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Local workers brace for winter and working hard to transform as the economy does, Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2009 - During the past 50 years, Labor Day has transformed from a day to observe labor unions and the accomplishments of the labor movement, such as 40-hour-work weeks and minimum wage, to a day when everyone gets a break, barbecues some burgers and celebrates the end of summer.

"It's become a national holiday even for people who don't consider themselves to be workers in the traditional sense of the word," says Henry Berger, professor emeritus of history at Washington University.

Regardless of how people see themselves, though, everyone the Beacon spoke with expressed the same sentiment of uncertainty about the present and the future state of the economy. And each of them, union member, manager or artist, are adjusting in their own ways.


Ken Wright knows he's safe. He's pretty sure, anyway. Wright, who works in road construction with L. Krupp Construction and is a member of Laborers Local 110, has stayed busy even though news about the industry hasn't been great.

In a July 2009 report, the U.S. Census Bureau found construction spending for that month 10.5 percent below the July 2008 estimate. And in the first seven months of the year, construction spending was 11.4 percent below that of the same time the year before.

Still, Wright's staying busy. "The economy hasn't really affected us at all just yet," he says.

But while many people think we've turned a corner with the economy, Wright doesn't. Now, jobs that have made use of all the crews at Krupp are wrapping up, and he's not sure what comes next.

"We haven't picked up a whole lot of new work like we usually do," Wright says.

Since he runs a crew and has been with the company for eight years, Wright suspects he won't be one of the laid off, if it happens. And it could.

"Right now we don't have enough work to carry all the crews through the winter, and usually we do."

Wright, who often works side jobs on Saturdays, plans to spend Labor Day with his family, probably barbecuing at his in-laws. And while the cold might seem far away now, he still knows it's coming.

"I think it's gonna be a real tough winter."


It makes Karen Duree a little nervous; she and her husband are both in the same industry. But the possibilities the economic downturn have presented have also been exciting.

Duree, who works as a sustainable construction manager with Salian Commercial, has watched the economy not only transform people's attitudes but also her business. About a year and a half ago, Duree and the company she works for started to notice a drop in traditional jobs and a drastic rise in the number of contractors bidding for those jobs, from about five to 15 or more.

"We had to come up with new markets and new ways to obtain work," she says.

Some of those new areas include working with nursing homes to prepare for the the coming boom of aging baby boomers and retrofitting homes and commercial buildings so that they're more energy efficient.

Duree's also made changes in her own life. Usually she and her family take vacations to the beach. But this year, they've done more local travel. And this Labor Day, she'll be at Table Rock Lake, where she has a boat.

"We used to stay at a nice hotel, and now we're staying at a $30-a-night cabin," she says.

Like most people, she and her family have made necessary cutbacks thanks to the economy, but she's cutting nothing back as she looks for new ways to work and new places to do that work.

"Really," she says, "now is the time when you can branch out and try something new. Now's really the time to work on the innovations and new ideas."


Two and a half years ago, Dan Jaboor got laid off. He'd been working in construction, but instead of heading back into the field to look for more work, he paused and then changed his profession completely.

Jaboor became an artist. Actually, that's not quite right. He'd always been an artist, painting, sculpting, taking photos, but with work and his family, the time for art was sparse.

"It was something I always kind of put on the back burner," he says.

So Jaboor started painting, and pretty soon, he started selling pieces, too.

To keep the money coming in, Jaboor started working part time at a framing shop, which allowed him to be around photography and still felt artistic. That job turned full time, but now, when it's time for his art, Jaboor has the energy.

"I thought it was kind of fortunate that I got out when I did," he says of his previous job. "I was able to get out of something that wasn't making me happy."

As the economy has slowed down, Jaboor's sales have slowed, too. But he sells enough to make it, and he and his family have made adjustments with the times. Instead of getting a new car, Jaboor kept driving his 1993 Jeep. They thought about buying a bigger home, but instead took the money they had set aside for a down payment and put it into their own home.

Like his career, they're making it work.

And this Labor Day weekend, he'll be working at what he loves. Jaboor, who is a resident artist with the Soulard Art Market and Contemporary Gallery, will be part of a free show called "Spoked!", in which artists worked in conjunction with the Tour of Missouri to showcase bicycle-theme art in the juried show.

And despite what comes next with the economy, Jaboor has changed course and has no plans of changing back again.

"I think a lot of people are just waiting for things to go back to the way they were," he says. "I don't think that's going to happen. I think people would be better off if they found ways to just make themselves happy."