It is cold and dark, and from the front, Labor Works looks the way most businesses do at 4:45 a.m. — closed.
At least the door is locked. But enter around the back, and the warehouse-like rear of the building is alive with activity. Don Sapp is eating pot roast, a former nurse is spouting lines like poetry, and Teri Coomer is calling out names from behind a raised walled platform.
Coomer has been with the Preston Highway Labor Works since it opened almost 20 years ago and begins sending people on first-shift jobs around 5 a.m. There are second- and third-shift jobs as well, but first shift is the busiest. So busy that every time Coomer dispatches a group of workers, several new ones replace them. About two dozen people are always waiting for work on the company’s wooden benches. Still, it’s not as busy as it used to be. At one time, Coomer was sending out 450 people a day. Now it is more like 260. It’s not that there aren’t enough people looking for jobs. There are plenty of those, just not enough jobs. That’s why for two months this winter Coomer stopped taking applications. Winter is always slow for the temporary labor staffing company, but since construction jobs dried up in 2008, it has been even slower.
Applicants, on the other hand, have not declined — and they are not just coming from Louisville. Today there is a guy from Lebanon Junction; yesterday there were several from Goshen.
And they have become more skilled.
Four years ago, if Coomer announced she needed a carpenter for a job, two people might have come forward — and they wouldn’t have their own tools. Now, she says, “I’ve got 30 people signed up with their own tools.”
Mike Lapaille could be one of them. He once made $180,000 a year as a carpenter. Today he is sitting on a bench in Labor Works. He has been working construction clean-up since he started coming here in April. As he begins to tell his story, Coomer calls his name and he heads out on a job, leaving behind a poet who refuses to reveal his name but not his thoughts. The poet calls day labor a “short-term fix for nothing” that “keeps you almost afloat, but you won’t be able to swim, just wade in the water.”
The main problem, said Don Sapp, a 39-year-old in a Columbia jacket, is that when you work all day in day labor, you don’t have time to apply for full-time work elsewhere. Joseph Brown sees things a bit differently. He has been working daily since March 25 in construction clean-up, not bad for a 46-year-old who whose previous experience includes a stint behind bars. Coomer, said Brown, takes care of you.
“If Teri sees you’re a good worker, show up, she’ll put you to work,” he says. When you are on a “repeat ticket” like Brown, you know where you’ll be sent and what to expect. But if you aren’t, you can’t always be prepared for whatever job comes your way. So Coomer keeps hard hats for construction jobs and black pants and shoes for kitchen crews.
“I keep razors here; I keep shaving cream here if I have to shave them,” Coomer says. “I literally don’t want them not to be able to go to work if at all possible.” If they lack transportation to Labor Works, they can hop on one of the buses she dispatches to the West End and farther down Preston Highway every morning. Later she can help get them to their job.
Before work she gives them a Breathalyzer; after work they are paid. Sapp brings his breakfast and eats it while waiting to be dispatched. He came to Louisville in September after losing his job with a lumber company in Michigan. He heard there were more jobs in Louisville — but so far all he has been able to find is what he gets here — temporary.
He was on a repeat ticket for a while, but that ended when the company he was working for closed. So now he is back sitting on the benches, waiting for Coomer to call his name and offer a job he can do for the day.
Courier – Journal – Louisville, Ky.
Author: Katya Cengel
Date: Feb 27, 2011
Start Page: E.3