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Published September 02 2012

Temporary work not hard to find for Fargo’s day laborers

FARGO – Just about every morning these days, Mark Waller shows up at Heartland Labor looking for work.

And just about every morning, on and off for the past two years, he’s found it.

“If you’re looking for work, it’s out there” he said. “It’s a guaranteed job every time.”

He’s one of Fargo’s regular day laborers, a group of people for whom working paycheck to paycheck is a day-to-day proposition.

It is at once a tenuous life, where nothing is guaranteed from one day to the next, and a surprisingly stable one for those who find a niche and stick with it.

For those who want it, temporary work in Fargo isn’t hard to find. Heartland has more companies seeking workers than it does people seeking work – though the fit isn’t always perfect every day.

“Sometimes you’ll have a lobby full of people, but there’s no carpenters,” said Darren Watson, owner of Heartland, 2119 13th Ave. S.

The company sees 75 to 100 prospective workers come through each day. On busy days, that can climb as high as 150. Many of them show up right at 5:30 a.m. when the doors open.

The bulk of Heartland’s jobs are construction and manual labor. Food production, manufacturing, event cleanup and custodial work are also in the mix.

It’s a simple setup: The company explains the job, and the workers tell them if they’re up for it. If the fit is wrong or the worker isn’t getting the job done, the customer can send him or her back, though most often, the worker finishes out the day and doesn’t return to that job site, Watson said.

It’s generally work anyone can do, said Nancy Kelly, who runs Heartland along with Watson and Todd Trottier. But they have to be willing to break a sweat, which isn’t always the case.

“This is all jeans and T-shirt-type work, she said. “I just think if they’ve never done it before, they’re hesitant to try it.”

Though day labor is sometimes portrayed as a hotbed of undocumented workers and under-the-table payments, services like Heartland operate like any mainstream employer. Applicants provide their IDs and fill out tax forms before working, and collect a paycheck at the end of the day.

Workers are Heartland employees. Companies pay a rate to contract them out that includes their wages, taxes and other fees.

The company is one of two major day-labor providers in Fargo-Moorhead. Labor Ready is the other. Watson said there are also pockets of undocumented labor in the region.

He said most Heartland jobs pay $9 to $12 an hour, though jobs that require a specific skill can pay more. The company doesn’t offer insurance or benefits.

Major construction companies, homebuilders, and both the city of Fargo and the city of Moorhead use Heartland workers, Watson said.

Perhaps one in five of the company’s workers are regulars. Many have an on-and-off relationship with Heartland, disappearing for long stretches in between temporary stints.

“A lot of them, they’ll get a job, and we won’t see them for two, three years,” Watson said.

Some develop a rapport with specific employers. John Mueller of Eagle Ridge Partners regularly requests certain workers who have done well for him on past jobs.

“I find a couple good guys, I try to keep them,” he said.

Jared Peterson is one of them. He works with Heartland a few times a month in between other jobs, mostly on construction. He buys his own health care coverage.

The 27-year-old Fargo man said he likes the flexibility and can handle the work.

“It’s a good employer to work for,” he said.

Waller is another often-requested worker. He came to Fargo two years ago, and usually works for Heartland six months at a time in between other construction jobs.

He said he appreciates the freedom to come and go.

“You don’t have to worry about burning bridges. It’s not like you’re obligated to stay here for life,” he said.

He also praised Heartland for treating its workers well.

“A lot of places, you deal with some people who really look down on you,” he said. “There’s all kinds come in that place, and she (Kelly) treats them all respectfully.”

Others come in from out of state seeking better economic opportunities and use day labor to bridge the gap.

Chris Peluso and Brendan Marjama arrived in Fargo about two weeks ago from California. They’ve been working construction jobs every day through Heartland.

Peluso has been making $12 an hour. Marjama makes $16.40.

Peluso had been working on an airport in San Diego, but things got slow.

“I couldn’t wait around,” he said. “I needed work.”

Marjama wants to stay here and find full-time work, while Peluso plans to continue on to the Oil Patch to seek his fortune there. He says he’s not leaving until he has $100,000 and a new truck.

For now, Fargo and Heartland are treating him well.

“Every day you come in, you go to work,” he said. “That’s what I tell my friends, and they don’t believe me, because in Florida and California, it’s so hard to find a job.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502