Temporary workers labor in shadows of boom times

Jobs: Employment agencies help fill a sustained market for unskilled help at low wages.

March 28, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

He's been sitting for more than an hour on a bench inside the temporary employment agency on North Howard Street when, at 6 a.m., they finally call his name: "Dennis Ellis to van No. 9."

He has no idea where the van will take him, who his boss will be, what he'll be doing, how much he'll earn or when he'll be done. He won't earn a dime until he gets there.

It's the same, uncertain routine each day. Lawyers say aspects of it are illegal. But with no car and an arrest on his record, what can an occasionally homeless man expect?

They hand Ellis a ticket that says he'll be a laborer today at the Happy Homes construction site in Owings Mills. "Happy, my ass," Ellis mutters as the van leaves Baltimore. In minutes, Ellis' 5-foot-8 frame is curled in his seat and he's snoring.

Another workday has begun in Baltimore's shadow economy.

Ellis and thousands like him occupy the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Left in the dust behind a bull stock market and a technology-fueled job boom, they scrape together a living at minimum-wage manual jobs brokered by more than a dozen temporary agencies.

Beginning at 4 a.m., they line up outside places such as Just Temps on Russell Street or Metro Temps two blocks away, swapping cigarettes and stories of the previous day's grunt job.

Ellis prefers TOPS -- Temporary Overload Personnel Service -- one of Baltimore's oldest and largest such brokers for day labor. The $5.15 an hour helps pay for food but little else. Ellis has no health insurance, no retirement plan, not even a phone. Among his few possessions are a broken wristwatch and the pager on his belt, which he checks over and over.

On this day, he's waiting for a call about a full-time security job at PSINet Stadium. It would be a ticket out of this low-wage rut.

The van drops Ellis and a co-worker at Lot 51 at Happy Homes at 7: 25 a.m. An hour later, they've emptied the contents of an 18-wheeler -- stacks of lumber, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, 22 hung doors -- and hauled them into a half-built, four-bedroom brick colonial that's been sold for $280,000. When Ellis takes a cigarette break, Dave the job supervisor yells, "I told you guys I was in a hurry, didn't I?"

Ellis stomps out his cigarette with a heavy black boot. Short, muscular and handsome with a prominent chin, Ellis peels off a sweat shirt and hoists another door onto his back.

For a year, since his Honda with 250,000 miles was smashed and he lost his job as an electrician's helper, Ellis' weekdays have begun with a 20-minute walk to TOPS, a long wait in the crowded lobby, then a van ride to Towson, Annapolis, the Eastern Shore -- wherever someone needs cheap help. He's restacked aluminum ingots fallen off pallets from Russian ships. He's stuffed envelopes, shoveled snow, dug ditches.

His days last from 4: 30 a.m. until at least 6 p.m. Much of that time is spent waiting. He gets paid for eight of those hours, if he's lucky.

"That's a long day for eight hours' pay," says Ellis, 37.

Good weeks, he makes $200 to $300. If they were all good weeks, he'd be earning $15,000 a year, after taxes, putting him among Maryland's lowest-wage earners. But some days, TOPS turns him away. Not enough work today, they tell him. Or he gets to a job site and the supervisor says they don't need him, so the van returns him to Howard Street.

"Every hour I get helps," Ellis says. "Every hour I lose hurts."

About midmorning, a guy from the stadium pages him. Ellis borrows a phone. The guy wants to know whether he can work that afternoon. Ellis says he can't because he's in Owings Mills. The guy asks why he's messing around as a temp if he's interested in the stadium job. Ellis tries to explain that he needs cash. "But the stadium is my priority," he tells the guy.

The guy says to call later, and Ellis goes back to picking up trash behind Happy Homes Lot 51.

A magnet for the unhirable

For generations, TOPS has been a magnet for a predawn army of men -- and a few women -- in scuffed work boots and paint-smeared pants. TOPS hires people that most companies won't. Some are battling addictions or funding them. Some are hobbled by criminal records or mental illness. More than a few -- including Ellis -- are homeless, living in shelters such as Paca House or, in some cases, in alleys and doorways.

Many are grateful for the work. Others smell whiffs of exploitation, and accuse TOPS and other similar companies of crossing the line between helping the poor and profiting off them. One of TOPS' regulars says, "It's not a temp agency, it's a pimp agency."

Pater Sabonis, a lawyer with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, says TOPS and similar agencies aren't just milking the poor, they're breaking the law. And he wants to sue them. He's been visiting TOPS and other job brokers at 5 a.m. to hand out free coffee and collect workers' stories.

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