Howard mixed on truck unloaders

Lumpers assist drivers

but problems lead to call for reform

July 30, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

Each weekday morning, in the hours before dawn, the ragged crowd assembles along U.S. 1 and Route 175, the commercial heartland of Howard County. Dressed in faded jeans, T-shirts and boots, the men pace up and down the road, waving at passing truckers for the chance at a day's work and a day's pay in Jessup's busy wholesale market.

They're called lumpers, and they form a little-noticed -- but important -- part of the county economy. At the sprawling Maryland Food Center Authority, home to more than 40 warehouses, lumpers load and unload everything from bottled pickles to canned peaches, from fresh rockfish to frozen peas.

In the bargain, truckers get another set of hands and get back on the road faster. The lumpers get money -- under the table.

"I never really liked working a 9-to-5 job. Out here, I can pick my own hours and I can make some good money," says Boisey Yancy, 54, who hitchhikes each day from his West Baltimore rowhouse to Jessup, where he has been working the trucks for 25 years and making as much as $1,000 in a good week.

Still, "lumping," a term that can be traced to English longshoremen in the 1500s and that has been a part of Maryland trucking for years, is not without its controversies.

Although county and state officials have long been aware that men from Washington and Baltimore regularly come to Howard County to work for truckers, failing to pay taxes on their daily earnings, no one has made a move to crack down on the arrangement.

"It's tough. You can't really tell someone that they don't have a right to work," says Donald J. Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority, which leases property to commercial companies.

"I'm pretty sympathetic to a guy who spends his day loading and unloading trucks. That's not easy work."

Drug trade allegations

Howard County police, who have monitored lumpers, say some play a role in supporting and maintaining a drug trade along the U.S. 1 corridor. Over the years, police have conducted surveillance, sometimes arresting lumpers caught buying and selling drugs.

"These men will get hired by the truckers and work for almost anything to get enough money to buy some drugs," says Lt. Tim Branning, who heads the county Police Department's vice and narcotics unit. "They'll unload a truck for $30 just to support their addiction."

Some lumpers acknowledge the problem. "You have a lot of guys out here doing all kinds of stuff," says Michael K. Balthrop, 41, a Washingtonian who splits his time lumping between the truck stops in Jessup and Landover.

"You've got your drug dealers, alcoholics, you name it -- you got it. Some of us are out here trying to make a decent living, though. Some of these guys make us all look bad."

Yancy acknowledges that he has "dabbled on and off with drugs," but he says he's not an addict.

"I'm just out here trying to make enough money to pay my bills and to buy some food. That's all," he says.

According to court records, Yancy has been arrested and convicted on numerous occasions on charges of possession of drugs and trespassing on private property.

And with a sixth-grade education, he knows that he has few options of finding meaningful employment. His alternative is lumping.

No one will hire him because he doesn't have a high school diploma, he says. "I could have been on welfare, but I don't want that."

Five minutes later he's standing alongside the curb, flagging down truck drivers.

It's 6 a.m. and 14 men are positioned at their usual spaces along the road. This day, they're in competition with Yancy for work.

"Damn," Yancy mumbles. "I knew I should've tried to get out here earlier -- I ain't going to make no money today."

Moments later a trucker pulls up and waves.

Yancy hoists himself into the front passenger seat and drives through a barbed-wire gate to begin unpacking a full load of nonperishable items at the Giant Food warehouse. Yancy's day has begun.

Sgt. Morris Carroll, a county police spokesman, says that cracking down on lumpers who are drug dealers or users is difficult because they tend to be a transient group.

"Some of them do have warrants out for their arrest, but they don't have IDs -- they may not have addresses because they're homeless."

When arrested, they are usually released a few days later.

"It's frustrating," says Baldev Singh, president of the TravelCenters of America, a sprawling truck stop adjacent to the warehouses that includes a restaurant, convenience store, an arcade and a motel.

"I told the police that I don't want any of them on my property," Singh says.

"They're drug addicts -- you have a few that are good family people -- but most of them would break into the trucks or steal from the truckers or steal from the stores, so we barred them from coming onto the property."

Several years ago, Giant Food Inc. started issuing IDs to all lumpers so it could track workers on its property.

"We used to have a problem with some of the lumpers stealing and doing some other things," says company spokesman Barry F. Scher.

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