Working Riffs

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Newsstand Clerk
Salary: Less than $13,000 a year
Hours: 8 a day, 6 days a week
Benefits: None
Union: No
Training: On-the-job training
Use computer: No
Workplace: A five-foot by three-foot enclosure
Risks: Getting into confrontations with thieves

Kamal Muhammad can stand, sit and move his arms, but not much else. He sells newspapers, magazines, candy and cigarettes in the confining space of a roofed sheet metal newsstand, at the bustling northwest corner of 82nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

Most of the time, he doesn’t have to say anything. People just reach out, take what they want and pay him. The newspapers are in front of the newsstand and the magazines are to the left and to the right. Candy and other junk food is lined up above the newspapers, just within Muhammad’s reach.

Muhammad says that his main problem is that some youngsters like to help themselves, free of charge, to a fistful of anything within easy reach. This is the potentially dangerous part of this work. Being short on inventory or cash is not good for job tenure. When the boss comes around, he doesn’t want to hear about missing money or cigarettes. Besides, Muhammad has his sense of right and wrong, and despite his very evident frailness, he doesn’t like to be pushed around. So he spends a portion of his days yelling at young adults who pilfer items from him. Sometimes he leaves his booth and runs to chase them. Limited in his English and in any sense of American political correctness, he admits to bearing a well of anger against some young blacks. “Black people is a problem,” he tells his interviewer, an African American. “I chase. It’s dangerous.” The 32-year-old immigrant from India works on the West Side. His customers are generally white and fashionably dressed.

When he has to go to the bathroom, Muhammad closes down for several minutes and has a friend from a nearby store keep his eyes on the newsstand. He generally uses the restroom at Barnes & Noble. Living in an inexpensive two-room apartment in Manhattan that he shares with two other immigrants, Muhammad says he would like to return to India someday, to settle down and build a house. But earning the money he does now, that may take quite some time, he says.

Exterminator
Salary: About $31,720 a year
Hours: 40 a week
Benefits: Health, pension, vacation
Union: Yes
Training: On-the-job training
Use computer: No
Workplace: Basements, kitchens, yards
Risks: Bites and fumes

William Diaz loves when his clients look relieved to see him. At these moments, he is their conquering hero, the man who rescues them. The villains are mostly rats and roaches. Diaz, 33 years old, is a “service technician” with Acme Exterminating. For his company’s clients throughout Manhattan, he inspects cracks and crevices, lays down traps, and uses chemicals to kill insects and rodents. Occasionally, he’s chanced upon frightened rats that leaped on him. Once, he was putting his hand into a garbage can, inspecting bait he had laid down, “and when I went down to reach it [the rat] jumped on my arm. I tried to shake it off,” says Diaz, who used to wrestle professionally years ago under the nickname Swan. “I was in mortal combat.” He was bitten, and finally had to kill it “the old-fashioned way. I took a stick and put it to his throat.” Reflecting on that occasion he recalls, “I wanted to quit right then and there.”

Diaz’s days are generally more routine than that. He carries 16 pounds of materials and equipment in his knapsack, and travels around town by public transportation, which he also uses to get to work from his home in Brooklyn. One day finds him at a day care center in East Harlem, one of Acme’s clients. Diaz goes through the kitchen and inspects previously laid insect strips, to see if there were any bugs on it. (There are seven flies.) He puts down other strips. Into areas around the sink and stove he releases a “fogger,” which creates a mist and draws insects out. He also has at his disposal quick killers such as PT 270 and “residual” pesticides, like Dursban, which works for weeks but does not have quite the same zapping effect as PT 270. The strongest killer in his arsenal is BP 300, which he uses only as a last resort. “It always gives me a headache,” he says. “It’s a very rare thing that it’s used…but it’s a fantastic tool.”

Despite having so many chemicals, Diaz says his company is into IPM, which stands for integrated pest management. He encourages his clients to keep a clean environment and to use baits and traps rather than potentially dangerous chemicals. He particularly avoids strong pest killers at the day care center. There are times when the ebullient Diaz becomes a bit dejected on the job. On occasion, he’s heard insensitive clients refer to him as “rat boy” or “bug man.” “It bothers me.”

Diaz knows his business. Listening to him talk about rats, for instance, is like reading from a pet encyclopedia. “Rats don’t have good vision, and so they feel safer having their whiskers pass near the base of a wall,” he says. “Rats are also neo-phobic, which is the fear of something new. If you place bait stations down, a rat senses a change in the environment. I’ve seen places where that [a bait station] was enough to scare off the rats…. The rat sensed a rat.” Diaz can also explain the chemical bases and effects of chemicals he uses. He’s personable and well-spoken, and the clients like him. A high school dropout who later went back to earn an equivalency diploma, he is a member of Local 32B-32J of the Service Employees International Union. Diaz likes to believe he’s helping people and helping the environment. He also helps himself by wearing plastic gloves, when necessary, and by trying to be careful.

“You always have to be careful, because when you put bait in a hole, you never know if there’s gonna be a rat popping out.”

Telephone Company Worker
Salary: About $40,000 a year
Hours: 35 a week
Benefits: Health, pension, vacation
Union: Yes
Requirements: A written test
Use computer: Yes
Workplace: Office

Denise Durant has been working 16 years for Bell Atlantic, the local phone company that spun off from AT&T. She is an administrative assistant now, and she describes the work as easy. Filing and photocopying mostly. But for 13 years she was a telephone operator. “Nobody should be an operator after 10 years, because you get burnt out on that job,” the 39-year-old Durant says. “Operating is very strict. You get 30 minutes lunch. Two 15-minute breaks. You have to raise your hand to go to the bathroom. They sign your name on a board and when they come to you, it’s your turn and you can’t be gone more than five minutes.”

The average Bell Atlantic operator takes about 2,000 calls a day, and their employer rates their performance in part on what’s called AWT, or “average work time.” When the average working time is 21.5 seconds, an operator is expected not to spend more than that amount of time talking with a caller, Durant says. Typically, about 80 to 100 operators are in an area together. Sitting in little quadrants with partitions, they wear headsets and spend most of their time typing names of people and businesses into a computer. “The average operator sits at the board two and a half hours before you get a break. They let you bring water [to the workstation], but no eating.” Some operators complain of repetitive stress injury, caused by the continual punching of names into the computers.

By Durant’s estimate, the ratio of women to men is about eight to one. As an operator, Durant particularly disliked the night shift, even though there is some extra pay for it. Night operators wind up overburdened because there are fewer operators with whom to share the load. Furthermore, they worry about returning safely home on public transportation. “Those who lived in Brooklyn, we would ‘buddy up’ and all ride together on the train,” says Durant. And last, but not least, they had the problem of finding baby-sitters to care for their children at night.

Being an active member of her union, the Communications Workers of America, Durant is angered by Bell Atlantic’s efforts to downsize its staff. She says the company has been recruiting non-union people to work outside New York State and paying them $5 to $7 per hour, about a third of what operators in New York City get. She says she hopes to leave Bell Atlantic within several years and start her own business, perhaps a child care center. “I want to open an overnight day care. I remember working nights and never being able to find day care. I want to service correction officers, postal workers, nurses, conductors, transit workers,” she says. “It’s a moneymaker, too. I’m going to make a lot of money because I’ll be the only one doing it at night.”