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One Day at a Time

Weekday Morning, 5 AM: Waiting for Work at the Day Lobor Office

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It's 5 AM. The sky is velvet blue above Uptown. Every ten minutes or so a car goes by on Broadway, its headlights illuminating the gray debris skipping across the lanes.

Footsteps echo. Shadows stretch from one dark alley to another. In front of the Aldi store, a bundled mass lies under a quilted blanket. A few feet from it sits a shopping cart filled with treasures. A small bell on its handlebar will ring if the cart is moved.

Up near the corner of Wilson Avenue, there's a bustle--noise, masculine grunts, the smell of cigarettes in the crisp predawn air. From a storefront, a yellowish light spills onto the sidewalk. Inside, it's bright and stuffy, even pungent.

The place is crowded, with men and women on every bench and chair. Some are sitting quiet, others chatting. Some read the Sun-Times at a table, others take coffee comfort from the heavy breath of steaming styrofoam cups. A handful sleep, making a throaty rumble that no one seems to mind. There are almost a hundred people here.

For Dolores Suntail, a short, plump white woman wearing a T-shirt and two open shirts over it, this is the start of a typical workday. When she pushes open the door to Handy Andy, a temporary labor service in the heart of Uptown, she knows almost everybody she sees.

"Hi Gail, how are you?" she says, limping slightly as she walks up to the counter. "Mornin' Joe . . . Chuck."

Born and raised in Uptown, the 56-year-old Suntail has been coming to work here for 15 years. She's early and reliable, according to Dawn Hardin, Handy Andy's assistant dispatcher, so the agency tries to accommodate her as well as it can.

"Most of our work is manual labor--packing, binding, and assembly," says Hardin, a robust, stocky young woman buzzing around the desk area. "It's harder to place women, especially in the better paying jobs, but, you know, you do develop attachments, you do grow to care for some people. I started out here as a temporary. I was in the same place as Dolores, until I was asked to do the payroll checks. So, yeah, I try to help her out, to make sure she has something every day. It doesn't always work out, though."

"We all consider ourselves in the same boat," says Suntail. "We're no better or worse than anybody else. We all have sore feet."

Hardin, who's been with Handy Andy off and on since 1973, characterizes most of the early-morning job seekers as "working poor." The street people, the junkies, they come in the afternoon, she says. The afternoon crowd is younger too. The agency used to attract "just blacks and hillbillies," Hardin says, but "now there are Hispanics and American Indians too."

She's not bothered by the people who have obviously come in just for warmth and a bench. "We try to be sympathetic," she says. "They're not bothering anybody. It's not so bad. Sometimes they just want to sit down and talk to each other. That's OK. We used to have a sink in here, but . . . well, we had to take it out. People were taking baths in here."

As it is, the storefront looks like a rumpled living room or den. It's carpeted and paneled and furnished with clusters of chairs and benches against the walls. There are a few posters and lots of framed government documents affirming the business's legal obligations and requirements. Everything pertaining to immigration is doubled into Spanish. There's also a large poster on a post warning about rodent dangers.

Hanging around outside, waiting for a ride, a fellow who calls himself Ruben is holding both hands around a cup. Light is starting to break all around him.

"I'm studying English at night," he says. He's been in the United States three years, and most of the time he has to speak in Spanish to be understood, but his desire to impress with his second language is obvious.

"I'm looking for a regular job," he says haltingly, grinning, proud of his accomplishments. "I heard about Handy Andy . . ." He stops, struggles, then reverts to his native tongue. "My sister told me about it. She's a resident, she's legal. She knows these things. Someday, I'm going to have a college degree, maybe something technical, engineering or something. Right now I just work and try to save some money--and try to learn English."

Ruben knows he'll have to work very hard, and for a long time, to get what he wants. As a temporary laborer, he has sometimes worked the morning and night shift in the same day.

Hamilton Negron has more immediate concerns. He wants to be a driver for Handy Andy today because he needs the money to pay off the gleaming black 1987 Ford Escort sitting directly outside the agency door.

