Down and out in Austin
How readily can a blue-collar Texas job seeker find work in a post-pandemic world?
Part 1 of a series
When I Was 22, I spent 10 days sleeping mainly in homeless shelters in San Francisco. When I was 39, I meandered through Washington for two days posing as a homeless man to learn about the free food, clothing, and medication that kindhearted folks offered.
Now that I’m 70, I need others to be my street-level eyes and ears, so I recruited a 30-year-old unemployed Texan who has just recovered from COVID-19 to answer this question: If you’ve lost your job, how do you get another? To protect his privacy, let’s call him “Charlie” after the first man George Orwell quotes extensively in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London.
Charlie started by using his cell phone to scan online ads for jobs at craigslist.org. He owns a truck and thought a job delivering auto parts that could make him up to $2,250 per week looked good. He immediately called the number in the ad and—counter to his experience with government agencies—found himself talking with the employer, who sounded professional and asked him to come to an interview.
Charlie drove to a strip center in East Austin near tents erected by homeless people. He walked into a building lobby with multiple tables and 6-feet-apart spots on the floor. The only person in the lobby was 55-year-old Bobby, the potential employer, who explained the job: deliver from warehouses to dealerships everything from nuts and bolts to engines, with pay depending on routes that could be up to 200 miles.
The trick was to make sure the part was exactly what the dealers specified: Any error would mean no pay. Sometimes one side or the other would get things wrong; sometimes the parts would not be immediately available. Income of $2,250 per week? That’s if everything goes perfectly. Realistic income, given all the wear and tear on Charlie’s truck, which already has 100,000-plus miles on it: maybe several hundred dollars per week. Bobby offered a $50 gas card as a “signing bonus.” Charlie said no.
OTHER EXPERIENCES LED CHARLIE to give up on Craigslist. Charlie decided to depend on personal contacts. His hobby is riding a motorcycle, and a fellow rider who owns a locksmith company offered him a job saving people who have locked themselves out of their cars or homes. Upside: potentially lucrative. Downside: on call from 7 a.m. to midnight, six days a week. Charlie is separated from his wife and has a 4-year-old son, so the hours did not seem workable.
Plus, Charlie’s no angel: He’s smart and articulate but doesn’t like taking orders. Bosses who work with unskilled laborers get used to being gruff. His fellow motorcyclist, a short man with a loud voice, barked the job offer: “You see all the stuff I got? You see how I’m living?” When Charlie did not respond with envy, next came the dismissive “If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. If you can’t do it, we’re done.”
Charlie does know how to do lots of things: He’s worked on a ranch and in a plant store, has dug backyard ponds and filled soda machines, has taken care of dogs and classic cars that needed body work. So when a friend’s mom’s boyfriend offered him a job that required him to pick up in Austin a heavy Versa-Vac machine that sucks out old insulation, drive it to a job site in San Antonio, and spend the next day working it, Charlie knew he could handle it.
What he didn’t like was the disorganization. The rental company didn’t have the equipment ready. By the time a forklift loaded it onto Charlie’s truck, the friend’s mom’s boyfriend said it was too late to start work that day, so come the next day. Charlie had to unload the Versa-Vac, just using muscle. He got up in the dark the next morning, loaded the machine, and headed 70 miles south, arriving at 7 a.m. at a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a Tesla in the driveway.
Charlie then worked all day, with the friend’s mom’s boyfriend—who wore a straw hat, cargo shorts, and leather boots with yellow laces—supervising. At day’s end the boyfriend, with money folded under his hand, walked over to Charlie, handed him the cash, and said, “Don’t say anything, it’s fair.” It was $200 for those two days of effort that included the expense of driving a heavy truck. It should have been $350, but Central Texas is now a buyer’s market for unskilled labor, with no written contracts and no recourse for the laborers.
How about a job without a boss? Charlie downloaded an app and is going out nights with a friend picking up electric scooters that need recharging. Charlie supplies his truck, on which he can fit up to 39 scooters, and his friend the chargers: They split the $14 per recharged and returned scooter, so a night’s work can be lucrative, and they get paid via the app without human contact. Charlie also sees Austin life at 3 a.m., including the sight of two stereotypical “drunken frat boys” riding a scooter together down the middle of the road.
Is that something on which to build a career? Probably not, but job hunting has made an already cynical Charlie more cynical. He sees bosses taking advantage of people near the bottom of the job-hunting ladder: promising big money, paying only when the job’s done, not acknowledging the value of good work or taking into account travel costs and time. On the other hand, Charlie says the people he works with are often lazy and stupid, having grown up with “participation trophies” and the phoniness of social media where people can fake accomplishments.
TO GET OUT OF HIS RUT, what does Charlie need to do? What do the institutions that purport to help people in Charlie’s situation need to do? A quarter of a century ago, when I did a bit of informal advising on welfare reform for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Texas welfare-to-work programs were a bureaucratic mess. Reformers created the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) with the goal of decentralizing and privatizing through development of local boards that would invite church-based programs to participate.
The goal was not to have poor individuals traipse from office to office, but to give them challenging and personal help that might also be spiritual, if individuals showed interest in such help. In 1996 my friend Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News interviewed Gov. Bush, who told him, “It’s a local system, one-stop shopping that’s consumer friendly [with] a myriad of service providers, not just one single government provider.” Slater and a co-author wrote that “the governor’s dream … goes like this”:
An indigent person with a young child walks into an office. Maybe it’s a private job-referral center. Maybe it’s a church. The man behind the desk … talks to the client about past work and family. He tests reading skills. If the client is qualified for one of the job openings listed in his regional computer files, the client is sent straight over. In any case, he offers whatever the client needs to get and keep a job.
