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Wages for day laborers rise along Gulf Coast in Katrina's wake

GULFPORT, Miss.—Robert Thorpe and Tim Tucker weighed their options.

They could have as many days as they wanted of $8- to $10-an-hour labor, well above what they'd been making back home framing houses near Petersburg, Tenn.

But that pay would be dinged for the usual range of taxes. The two were hoping for cash without all those annoying deductions the government insists on.

"Looks like we've got some room to bargain around here," Thorpe said Monday morning. "There's an awful lot of work to be done." More work than workers, in fact.

Thorpe and Tucker held out for cash.

In the market of day labor—"work today, paid today," the temporary help agencies boast—the tables have turned. Whereas day laborers outnumbered the temporary unskilled jobs before Hurricane Katrina, now it's a workers' market.

An account representative for Labor Ready, Tammy Owen, said that before Katrina tore southern Mississippi asunder, she could offer work to about 75 laborers on a typical day. Most days she had to turn them away.

Now she can easily offer 300 jobs a day and is lucky to scrounge two dozen takers. Before Katrina the tight job market and Mississippi's traditional low pay kept the offers hugging the minimum wage of $5.50 an hour, maybe $6.50 on a good day.

Today, with Katrina's mess visible on every block, wages for an unskilled laborer begin at $8 and often run to $11 an hour.

"I've had contractors hanging around out front taking people away before we can get them in the door," she said. "It's hard to compete when they pay cash."

She notes that those laborers who opt for the cash jobs put themselves at risk—no workers' compensation, no disability coverage—and that she has an ATM in her shop that's capable of converting daily pay stubs into greenbacks.

"We can get some people," Owen said. "Just not enough."

Most of the work involves the tedious and backbreaking toil of cleaning up the storm's seemingly endless debris. There's also a heavy demand to board up shattered windows on homes and businesses. Many stores are looking for workers to load merchandise onto trucks for shipment elsewhere, liquidating goods that Katrina didn't soak.

At a Labor Finders office, manager Bobby Birch was glad that people were making more money than usual, but worried that local employers couldn't keep up with the escalating labor costs.

"These businesses have enough trouble as it is," he said. "Now another expense is going up."

At a Manpower office in Gulfport, which hires primarily office workers, the labor shortage also was acute. Michele Hauptmann, a senior staffing specialist, said she needed temporary receptionists, administrative assistants and data entry typists, and that pay had climbed 10 to 20 percent above the pre-Katrina days.

Because many casino workers are being paid for up to 90 days, she said, they appear less urgent to get back to work.

"And they have so much to do just to get their lives back in order," she said. "Clean up their homes. Get the kids in school again. All of that."

Many of the job offers were coming from companies outside Mississippi that are helping with the rebuilding and accustomed to paying higher wages.

"They're not as shocked by the costs we have to offer now," she said. "But we still can't find enough people."

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(Canon reports for The Kansas City Star.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-LABOR

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