The Blow the Working Class Saw Coming

By Iain Levison
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mark and Robert tell me that they've finished laying the carpet in the bedroom of an apartment in Raleigh, N.C. One small bedroom in one small apartment. It is the first time they have worked since Dec. 2.

They've driven in from Youngsville, which is 60 miles round trip, four gallons of gas. The pickup doesn't get great mileage when it's pulling a trailer full of carpet and tools. So take out $8 for the gas, $60 for supplies, and the job, which paid $220, nets $152 to be split between two guys. That's their total earnings for two months.

I've been writing about the condition and attitudes of American workers since I chronicled my own string of more than 30 different jobs in a 2003 memoir. For the past four years, I've also been working for a company in Raleigh that renovates apartments. We handle evictions, too. Last spring, we were getting a lot of renovation and flooring work. Customers thought nothing of taking out walls and replacing them with polished rustic beams, or throwing down high-end laminate for a hardwood-floor look. Now, just 10 months later, we spend most of our time hauling people's detritus out to a dumpster.

As the country slides deeper into recession, the grim triage of home repair -- which lots of people, living in homes that they could never really afford to begin with, face today -- spotlights the economic ladder we're all precariously perched upon. There's what we can't afford not to do, what we should do but have to let slide, and what we may not do again for a long time.

At the top of the home-repair hierarchy are the functional fundamentals: heating and plumbing. Those trades are essentially recession-proof. Then there's the basic framework of the house, the carpentry and the roofing. Those things can be put off, but not for long. And at the bottom are the aesthetics: the landscaping, the painting and the carpeting. If you drive through a town after a big factory layoff, you'll notice peeling paint and weeds, the first signs of a community's economic distress, the lesions that warn of troubles to come.

I remember working with Mark and Robert last summer, when they would lay carpet all day in the stairwells of a large apartment complex, then head off to another job in the evening. At the end of a day doing general maintenance, I was usually exhausted. Carpet-laying is one of the more physically demanding trades, and I asked them how they did it. "You gotta work when you can," Robert answered.

They saw it coming. The working poor always see it coming, well before the Wall Street analysts and the Federal Reserve wonks. From the bottom rung of the ladder, you get a more immediate view of the economy and the direction it's taking. Mark knows that when he makes $8 an hour, and gets a flyer in the mail telling him that he has guaranteed approval on a $40,000 SUV, there is something amiss in the world of finance, a disruption in the force. He doesn't care, because he likes nice cars, but he knows. And Mark and Robert also know that when the tsunami rolls in, they will be the first ones to be swept off their feet.

Robert tells me that he has 50 applications out, even at Burger King, but no one is hiring. I ask Mark what he plans to do.

"I hope the Steelers cover the spread," he says.

They don't. And where gambling on football is the investment strategy, the lottery is the retirement plan. Wynn Dozier, 58, a painter who has been laid off from everything from Nortel (a long time ago) to his friend's painting company (a few weeks ago), plays the lottery every Wednesday. When I run into him in the store buying his ticket, he tells me that he has applied at Home Depot.

"I'll take you sailing when this hits," he says, waving the ticket.

It doesn't. And Home Depot, like most big-box stores, is laying off workers -- 7,000 to be exact. Not only is Wynn not getting hired, the market is now flooded with people with his skill set, more people to fight over what scraps of business are left. The tsunami is here.

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