St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Fewer muscle through workday

Manual labor jobs are in decline as more and more higher paying jobs require workers with college degrees.

Published September 1, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Bob Danhires has gulped down a breakfast of strawberries and energy drink, laced up a pair of running shoes that will survive no more than six weeks of punishment and begun his daily race.

Up the stairs, two at a time, into a second-floor apartment. Out carrying a chair, then a table, then a boulderlike 52-inch television, into the moving truck below. With co-worker Mark Coyle, he breaks down a bedroom suite and wrestles the pieces downstairs. It's 9 a.m. and after one hour of work, his hair drips with sweat.

For more than 20 years, Danhires, 43, has made a living as a mover, grappling behemoth double recliners and hauling monster sofa beds up condominium stairways and into suburbia.

It's a low-tech, high-muscle job, which puts Danhires in a distinct minority. He's part of a declining segment of the American work force: manual laborers who earn a living purely through strength and sweat.

Danhires likes the work - movers typically earn $11 to $12 per hour - and figures it would be a bit late to change careers anyhow. His boss at Rock's Moving Co. near Largo is more effusive. Scott Chaddock calls Danhires "the very definition of blue-collar. He would die in an office job. If he didn't get out there, hands-on, sweating, he'd be miserable. ... He's a gladiator."

During recent decades, "jobs that merely require manual labor and little formal training have declined more than any other," said Ron Bird, chief economist at the Washington-based Employment Policy Foundation.

"We used to be an agrarian economy and then we became a manufacturing economy and we're rapidly moving into becoming an ideas-based economy."

That translates into a bigger share of jobs for people with college degrees and computer skills, and a smaller share for those whose main skill is physical labor.

Even some traditionally backbreaking jobs, such as masonry and roofing, have become less exhausting and debilitating because of technology. For some workers, machines now lift the shingles and bricks that previously went up ladders and stairs on a pair of strong shoulders.

James Hale knows of these changes. He's vice president and regional manager of the Laborer's International Union of North America, which used to be known as the International Hod Carriers and Building Laborer's Union of America. The traditional hod carrier - a laborer who hauled bricks on a device called a "hod" - has virtually disappeared.

He still considers laborers the "salt of the earth," but adds, "there's not that many people that are going into that hard physical work these days because there's not as much money."

Much of the work is non-unionized and farmed out to labor pools, especially in Florida. Without a greater union presence, it's hard to increase wages, Hale said.

"A guy who does hard physical work all their life, by the time they get to my age, they're worn out," added Hale, 51. "I've seen so many guys whose arms and knees and elbows are worn out."

A 6-foot wall of brown concrete slowly crumbled after Mark Bell beat and jabbed it with a sledgehammer, an electric-powered chipper hammer and a crowbar. The job left him covered in sweat and concrete dust.

Of all the words he could have used to describe this job in 90-degree Florida heat, the least-expected might be the one that came out of his mouth.

"Gravy," Bell said with a shrug and a smile, pausing for a cigarette outside the house he is helping to remodel in St. Petersburg. "It's a no-brainer."

Bell, 38, is a longtime carpenter. He said he specializes in concrete and steel work that can be both physically and mentally demanding, such as rebuilding parts of TECO Energy's Gannon Power Station.

Busting rock was hot but like a day off mentally.

In spite of the heat, Bell said the work didn't bother him. "I've got over 20 years experience doing carpentry work, and look what I'm doing. But it pays the bills."

His boss on this job, Richard Barnett of St. Petersburg, said it's often difficult to find workers willing and able to tear through a job like this one. He said he's happy when he can find someone, like Bell, willing to haul concrete but also capable of performing skilled carpentry.

Instead of an $8 to $10-per hour wage, a higher-skilled worker could make $15 to $25 an hour, but, "Basically they're going to learn more and be more of a benefit to me in the future," Barnett said.

In Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County, Amparo Hernandez works 10 hours a day, six days a week, at a tomato packing plant.

She has little time for her husband or her two children, ages 4 and 6. But her job - placing tomatoes in boxes - could be worse. Unlike the tomato fields, where the sun is hot and the days long, the packing plant gives Hernandez several breaks throughout the day.

And overtime. Hernandez, 33, makes $5.50 an hour.

Eugene Ortego, 23, does work in the fields. He sees so many tomatoes that he even dreams of them. He dreams of plucking the ripe fruit off the vine. Of gently placing the tomatoes in a large, white barrel. Of filling the large barrel and starting on an empty one.

In reality, Ortego begins his day at 7 a.m. and works until the sun dips, until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. The work is hard. Tedious, too. He must stoop and bend to pick a row clean. His arms hurt.

Tomato pickers can't just throw the fruit into the barrel. They have to gently place it inside, so it won't get damaged. Ortego is paid $2.50 for a filled barrel. He fills about 40 barrels a day.

The season is over - Ortego picked his last tomato in July - but now, he is preparing the fields by placing plastic on the dirt. He will soon wedge stakes into the ground, then plant.

He does not speak English. He came here two years ago from Mexico. His wife and three children still live in Mexico, and he sends money back to them. Some day, Ortego hopes, they will join him in Florida.

But Ortego does not dream of his family, only the tomatoes.

"I'm out there on the line, picking the tomatoes up," he said, through a translator. "When I wake up in the morning, I am more tired than when I went to bed."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.