The blue and red neon sign pulls them in at night, like barflies to a late night dive.
They sit outside, on the steps and in the dirt. Some stand. Few talk. About a dozen men and one woman form a winding line of sorts, waiting for the front door to open. They’re not waiting for a drink. They’re waiting for work.
It’s just before 5 a.m. at Labor Ready, a small day-labor shop that sends people waiting for work out to companies that need temporary labor. Most of the workers still are wiping the sleep from their eyes.
“I get up at 2 in the morning and walk about five miles to get here,” said Tony Price, the second man in line one morning last week. “I have to.”
Price has been working at Labor Ready at 2101 E. Riverside for two years, standing outside on chilly summer mornings and chillier winter ones.
He’s a regular; one of the few. Most people don’t plan to stay long at Labor Ready. Some hope to find permanent jobs. Some are stopping on their way elsewhere. Some need money to pay pressing bills.
The white building is tiny, with its neon “Labor Ready” sign in the window. The lawn outside the office is scrubbed down to dirt, by grass-destroying chemicals and waiting feet. Cigarette butts litter the ground. A placard states: “Hiring. Daily Pay. Daily Work.”
At 5 a.m., Terrie Bunting was the only woman in line. She’s living in a tent at a KOA camp with her fiance and her 5-year-old son. They came to Spokane from Kalispell, Mont., after two deaths in the family a month ago. They stayed in their car for a few weeks before moving into the tent.
Bunting has no alarm clock except for her fiance, who sits up until 3:30 a.m. and wakes her. He stays at the camp during the day and watches her son.
On her first day at Labor Ready, Bunting was sent to make pies at Phranil Foods, 3900 E. Main.
“We made apple and blackberry,” Bunting said. “Wore a lot of it. I went home, I had blackberry from head to toe. It was under my watchband.”
About 30 companies find day workers regularly through Labor Ready, and 125 companies use Labor Ready at times. The business makes its money from the companies, which pay Labor Ready for the guaranteed workers every week.
“It’s just when you need somebody for one day, maybe two, and that’s it,” said a manager at H&H; Enterprises, a remodeling company. “We don’t like to hire and fire anybody.”
Unlike other temporary agencies in town, Labor Ready pays its workers daily. It doesn’t pay much - $5 an hour, in most cases - but it pays often.
“We’re kind of the grunt labor, OK?” said Jim Baggett, manager of Labor Ready. “Basically, we’re real construction-driven. That’s a strong portion of our business, construction.”
The Spokane shop, opened about five years ago, was one of the first in a nationwide chain. Now, there’s about 100 shops.
The laborers clean up construction sites, dig ditches and run wacky-packers, machines that compact soil before concrete is poured. They work as lumpers, the men who unload semi-trucks. They build roofs, and they lay sod. They make pies and sort recyclables. They pack trucks with cabinets.
The labor can be back-breaking. The workers wear functional clothes: blue jeans, baseball caps, flannel shirts and jackets. One man’s shoes were wrapped with silver duct tape.
The laborers carry basic accessories: work gloves, hard hats, boots, aspirin, cigarettes and brown bag lunches. Some jobs call for goggles and oxygen masks.
Baggett usually sends out 60 to 75 people a day. Five or six people a week get hired full-time by the companies they’re sent to, meaning they no longer work for Labor Ready.
“The men are a good bunch,” Baggett said. “They’re all real friendly. Some of them you probably wouldn’t go up to on the street, if you know what I’m saying.”
Lash Brown sleeps on the street. He’s been working at day-labor shops for 16 years, all over the country. After moving to Spokane, he lived in the Union Gospel Mission but didn’t like it. His wife and children are staying at the Ogden Hall shelter.
“It’s where we got stuck at,” Brown said. “It’s just one of those things.”
The morning wait can be long. The earlier the workers show up, the quicker they’re sent out on work. Stragglers wait longer for late-breaking jobs. Sometimes, there aren’t any.
Once the doors open at Labor Ready, the people stream in, sign up and wait for assignments.
Inside the office, the workers sit in straight-back chairs, read newspapers and stare at a TV set in the corner. They fill in crossword puzzles and read safety and worker notices on the walls. They wait for the industrial coffee machine to perk. They wait for their names to be called.
David Stevenson stood near the front counter. He’s lived on the street for 1-1/2 years. He’s worked day labor throughout the country, and he’s been to every state but three. He moved into a house about a year ago.
“This place bailed me out,” said Stevenson, wearing a camouflage Air Force jacket. “It bails a lot of guys out. You aren’t going to find any college graduates here.”
You’ll find college students. Steve Sparks, 29, planned to go back to school this week at Spokane Community College. Last week, he needed to pay some bills. In red sweats, a T-shirt and tennis shoes, Sparks waited for an assignment.
“I need the money, like today,” he said.
The waiting workers talk philosophy. They puff on cigarettes and drink plastic-foam cups of bitter coffee. They argue about overpopulation, the haves and the have-nots. They discuss the true meaning of freedom. They talk “Dante’s Inferno” and the United Nations.
“It ain’t going to be the strong that survive,” Brown said. “The rich will survive. Look at all those little weak rich men, controlling everything.”
“It’s the weak that get up every morning and do the job,” retorted Larry Baker, who’s staying at the mission. “That’s what makes the world work.”
One by one, the workers are sent out to jobs and the yard empties. They patch together rides, from the few workers with cars and from buses. Some walk. By 7:30 a.m., most are gone.
That day, Labor Ready sent 38 people to new assignments and about 30 people to repeat jobs.
Brown was luckier than he knew. He was the man standing around when a repeat job came in that paid more than $8 an hour.
Brown called Baggett “sir” and said he would work hard.
“If a man don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t need a whole lot out of life, he can make it and maybe save a couple bucks by the end of the week,” Brown said. “It’s kind of precarious, though.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo