Looking For 'Pocket Change': One Man's Search For Work

At 6:45 a.m., Michael Pierce takes a place in line.

Pierce is hoping that today -- unlike yesterday -- there will be work at the Brooklyn temporary staffing agency where he starts most mornings. Usually, there are a few positions in area warehouses for stacking, packing or counting supplies. Sometimes a week-long assignment cleaning up a construction site or delivering or installing store fixtures will come in. Last year, there were even a few jobs that stretched for months.

"Apparently, those were the good old days," said Pierce, 29.

While economists and analysts debate the possibility that the nation's tepid economic recovery will give way to a double-dip recession, for millions of Americans the recovery has never begun. Nearly 14 million people -- 9.1 percent of the American workforce -- are currently seeking jobs but unable to find them. For black men like Pierce, that figure is even worse: 17 percent, 1.3 million men, can’t find work.

The temporary staffing company where Pierce lines up is the sort of place where the people caught in those unemployment numbers try to make their way to the employed side of the ledger -- or at least earn enough cash to pay the bills.

Here, movement in the stock market feels far away, as do the words of the Federal Reserve chairman, the pronouncements of the Treasury and the debate about the debt ceiling. Here, household wealth is a simple concept: it is what people are able to extract from the day -- something or nothing.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., a small woman with her hair contained in a bun by both a pencil and a pen, walks into the staffing agency lobby where Pierce is waiting. She holds about two-dozen yellow slips of paper. It isn't long before their contents start to filter down the line.

"It's the peanut palace," declares the first man handed a yellow slip, using a nickname some of the men have for a local packing and shipping operation with a mammoth warehouse. Once there, workers spend the day filling and loading three-foot tall bags of Styrofoam packing peanuts onto trucks. On Tuesday, the company was paying $9.55 an hour.

By 7:30 a.m., all 17 jobs are gone. Pierce was the 21st man in line.

"Big T, you going to the office?" Pierce asks a man who is holding a small blue and white paper coffee cup and shaking his head. Thomas "Big T" Sykes is about as disappointed as Pierce that he won’t be earning any money today.

The "office" is really a Brooklyn playground a few blocks from the staffing agency. Sometimes, after the morning's job scrum is over, some of the men who don’t get an assignment -- or get one that begins later in the day -- camp out on the benches that line the playground's basketball courts. Usually they talk about jobs, sports and women. Sometimes they talk about the economy.

On Tuesday, Sykes points to the headline on a free paper Pierce and a few of the other men usually pick up during their morning commutes.

"Dashed Hopes," AM New York's front page reads. It is positioned beside the president's face.

"You have to have some hope for your hopes to be dashed," said Pierce. "Some of us don’t even have pocket change." The comment generates one of those boisterous group laughs and a few one-liners, but the general theme remains: Pierce's comment wouldn't really be funny if it weren't true for his audience.

That sets off a round of chatter about the companies that turn to the staffing agency to find workers. The list of companies that still pay more than $12 an hour isn't very long. Sykes can think of three, while Pierce comes up with only one.

Pierce, who has been out of work since March, is a relative newcomer to the group. Sykes lost what had been steady work with a construction company in 2008. He's been lining up for day labor assignments and looking for work ever since.

Pierce spent three years driving a truck for one of the New York's many delivery companies. Major chain stores and local retailers hired Pierce’s old employer to transport their goods to customers across the city. Earlier this year, Pierce recalls delivering what he was told was a $5,200 kitchen sink.

"We pull up at this guy's building and he actually came outside to make sure we took it off the truck the right way. I think he said he worked in finance," he said. "All I know is he had a $5,200 sink. Even when I was working, I don't think I ever had $5,200 at one time."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was once again trading near or well above 12,000. But prospects for workers like Pierce weren't nearly as good.

When he was first hired in 2007, Pierce typically spent nine or 10 hours behind the wheel of a full truck. The day that he delivered the sink his shift was down to three or four hours. About a month later, his route was combined with another. As soon as business picked up, the boss assured, he would call Pierce back to work.

"I show up on time," said Pierce. "I do my job. Nobody has to check over my shoulder. My boss, he knows me. He’s a real good dude. So, I think he would have called me if he had any work. I just don’t think it’s out there."

Pierce's girlfriend -- who found a full-time job at a rehabilitation center through a staffing agency a few years ago -- thinks he relies too heavily on that promise.

Most days, Pierce puts in an hour or so at the staffing company and another two or three hours on a computer applying for jobs. This is the only way most companies will take an application, he said.

"Then you never hear from them again," he said. "It's always a maze that ends with a wall -- a virtual wall."

In late June, Pierce's son spilled something inside the computer monitor. Now, it just flashes colors. Since Pierce and his girlfriend usually have just enough money to pay their rent and utilities, then buy food and subway passes, buying a new computer is out of the question. That leaves the library and his girlfriend's smart phone -- the computer with the family’s biggest functional screen.

The other thing Pierce says his girlfriend doesn't understand is that even though there are employment agencies all over the city, many of the ones with day-job assignments that pay the same day only hand the work out on a first-come, first-served basis. Most of those jobs are gone long before 7:30 a.m., he said. So, you have to get there early.

According to Sykes, what you really need to do is pick one or two agencies and become a regular. That's how the staff gets to know you and sometimes even gives advance notice about jobs.

"She told me this weekend I had to start carrying more weight," said Pierce, talking to the playground group. "That's why I was late. I took [my son to daycare] this morning. She got to sleep a little longer and I get some peace."

Once he's out of the park, Pierce explains that the playground is where he blows off steam. He appreciates everything that his girlfriend is doing to keep the couple's rent paid and the lights on, he said. Not being a breadwinner is an awkward and new situation, though, and he's trying to handle the best way he can.

This weekend, his girlfriend talked about Pierce giving up the job search and staying home with their little boy until the economy improves.

"I'm not really down with that Mr. Mom plan," Pierce said. "I mean, I didn't flat out say no. I love my son. He's a little man. But, really -- really, truly -- what I want to show him right now is that Daddies have jobs."