This is a guest essay by my author friend Sam Moffie. It is well worth reading. It is easy for people to ignore the plight of the minimum wage worker. It is not so easy to ignore when you walk in their shoes. Simon

What I did on my Summer Vacation or ODE TO MANUAL LABOR



“Don’t condescend to unskilled labor. Try it for half a day first.”
Brooks Atkinson

“I have, and it sucks!”
Sam Moffie

***Authors note: This writer worked undercover for sixty days this past summer for a day laborer temporary agency (whose name shall remain anonymous).

It is an employer’s market. I think it always has been. I used to think that employers really cared about their employees. Honestly, I really did believe this! As a matter of fact, as a small percentage owner of a few bars, drive-thru and rental income property I always took care of my employees. Sometimes I went without pay, so they wouldn’t. People confused my niceness with weakness and almost ruined it for me and their fellow employees. I was forced out of the businesses, but that’s another story. It being an employer’s market spells doom for those who have jobs, need jobs, and want jobs.

I am a writer. I write serious fiction. Most of my characters never have had to live like the Joads’ from Steinbeck’s brilliant The Grapes of Wrath. I remember reading Studs Terkel Working for freshman English in college. I didn’t understand how it important it was then, I do now.

Why you ask?

Because I’m a working stiff at age 54. Just because I have five novels published, doesn’t mean I drink from gold goblets. Just because I used to own and manage real estate and bars doesn’t mean I have a tree out back that I pluck money from as needed. As much as those enterprises were successful, they were more unsuccessful and here I am – Mr. Manual labor a direct descendant of Mr. Slave labor.

And I like it.

And I shouldn’t.


Numero Uno: The time affect. At times, when busy; the hours seem to pass like seconds. At other times, when busy; the hours move excruciatingly slow. At times, when we wait for a truck to show up, a skilled company to finish with their job so we can clean up or the foreman to tell us what is next; time seems NOT to move. Here is something that poorest of us slobs can tell you: Nothing moves faster than break time.

Numero Two-o: The good listeners affect. During down times the owner(s) of the establishment where we are working always find time to ask me — Mr. Manual labor what we think about with what we are doing, or more importantly what they are doing with the jobs we are working on. I was waiting for another truck of brand new restaurant tables, chairs, and counter tops for a Burger King franchise to arrive. The owner was almost gut rehabbing the entire building, because she explained to me (Why me? I was sweating like a pig, dusty from all the debris flying around, and dressed in rags) while I bided my time. She went to ask me what I thought of the beige colors of the furniture, the black tile and the new shingles for the roof. I asked her “Will new shingles on the roof really increase the sales of your Whoopers?” She replied “Oh yes, the suits told us so. We have to remain competitive you know.” The term ‘suits’ is vernacular for financial money manipulators who slither in and out of Wall Street. I nodded and said something like “…who am I to question? But I do like the colors of your new furniture….” She thanked me and brought me a milk-shake. See, it pays to be a good listener, especially when the talker in a member of the one-percent crowd.

Numero Three-o: The working class cares affect. Mostly, because if they didn’t, they know they will be fired or laid off. Still, they care, they really care. You have to wonder why they should care if they know that their bosses really don’t care about them. After all, they could do just enough to get by, slide under the radar, show up again the next day, and repeat their performance. This is called ‘mailing in’ your performance, and I see professionals doing this all the time; especially lawyers in my county of residence. Let me explain. It appears to me that the art of being a lawyer is not about practicing ALL law, but choosing where the easy money comes from in the maze of all the laws that engulf us all. Lawyers don’t want to take on any cases that require substantial work (unless the clients leave them a huge retainer). Pro Bono might as well be Sonny Bono and if they decide to take it as a contingency – it’s only because an insurance policy is somehow involved. In other words, lawyers only want deeds, DUI’s and divorces. Everything else is a crap shoot for the party who feels they suffered an injustice. Lawyers need to retool their thinking about the learning and practicing of the law. Roofers on the other hand make lawyers look like fools when it comes to taking pride in their work. I have been a Pro Se lawyer because of what I have written and I have been a roofer’s helper. I can attest that those roofers in scorching heat, high places, using very heavy equipment take more pride in practicing their trade than any lawyers I have met of late. The lawyers will come up with all sorts of baloney pie NOT to take the job (most of the time, they want retainers, rather large ones). The roofer takes any job and attacks it with pride.

FOOTNOTE: I conquered my fear of shaky ladders.

