Undercover as a Day Laborer in North Dakota

As some of you know, I recently quit my job as an editor to become a full-time writer. It’s been a fantastic change from the grind of an office job, but it’s also caused me to fall into an unhealthy schedule lately. I stay up until around 1am for no reason (except to find out what will happen next on Homeland) then I sleep in until around 9:30am, when I roll out of bed and make eggs and browse the morning news while I sip coffee in my pjs. It’s been a challenge to put on pants before noon.

But living in a place like Williston where everybody is working long hours and performing grueling manual labor has made me feel guilty about my schedule. Cindy, a 56-year-old grandmother who regularly logs 12 to 14 hour days on fracking sites, and wakes up every morning at 5am, thought it was hilarious when I told her I’ve been waking up at 9am (and it was only half true, since it’s been closer to 9:30am lately).

What is it like to work outside for 14 hours? The only outdoor job I’ve had was working as a lift operator at a ski park in college. The job involved sitting down in the shade for 6-hour shifts and the most “active” part of the job was when I’d ride around in circles on the back of the lift. Not exactly back-breaking.

To find out, I signed up to be a day laborer at Bakken Staffing, the organization where most new arrivals to Williston find temporary work. Most people that go through Bakken Staffing hope to work in the high-paying oil field, but in the interim, show up at 6am every morning to be sent out to construction jobs or other temp work.

My alarm goes off at 5:30am and I pull myself out of my comfy hotel bed and head out into the dark Williston morning. I arrive at the staffing agency, and join the 20 other men who are waiting to be sent out to jobs for the day. They take my photo, which looks like a prison mug shot, and print out a card for me. The woman at the front desk asks if I have any cleaning experience (because apparently that’s the only manual labor job women can do?). I debate making a joke about cleaning my room, but just stutter “not professionally,” and sit down.

My mug

My mug

A traffic construction “flagging” job comes up, and 10 other people raise their hand. I’m standing near the front desk and she picks me. “Yes! I’m in!” I think. Then she asks everyone to show their flagging certificate. “Flagging certificate?” I ask.

“You don’t have one?” she says.

“I didn’t know I needed one.”

She then announces there’s a “concrete job” that she needs two people for. I remember helping my dad as a kid mix concrete and it wasn’t too difficult, so I raise my hand. The job pays $14 an hour, about average for low-skilled jobs in Williston. One other guy stands up to take the job, but he doesn’t have a car and it’s a 15 minute drive. “Can you take him?” she asks. “Sure,” I say.

His name is Kwame Anokye and he’s from Ghana. On the way to the job, he tells me more about himself: He came to the U.S. eight years ago and after living in the Bronx, NY for a year, he moved to Alaska to break into the oil field. He worked as a cook at a man camp and made an okay living, but his dad became sick in Ghana and he went home to take care of him. After his dad passed away, he came back to the U.S., but the man camp wouldn’t give him his old job back. So Kwame thought he’d try Williston, North Dakota. He wouldn’t tell me how old he is, but I’m guessing around 50. He’s been sleeping on the floor at Concordia Church (more about the homeless situation in my article here), and working day labor jobs for six weeks, hoping one of them will turn into a permanent position with housing.

Kwame in front of the construction site

Kwame in front of the construction site

We arrive to the construction site for the job, and the boss pauses when he looks at me and Kwame. I’m guessing we look like an odd pair — an older African guy with a potbelly and a scrawny white girl. But he tells us what we’re supposed to do: He points to a pile of cement slabs, each about the size of a small door, and a 10-foot muddy ditch that’s the formation for a 3-bedroom house. “Move these into the ditch,” he says.

Each slab weighed about 60 pounds, and I was able to lift the first one without too much difficulty. I thought, ‘you know, this isn’t so bad, I’m stronger than I thought,’ but then by the 4th or 5th one, my back started to hurt, and I realized I had been twisting while I was carrying them, and I remembered the safety video we watched that showed people with life-long, crippling back injuries from twisting while carrying heavy objects. I tried walking with perfect posture while carrying the slab, but it would bump into my legs as I waddled. I could see Kwame giving me a strange look. So I continued to twist my back.

By the 10th one, my arms felt weaker, and each one was taking me longer, and I was already hungry for lunch. ‘How many more can there possibly be?’ I thought.

After three hours, we had moved 200 concrete slabs. Near the end of it, I was using every ounce of energy I had to drag the concrete slabs to the ditch, huffing and grunting and banging against them as I struggled (I now have too many bruises on my body to count).

