March 29, 2009 in City

The ripple effect: Journeyman painter makes ‘a step of faith’

Marco Romero is establishing a steady life for his family in Post Falls – he just hopes the work stays steady
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

The Romero family – from left, Isabel, 7; Jennifer; little Marco, 9; Helina, 12; Marco; and Mateo, 4 – pose Thursday in the house they recently bought in Post Falls.
(Full-size photo)

Marco Romero is finding a lot of work at his new home.

Peeling off wallpaper and repainting the walls. Taking down a wall of decorative mirrors and repainting the walls. And then putting another coat on the walls. When he’s done inside, he’ll tackle the paint job on the outside.

Fortunately, he’s got experience. Romero is a journeyman painter and an instructor in the local apprenticeship program. He moved to Spokane last year and found himself at an unusual economic crossroads. The slumping construction market meant it was tougher for people like him to find work, but it also was driving down home prices – making it possible for the 32-year-old Romero to buy the first house for his wife, Jennifer, and four children.

About a week ago, they moved into the four-bedroom home in Post Falls, with a two-car garage, a big backyard and towering ponderosa pines in the front yard.

“I have never owned a house, ever,” he said. “Now I really hope the jobs pick up.”

While the ranks of the unemployed have been growing month by month, Romero is a member of the group that remains in the majority: the nervously employed. He moved here from Seattle last year, got a job with a contractor, was laid off, and then found another position.

He got on with painting contractor PCI, and he’s also the instructor for the painters union apprenticeship program. His extra skills are a buffer when jobs are scarce, and others in his business are losing jobs, said Jim Quade, the local representative for the painters union.

“He’s a highly skilled painter – he’s painted for six years,” Quade said of Romero. “Plus he relates well with students because a lot of them are his age, and he’s bilingual.”

In addition to his new home, Romero also has joined a growing church in Coeur d’Alene, Heart of the City. He considers the move here a step toward establishing stability for his family.

“This is for the next 20 years,” he said. “It’s a step of faith I’m taking. I’m hoping it all works out.”

‘Right now, it’s slow’

Romero teaches in the apprenticeship program run by Painters Local Union 269 and Spokane Community College and paid for through union contractors.

The program involves several weeks a year training apprentice painters, who will become journeymen – and receive the wage bump to about $20 an hour – after they complete the three-year program.

Though Romero has stayed employed, plenty of his students have been laid off. The list of people hoping to find jobs through union placement has been hovering around 100, though more work is cropping up as the weather warms, Quade said.

Still, “most of the companies this year will be down to half the work we had last year,” he said.

Alejandro Cruz, a 34-year-old from Grandview, Wash., who’s nearly reached journeyman status, was recently laid off. He’s applied at one painting contractor for work, so far without success, and he’s put his name on the call list for jobs through the union.

It’s a long list.

“Right now, it’s really slow,” he said. “There’s nothing.”

Cruz was working in the painting room earlier this month at the SCC Apprenticeship and Journeyman Training Center at 2110 N. Fancher Road. Students learned to read blueprints, hang drywall and work industrial jobs. Painting is just one of 11 apprenticeship programs run through SCC; others include training for boilermakers, bricklayers, carpenters and electricians.

Another apprentice, John S. Williams III, 37, said jobs have been rare, and he needs to “clock hours” to have insurance coverage for his family.

“It’s hard right now,” he said. “There’s no work out there.”

Still, he’s glad he joined the painters union and entered the journeyman program.

“I didn’t have a trade,” he said. “I didn’t have a skill. Now I have a trade. I have a skill. I know how to paint a house.”

The insurance that union painters receive is one of the benefits of membership – but it’s also one of the costs, Quade said. Medical benefits in particular have been eating up a bigger and bigger portion of the employees’ compensation – and that’s exacerbated by people without medical coverage, like most nonunion painters, driving up medical costs for everyone, he said.

“We haven’t had raises here – more than like a dollar – in the last 10 years,” Quade said. “But we’ve had to put an extra $3 into the medical.”

‘Lots to do’

On a recent afternoon, Romero and his son – 9-year-old “little Marco” – put together a new basketball hoop in the driveway. One of his daughters, 12-year-old Helina, bounced a basketball, and 7-year-old Isabel played in the backyard with their chocolate Lab puppy.

Inside, his wife, Jennifer, got ready for dinner and took care of 4-year-old Mateo, who was still aching after a dentist appointment.

In the house for less than a week, the family has been working hard to get moved in.

“I love it,” Jennifer said. “There’s lots to do, but I love it.”

The Romeros bought the home for about $160,000, a relatively low price compared with recent years, as the once-hot Kootenai County housing market has taken a tumble. As the region’s housing market begins to show signs of recovery, “bargain” sales like that one are expected to lead the way.

Romero, who grew up in a “pretty rough” South Los Angeles neighborhood, started painting at his father’s side. He worked in Seattle for several years, with the painters local there, and when there was an opening for a teacher in the program here, he had good skills and relationships that helped him land the job.

The move was not an easy one. He had steady work in Seattle and earned $26 an hour. Moving to Spokane meant uncertainty and a smaller paycheck.

“A lot of people (in Seattle) told me not to go, there’s no work,” he said. “But since I’ve been here, I’ve bought a house. Yeah, I got laid off, but I did get another job.”

Romero says he’s hustling for work at every turn – his classes at SCC just wrapped up, and he was on the phone back to PCI, making sure they still had work for him. Before he landed with that contractor, he stumbled across individual jobs through personal contacts and took what he could find.

“Let your work speak, and they’ll see it,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m still working.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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