Workers Tell Their Stories
The non-profit arm of the National Writers Union is collecting stories, especially those of low-wage workers. Members Esther Cohen, Terry Schwadron, Ed Murphy, and Chris Rhomberg, who is also a Fordham University professor, work with interns from the school, who conduct the interviews in New York City.
Above: Interns Emma Kilroy, foreground, Andrew O'Grady, center.
UREL BERNARD BAPTISTE
“I just came to the United States exploring, you know, vacationing,” he said, “and then I forgot to go home.” Like many immigrants, Urel Bernard Baptiste finds himself away from home for work. He has the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift at a Fordham University residence. Bernard, as he is called, stumbled upon the job before the students that he safeguards were even born, and has since remained at his post by chance.
Born in Dominica, he grew up on the island of Antigua, which he considers to be home. “Technically I was looking for a job when I came, but not here in New York. I never planned to leave home.” Then he got an offer to work at Fordham from an Antiguan friend who was head of security. Bernard’s wife still lived back home, but encouraged him to give it a try.
After two years in New York however, he was homesick; he missed his wife and four children. One night, he packed his things and went to the airport, ready to return home for good. That’s when he hit a speed bump: “I forgot my passport. I took a yellow cab all the way back to the Bronx and searched the house where I stayed, but couldn’t find it.” He was encouraged to stay one more night until he could get his things together. “And then I thought, what if I wasn’t supposed to go home after all?” Soon, he found himself welcoming his wife and children to New York City, where they’ve lived since. “I will keep working here until my son is done with his education,” Bernard said, “which won’t be long. Then I’m leaving New York, and leaving this country. I’m going home.” He’s not happy with management decisions to use a third party contractor to supply some of the security guards at the university… “They go to the security office, pick up their radio, pick up their guest log, and they are told ‘Go to Alumni Court South.’ These people don’t know where the hell that is. They don’t know the students’ faces. They don’t know the RAs, the RDs, the supervisors. They don’t know what goes on here, and it is bad for the school.”
After a recent situation involving a resident requesting to retrieve a bag from his room without signing in as a guest, Bernard’s higher-ups scolded him for making a judgment call. They told him that after 22 years on the job, he was “not qualified to make that sort of a decision without calling a supervisor first.” He was angered, but swallowed his emotions. “I have never felt so degraded at a job. All my children have good jobs except me; I’m here working this shit.” He says his pension won’t cover all the costs for his family, so he keeps working. “But I’m leaving soon. And when I do, I might write a letter to Fordham. A long letter. But right now…I try to make the best of it. I call it survival,” he said. As told to Elaina Weber.
Restaurant Manager, Cashier
She has been a manager and cashier at Popeye’s on West 14th Street since 2006. Although she lit up when talking about the friendships she’s made there, this one-day-a-week job is not something Gina intends to do for the rest of her career. Her plan to go straight into the sciences after high school was sidetracked when she had the first of her three children while studying to earn her associate’s degree. Then her father passed away, and she had to pay for her education on her own.
Now 30, Gina studies radiology part time, works at Popeye’s, and cares for her family. Her husband works as a nurse, but they live paycheck to paycheck. Her job at Popeye’s is a way to make a little extra money, and push herself through the remainder of school.
Gina says that her coworkers are like family, yet the majority of them are teenagers, so the faces are always changing… The perks of the job include free food, some of which she can take home to her family. But once she finishes earning her associate’s degree, she says she’ll leave to work as an X-Ray Technician, and then go on to pursue a bachelor’s of science. As told to Sara Gillooly.
I have two jobs that I love. One of them is for Fordham University, where I am an Emergency Medical Technician (EMS) and a crew chief. I have had some amazing experiences, like the time I helped deliver a baby. As a collegiate EMS organization, pregnancy and delivery are something that I have not experienced much, so this day stood out. I have also been responsible for saving a life. The scariest moment happened when a person received massive cranial trauma and did not realize it. Later he thanked me for taking care of him. It felt good.
My other job at Fordham is as a research assistant for Dr. Qize Wei. He’s studying the role of MyoGEF (cell invasion) on breast cancer. Since I have worked on this project, I have been published twice and been responsible for teaching three undergrads how to work in the lab. When they ask questions, I see a part of me in them. They experience the same eagerness towards learning the procedures as I had when I first started in the lab.
Alex Mold, student intern, Workers Stories project.
ABOUT THE STORIES: NWU began offering free classes for Fast Food Workers at our headquarters, and this year partnered with Fordham University’s Dorothy Day Center. They gave us six interns to gather the stories of New York City’s low-wage workers, which we post on the NWU site. The Workforce Development Institute in Albany sponsors the website, and recently Riverside Church joined us in our efforts to tell more of these stories.