Outside the agency, it’s a cold, cruelworld

 

Displaced federal workers will likely enter a brave new world when they step outside their agencies. The life of a contract forest crew, for example, is a far cry from the steady, nine-to-five, home-at-night rhythm of crews on the agency payroll.

One current Lolo National Forest contractor is Oaxaca Reforestation, based in Medford, Ore. Owner Margarito Hernandez, who has been in business since 1988, hires four crews; almost 80 percent of his workers are Mexican nationals with green cards. The crews not only thin forests, but also plant trees and put nets on seedlings to protect them from hungry deer and rabbits.

Hernandez's crews work an eight- or nine-hour day, six days a week, and are paid from $10.50 to $14.50 an hour, which is comparable to Forest Service wages. But unlike agency work crews, their clock doesn't begin ticking until they get out of the van at a job site, which may be hours into the mountains. If sickness or foul weather prevents them from working, they don't get paid. The workers sometimes remain on the road for 70 days in a row, living in motels which are paid for by the contractor, and buying their own food.

"Everyone is too tired to do much after work," Hernandez says. "They usually just stick together at the motel."

Hernandez is required to advertise for local workers, but few apply, despite the good (by Montana standards) pay. Those who do usually quit after a couple of days, unable to adjust to the nonstop work pace and life on the road, as well as to the fact that few of their co-workers speak English.

"If the goal of (President Bush's 'competitive sourcing' order) is to save money, it's a good thing," says Terry Anderson of the Political Economy Research Center. "But if it's to provide local jobs, there will be a problem."