Doing the dirty work
Judging by the streams of fans flowing out of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, you'd swear the game had ended. The driving rains sent even the most loyal Orioles' supporters running to the shelter of their cars, or the cover of the nearest bar. But beneath her broken-down umbrella, Bernadette Scudder stood, waiting and wondering if the umps would ever call this game. She can't tell you the name of a player, the outcome of a single game or the Orioles' standing in their division, but no matter how late the hour, Scudder would see this, and every home game, through to its end.
None of the fleeing fans seemed to notice Scudder or any of the other 118 workers jockeying for the dry piece of concrete beneath the Gate F overhang. It is here, toward the end of every night game at Camden Yards, where the field lights cast a shadow upon the workers who will soon help the stadium regain its shine.
"One line! I need one line!" barks a foreman in charge of the stadium clean-up crew. The workers, some homeless, some immigrants, but all poor, file one by one through Gate F. "Five, six," the foreman counts. "Seven, eight. Did I count you?" the boss asks a group of workers standing in the line.
Do I count? it's more of a philosophical question to some of the thousands of temporary workers who pick up the peanut shells, hot dog wrappers and Coke cups that sports fans leave behind. It's a question that the laborers at Camden Yards ask us to consider as we approach Labor Day -- the time of the year when Americans celebrate the fruits of our labor. But according to some members of the clean-up crew, who spend six to eight hours cleaning after every game for $7 per hour, there's a whole lot of labor but very little fruit. That's why 11 workers will begin a hunger strike on Monday outside the ballpark to demand that they be paid a living wage.
The city of Baltimore became the first to enact a living wage ordinance, which now requires local businesses to pay workers at least $9.62 per hour. But because the Maryland Stadium Authority, which runs Camden Yards, is a state rather than a city agency, it and its subcontractors are exempt from paying the city-mandated wage. A new statewide living wage law that requires employers to pay $11.30 takes effect in October, but excludes temporary employees such as stadium clean-up workers. The living wage would bring the workers' pay above the national average for janitorial work, $9.56, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's 2006 statistics.
The Maryland Stadium Authority has reportedly asked the United Workers, the group organizing the clean-up crew, to hold off its protests until it is able to sort through the intricacies of the new state law. While the legalistic wrangling will happen later, the workers' bills are due now.
Carl Johnson, a 21-year-old Baltimore native and Orioles fan, would wait alongside Scudder at Gate F for two hours before the estimated end of every game. But waiting for work doesn't necessarily mean getting it. Some nights more workers than the 150 or so needed will line up to clean the stadium. Johnson would have no idea that the two-hour wait for work would be nothing compared to the wait for his pay. After a month's worth of work in May 2005, he says he stood outside the offices of the subcontractor who hired him for eight hours to receive his check. He says he's still waiting.
In part because of that unexpected loss of income, Johnson says he lost his home that he shared with 14 other family members. He moved in with a cousin and now will be one of the 11 starving themselves because, he says, "I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. I truly believe in living wages for all workers."
The work is not highly-trained or technical, but grueling. Scudder, worker number 58 on this particular night, tells of wiping the nacho cheese smeared against luxury box walls, pulling everything from beer bottles to women's panties from the toilet bowls. The worst, she says, is when the black garbage bags cover broken toilets and, she shakes her head in disgust, "and they use it anyway on top of the plastic."
After the long night of cleaning, she returned to her home, napped for two hours, and then opened her house as a daycare center. Despite working 15-hour days, the sound of the ice cream truck sing-songing down her street still knots her stomach. One of her four children will undoubtedly ask for money for an ice cup. "I don't always have," she says, frustrated. "But, hey I don't exist. Nobody thinks of us."
Part of that is by design. "One seventeen, one eighteen," the foreman wraps up her count. A security guard lets the foreman know that the stadium has been cleared. There's no one around. The clean-up crew is free to start its work.
This week marks the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. While the water has receded, the challenges have not, especially for local college athletic programs. While Bono and Green Day may have welcomed the 2006 Saints back to the Superdome, the stadium became a beacon of hope but certainly not a bellwether for change. Just ask Jim Miller, athletic director for the University of New Orleans.
Katrina ripped the roof right off Lakefront Arena, UNO's main athletic venue. The floors were warped. The seats were ruined. The Saints and the other professional sports franchises seem to have regained their financial footing for now, but local colleges do not have the revenue streams to support their rebuilding efforts. Miller has seen his fulltime support staff slashed by one-third and his annual budget cut by $1.3 million. And try fundraising to repair a sports arena in a city where people are without homes. Miller says such income dipped as much as 40% below pre-Katrina levels. The loss of Lakefront Arena, which also hosted concerts and other events, has cost the school an estimated $600,000.
Miller recognizes that the university has made deep cuts, even in the academic departments, to ensure survival, but, he says, "Nobody asks what kind of season your English department is going to have."
For complete coverage on how sports factors into the gulf region's recovery efforts, check out SI's Hurricane Katrina in-depth reports by Alexander Wolff and Caitlin Moscatello. It's well worth your time.) . . .The Kansas City Star recently found that the highest-paid college coaches earn more than governors in 49 out of 50 states. The only governor making more than the state's best-paid coach? Sarah Palin of Alaska, whose $125,000 salary tops Dave Shyiak, the Alaska-Anchorage ice hockey coach who collects $112,000 annually.