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Road Warriors Flaggers Must Fight Traffic With Little More Than An Orange Vest

Mon., Sept. 25, 1995

Trucks pepper them with rocks and angry drivers spray them with spittle.

Trainers warn them to find a place to land in case they’re forced to dive from speeding traffic.

They’ve been pegged with beer bottles, smoldering cigarettes and, on at least one occasion, a flying burrito.

They are road crew flaggers, orange-clad traffic directors, umpires of sorts who stand for hours directing drivers to places they’d rather not go.

That’s hard work, flaggers say, especially in a growing region that seemingly draws more street projects than the Seattle Mariners draw fans.

And while everybody knows that nobody likes an ump, some of the region’s 300 or so union and independent flaggers say that’s where the similarities end.

Baseball umpires, at least, have the last word.

On a day last week, flagger Bobbie Dyer twirled a stop/slow sign and directed northbound Government Way traffic so road crews could lay a sewer line. She stopped each driver with the same words: “How far you going?”

Less than a block? Move on through, she told them. Beyond that, find another route, she said.

Easy as calling strikes and balls. Only not as popular. Many drivers ignored Dyer’s directions and sped past.

“I’d guess only half the people listened to me,” a wild-eyed Dyer shouted from the middle of the street during a 20-second break in traffic. “And none of them wanted to.”

Lori Barrick, dispatcher with North Star Enterprises, a Spokane firm that employs some 180 union flaggers, said drivers ignore flaggers all the time.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “Most motorists think we’re out there just to make them late.”

It’s not like flaggers get paid to just stand around.

“They’re responsible for the safety of workers, motorists and pedestrians,” said Kathy Cardwell, who teaches an eight-hour flagging class at North Idaho College.

“That can be dangerous. And upsetting.”

Gerry Mahoney, a 60-year-old flagger known by many area construction crews as Mom, should know.

She once was almost run over when a driver plowed through her barricade. On a recent highway project, a delayed driver badgered her relentlessly, finally shouting that he had to visit his son in the hospital.

When she offered to telephone the hospital, he grew belligerent.

“I bet you never had a son in the hospital,” he bellowed.

Mahoney, who started flagging six years ago - right after her son and then her husband died in rapid succession - was reduced to tears.

“It takes all kinds to make the world go around,” she said. “We see them all.”

Flaggers primarily are female - “men couldn’t do this job,” Mahoney says - and always are on call. They respond to everything from large accidents to downed power lines to months-long road projects.

While federal jobs pay top dollar - $19.64 an hour - many pay as little as $8.

The hours are long - sometimes 14 a day - and few flaggers are lucky enough to work consistently. Work is seasonal, so most take what they can get.

“Then you’ve got the wind, the rain, the snow,” Mahoney said, pointing to a ready-to-wear pile of jackets, sweaters and jackets that goes with her to every job, regardless of weather. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Still, area flaggers insist, the job has much to offer.

Cardwell’s two children put themselves through college as flaggers; now they’re engineers. Flagger Eleanor Spindler, 44, has made lots of friends.

The job is perfect for Mahoney, who wants work with flexible hours. If a job pays poorly, or is out of town or she just wants to stay home, she’s in a position to say no.

In fact, she takes great pleasure in turning down her son, who runs a construction crew, when he asks her to work for him.

She pretends to talk on the telephone.

“I say ‘Where’s it at? What’s it pay?”’ she nods, pretending to listen, then pantomimes hanging up the phone with a gleeful, devilish smile.

“Nope.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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