I knew that dream because it was also my dream, and the governor and I talked about it from 1995 to 1999. In that latter year I took a look at the text of a speech he was about to give in Indianapolis that laid out the vision of “compassionate conservatism.” The history he offered was true: “In the past, presidents have declared war on poverty and promised to create a great society. But these grand gestures and honorable aims were frustrated. They have become a warning, not an example. We found that government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives.”
He spoke about our “belief that no one is finally a failure or a victim, because everyone is the child of a loving and merciful God—a God who counts our tears and lifts our head.” He proposed a new public policy: “Resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers.” He offered a specific mechanism to make that happen: “We will provide for charity tax credits. … Individuals will choose who conducts this war on poverty—and their support won’t be filtered through layers of governmental officials.”
In Texas, Bush had supported the efforts of a moderate Democrat, Texas Comptroller John Sharp, creator in 1996 of Family Pathfinders. These were countywide programs that could enlist churches and other community groups to mentor poor adults aspiring to escape poverty, not just stay in it. Leaders relied on contributions and looked forward to charity tax credits helping out. But Team Bush, once installed in Washington, abandoned the tax credit idea. Only one of 20 county Family Pathfinder programs survived.
I also knew Larry Temple, who starting in 1996 led the TWC for 20 years as its director of welfare reform and then executive director. Ten years ago Temple testified in Washington at a Senate Finance Committee hearing about the Texas Back to Work hiring initiative, which earned the U.S. Department of Labor’s “best practices award” in 2010. He described Texas CARES (Career Alternatives Resource Evaluation System) Online as “a multi-media career information system designed to help address education and career exploration.”
The acronym CARES was a link to the compassionate conservative dream, but the death of community groups sent job seekers once again to government offices. At least the idea of personal help remained: That “multi-media career information system” could get seekers started, and they could then encounter the human being who “talks to the client about past work and family” and “offers whatever the client needs to get and keep a job.”
Ten years later, Texas CARES Online no longer exists: I put that in my search engine and “Texas CARES Cat Adoption and Rescue” came up first. But the Texas Workforce Commission remains, now with website pages titled “WorkInTexas.com” and “My Texas Career.” James Bernsen, TWC’s deputy director of communications, said “most of our people apply for benefits online,” but “some issues with the large volume during COVID” have been hard to fix, since in 10 months TWC had to handle “seven years of unemployment claims,” and has also been busy fighting fraud.
CHARLIE DOESN’T HAVE A COMPUTER, so I went online to see how other job-seekers might proceed through WorkInTexas.com. I registered and then worked my way through a long series of forms concerning demographics, finances, education, employment, resumé preparation, and whether or not I only want “green opportunities.” The site, which I tried getting onto with both Safari and Chrome, is slow and glitchy. I repeatedly had to sign in and check reCAPTCHA boxes to prove I’m not a robot, but the website did not reciprocate.
I filled out the eight sections of the resumé by listing only one school under education and one job under employment. I offered one-word answers for “honors and activities” (“baseball”) and “additional information” (“patriotic”) and did not list any references. Would WorkInTexas.com point out problems? No. It sent me this note: “Congratulations, you are now a Smart Seeker. Employers prefer Smart Seekers because it ensures they are viewing quality candidates. You earned this designation by completing your profile, creating a full resumé, and actively seeking employment.” Really?
The website included an invitation to “chat with us,” so I replied and received this message: “Hi, I’m Larry, the Texas Workforce Commission’s Virtual Assistant. … How can I help you today?” When I said my goal was full-time work, Larry offered a warning: “If you return to work full-time, you are no longer eligible to receive any unemployment benefits, even if you have a balance remaining on your claim.” Could I talk with a human being? Larry offered the opportunity “to sign up for electronic correspondence or TWC COVID-19 email updates.”
Foolishly, I hadn’t realized that WorkInTexas.com’s “personalized job matching” means following a computer program. The site did not give me a phone number to call, but Larry let me go to the “External Contact Request System.” There I filled out a form and chose a reason for contact from the following: “Payment questions … fraud or identity questions … claim questions … wages or earnings questions,” and so on. At the end, “other.” Nothing specifically about jobs. Three days later, I had received no reply.
Maybe that’s all irrelevant to computer-less Charlies, who are more likely to go on their cell phones to the WorkIn Texas app. I tried it but soon saw why it has a 2 (out of 5) star user rating, with messages like “It crashes a lot,” “It’s frustrating cuz I’m spending time trying to log in when I suppose to be looking for work to do,” “It has never worked since I’ve downloaded it.”
I went to the My Texas Career website and saw it recommended a second app, My TX Career, but it seemed abandoned. Each time I tried it over several days I just encountered ads for NBA 2K Mobile Basketball, Vig It (sports betting), WWE Super Card—Rule the Ring: not exactly where the jobless can most profitably be spending time and money.
I then tried five times via my cell phone on Safari to log in to WorkInTexas.com with the user name and password I had established via computer. Each time I received this message: “An error has occurred. … The administrator has been notified and the error will be addressed as soon as possible.” Three days later I was still unable to log in. I later learned that TWC chose “Larry” as the name for its virtual assistant to honor former executive director Larry Temple after he died in 2019. Maybe he’s the administrator.
IN MID-APRIL Charlie was still picking up electric scooters at night and looking haphazardly for a job with regular hours and regular pay. He could use help from WorkInTexas.com so he could develop “My Texas Career.” Sadly, impersonal websites seemingly designed by Franz Kafka leave the impression that “compassionate conservatism” peaked a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
—Part 2 this summer will look at further adventures in governmental help and the surviving private alternatives
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