SAN FRANCISCO — Spending 12 hours a day away from home is nothing new for San Francisco's white-collar, commuter workforce, which is accustomed to balancing affordable housing with having a job. But with the massive boom in construction projects south of Market Street, blue-collar workers' commutes have become increasingly longer than their cubicle-bound counterparts.

Construction workers are now "booming out," as ironworkers say, from Sacramento and Los Banos, or even Boston, Texas, and Arizona, to cash in on the glut of high-paying union jobs. They sleep in trailers and vans, or rent apartments as they collect some of the country's best wages for professional construction, anywhere between $30 and $50 per hour. Once upon a time, construction laborers lived nearby from their work, but as the city became more expensive, that changed. As of 2006, construction workers are one of the least likely occupation groups to both live and work in San Francisco, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Luis Juarez is a case in point. He works on the 60-story One Rincon Hill, a pair of towers sprouting up near the base of the Bay Bridge. Juarez lives in Fresno, nearly 200 miles from his construction job. "My own house, my car, everything's there," said Juarez, who has two grown kids.

To avoid eight hours of daily commuting, he rents a trailer in Oakland with his brother-in-law during the week and drives home to Fresno only for the weekends.


Advertisement

"I have other friends who do the same thing," he added.

When the industrial area between Market Street and the Bay Bridge shifted from warehouses to more upscale lofts and dot-coms in the late 1990s, construction employment on the San Francisco peninsula increased rapidly, spiking at

48,100 workers in 2001. Now construction employment is creeping back toward those boom levels. It was only in 2006 that the city saw its first increase in construction employment since the 2002 dot-com bust, and numbers rose to

42,800 from 41,300 in 2005.

South of Market, every view of the horizon features cranes, and the clang of metal on metal echoes throughout the day. Well-heeled residents have already moved in and are sending their nannies and babies out to stroll near the ubiquitous razor wire fences that mark construction zones and empty buildings awaiting demolition.

That increase is due in part to the union work on residential high-rises like One Rincon Hill that are reinventing San Francisco's skyline. As many as 10 percent of the new units being built in San Francisco will be in large buildings in the Transbay and Rincon Hill areas. At least 15 projects are in the works with 400 or more residential units each, and 3,800 of the units will be on Rincon Hill alone, according to the San Francisco Planning Department.

Kurt Haskins, 51 and a resident of Chico some 170 miles northeast, said that if his employer doesn't pay for a hotel, he sleeps in his van on weekdays. He tried sleeping nearby in the South of Market neighborhood once, but after a man opened his car to try to steal tools, he drove to the cozier Marina District.

Few residents park on the street on Rincon Hill, as the sleeker cars of condo-owners rest underneath the high-rises, and the meters in the neighborhood are $3 an hour. Despite the widespread wealth, a quick look down the street from Rincon Hill shows abandoned buildings with squatters.

Haskins enjoys his work, but he finds it tough to juggle a four or five hour commute, his home life, and training time for his true passion, bike racing.

The gray-haired, goateed Haskins said he owns a house in Chico, where he went to college years ago and never left.

Chico's wonderful," Haskins said, his blue eyes fondly focused into the distance. Despite loving Chico, however, Haskins joined San Francisco Ironworkers Union Local 377 rather than Chico's Local 118.

"I joined this local because (of) weather conditions — hot and cold — and this is a bigger city." Haskins said, referring to Chico's blistering summer heat, colder winters, and fewer union jobs.

"I hate that, I don't need a lot of money," but he does want to finish his retirement "for the benefit of my wife and kids."

He has three kids, all grown, one grandkid and 10 more years before he'll get a full retirement package. He said the magic number to reach is 85, which is a sum of years of service and his age.

Ironworkers like Haskins come to San Francisco because the jobs are more consistent. His fellow ironworker "Elvis" — legally John Saenz — agreed.

"There's no one north of Santa Rosa," said the new father, who keeps a picture of his 7-month-old daughter on the inside of his hard hat. Saenz owns a house outside Healdsburg, 70 miles north of the city, and gets up at 4:00 a.m. to commute to San Francisco daily. He lives five minutes from the Russian River and would happily work near his home if there were any jobs there.

He earns $37.14 per hour.

Electrical workers, however, have an even bigger incentive: $50.50 an hour. That, said electrician Carl Jirka, "is the highest in the nation."

Jirka used to make $23.85 per hour in Phoenix, where he lived for 12 years. Still a member of the Phoenix union, Jirka now lives in San Leandro and commutes to San Francisco to work on Rincon Hill.

"Hardly any of the people that work in our local live in the city," said the shy and earnest electrician, whose flat Midwestern vowels betray his Nebraskan roots.

Still a bachelor, Jirka moved to California this year to get better wages building high rise condos in San Francisco, but he still pays a $400 per month mortgage on his own condo in Phoenix. He also pays $875 per month to rent a one bedroom apartment in San Leandro.

Living in two places is worth the added costs. His hourly wage works out to something closer to $80 per hour if benefits are considered, he said.

Jirka guessed that less than a quarter of electricians working in the city are part of its union local. The rest "travel" like Jirka, coming to the city from other locals because of San Francisco's pay scale.

"I've known guys, all they do is travel," he said.

Anrica Deb is a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.