PENSACOLA — Kim Gamez, grandmother of three and a cook laid off from her job a year and a half ago, works the graveyard shift outdoors, shoveling tar balls off the once-pristine beaches of the Florida Panhandle.
"It's two birds with one stone," Gamez, 51, said during a break from cleaning a Perdido Key beach on a recent night, a blue towel hanging around her neck. "I'm doing something for the beach, and I'm able to support my grandkids."
For months, she sent out three resumes a day looking for a job that would match the $11.90 she used to make at the Pensacola Regional Airport. Her new job pays $18 an hour.
The catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has cost thousands of coastal residents their livelihoods. But it has also created hundreds of unexpected jobs for unemployed people to clean up shores marred by oily tar.
Trying to earn some goodwill after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP is working to hire 6,850 people — most of them unemployed — in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama to scour miles of white-sand beaches for tar that washes ashore in blobs, mats and patties.
As of Tuesday, nearly 1,500 jobless workers had been hired in Escambia County, where Pensacola Beach is, and Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, said Howard Miller, BP's community outreach liaison in Pensacola.
Machinery could clean up some of the tar, and some Panhandle officials have bashed BP for not deploying that equipment more quickly. But thick tar could clog mechanical rakes. Machines can't distinguish between oil-spill debris and eggs laid by turtles or shore birds.
And mechanical equipment would not create as many cleanup jobs, which have been met with eager interest in the Panhandle, where business was finally starting to pick up right before the spill.
Since then, about 5,000 applications for cleanup jobs have flooded the Pensacola office of Workforce EscaRosa, the unemployment agency that serves Florida's westernmost counties, Escambia (where the May unemployment rate was 10.3 percent) and Santa Rosa (9.2 percent), said Kathy Karshna, assistant director of the agency's workforce development board.
"We're getting people saying, 'I've been unemployed for a year. I really, really want to get involved with this,' " she said. "We're getting hundreds of those phone calls."
On a recent day, a sign on the counter inside the EscaRosa Pensacola office read, "NOT accepting oil spill applications today."
The agency screened thousands of applicants, asking them if they could lift more than 40 pounds, and work in the sun, heat and rain picking up gooey, sticky bits of the spill. The workers selected undergo training, such as the one 57-year-old Gay Maddox recently attended in Fort Walton Beach.
"I desperately need a job," said Maddox, whose temporary U.S. census job ended in May. "The oil thing is a desperate situation, so I thought it'd be a good match."
The work is grueling and physical. Cleanup workers take on 12-hour shifts, either in the oppressively hot days or the cooler nights, clad in long pants and steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic that workers call "chicken feet."
Some beachgoers have complained that workers spend too much time resting under blue tents along the beach and not enough time clearing the shoreline, but BP contractors say they follow federal regulations on how long workers can be exposed to the sun.
During the day, the heat index regularly climbs over 100 degrees, sometimes forcing workers to work for only 15 minutes at a time before taking a longer break to avoid overheating.
Grateful workers say they are doing an important, if emotional, job.
"This is my beach. When the oil started washing ashore, it breaks your heart," said Stuart Simons, 47, a formerly unemployed engineer hired to be a general foreman with one of the BP contractors doing clean up.
Simons had been applying for jobs offshore, but after the spill and the ensuing moratorium on drilling, those positions slowed dramatically.
"You hate the oil slick," said Simons, who has lived in Pensacola nearly all his life. "If there was a less tragic way to make a living, we'd be doing it."