Then the manager gave us paintbrushes and told us to put a coating of an oily substance called Debond Gold on the 200 slabs. At first, I was ecstatic to do something as easy as painting, but my excitement was short-lived. We had to bend over to paint the slabs, and the sun was directly above us now. A few times I had to stop because I was feeling lightheaded and dizzy.

Finally it was lunch. There were no bathrooms nearby, and the manager had no rags, so I wiped my oily hands on my shirt. The sandwiches Kwame and I had bought in the morning had been sitting in the sun, so my turkey and cheese sandwiches looked soggy and wilted. Under normal circumstances, I might’ve just tossed it, but I was so happy to sit down and eat something.

After lunch, we were asked to sweep and pick up small pieces of wood, discarded cups, and cigarette buttes from the construction site. This wasn’t so bad (maybe cleaning is the way to go after all…), except there were about 15 other men working and I kept having to bend down in front of them. At 5:30, we were dismissed, and I nearly collapsed. We only logged eight hours. Not even close to the 14 Cindy regularly works.

I made $96.38 for my eight hours, and it was gone in less than 24 hours after I took Kwame out for a beer and a burger, and had the oil changed in my car. $14 an hour is not enough for people living in a town with such high living costs. Giving motivated workers the support they need should be a priority in this country. If Kwame could simply get the support he needs to go through a technical training program, or obtain a commercial driver’s license, he could double his earnings and leave day labor for good.

Hard-earned dollars

Hard-earned dollars

The church where Kwame was staying recently shut down by the city of Williston for not having a sprinkler system and showers for the people sleeping there, and the pastor had to kick everyone out last week, including Kwame. I helped find Kwame a place to stay on Saturday night, but he could only stay one night. He slept in a storage container for the next two nights. I recently talked to him and he has found a temporary place to stay on the outskirts of town in a woman’s old home, but he has no car and he’s not sure how he’s going to travel to a job every day.

After just one day experiencing it for myself, I have so much respect for Kwame and Cindy and others who work as hard as they do, and the thought of doing it without a stable place to live is unimaginable to me. I think it’s time we gave day laborers, construction workers and blue collar employees the respect and support they deserve.

Here's me - feeling overjoyed it's lunchtime.

Here’s me feeling overjoyed it’s lunchtime.


Fracking, Chemical Spills, and Environmental Concerns

Farmer Dan Kalil

Dan Kalil, a third generation farmer with oil wells on his land / Photo by Brad DeCecco

This week and next, I’m putting on my investigative journalist hat and talking to locals about the environmental effects and health concerns caused by the oil boom.

Fracking is a controversial topic, and I want to make it clear that I’m not taking an official position on it, and nor will the book. I will take a critical look at the process, however, and report both sides to the issue. The side I’m currently looking at is the environmental effects, but I’ll get into more details about the positives of fracking at a later date (it could be less bad than other mining or drilling processes, for example, and many people I’ve talked to are adamant about doing everything they can to limit the environmental damage).

Nevertheless, environmental damage is happening. One big concern is the illegal dumping and accidental spills of the chemical-infused saltwater used in the fracking process. There were over 1,000 documented spills in 2011 alone, and the liquid completely sterilizes the land, killing everything it touches. In 2006, when the oil boom was in its infancy, a pipeline leak caused one million gallons of it to spill into a creek in Alexander, ND, killing hundreds of fish, turtles and plants. Despite cleanup efforts, ranchers in the area are still finding tainted areas. I’ll be going to look at some more spill sites on Monday.

I’ll also be spending a few nights on a farm next week to understand the deep connection many local North Dakotans have to the land. Farmer Donny Nelson, who has spent nearly every day of his life on his farm, and can tell if rain is coming by the smell of the air, finds it difficult to watch thousands of people descend on his home land, knowing they’ll probably leave just as quickly if the price of oil drops. “I think it’s sad what’s happening,” he says. “My grandparents homesteaded here and we’ve seen how hard it was for them. The winters are brutal. They suffered so we could have it better, and this land is what did it for them. In the end we don’t own the land, it owns us.”

CORRECTION 1/25/14: A previous version of this post referred to Donny Nelson as Donny Wilson. His name has been corrected.

Donny Nelson, a third-generation North Dakota farmer / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on

Donny Nelson, another third-generation North Dakota farmer. Some 25 wells surrounded his farmhouse, and he’s documented many saltwater spills on his land / Photo still is from the doc Ashley Panzera is working on