozen jobs from food service to security and housecleaning, paying as little as $6 an hour and no more than $7.75.

“Black people struggle,” she says. “We try to find the good jobs, but all the jobs are for seven-fifty or something. That’s all that’s out there.”

She can say this from experience, having started her working life at the age of 16 selling books, knives and kitchen utensils on commission for Triad Star Co.

Since then she’s held fast-food jobs at Wendy’s, Bojangles and Taco Bell, and cleaned apartments for the High Point Housing Authority. She quit her most recent job as a security guard because of her contention that the supervisor was demonstrating favoritism by allowing a cousin to shirk responsibilities.

Wray doesn’t have to worry about rent while she stays with her cousin. The trade off, which is not a bad one, is that on her day off she’s saddled with watching a handful of her cousin’s children. They drift back and forth today from stoop to front room, clutching a handful of Wray’s shirtsleeve until a martial arts video game reclaims their attention inside.

What burden the children impose is eased by the presence of Wray’s best friend, a 23-year-old Pizza Hut waitress named Katrina Surratt.

Surratt wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the message, “The best way to behave is not to.” After awhile she announces that she starts to feel hungry. She agrees to take one of the young boys and they depart for the curb market to buy snacks.

While her friend is gone, Wray muses on her prospects at the plastics plant. There’s no reason to think she won’t survive a three-month probationary period, at the end of which she stands to get hired by Intertech and receive a 50-cent raise. She hasn’t asked whether she’ll receive benefits and paid vacation time, and no one has volunteered the information.

As it stands, she earns about $13,650 a year. After taxes are withheld, she says, it comes out to about $800 a month.

“It’s working out for me, to tell the truth,” Wray says. She doesn’t have to worry about rent, and she has no children.

She plans to get an apartment of her own soon – she’s looking at a place on North Church Street – that will cost $280 in monthly rent. Water and lights, she estimates, will cost about $160. She pays a monthly probation fee of $45 stemming from charges of assaulting a government official, resisting arrest and damaging property; the judge’s sentence took into consideration the fact that she was employed. There’s also her cell phone bill. What’s left over for food is $200 or $300.

If a proposed citywide minimum wage of $9.36 were approved in Greensboro, Wray would earn an additional $383.50 a month before taxes – or an extra $4,602 a year.

“That would be so much better,” she says.

If she were to earn $9.36 an hour, she doesn’t see the additional income as an inducement to retrain or look for more satisfying work. Quite the opposite: She enjoys working third shift because of the freedom it affords her during the daytime. Most significantly, making $9.36 an hour at Intertech would put homeownership within reach.

“I’d make sure I have a car,” Wray adds, “and some money in the bank – stacks on deck.”

Just then Surratt and her young charge return. They distribute oatmeal cream cookies to the other children, and Surratt hands Wray a pack of Newports.

Surratt settles in on the stoop, and the children take their snacks back inside and congregate around the television. Not long after gunfire erupts in the housing projects across the street.

Pop pop – pop pop.

The women duck down and scramble inside. Surratt lets out a peal of laughter and rolls on the floor – whether from fright or in reaction to a visitor’s shock it’s hard to say. Then there’s another quick burst of fire.

Pop pop – pop.

Wray is laughing too by now, clutching the sides of an armchair and spitting up fruit punch.

“It’s going to take the police an hour to get out here,” Wray says. “They don’t care about us.”

She and Surratt stand in the doorway, watching a crowd congregate outside the apartment buildings at Ray Warren.

“It was probably just someone shooting in the air,” Wray says. “They don’t need to be shooting at all.”

About 20 minutes pass and a police cruiser rounds the corner, siren and lights still, as the officer scans the block.

Gunfire aside, Wray is in Greensboro because of the city’s generally good quality of life. She moved with her father to Lexington when she was 14, then back to New York, and back south again to Asheboro. They couldn’t stay in Asheboro because of its lack of public transportation. So living in Greensboro split the difference between big-city amenities and country calm.

“Up top, it’s dangerous; it’s too fast up there,” Wray says. “It’s slower here. I’d probably be dead up there. Here, you ain’t gotta look over your back unless you got beef.”

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