When I pull up to the house where Robert Hughes lives on Lake Whitney near Ft. Worth, he’s covered in sweat and his bright blue Pacesetter T-shirt clings tightly to his large frame. He is standing outside stirring up a can of old red paint getting ready to paint a sign. “I’m getting paid $20 to do it,” he says. “And $20 is $20.” It’s better pay than the job Hughes just left—for the past three years he worked as a day laborer.
“I just stumbled into the job at Pacesetter [a day-labor agency]. We were homeless and this guy told me that with a [driver’s] license and Social Security card I could go up to Pacesetter and get paid at the end of each work day. So, I went up there. It took me about a week and a half to actually get out on a job, but once they saw what kind of worker I was I got out quite often. I was still with my wife then. She was the reason I lost my last full-time, permanent job as a licensed truck driver. And that’s what I’d really like to go back to doing.
“Driving a truck is a freedom you’d never know. You are out there on the highway, and yeah, you gotta pay attention to the cars and stuff, but you don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder. People say, ‘I wanna go out and see America.’ I say, ‘Drive a truck.’ That’s what I like; I like seeing America. I ended up missing several deliveries because of problems I was having with my wife living with me on the truck. And she asked me not to go back to driving, so I didn’t. Now I’m trying to get back into it and it’s kind of tough.
“Everybody thinks that working day labor is easy, but it’s not. I actually worked twice as much as a person who works a normal job. For me to be able to go to work I had to get up at 2:30 or 3:00 a.m.—just to get to Pacesetter and try to get a job. It was a 45-minute walk from my motel in Haltom City. They open the doors at 5:00 a.m., but I got there at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. So I’d already been waiting for over an hour and a half. Then, I gotta sit there another hour or more before they might call my name and send me out on a job. We got paid every day, but only $7.25 an hour no matter what kind of work we did. So really, I put in 16 hours [with travel time] and only got paid $7.25 [per hour] for eight hours of work.
“During the three years I worked there I got really good at building things, like walkways between concrete slabs and woodwork. I was not good at cleaning jobs because I was constantly thinking, ‘I’m better than this. I’m better than this.’ It’s really hard for me to do those jobs knowing what I could be doing if I had an opportunity.
“Working as a day laborer can be summed up in one word: degrading. If something happens on the job site it’s the temp’s fault. It’s always our fault. They blame everything on us. Sometimes, people would drive by and holler out the window telling us to get a real job. Well, I wanted to say: ‘why don’t you come try this? Why don’t you get up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to wait in line to get a job? If you want me to get a real job then give me one. If you find one for me tell me where it is.’ And what if the same thing happened to them? They lose their job and they have to be in line just to try to make it. Just to try to stay in a motel room and keep soup and crackers on the table, because that’s basically what we lived on for a while, Ramen noodles, crackers, and Vienna sausages.”