Hopes run high shortly before dawn in a quiet corner of Mount Pleasant. Men and women, wearing jeans, T-shirts and sometimes hard-toed boots, walk through a warm, still-dark morning around 5:30 a.m. to wait by a storefront on 14th Street in Northwest Washington. As lights inside the office of Tracy Labor Co. turn bright, the talk among the crowd of 50 grows tense.
They all are looking for the same thing: Eight hours' work, eight hours' pay.
"I heard through a cousin that they had work," said Danny Daniels, a 30-year-old former maintenance worker who moved four months ago from New York to Washington. "He said there was a possibility that I could get a job. He's already gotten on one of those vans that takes you to a job site. I hear you go all over, wherever they have work."
"It's a good place to find work. You come here and you have a job," said a tall man who called himself Blackie. "Everybody needs to make money, y'know. Everybody has to work. People like us, we have to hustle to get a job."
In the world of the unskilled, the homeless and the unemployed, sometimes the only promising option is day labor. Tracy Labor, a division of Tracy Temporaries Inc., a Florida-based placement agency with 19 offices nationwide, is one of several firms in the Washington area that provides temporary help to food service and industrial firms.
Between 600 and 800 people a day find work by waking early to stand in line at Tracy offices in the District, Alexandria and Cheverly. Shawn Harris, manager of the District office, calls out names and hands out work tickets to 150 to 200 people a day.
The news of a possible job is passed by word of mouth among families and friends, by flyers left on car windshields or leaflets littered around neighborhoods. The labor force that walks through Tracy's doors includes some people who need work desperately and, in turn, are needed desperately by employers.
For a region overwhelmed with construction work and demand for service workers, day labor has become the industrial grease that allows construction firms, manufacturers, even hospital cafeterias to operate when regular workers don't show up for work.
Here are the sweepers, the ditch diggers, the warehouse workers who toil a day at a time. Usually they receive minimal wages -- $3.90 an hour at nonunion construction sites compared with the $6 or more that union laborers would receive -- and a free van ride to and from work.
There are some laborers who say the wages are too low and who wonder about the safety of the working conditions, specifically transportation provided by the company from office to work site. On Tuesday, 14 laborers from Tracy's Baltimore office were injured in a collision with a truck in Howard County, the third van accident in two years involving the company.
Company officials have described the latest accident as unfortunate, but said the company's driver was not at fault. The truck driver ran through a stop light and hit the Tracy van, state police have ruled. Tracy, which provides workers' compensation insurance for all who work at various sites throughout Northern Virginia, Washington and suburban Maryland, is paying for all medical bills, including those for three critically injured workers, said Gene Horne, vice president of the firm.
"Certainly, we view that as an unfortunate circumstance," Horne said. "And, certainly, it's just not good publicity for us as a business . . . But we try to run our business the best way we can -- for the customers and for the people who are working for us."
At Tracy's District office, the process moves smoothly enough on a Thursday morning until a drunk wanders in. She is bleary-eyed and jabbers at others waiting in line. She grabs at a young woman. A screaming match erupts.
Harris calmly continues to hand out work orders and tells the drunken woman to get out. "There's no work for you," he says. She shouts profanities, shakes her first, shrieks some more, and then leaves.
The line of those who want to work moves forward again.
One man waits outside and complains that he did not get a job and does not know why. Another sits on a stoop warning a few passers-by not to ride on the vans. Taking the ride is too big a risk for $27 a day, he says. "I wouldn't ride with them. Not after what happened this week."
Jay Williams, a 22-year-old, rides by on his bicycle and listens to the grumbling. He worked yesterday through Tracy Labor, pushing a broom at construction site, one of about 10 times he has worked in the District for the company.
The work supplements the income he earns as a weekend disc jockey at a District club. Day labor is not bad work, he said, but it is no way to make a living.
"The people who come here don't have jobs. They don't know how to go after jobs. There are so many people here who really need the work but don't know how to get it," Williams said.