Magdalene Walker comes to the labor-pool room at an Alexandria employment office almost every morning these days. She wants a full-time job to support herself and her unemployed husband, but, at 51, she says she will take whatever day work she can find until more permanent employment comes along.
"I've got bills to pay, so I'll take anything I can get," said Walker, who has been hiring herself out for laundry work and other cleaning chores. On a good day she is on her way to a job by 9 a.m. and can expect to earn $25 to $35; on a bad day she sits in a small waiting room of the Virginia Employment Commission from 7:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. and goes home with nothing.
Walker and other day workers like her "are kind of a dying breed," according to Esley W. Caison Jr., manager of the state employment agency in Alexandria. His office once needed a huge room to handle all the men and women who regularly snatched up available day labor jobs as furniture movers, domestics, yardmen and warehouse workers.Now, the office is lucky to place 10 such workers a week.
Private and state employment agencies say the number of day laborers has dwindled under the strain of tight money. People who used to routinely hire help for the day are more likely to do the work themselves now. And most workers neither want to nor can afford to live on what a day laborer usually makes: $3.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage.
"I've been here 10 years," Caison said, "and we used to average 1,000 placements a month, with a large number of them being day workers." Back then, he said, the Alexandria office might place as many as 750 day laborers a month. Today, the figure is closer to 50 a month.
"We're doing as good or better now in nonday-labor placements as we've ever done," he said. "But for day labor, there are less job orders and less people showing up to fill them."
There are still informal labor pools that take shape every morning on well-known street corners in the Washington area. One, at Pickett and Van Dorn streets in Alexandria, caters to the needs of the warehouse and moving industry in that area. Another, a small park on the District line in Silver Spring, is surveyed daily by those wanting to hire men for loading or yard work.
But most day work is assigned out to the men and women who show up at state employment offices or file job applications with private employment agencies.
People are attracted to this type or work -- especially the old-timers in the labor pool -- because it offers a measure of freedom unavailable with a permanent job.
"You don't have to feel any responsibility to the employer -- if you want to sleep in, you sleep in," Caison said. "If you want to work five days a week, you can take five different jobs, if you can find them. And best of all, you get paid at the end of the day, and there are no deductions for taxes."
An employer of day labor is not obligated to withhold any employe taxes, but what might be a good deal now could mean hardship to day laborers who don't make their own provisions for retirement, Caison said.
The regular day laborers enjoy the variety of job assignments they have handled and take pride in having an employer ask for them by name.
"We've had 10 or 12 who had been coming here every day for 25 years," said Caison, but only five or six of the people who come in now do day work exclusively. His office fills jobs on a first-come, first-served basis but gives hiring preference to veterans or those with special skills.
The Virginia Employment Commission and the Maryland Employment Security Administration have two offices each in the Washington area. The District Employment Commission has several locations. All the offices assist anyone in finding employment and operate their state's unemployment insurance programs. Very little of their time is spent on day laborers.
"The people that come in, 90 percent of them are looking for permanent positions. Not that many want these part-time or day deals," said Bill Dungan, who helps staff the Maryland employment office in College Park.
Occasionally, said Jean Bowen, lead employment interviewer for the Maryland office in Wheaton, she gets calls for people to help unload trucks or dig a trench. The office keeps a file of one-day domestic cleaners, but does not have people coming in every morning in search of day jobs.
At the Alexandria employment office, Joseph Wyche screens those interested in day-labor jobs and helps match up the right workers with the right employers. Most of the time his employment match-making works, but sometimes it doesn't.
For Wyche, "the worst thing that can happen is to tell an employer that someone is on the way and then the worker doesn't show." That happened to him twice recently, on the same day and to the same employer, who finally called and told him to "just forget it." Although running the office has taught employment officials that "there are about as many bad employers as bad employes," the state agencies reserve the right to withhold job assignments from persons deemed unsuitable.
The people who come in are usually "raring to go," Wyche said. "I tell them that they're not helping me by going to the job because I don't get a commission. They're helping the next person."
Wyche discounted the stereotyped notion that most day laborers are "deadbeats" who can't find steady work. He said many of the people he sees to to the same employer each week, almost like a permanent job. In the past, job placements included a carnival worker who joined the labor pool in the off-season. But Wyche said it is not all that unusual now to get a college graduate between jobs of military personnel awaiting assignments.
While it is true that some labor-pool prospects have "staggered in," in the words of one private job agency official, Bill Pritchett, supervisor of the Virginia Employment Commission's employment placement section in Alexandria, said his state office and others learn pretty fast "who's dependable and who is not."
Bessie Macomson, 57, is one of the dependables. For five years, she has been the woman an Alexandria family relies on to watch over their two children when they get home from school every afternoon. But the kids are 14 and 10 now, and Macomson, who scrubbed floors and did other heavy cleaning as a day laborer years ago, has started to hit the circuit again in hopes of supplementing her income and lining up a similar child-care job in the future.
"They're old enough to take care of themselves almost," Macomson said. "I'd like to get a part-time job for the mornings that might be as permanent as my afternoon job has been."
Macomson has a car and can get to more jobs than most day laborers, who must rely on public transportation. But her age and years of hard domestic labor have strained her back and limited her employment options.
In the past, someone like Bessie Macomson might have found additional work with a sympathetic employer known to the state office. June Miller, who spent so many years placing day laborers for the Virginia commission that she still remembers some of their Social Security numbers. That, she says, is how things used to be in the good old days.
"We had a guy past 70 who used to come in, and I would always look to get him something light," she recalled. "You knew your employers, and you could get something really nice like raking leaves. Sometimes employers would take a worker even when they hadn't asked for one."
Miller looks back fondly on a time when there was often more day labor than laborers. "That was a fun job," she said. "A horde of people would come in, and they were all out to jobs on the 9 a.m. buses . . . .But it's just not that easy anymore."