Virginia house painter fights to keep business as recession becomes a way of life

August 29, 2011

German Morales dressed for work in tattered painter’s jeans and a stained white T-shirt, even though he didn’t know when or whether he would paint again.

He tucked a brush into his back left pocket and a rag into his right. He walked outside to the utility truck he had bought with the last money in his family’s emergency fund and called the only employee he had left.

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” he said.

He turned the truck radio to a Spanish pop station and checked his cellphone for messages. No new e-mails. No missed calls. “Half of my life is waiting,” he said. He decided to kill time the way he often did, by opening the camera on his phone and looking through dozens of before-and-after photos of jobs he had completed over the past four years.

Morales had started taking the pictures as a marketing tool for potential clients back when his ambitions were big, but now he relied on the images to re­assure himself. Here was a clogged gutter turned clean, an aging bathroom remodeled, a three-story house painted in deep greens and gold. Each set of photos showed the value of his work. He arrived at a mess and then fixed it.

But lately his job has been defined by what he can’t fix, the mess he thinks is well beyond fixing.

Morales filed paperwork to open his painting business in December 2007, the month the recession officially began, and his life has since become a reflection of the country’s economic fate. He lost his house in Woodbridge to foreclosure, lost four of his five painters and lost $35,000 of his elder son’s college savings. He stayed busy in 2008 and 2009 by painting and then repainting his own house, convinced that recovery was just around the corner. He reinvested everything he earned back into his business last year, believing the economy finally had stabilized.

Then, last month, when stock prices tanked and sales of new homes fell for the third straight month, Morales sat down with his wife and two sons to discuss their finances. “I’m sorry,” he told them, “but this is the way it is going to be — job to job, week to week. It’s not getting better.”

He is one of millions for whom the recession has become permanent, no longer a crisis to endure so much as a reality to accept.

The average length of time a person is unemployed rose to 40.4 weeks last month, the longest period ever, and an estimated 1.1 million Americans have given up on looking for work entirely.

A record number of people exist on the fringes of the workforce: part-timers looking for more hours and the self-employed eager for more work. Like Morales, they hang their fate on a turbulent economy, sitting in the car, waiting for a call.

His cellphone rang in the middle of the morning. A number he didn’t recognize. “Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?” It was the owner of a townhouse in Centreville who had stumbled onto the listing for Morales’s business, DeMaya Clean­ing Service, on the Internet. The owner had been waiting to sell the townhouse for three years because of the housing market, but he had decided that was long enough.

“Prices might never go back up,” he said. “I’m waiting for a day that’s never going to come. I want to get the house in shape to go on the market.”

“We paint, we clean, we wash — my guys do everything,” Morales told him, although he had only one guy.

The owner explained that he wanted the exterior of the townhouse power-washed and that later he might hire Morales to paint. “We’ll see how the wash goes first,” the owner said. Morales considered the offer, running through the math in his head. His own power washer was broken. It was a 90-minute drive in traffic to Centreville. He would need to pay another laborer to come with him, because an old hip injury made it dangerous for him to work alone on the roof. The job would net him about $75. If he impressed the owner, he had a chance to paint the townhouse and sustain his business for another week.

On this day, this was what the economy had to offer.

“Okay,” Morales said. “Yes. Thank you. We’ll do it.”

* * *

Morales never wanted to become a painter.

He emigrated from El Salvador at age 12 in the late 1980s and spent the next two decades finding ways to steadily improve his life. He enrolled at a high school in Northern Virginia and learned to speak fluent English. He met a girl from El Salvador named Iliana and moved out of his mother’s house to live with her. They slept for a month in a friend’s Toyota Corolla. Iliana gave birth to their first son at 17. Morales found a job cleaning trash at a car dealership for $7.25 an hour and spent his paychecks on baby formula.

Soon he was a mechanic’s assistant at the dealership, then a technician in the body shop, then an expert in auto detailing. He taught himself how to install surround-sound systems and hang big-screen TVs to make extra money on the weekends, and Sears eventually hired him as a technician. He became a contractor for Cox Cable in 2001. The paycheck for his first week was almost $2,000.

He and Iliana married, had another son, bought a personal watercraft and spent their weekends in Ocean City. He worked from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., and soon they had saved $35,000. They bought a house in Woodbridge in 2005 with an adjustable-rate mortgage that started at $2,300 a month. The next year, just as Cox started to cut back on hours for contractors, their mortgage soared to $3,200.

Morales had friends from an adult soccer team who worked as painters. As his hours at Cox continued to decline, they suggested he start a business. He had a legal-resident green card and spoke English. He had never painted before. “I thought I would be the business manager,” he said, “working my own hours, supervising.”

Four years later, on a humid Tuesday in August, Morales pulled his truck up to a townhouse in Centreville and wrestled a 230-pound power washer out from the back of his truck. He had hired Cesar Pineda, 23, to help him for the day at $10 an hour. They had rented the power washer for $60, and already it was leaking gas all over them.

“This thing is junk,” Morales said. “I hope it gives us two good hours.”