Numero Four-o: The Slave Auction. I have never been a big fan of auctions. They either are about works of arts that fetch bazillions of dollars for the owners of the picture (but not the artist, who painted it, and is long gone) or seem to be about people being forced to sell their belongings to pay or debt and of course the actual auctioning off of the little people’s homes during a sheriff sale after the foreclosure process has been completed. Working for the auctioneer had three perks. A) They paid for lunch and G2. B) The full- time staff were excellent to be with. C) I learned that junk can be treasure and treasure can be junk. Working for the auctioneer gave me a keen insight into the economic slave/master relationship. This was a direct result of the auctioneer’s full-time employees being easy to talk as well as to listen to. The owners know they have the upper hand in this relationship, not just because they are richer, better educated, and more experienced at dealing with people, places and things. They have the upper hand, because the employees always underestimate the greed of their employers and they are afraid – big time of not their employers, but being unemployed. That is the straw that stirs the drink of the employer vs employee relationship in the year 2014. Thus, they put up with lousy pay, lousy working conditions, lousy medical coverage, lousy hours, lousy breaks and a lousy way to make a living. One chap who I had the pleasure of working with suffered from heat stroke. The owners did have him taken out by ambulance and paid for his hospital stay. He was supposed to take a few weeks off, but couldn’t, because Workmen’s Compensation would take at least six weeks to process his two weeks off. As he said “…I got rent, I got bills…” Situation – LOUSY! As I moved items from one home to the next I was amazed at two things. A) How much stuff people keep no matter the wealth of the home and B) The rich have no idea how well off they are. Let me explain. I have participated in moving items from seven homes. Five of the homes were upper class or ‘one percenters’. Two were part of the ninety-eight percent bracket. Both homes had one field in common – tools. Whether hand tools or power tools owned by rich and poor alike both seem to take care of their homes and yards. Of course I had to wonder if the one-percenter did it himself or hired someone. After that it was fairly typical. Baby grand piano vs clapboard home entertainment center. Vintage collectables vs old toys. But nothing told the story better than mattresses and box springs. We always took the mattresses and box springs from wealthy homes and NEVER took them from poorer homes. However we took BOTH bed frames from rich and poor homes alike. What does that tell you? Does this mean that rich people don’t soil or spoil their beds like poor people? Does this tell you that poor people bend, fold, and mutilate their beds worse than rich people? I think not! Both sides have sex on their beds. Both sides masturbate on their beds. Both vomit on their beds. Both have animals that they love sleep on their beds. Both eat food and drink liquids in their beds. Both have nose bleeds on their beds. I guess the image of the mattress and box spring coming from a wealthy home is better than (thus more lucrative for the seller) than that of them coming from a poorer home.

Numero Five-o: BFI or is it Allied? Republic? Waste Management? City Rubbish? I think the cheapest place to find a trash hauling company is on Wall Street (In more ways than one). They definitely spend a lot of money on buying up other garbage haulers, and no money whatsoever on changing the names on the trucks, dumpsters and totes – thus my confusion on which is the company in charge. What, you don’t know WHAT a tote is? Tote means to carry or wield. However, in modern day garbage speak it means a garbage can. Personally, when I was told that I would be “cleaning out totes”, I assumed I was cleaning bags, as in tote bags. The job wasn’t that bad. It was very wet, but not bad. Lucky for me, for the union workers actually give a damn about people, and they help me find waterproof items that made my job easier. Supervision is non-existent and there is territoriality between divisions which I found myself in a tug-of-war over. Because of the constant buy-outs of one garbage company after another, the employees not bought out, fired or laid off either gained (but mostly) lost seniority at the blue-collar level. This led to resentment… a lot of resentment. So if one employee from one of the new companies was allowed to stay, it usually meant an existing employee from one of the previously bought out companies was let go. The new person was not welcomed at all. As a matter of fact HE (the new person) was blamed for the entire domino effect, when it really was the suits on Wall Street who ultimately told management they had to let people go in order to finance the buy-out. Well management likes management and doesn’t like the men (and women) in the trenches. However the people in trenches have no real idea who the management is of the new behemoth of a garbage company let alone the suits on Wall Street. However, they sure do know the new employee who took their ex-employee and friends place. The maintenance man does a great job of roasting hot dogs with a torch. I would recommend this at home.

