By Alicia Ebaugh
CEDAR RAPIDS — Downtown, the rain hammers the dusty concrete before the sun comes up.
It’s 5:15 a.m. Thursday, and day laborers are gathering, hoping for a day’s work cleaning up flood-damaged property. Hundreds of workers, if not thousands, are employed now in the downtown, gutting and cleaning flood-damaged businesses and some homes.
About 10 job placement companies and labor brokers with names like Labor 4 Today are licensed to operate in Cedar Rapids, according to the city’s contractor registration list. It appears many others aren’t. Even Able Body, one of the largest providers of day labor in the area, wasn’t registered until Thursday morning. It has been operating here since mid-June.
Some of the workers are staying in the parking lots underneath the Interstate 380 bridge.
On Thursday morning, a small group of men and women huddle quietly to wait for instructions, then walk away, pulling trash bags over their heads to ward off the rain. They will be picked up in 30 minutes for work.
The back door of a pull-behind trailer pushes open, and two men emerge, stretching, yawning. One sits in the doorway changing his pants while the other rummages in the truck. Police came down Tuesday night to clear out the mattresses and cardboard boxes that littered the parking lot, but clearly some day laborers are still sleeping there.
Soon, cars and trucks with Florida, California and local license plates roll into the lot, carrying workers in twos and threes. A bus emblazoned with the logo of Able Body Labor pulls up to the curb.
The workers crowd around Able Body’s signup table at 6 a.m. They are handed bags containing boots, hard hats and gloves. They go to stand in line.
“I wanna get out here and make some money,” said Debra Oliver, a hotel housekeeper who walked downtown Thursday morning from her home in northeast Cedar Rapids to find work. “The hotel pay is slow, so I took a month off to do this.”
On this morning, all those seeking work get it. One woman, though, said she’d only been selected for four days of work in the past three weeks.
City officials admit to lax enforcement of the local ordinance that requires all workers and companies in the flood zone to be registered with the city. It’s a matter of manpower.
“Our primary focus of enforcement is making sure our residential people don’t get ripped off,” said Jim Thatcher, Cedar Rapids fire marshal in charge of code enforcement. “It’s sad to say, but businesses should be smarter than that.”
No citations have been issued to companies or workers that are working without certification in the flooded downtown, Thatcher said, but code enforcement officers have been patrolling residential neighborhoods and giving warnings.
“The word has gotten out, and every day we’re seeing people who weren’t registered before going to get certification,” he said.
Some of the day labor companies pay workers in cash at the end of the day or week.
Able Body prints checks for everyone, available after 4 p.m. the next day — mainly to encourage workers to return. Their people are paid about $10 an hour to work 10- to 12-hour days.
None of the companies answered messages or phone calls for comment, and Able Body supervisors in town refused interviews. Mainly, they cite “negative press” focusing on rumors that the companies hire illegal immigrants or bring outsiders in to do jobs that local people should do. But that obviously hasn’t stopped people from wanting to work for them — or from requesting their services.
Without day laborers, flood recovery would take years, said Chad Reichert, general manager of ServiceMaster 380, which is providing cleanup services to residents and downtown businesses.
“There is no company large enough to handle all this work by themselves,” Reichert said. “We want to be able to get to our customers quickly and get them ready to get back to business as usual, and almost any contractor here is using temporary workers to do that.”
Reichert estimated that all of ServiceMaster’s flood projects across Iowa would be completed by the end of next week, leaving its customers ready for remodeling.