BY JENNIFER LEBOVICH AND PATRICIA MAZZEI
PENSACOLA — Kim Gamez, a cook laid off from her job while raising three grandchildren, works the graveyard shift outdoors, shoveling tar balls off the once-pristine beaches of the Florida Panhandle.
“It’s two birds with one stone,” Gamez, 51, said during a break from cleaning a Perdido Key beach on a recent night, a blue towel hanging around her neck. “I’m doing something for the beach and I’m able to support my grandkids.”
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For a while, she sent out three résumés a day looking for a job that would match the $11.90 she made at Pensacola Regional Airport before she was let go a year and a half ago. Her new job pays $18 an hour.
The catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has cost thousands of coastal residents their livelihoods. But it has also created hundreds of unexpected jobs for unemployed people to clean up shores marred by oily tar.
Trying to earn some goodwill after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, BP is working to hire some 6,850 people — most of them unemployed — in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama to scour miles of white-sand beaches for tar that washes ashore in blobs, mats and patties.
As of Tuesday, nearly 1,500 jobless workers had been hired in Escambia County, where Pensacola Beach is, and Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, said Howard Miller, BP’s community outreach liaison in Pensacola.
Machinery could clean up some of the tar, and some Panhandle officials have bashed BP for not deploying that equipment more quickly. But thick tar could clog mechanical rakes. Machines can’t distinguish between oil-spill debris and eggs laid by turtles or shore birds.
And mechanical equipment would not create as many cleanup jobs, which have been met with eager interest in the
Panhandle, where business was finally starting to pick up right before the spill.
Since then, about 5,000 applications for cleanup jobs have flooded the Pensacola office of Workforce EscaRosa, the unemployment agency that serves Florida’s westernmost counties, Escambia (where the May unemployment rate was 10.3 percent) and Santa Rosa (9.2 percent), said Kathy Karshna, assistant director of the agency’s workforce development board.
“We’re getting people saying, ‘I’ve been unemployed for a year; I really, really want to get involved with this,’” she said. “We’re getting hundreds of those phone calls.”
On a recent day, a sign on the counter inside the EscaRosa Pensacola office read, “NOT accepting oil spill applications today.”
The agency screened thousands of applicants, asking them if they could lift more than 40 pounds, and work in the sun, heat and rain picking up gooey, sticky bits of the spill. The workers selected undergo training, such as the one 57-year-old Gay Maddox recently attended in Fort Walton Beach.
“I desperately need a job,” said Maddox, whose temporary U.S. Census job ended in May. “The oil thing is a desperate situation, so I thought it’d be a good match. Even if I hadn’t needed the job, I would have tried to help.”
The work is grueling and physical. Cleanup workers take on 12-hour shifts, either in the oppressively hot days or the cooler nights, clad in long pants and sneakers or steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic that workers call “chicken feet.”
Some beachgoers have complained that workers spend too much time resting under blue tents along the beach and not enough time clearing the shoreline, but BP contractors say they follow federal regulations on how long workers can be exposed to the sun.
During the day, the heat index regularly climbs over 100 degrees, sometimes forcing workers to “go black” and only work for, say, 15 minutes at a time before taking a longer break to avoid overheating.
From sunset to sunrise, the temperature drops, though it is more difficult to spot the oil blobs.