"It's my third day," he says. He's a handsome Puerto Rican with a neatly trimmed beard. He claims he has friends and former in-laws working in City Hall and a steady job four times a week.

"This is the best place for this kind of work and it's a shit job," he asserts. He's impatient, jittery, with his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his clean corduroy pants. A score of keys dangle off his belt. "Ordinarily, I wouldn't work for $4 an hour. I'd starve first. But this is an emergency. I'd go to the end of the earth for a good job. There are good jobs in Addison; there are hundreds of jobs just waiting in Elk Grove Village. That's where I'm going after this. Actually, I'm hoping I'll get to drive people out there, that way they'll pay for the tolls."

He eyes Hardin behind the counter and shakes his head. "They don't want you to get a job here, you know that?" he mutters. "When I first drove here, I said, I can't go in there. Then I said to myself, I got to, I got to."

He bought the Escort less than two weeks ago and already he's worried about repossession. He owes almost $5,000 on it. "The guy that owns this place, he's driving a Lincoln Continental," Negron adds. "I hear somebody once won $40 million in Lotto. It was probably him."

The concept behind Handy Andy is simple enough: here companies in need of temporary labor find workers standing in line before the sun has even hinted at coming up. Pay is minimal, minimum wage for most jobs, but occasionally something comes in that can mean as much as $10 an hour. Jobs are generally filled on a first come, first served basis.

"When jobs were good," Dolores Suntail recalls, "the line used to go around the block. But now, well, it's down, even though this is the best season for temporary labor; you know, before Christmas. Summer's terrible. It's real slow."

"Sometimes somebody will do a super job for you," says the agency's Hardin, "so you try to stick with that person. Obviously, if a job stretches out over several days, we try to be consistent and give it to the same person, unless we hear otherwise from the employer."

"It's good work," Suntail adds, "but it's hard work."

A typical day for her and the others working out of Handy Andy can last as long as 14 hours. Most of the jobs lie outside Chicago, and transportation to and from the suburbs can be an hour or more each way. The agency provides the transportation for $2 a day. That's considered an asset by many of the workers, including Suntail.

"It's why I work here," she explains. "If I got a permanent job, I wouldn't be able to get to it. Even if I took the Northwestern line to wherever it was--and that train is pretty expensive--I couldn't get to the factory from the train station. Most suburbs don't have good public transportation."

But having an instant car pool every day has cost her in other ways: after 15 years, Suntail still brings in an average of $3.45 an hour, with no medical benefits, pension, or seniority. As it is, she uses three of her daily paychecks--which come out to a little more than $22 a day--to pay her weekly rent of $62.50.

A long, lanky black man who gives his name only as Andre watches Suntail with a certain sadness. "That's the trouble with these jobs," he says. "They sometimes keep you from getting a better job. I know, I used to work here regularly."

Andre says he's only here today to see if they need a driver. He's employed as a carpenter, but he's broke today and needs to get a ring out of layaway for his girlfriend's birthday.

"I'm straight on income," he says. "I got rent and everything else covered."

Suntail believes she does too, although she knows there's no guarantee. "The rents around here are going up, they're ridiculous," she admits with a sigh and a shrug of her shoulders. "But what are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go? I can't get any other kind of job; I just couldn't get to it. And I can't move. I don't know if I'd fit in anywhere else."

Currently she lives alone with her cat, Pumpkin, in a flat without a stove. "It's hard unless you double up with somebody," she says, "but it's not that easy. You gotta be careful who you bunk up with. There are sickies out there today."

She's eaten at the Salvation Army and had to ask for charity now and then, but she'd rather provide for herself.

"I could use emergency help," she admits. "But by the time you fill out the forms and you get down there and back a hundred times, well, you've lost so much money, it's not worth it. Nobody helps make it easier. I had to take unemployment once. Some people thrive on that, but I can't. I tried to get food stamps, but if you earn anything, then you're not eligible. Me, I'm used to taking care of myself all my life. I've never been married, I don't have any kids. It's just me."

She says she met a fellow at the agency once and they were together for about six months, but it didn't work. "Most of us are hardworking, honest people," she says. "We want a roof over our heads and food on the table. That's all."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.

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