Craig Lock was living in the Red Cross shelter at the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., when an announcement came over the sports arena's loudspeakers. Anyone looking for a job was told to meet the next morning at 6 at a designated gate.
After several days in the Cajundome, Lock had begun to worry about how he was going to earn an income now that his home in Hammond, La., and his previous job had been wiped out. So he jumped at the chance to earn $10 an hour cleaning downtown Marriott hotels. The pay was much less than he said he had earned as a heavy machine operator and laborer, but it was something.
As the city rebuilds, many workers are taking on strenuous -- and sometimes dangerous -- jobs at pay often is below what they used to command. But the work is badly needed both for the struggling employees and for the city as its seeks to revive its fortunes and gradually reopen to residents beginning today, nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck.
Retailers such as Wal-Mart, fast-food outlets such as Sonic and convenience stores are seeking clerks. Oil-field service companies are signing up truck drivers and welders. Firms with contracts for hurricane cleanup are searching for displaced New Orleans-area residents to help with the long road to recovery.
For Lock, 44, the work is long and grueling. He leaves the Cajundome at 6 a.m. on a workers' bus, spends all day cleaning hotel rooms and hauling debris from the Courtyard by Marriott on St. Peters and Julia streets, and gets back to the arena at 10 p.m.
"This is a lot of work for a little pay," Lock says, wiping his face after shoveling bricks, broken glass and tree limbs outside the hotel and dumping it into a trash bin. "It's a job, I know, but this is a lot of work for a little money."
The low pay offered by private companies barely tops the wages workers can expect on federal contracts. Earlier this month, President Bush suspended application of the federal law governing workers' pay on federal contracts in the Katrina-damaged areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The act's suspension -- which was criticized by many labor leaders -- would allow contractors to pay lower wages. The prevailing wage on federal construction projects was $9 an hour, according to the Department of Labor. Employment agencies hiring workers such as Lock are typically paying about $1 more.
Craig Felix, who works for the city sanitation department in Houma, La., about 60 miles from New Orleans, was contracted by New Orleans' officials to help clean up the city. He is earning $10 an hour, about the same rate he makes in Houma.
Here, he slogs through waste and garbage full of chemicals, fumes and maggots. Although some of his colleagues wear masks and gloves, Felix says he isn't worried about the possibility of getting sick.
"If it was hazardous, they wouldn't have us out here," he said.
Though most employers in badly damaged coastal areas have been unable to get their businesses running again, some -- such as Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport -- continue to pay their workers as if they are still on the job, at least through the end of the month. It's uncertain how long the pay will last.
Many other workers displaced by Katrina weren't collecting pay, either because employers weren't offering or because of difficulty getting paychecks to employees. Some workplaces no longer exist. Others are in mandatory evacuation zones.
The Humane Society has hired 30 part-time workers at $10 an hour to clean out the stalls at an equine shelter at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, about 40 miles outside New Orleans. The society has treated nearly 4,000 lost and abandoned dogs and cats.
People who have been able to return to parts of the city to retrieve belongings have been contracting moving companies to help move their possessions. Lefty's Moving is already on its fourth job in a week. It is working for several companies hauling salvageable items to storage facilities outside the city.
Lefty's, which normally has about 12 workers, is down to four. Movers Joseph Banks and Jim Cockrum said the work helps keep their minds off their own problems.
"I need the check now," says Banks, who, along with his wife, is living with relatives because their home was destroyed by flood.