On a rainy Tuesday morning, Isiah Timmons woke early on the ninth floor of Coney Island Houses, less than a block away from the surf that flooded its lower floors a month ago. He grabbed a white protective suit, mask and goggles and walked two minutes to join his crew at Carey Gardens, a neighboring housing development.
Looking like an urban astronaut in the wan hallway light, Timmons, 21, spent the day knocking on doors, checking for mold and scrubbing bathrooms. He was happy to help his neighbors, but was even happier to have a paycheck — he'd been out of work for a year.
Timmons is one of hundreds of workers hired by janitorial companies NYCHA has contracted to restore 10 developments damaged in Superstorm Sandy. Like him, many are NYCHA tenants, recruited under a program that requires recipients of funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide job opportunities for low-income residents. A separate NYCHA initiative requires companies with contracts worth more than half a million to spend 15 percent of labor costs on residents.
While many New Yorkers lost income because of the storm, the hard-hit NYCHA buildings already had an unemployment problem: A 2011 report by the Community Service Society* (which owns City Limits) estimated the unemployment in the city's public housing population in 2010 reached 27 percent—three times what it was in 2008.
Even outside of public housing, the job market in the city is still unfriendly. Brooklyn has the fourth-highest unemployment of any county in the state, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Labor in Albany—its 9.9 percent unemployment level in October was higher than the national (7.5 percent), state (8.3 percent) or city (9.2 percent) rates for that month.
So for these workers, post-disaster cleanup has meant a long-awaited steady paycheck, work experience and a chance for overtime in a tough economy — at least while it lasts.
'Nothing but mold everywhere'
Last week, Timmons and his crew were on duty in Building 3. Along with more than 100 other teams of about 10 people each, they have spent the last three weeks removing trash, cleaning common spaces and scrubbing mold and mildew in storm-damaged areas.
Tall and thin, Timmons wore goggles over his glasses and answered to his new nickname, "Slim." A supervisor called him over to clean a bathroom in a seventh-floor unit that a young couple shared with two cats.
"It's like nothing but mold everywhere," he said. He sprayed the black fungus with blue fluid and scrubbed for half an hour, but the contamination had gotten inside the ceiling. The mold was probably there before the storm. "They honestly thought it was dirt," he said.
That wasn't hard to understand. In his own bathroom, Timmons noticed dark spots on the ceiling after power returned and the boiler flooded units from the top floor down. He only realized it was dangerous after he started cleaning two weeks earlier. Mold exposure can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, and, for those with weak immune systems, lead to serious lung infections.
Timmons trailed his supervisors as they knocked on doors. Most tenants who cracked theirs open spoke broken English. Two elderly Latino women declined to let them in. Down the hall, the men sprayed suspicious spots in the bathroom of Masha Libun, 82, a Russian woman with torn slippers and once-blond braids.
"It's been there a long time and keeps increasing and increasing," she said. She thought about cleaning it but decided against it. "I thought if I do it wrong, I might make it worse."
Inspectors will ultimately check all 432 apartments that may have water damage, according to NYCHA press officer Sheila Stainback. But crews are knocking on every door and removing mold even in units far beyond the reach of floodwaters, said a NYCHA supervisor who did not give his name because he was not authorized to comment. He said NYCHA is "always checking for mold," but also that "it's up to the residents to call the call center."
A long search, then Sandy
Timmons said he was glad he could help people in his community, even if the gas was still off at his own home. But he was especially glad to have a job.
"I feel good about myself now because I'm actually working and everybody's proud of me," Timmons said. "I felt really bad about myself because of being at the age of 21 without a steady job."
Not that he hadn't tried. He'd walked into restaurants with "help wanted signs," answered Craiglist ads, gone to interviews, but he was always missing something: language skills, a driver's license, experience. He dropped out of community college because he fell behind on tuition, putting his dream of a job in criminal justice on hold. Now, working seven days a week at $12.50 an hour, he hoped he could go back to school and pitch in for the rent his mother paid.
"Thank God for Sandy," said one of Timmons' supervisors, Leviticus Sumpter. His nephew Albert Gibbs, also part of the crew, sat on an upside-down bucket across from the sixth-floor elevators, waiting for an assignment. A smear of paint from the bathrooms he'd scrubbed rested on his right cheek.
"I'm not going to say that," Gibbs responded. At 52, he's only four years younger than his uncle. "I'm going to say, ‘Thank God for employment.'"
Sumpter got his nephew the job after the storm.
"Sandy ruined a lot of people's lives, but it gave me the opportunity to be employed again and at the same time help other people get back on their feet," Gibbs said. "One person's mishap is another person's blessing."
Before the storm, Gibbs said, he was "working on working." He'd been looking for more than a year, living on unemployment, food stamps and selling scrap metal he collected from businesses. By the time this job came around, he owed $1,000 in back rent for the room he rents from a private landlord in the Bronx. He's paid it down to $600.
"This job is a godsend," said Gibbs, who works seven days a week.
When Gibbs had tried to respond to job listings online, he felt someone else always got there first. It didn't help that he'd spent two and a half years in jail. That was 30 years ago, and he passed the GED behind bars, but he still had to check the box on the applications.
"New York is a hard place," he mused. "There's always something around the corner that will get you stuck or get in your way."
For this job, there was none of the red tape that keeps many unemployed — restrictive qualifications, competitive interviews, background checks. Instead, most heard about the gig from family and friends or recruiters who came to their buildings.
Back to square one
Contractors will continue cleanup and repairs for at least the next month, Stainback said. But when relief efforts end, many workers will be back where they started.
Still, Sumpter says some benefits will last.
"A lot of people will have some work experience, a lot of people will appreciate what they've done, a lot of people will understand what teamwork is and some of the smart ones will have saved a few dollars," he said. "Nothing lasts forever."
While there have been complaints about clean-up workers being poorly equipped and exposed to the effects of mold or the strong chemicals they use to remove it, Timmons and his colleagues did not echo those concerns.
At the end of the day, Sumpter pulled his white suit off in the lobby. The crew waited to hear if there was anything else to be done.
He pointed to the ceiling. "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's mold!" he exclaimed.
"You'd have to toss me up in the air to reach that!" Timmons said.
They decided to come back for it later.
"Sandy's paying us," said a young woman from another crew. "Sandy's paying us good money."
Timmons crossed the street back home. He spent the evening trying to make a few extra bucks online, reselling MP3 players he had bought on Ebay and refurbished. In the background, his mother was singing.
When Timmons came to work the next day, supervisors told him they were cutting his job. They laid off around 50 people because they had a surplus of workers, he said. He started looking for work right away, but most Coney Island businesses are still recovering from the storm.
"If you get upset and keep thinking about it, it's just going to stress you out," he said. "So I'm not going to think about that."
* The Community Service Society is the parent company for City Limits, which operates the Brooklyn Bureau.
THE BROOKLYN BUREAU
The Brooklyn Bureau, a non-profit news organization launched in 2012, publishes in-depth coverage and investigative journalism on New York's largest borough and provides tools for civic engagement.