He grabbed his cellphone to take a picture of the townhouse’s dusty exterior and then climbed a ladder onto the roof. The sun reflected off the black shingles and burned through his boots. He sprayed the house for 45 minutes, soaking his clothes with sweat and water and mud. The motor abruptly fell silent. He shouted down to Pineda.

“What happened?” he said.

“It’s still leaking,” Pineda said. “We’re out of gas.”

Morales climbed back down the ladder, went back to his truck and drove 20 minutes to a gas station. He paid $14 for a gas can and $7 for gas before returning to the house. He power-washed for two more hours, cleaned the back porch, scrubbed the front door and polished the door handles.

After nearly five hours in Centreville, he took out his cellphone and snapped a second picture. He wanted to show the owner his work the next morning, when they were scheduled to discuss painting the house.

“It looks good,” Pineda said.

“I hope so,” Morales said. “We need this guy to hire us.”

* * *

Morales had not seen much of his family in the past week, so he decided to go visit his wife and two sons. He worked — or obsessed about not working — for 18 hours each day. When he was on a job, he sometimes painted past midnight to compensate for his lack of manpower. When he had nothing, he drove from Richmond to Baltimore to drop off business cards, sometimes pulling over to nap in his truck.

The rest of his family worked constantly, too — “a family of workaholics without much to show for it,” Iliana said. Her uncle had opened a restaurant in Oakton, and now every relative had decided to pitch in. Morales entered through the front door, still wet from the power-washing, and saw the fresh flowers on the table and the new big-screen TVs hanging on the wall. The place was mostly empty. Three smiling employees greeted him. “You guys are trying so hard,” Morales told them. Here was another small business, hoping to survive.

He sat down at a table in the corner with his 8-year-old son, Alejandro. His 16-year-old, Christian, a busboy, came over to fill his water glass. His wife, a waitress, brought over menus. “I haven’t seen you in forever,” she said, before walking over to take orders at an adjacent table. This was the family they had become.

The wife: She left to do paperwork for a doctor’s office each morning at 9, worked eight hours and then drove straight to the restaurant to manage the night shift. She waited tables, washed dishes and drove back home at 3 a.m., speeding down the empty freeway with Spanish music blasting and the windows down, hoping the air would keep her awake.

The older son: He was working two jobs. His parents told him that any money he earned was his to spend, but instead he paid for their light bill, bought his brother a video game and surprised his dad on his birthday with $200 work boots. He told his mother he was going to save up and buy her another house so they could move out of their two-bedroom rental.

The younger son: He was dragged from job to job during the summer. He washed paintbrushes for his dad, steadied the ladder and helped fetch tools. When clients came to look over their work, his father asked him to walk around the block or sit alone in the building lobby so they wouldn’t think he had been wasting time babysitting.

The father: “I’ll take Alejandro with me,” he said now, at the restaurant.

The place was getting busy. His wife waved goodbye. “We’ll be home late,” she said.

“Us, too,” he said, and he walked with Alejandro back to the truck.

* * *

Morales woke up early the next morning to beat traffic on his way to Centreville. He wore what he called his “clean jeans,” tucking a calculator in one pocket and a notebook in the other.

He pulled up to the house, and the owner walked outside to greet him. He wore a button-up shirt with a cellphone clipped to his belt. “Your guys did a good job on the power wash,” he said.

“Oh, yes, thank you,” Morales said. “They did.”

He took out his phone to show his before-and-after pictures, and the owner glanced at them quickly. “Guess it was dirty, huh?” he said. He gestured for Morales to follow him into the house. “I’ve got a few more people coming over to talk about the painting this afternoon,” he said, “but you can look around and give an estimate, too.”

Morales spent the next 30 minutes touring the house, running his hand against the walls and drawing a schematic diagram in his notebook. Everything he saw was a potential job: a bathtub in need of caulking, a worn countertop, a filthy stove. He narrated his findings as the owner followed behind.

“We can take care of this,” he said.

“We will paint your deck for free, as our gift.”

The owner thanked Morales for his time and walked him to the front door. Morales told him he would make his calculations and then e-mail the estimate. “I will send you references,” he said. “Do you want two, three, four?”

The owner shrugged. “Sure,” he said.

Morales walked outside, sat in the truck and added up the numbers. It was a big house, three floors and 12 rooms to prime and paint. The owner also wanted the carpets cleaned, the roof repaired, the deck stained, the refrigerator scrubbed. The price of paint had gone up 30 percent in the past year, and Morales also needed to pay for his painter, insurance and licensing fees.

If he bid too high, he would lose the job to another painter. If he bid too low, he would make next to nothing.

“The total is $3785.15,” he wrote in his e-mail. He had learned that clients appreciated exactness. “We can start as soon as you are ready. Please let me know your decision. We thank you.”

He sat in his truck and waited. He checked his e-mail. Nothing. “This job is not much, but now I need it,” he said. It would keep him on the fringes of the economy as a self-employed painter for another week. It would pay the rent on his family’s downsized apartment.

It would allow him to maintain the lifestyle he had come to accept.

He checked again. One new message.

“Okay,” it read. “We have a deal.”

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