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Economic recovery leaves construction workers in the dust

Carpenter Jerry Patterson of Phoenix once had plentiful work, but now relies on craigslist and newspaper ads to find odd jobs.

New York Times

Carpenter Jerry Patterson of Phoenix once had plentiful work, but now relies on craigslist and newspaper ads to find odd jobs.

With few places to turn, construction workers have colonized craigslist as the cyberspace equivalent of the street corner or Home Depot parking lot.

Some are getting more than they bargained for as they search for ad hoc jobs. One Palm Beach man who previously worked on crews renovating Walmart stores agreed to clean out an apartment after a tenant committed suicide. But he drew the line at hanging up a sex swing.

Still the plaintive pleas for work keep coming online. That is because carpenters, bricklayers, roofers, painters, electricians, plumbers and carpet installers have largely been left out of the economic recovery. Builders are not hiring, homeowners are deferring renovations and governments are postponing highway and bridge projects. The nation's employers added a meager 115,000 jobs in April, with few of them in the construction industry.

The jobs construction workers find online tend to be small: painting bedrooms, replacing ceiling fans or even installing pet doors. The pay is skimpy, they say, far less than during the boom years. Mostly, though, there is simply not enough work for the large number of overqualified odd-jobbers trying to cobble together a subsistence.

"You can follow the pulse of the economy just by watching what's going on with craigslist," said Jerry Patterson, a carpenter in Phoenix who once had plentiful work framing new homes and remodeling older ones. "It's a massive amount of people going for just a few amount of calls."

Typos and all, listings capture the desperate effort to find even a scrap of work.

"Trades man in South Florida for over 44 years . . . For the time being not any job is to small," reads one typical ad. In Las Vegas, one of the areas hardest hit by the housing collapse, a handyman writes: "30 Years of actual hard earned construction experience. / Skilled in almost every single trade. Las vegas native & Single dad in need of work."

Unemployed people in many occupations seek work on craigslist, of course. But while other industries are starting to improve and restore more formal jobs, construction remains on its knees.

According to the Labor Department, the construction industry slashed 2.27 million jobs from its prerecession peak to the trough of construction employment in January 2011. Just 95,000 jobs have returned, or less than 5 percent of those lost. With national unemployment at 8.2 percent in March, the rate among workers in construction and excavation is more than twice that, at 17 percent.

Manufacturers, by contrast, have restored 470,000 of the 2.29 million jobs they lost from the start of the recession to their low point. And retailers, who cut about 1.2 million jobs, have brought back 342,000 jobs, more than a quarter of those shed during the comparable period.

When work was easy to find in 2005 and 2006, Patterson, 43, struck out on his own. He would place an ad in the Sunday newspaper and get 30 calls, yielding at least three or four jobs. Now, he said, he puts an ad on craigslist two or three times a day and is lucky to get two calls a week.

He said he and an assistant recently installed 12 windows on a house. After paying for materials, he said they cleared about $100 a day for the eight-day project.

Some construction workers have left the industry. But "it's been very hard for people to give up and move to other sectors, because it's not like there's been a lot of expansion in other parts of the economy," said Nik Theodore, an associate professor in the department of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In Las Vegas, Paul Amyot, a union worker who once installed carpets in casinos, has solicited jobs on craigslist for two years. Not only are opportunities fewer, he said, customers are paying less. An apartment building landlord hired him through craigslist to lay tile in two bathrooms. He earned $19 an hour, down from $31 as a casino carpet layer.

"What you think you're going to get, you might as well cut 50 percent off of that," he said.

Workers who once built houses, offices or big-box retail complexes are now venturing into the absurd. Ken, who declined to give his last name because he was embarrassed, said he had been paid $250 to clean out a Palm Beach apartment where a tenant had committed suicide.

But he has rebuffed other responses to his ads. Last month, he said, "I had a guy call me 10 o'clock at night and ask me if I had a vise. And I said yeah, and he said 'Can you meet me somewhere and I want to put my hand in the vise and you crush it?' " Ken said he demurred.

Then there was the Fort Lauderdale woman who wanted him to rig up a sex swing while her husband was away. "She wanted me to come hang it in her 'room of doom,' " he said. "She offered me a lot of money, but I said 'No, no, it just doesn't seem like something I want to get involved in.' "

After losing his assembly line job on Long Island early last decade, Ken, 48, turned to construction and moved to Florida. He said he is lucky to get 10 hours of work a week through craigslist and is behind on the rent.

The outlook is grim. After rising early in the year, new-home sales fell in March, and government spending on infrastructure projects remains low.

In Florida, Ken said he and his fellow construction workers found themselves wishing for a hurricane. "They don't want a really bad, severe damaging one, just one that could cause a little havoc so we could have some work," he said. "That's a hell of a thing to pray for."

Economic recovery leaves construction workers in the dust 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 5:32am]

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