Numero Six-o: The Mud Run. Not all manual labor has to be… well… manual labor. Given an opportunity to be paid $7.95 + a gas allowance of $15 to spend an entire Saturday handing out t-shirts to participants’ in a local mud run seemed a good break to take. The cause was good – raising money for women’s breast cancer and the weather was perfect. The course was muddy and there were over 3500 participants who came dressed like it was Halloween and not a mud race obstacle course. It was over in about 5 hours, but my work wasn’t. I saw how much fun everyone was having and I asked one of the young people running the event if I could run the course. He told me I had to “…clock out, because there would be no freebies.” I said I understood and was heading over to clock-out when he ran up to me and offered me a deal. “Still want to see the course AND get paid?” What’s not to like? I thought. He grinned. “What’s the catch?” I asked. He motioned with his arm to follow him, and so I did. He took me to the back of his pick-up truck, and handed me a very large roll of fifty gallon size trash bags. “Sam, you’re going to get your wish,” he said with a grin as he walked me over to the starting line of the mud run. He told me that I was trail one of his employees, who had a half hour head start on me. This man was tearing down the yellow caution tape which marked the course. He would leave the yellow tape in a pile, and make an arrow pointing me to the next pile. Thus, I would get a chance to be paid as I walked the mud run. I was to fill a trash bag and leave it. The bags would be picked up later. I was ecstatic. I was told it would take me two hours and be loads of fun. As usual, it was anything but. However, the time part, my boss of the hour had down pat. I started out with smiles and empty trash bags. After all, I had wanted to try it. I would get muddy, but at least I was getting paid. The first thirty minutes went smooth as silk- and I hadn’t gotten wet or muddy! Then I came across a very large campsite that was being criss crossed by dirt bike rider and four wheel aficionados. They were driving like crazy people and were holding yellow streamers as they whizzed on by. Three old-timers came running up to me waving their hands for me to stop. I stopped. They asked what I was doing and I told them. They told me that it wouldn’t be very smart of me to continue with my job. I thanked them and started worrying that I was entering The Deliverance Zone, and for $7.95 an hour; I wasn’t going to travel much further. I kept on walking and finding the bunched up yellow tape. I bagged it accordingly and went on to the next stop until I realized something – I wasn’t on a mud run trail anymore. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know where I was, except that I started to fear ‘dueling banjos’ was about to start playing if I took one step further. The only smart thing I could do was back-track; so having a college degree – I did just that. Was I lucky! It appears those yellow streamers I saw all the dirt bike and four-wheelers waving round was the yellow caution tape I was slowly taking down as I thought I was completing the mapped out mud run course. If I wouldn’t have discovered this, I’d still be lost, but not in translation.

Numero Seven-o: Cross one of my bucket list. Believe it or not, I always wanted to ride on the back of a garbage truck. My summer of manual labor helped me to achieve this dream. Now there is no need to go into BFI or its other names (See Numero five-o above.) Just one day I showed up to wash some Totes and the supervisor pulled me aside and informed me that I would be working on the back of the truck. How is that? I have no training, experience, and wasn’t even hired for the day to be doing that. So what? I always wanted, too begged my inner self. I shed my outfit to wash Totes and got into as many yellowed colored clothing as I could. Little did I know it was going to as fun, unsafe and disgusting as it turned out to be. Fun, because there is something about driving around the bend in the road at about 45 mph holding onto dear life. Probably was because I had always wanted to try it, the weather was nice and we hadn’t made our first stop yet. When I say ‘we’, let me explain. I went with one driver. The driver had been with the myriad of garbage companies for 25 plus years and was a few years older than myself. He taught me the ins and outs faster than you can say ‘garbage’. Most importantly, even though I wasn’t union and he was, he was glad to have a helper. Know why? Because for years, TWO people used to do the job that ninety-nine percent of the time of, he does by himself. Know why? Can you say budget cuts caused by mergers and acquisitions? Can you say elimination of staffing to pay for the aforementioned? Can you say early retirements (forced) to pay for the aforementioned? Can you say early retirements (unforced), because the workers could actually read the handwriting on the wall? Can you say cost-cutting at the managerial level, because the managers of the division in charge of residential garbage pick-up are given a budget. If, they go over that budget, no bonus! But, fall under the budget… a huge windfall. That is why Labor Ready is loved by the managers. They pay me $7.95 an hour. The days in which there were two men trucks, the dude on the back didn’t get paid what the driver made, but he sure made more than $7.95 an hour. I think the picture has been painted. The driver showed me how to pick up the Tote with the robot arm and more importantly he showed me how to use the gears and levers that turn thousands of pounds of garbage into a little cube. Then he said the darndest thing. “Pick-up everything on the curbside but tires and paint cans… EVERYTHING. That’s our job!” So we did. The items that were not in a can or properly bagged included tree branches, baby strollers, luggage and lots and lots of old computers and even older TVs. The bags and cans were either very heavy or extremely light. There was only one drawback to all the garbage and that was picking up the locations who hadn’t paid their garbage bills in 2-3 weeks and just kept putting their garbage at the curb. Guess what their garbage was full of? Maggots, Maggots and even more maggots. And I had to put it in the truck and squish them with great zeal. MEMO TO ALL DRIVERS: Drive very slowly when you see a garbage truck and its team of one or two doing their job.

What did I really learn? The future will be that the Labor Ready’s of the world will get larger and more diverse in finding day laborers and all skilled laborers. I see a future when law firms will call in and ask for a lawyer for the day. A future where a hospital will call in looking for a nurse for the day. A school calling in looking for a teacher for the day and so on. Glad I won’t be around to see that.

You can find out more about Sam Moffie on his web site His essay was also the subject of discussion on our regular Sunday program, you can listen to that here.

Simon Barrett

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