August 9, 2009 in Business

It may be messy, but it’s a job

Christopher Leonard Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Ronny Purtty, who works as a trash collector for St. Louis’ bulk item crew, tosses scrap wood into a truck. Purtty used to drive an 18-wheeler delivering steel but was laid off last fall.
(Full-size photo)

Some of the dirtiest, smelliest, most dangerous jobs are suddenly looking a lot more appealing in this economy.

People who have been out of work for months are lining up for jobs at places they once considered unthinkable: slaughterhouses, sewage plants, prisons.

“I have to just shut my mouth because I can’t do anything about it,” said Nichole McRoberts of Sedalia, Mo., who pictured more for herself at age 30 than working in a poultry plant, cutting diseased or damaged flesh off chicken carcasses.

Recessions and tight job markets always force some people to take less-desirable or lower-paying work than they are used to. But this recession has been the most punishing job destroyer in at least 60 years, slashing a net total of 6.7 million jobs.

All told, 14.5 million people were out of work last month, with a jobless rate of 9.4 percent. The result is that many people have had to seek jobs they would not have considered in the past.

Take Kristen Thompson. Before the recession, she worked at an upscale Los Angeles-area gym arranging pricey one-on-one personal training sessions. Now she’s a guard at a women’s prison in rural Wyoming.

After the gym laid her off last year, Thompson spent months looking for work. Even fast food restaurants failed to respond to her application. For each opening, dozens of other people seemed willing to work for less money. When she heard that a prison in Lusk, Wyo., (population 1,447) was hiring, she leapt at the chance.

In her new job, she patrols cellblocks and monitors the mess hall. Back in L.A., she never had to worry about inmates with weapons or drug stashes or prisoners getting into fights. Yet she’s hardly complaining. It’s a job.

“People have to pay the bills, so what we see is people kind of grasping at straws and taking anything that’s available,” said Matthew Freedman, assistant professor of labor economics at Cornell University.

The desperation of the long-term jobless has rippled through the labor force. More skilled and educated workers have filled clerical or restaurant jobs. So unskilled workers such as teenagers or high school graduates who once held most of those positions have displaced those even lower on the economic ladder, such as immigrants, Freedman noted.

The intensified competition has hurt all workers — even those who are still employed — because it shrinks wages. Employers don’t have to pay more to lure workers.

That helps explain why personal income fell 0.1 percent in June, excluding the one-time benefits of the government’s stimulus program. Wages have fallen each month since October — a total of 5 percent over the past eight months.

Indeed, many people who have had to downshift to unsavory jobs have found they’re now earning less, too.

With two kids to support and just a high school diploma, McRoberts has few options in the job market.

“I feel like I’m not accomplishing much,” said McRoberts, who lives with her boyfriend and children. “I’m paying my bills and my rent, but that’s it.”

Work at poultry plants has often been done by recent immigrants, who now face more competition for such jobs.

“It’s easy for someone like your middle manager to take on a job at a poultry plant, because they have the skills to do many things. But for the immigrant, that might have been the only option,” said Catherine Singley of the National Council of La Raza, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company has seen a rise in applicants at most of its processing plants and “an increase in the qualifications and experience of those applying.”

“Some applicants have recently lost jobs or are underemployed and are attracted to the full-time pay and benefits we offer,” Mickelson said.

In Stamford, Conn., more than 100 people lined up to take a test and interview after the city posted a single position at the local sewage plant. The job: Drying up wastewater sludge and operating chlorine tanks. More than 300 people raised their hands — about twice the number who would seek such jobs before the recession.

After months of unemployment, that job sounded appealing to 26-year-old Gary Cappiello of nearby Norwalk. Cappiello had worked in the maintenance department of a Target store before being laid off in the spring of last year.

“I’m just applying for anything now — even if the job is low-paying or not a comfortable position,” he said. “It’s just getting to a desperate point. The bills need to be paid.”

Recently, he found out he didn’t make the cut at the sewage plant.

More fortunate is Ronnie Purtty, 50, who said he’s grateful for his new job gathering trash in narrow St. Louis alleyways.

Purtty used to work in the air-conditioned cab of a truck, hauling steel to local factories. He was laid off last fall.

He spent four months looking for work before landing a job in March as a trash collector for the city’s bulk item crew.

Wearing thick leather gloves, Purtty hauls sodden carpet, moldy mattresses and nail-studded lumber into a truck. As he sorts through mounds of garbage, he watches out for rats, spiders and raccoons.

He isn’t complaining. It beats his long months of unemployment.

“I was blessed to get in here,” he said.

© Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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