The hunt for a decent job in New Orleans

A reader talks about the challenges of finding work in “recovering” U.S. economy.

RECENTLY, I have been looking for a new job as a carpenter in New Orleans. Actually, I just found one at one company for $15 an hour, with no benefits, as a so-called "independent contractor."

The whole job hunt was a huge pain. I frequently felt like information was being withheld from me, and in some ways, looking for work was in more stressful than working itself.

My first interview was the worst. It threw a lot of things in my face about low wages, the ability of bosses to do whatever they want and, especially, discrimination against immigrant workers in the construction industry here.

The interview was with a framing company. They build the skeletons of homes and multiunit buildings. This firm's workforce frames 10 houses per month, in addition to working on a few larger buildings. I got a text suddenly on a Sunday night that the company had gotten my name, and they were looking for carpenters right away. I got an interview the next morning and met the manager, Eddie (not his real name), in front of two homes in progress.

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As soon as I met the manager, things got weird. Seeing my girlfriend giving me a ride, Eddie's first question was whether I was married. Then he asked if my girlfriend objected to me traveling. He hadn't told me before, but he wanted me to move temporarily two hours out of town, where he had a building contract. And he wanted to get us on the same page to encourage me to agree to this.

A minute later, Eddie asked me if I smoked weed. "I don't care if you do, but of course, you should be careful, because if it's in your system, and you get hurt, you're going to get tested, and then you don't get worker's comp." Gee, thanks.

Then, Eddie made something clear to me. He hadn't told me and I hadn't applied for it, but he wanted me to be a supervisor.

Why? Every carpenter busily cutting and nailing lumber on the two sites in front of us seemed to be speaking Spanish and almost everyone appeared to be Latino. It didn't take long for Eddie to come out and say that he needed an English-speaking supervisor to handle his new project.

It was obvious that he was trying to recruit me for this simply because I'm a U.S. citizen, and probably because he knew I had a degree. He knew little about me, but he was passing over the entire workforce and looking for an English-speaking boss. Even if I had wanted to take it, the pay was terrible: $12 an hour for this foreman job, just a buck more than the $11 an hour the workers were making.

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LIKE MANY, many construction companies, they were calling employees "independent contractors"--or 1099s for the relevant tax code. While this meant undocumented workers could get the job more easily than a job with discriminatory checks on one's immigration status, the job had no benefits. No one who got it would get Social Security or unemployment benefits; the employer wouldn't have to pay in for them.

This means that here in New Orleans, there are carpenters doing the fundamental part of home building for less than what many workers make at Walmart. Remember that when hypocritical politicians tell us the city is healthy, and we should celebrate the "recovery" this August on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Poverty wages aren't recovery. If the 1 Percent can get skilled construction at a floor of $11 an hour, imagine what that means for wages for a whole range of workers.

Many parts of the city are very profitable to build in right now. Investors can clearly build (or renovate) dirt cheap, and then rent a place out. The housing market is pretty hot, especially in gentrifying areas. The people building these two houses were making money at some unbelievable rate for the framing company, the company responsible for the whole house that hired that framing company, and the wealthy real estate investors on top. Residential carpentry in the city is completely non-union as far as I can tell.

As I got ready to leave, Eddie mused about hiring. "Some people are happy just to carry board or cut," and don't want to do anything else, he told me. The boss had an easy, convenient and insulting view of his workers. In his view, rapid, repetitive work makes some people happy. It would apparently never occur to him that the company forces people to put up with bullshit, that the pace of their work was what made the company's profits, or that who was where was the result of straight-up discrimination.

I don't know, maybe he does know all those things--maybe he only partly deludes himself. It's right out in the open. But right now, the boss gets to say whatever makes his life easier. Unfortunately, that means calling construction workers dull and insignificant. I hope that eventually, we fight together and successfully stuff words like those back down his throat. Doing so will require solidarity--first of all of U.S.-born with immigrant workers.

I came back to edit this letter after getting off of my first day on the new job. I learned we work a 10-hour day, but there's definitely no overtime pay. No surprise, since everyone working there is an "independent contractor"--and overwhelmingly immigrants.