Waiting and Hoping

Cortez Day Labor center a lifeline for those in need of work

Anna Bousquet Enlargephoto

Anna Bousquet

They wait. They hope. They wait some more.

Some dressed in thick wool caps and heavy work boots — with winter coats and work gloves sitting on a shelf — ready if a call comes in.

Others come without winter caps and with light coats and sneakers. Donated work boots are available, if they fit.

They wait. For jobs, for opportunities, for a few dollars to help them get back on track. They wait.

The Cortez Day Labor center is where unemployed and down-on-their-luck residents come to find work.

Willing to do anything, they wait for an employer to call.

A worn soft-cover Bible helps pass the time for 29-year-old Cortez native Jeff Schrage.

It’s his faith that keeps frustration, discouragement and depression at bay. It’s also what helps keep his tank full of hope.

“I just want to say thanks to all the people who support day labor,” he says.

He’s here, or it should be said he has returned to day labor, to find work to help support his family. This is his first week back since the summer. His temporary part-time job ended, so now he’s back.

Schrage has been married for more than four years. He has two young boys, ages 4 and 1, and a baby coming in July.

His situation isn’t good, but he does have a home, and he looks to the Lord to help him cope.

“I just ask God to give me wisdom, strength and encouragement.”

Daniel Skelton, 28, is the talker of this morning’s day labor crew. They razz him about his bottomless conversation pit, playfully complaining that it’s tough to wedge a couple of words into a conversation when Skelton gets rolling.

“We have wonderful, in-depth conversations here,” Skelton says with an infectious smile.

The camaraderie at day labor makes the waiting bearable, he says.

NOT MANY JOBS

There were a dozen or so men and a couple of women who came to look for work today. The Day Labor Center is under the umbrella of the Bridge Emergency Shelter. When they arrive, they each draw a numbered chip. It’s the luck of the draw.

When that chip reveals a double figure number, it’s bad news. But even No. 1 doesn’t guarantee anything.

“I had number one the other day and nothing came in,” says George Jones, 48, a self-employed construction contractor who now needs work.

For the first 15 days of January, only six jobs have come in for the day labor group.

But still they wait — and hope.

Day Labor Manager Anna Bousquet opens the door at 7 a.m. and hot coffee is ready. The center closes for the day at 11 a.m.

It was another zero-job day and the men and women trudged away disappointed. Some will return to the Bridge Emergency Shelter, others will go home hoping that tomorrow will bring them a few dollars.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Bousquet says about those zero-job days. “It’s always disheartening but we always have hope, hope for the next day.”

Skelton nods in agreement.

“I think this place is great, there’s just a lack of work,” he says.

“It’s the economy,” Jones says with a frustrated grimace.

“We’re willing to do anything,” Skelton says. “There are people here with more skills than a lot of people out there. I have a great resume.

“Everyone has to be optimistic,” he adds.

SAME GOAL

The stories are varied with the day labor group. Men with more than two decades of construction experience like Jones, people with families, a woman stranded in Cortez hoping to return home to Tucson, Ariz.

Skelton’s energy is boundless, and pride spills out when he talks about his three kids. Providing a good life for Calvin, 6, Camilla, 4, and 2-year-old Riley is what drives him.

“If it wasn’t for my kids it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says about finding work.

He currently rents a mobile home but calls the situation temporary.

“It’s OK for the kids, but I want something better for them,” he says.

For now, he’s counting on day labor to help him get by. As a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy, and someone who earned his GED, Skelton says his experience ranges from cook to construction to fitness trainer to technology.

“I’m not proud of it, but I moved around a lot and had a lot of jobs,” he says. “Right now, I’m looking for anything. I’ll do anything.”

Schrage is a soft-spoken lanky man with expressive blue eyes. Like most, he’s open about parts of his life.

“I made some bad choices in the past,” he says with his hands stuffed in his pants pockets. “I have asked God for forgiveness.”

Now, he’s just looking for a little work to help support his growing family.

Paul Young is 48 years old and needs work. He’s not too old to get a fresh start on his future. He came to Cortez to finish his associate’s degree in construction technology at Southwest Community College east of Cortez.

Grant money will help pay for tuition and a few other expenses but he has no vehicle and he’s worried about making it the eight miles to the campus every day.

He’s 17 credits short of the degree and he’s not about to let eight miles derail his dream.

“I want to be able to complete my associates and become a success in the community,” he says.

After sitting and waiting morning after morning at the day labor office, he confesses that he has a bigger dream.

“I’d love to have my own company some day, then I could give all these guys work,” he says.

WORK AT FINDING WORK

For Bousquet, she preaches commitment to the workers. There’s a laptop computer for them to search employment sites, which they do, but mostly they wait. But being in the office is what keeps their hopes alive, Bousquet says.

“I tell them don’t sit at home. Treat getting a job like it’s a job,” she says.

Bousquet hopes the community knows that day labor is a resource to be used. She also hopes they know that there are good people waiting to get jobs.

“These aren’t the guys who sit in the park,” she says bluntly.

Most of the guys in the park are the ones who have given up, who have turned to alcohol, or mental illness has a hold of them.

“These people have integrity, and they love their community, and they want to do a good job,” she says. “Each person we send out is accountable. That’s what makes us safe.”

Day labor work ranges from farming and ranching chores to construction, cleaning, landscaping, gardening, snow removal to whatever someone needs, Bousquet says.

Pay is negotiated between the worker and the employer, and Bousquet says that a number of employers who use day labor will request the same workers because of the quality work they did before.

A friendly camaraderie oozes throughout the day labor office. When Schrage isn’t deep in scripture or Skelton isn’t trying to solve the world’s problems, or others break free to have a smoke outside, they play cards, banter and just get to know one another. Many share similar circumstances that have brought them to day labor.

“It helps pass the time,” Skelton says.

Then his philosophical side bubbles out as he expounds on today’s society.

“The poor economy leads to no jobs and that leads to poverty and that leads to depression and that leads to crime,” he says, then a hint of a smile appears. “I guess that means there will be work for the police, but they aren’t hiring, are they?”

He chuckles.

Bousquet remembers a visit from a former day labor worker two months ago.

“He stopped by to tell me that he was getting his job back. I was so excited for him,” she says.

When those stories make the rounds at day labor, there will be envy but it’s also a confirmation that hope indeed exists.

The next day, at 7 a.m., men and women enter the day labor office, pick a numbered chip, pour themselves a cup of coffee and take a seat.

And they wait. And they hope.

Reach Dale Shrull at dales@cortezjournal.com

Jeff Schrage tosses cans into a bin for recycling at the Cortez Day Labor center. Schrage and a number of others, have consistently gone to day labor for weeks hoping to find work. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Jeff Schrage tosses cans into a bin for recycling at the Cortez Day Labor center. Schrage and a number of others, have consistently gone to day labor for weeks hoping to find work.