A few toil while others play on Labor Day For some jobs, extra pay is the only holiday bonus

September 03, 1991|By Doug Birch

While most wage earners celebrated Labor Day by kicking back and goofing off yesterday, a dedicated skeleton crew remained on duty to keep society's wheels turning.

They were the cab drivers and security guards, scientists and convenience store clerks, nurses and police officers who showed up for the holiday shift.

Most don't hold jobs that are particularly glamorous or highly paid. But of a half-dozen or so interviewed, all considered their work important. And all seemed proud that the world couldn't seem to get by without them for even a day.

Just before dawn, Eric Lee, a 33-year-old electrician with the Baltimore Department of Transportation, was at Northern Parkway and Falls Road repairing a broken traffic signal using the illumination of his big orange utility truck's headlights. The green light was not working for drivers northbound on Falls Road.

"If we don't do our job, you can't get around the city," Mr. Lee said.

Even with time-and-a-half holiday pay, he would have preferred to stay at home in Baltimore's Northwood neighborhood with his wife and three daughters, ages 5, 3 and 1. But he was enjoying himself because he had a chance to do something he doesn't normally do: work outside.

"This way, I get a chance to come out on the street," he said. "The majority of the time that's what I'm doing, sitting in the shop repairing stuff that goes bad."

Lester R. Dennis, 58, a baggage-check man at Penn Station, works behind the marble counter there Monday through Friday, come holiday or high water.

And he loves it.

Sure, there's the extra $50 for time-and-a-half duty. But checking luggage and returning lost articles is as much a calling as a job.

"As a kid, I always wanted to be a missionary, and this is the closest thing to it," said Mr. Dennis. A young Baltimore man recently left an envelope with $500 in cash aboard a Washington-bound train. Mr. Dennis contacted the frantic owner. His mother sent it to him to have his teeth fixed," he said with a smile.

At 6:29 a.m., while most wage earners were still at home snoozing, weatherman John Collins was sitting behind the anchor desk in WBAL-TV's news studio, impeccably dressed and amazingly awake.

Between television segments, the 44-year-old Chicago native raced up a metal staircase to WBAL-AM's radio studios, where he chatted about the weather with a talk-show host.

Mr. Collins forecast a virtual worker's paradise yesterday: temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Personally, he said between broadcasts, he'd prefer the excitement of a rip-roaring hurricane -- minus any injury or destruction, of course.

"A lot of news, people can't relate to. The changes in Russia are important, but nobody in our audience lives in Russia," Mr. Collins said between taping weather segments and working at a computer compiling satellite weather maps. "What I'm talking about here affects people on the beach in Ocean City, or it affects their barbecue or their golf game this afternoon."

Back home in Pikesville, Bill Wright's family was getting ready for a barbecue. But Bill Wright, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Hygiene and Public Health, came to his laboratory near Hopkins Hospital to tend a molecular biology experiment.

What was so important that he had to work on a holiday? The federal Environmental Protection Agency, he noted, is interested his research because it could shed light on the effect of workplace chemicals on human reproduction.

"I do what I do because I'm primarily interested in science, so there's a selfish motive," he said. "But by being careful and studying what I believe to be scientifically important issues, maybe we will make a discovery that will be important to the public."

William Jackson, a 54-year-old grandfather of 14 from Northwood, was one of the loneliest guys in town yesterday. It was his turn to work the day shift as watchman at the Allied Chemical Corp. plant in Fells Point, most of which has been closed since June 1985 as crews have been cleaning up the extensive chromium contamination to prepare the property for development.

The place was deserted yesterday, leaving Mr. Jackson little to do except keep an eye out for trespassers, chat with an occasional lost tourist or listen to the radio.

"If someone calls you, you really don't want them to hang up," he said, sitting in the modular trailer by Allied Chemical's electronic gate.

But Mr. Jackson added that his post could not be abandoned, even on a holiday. "If anyone was to get in here and go back in the plant and get hurt, Allied would be responsible for that," he said. Then he added, "I'd be responsible for that."

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