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Archive for Saturday, February 28, 2009

A human sign of hard economic times

Kurt Wilson, of Fenton, Mo., who works four hours a day waving in a Statue of Liberty costume for Liberty Tax, takes a break at the Brentwood, Mo., office. Wilson’s wife didn’t want him to take the job. “She thought it was beneath me,” he said.

Kurt Wilson, of Fenton, Mo., who works four hours a day waving in a Statue of Liberty costume for Liberty Tax, takes a break at the Brentwood, Mo., office. Wilson’s wife didn’t want him to take the job. “She thought it was beneath me,” he said.

February 28, 2009

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— His wife didn’t want him to take the job.

“She thought it was beneath me,” Kurt Wilson says.

But here he is, standing on a thin strip of sidewalk in the bitter cold at 8 a.m., the start of a four-hour shift along a commercial strip of Brentwood Boulevard.

Tall, with blue eyes and a brown beard, Wilson wears a silvery green gown over several layers of winter clothing. His head is covered by a knit hat, covered by a sweatshirt hood, covered finally by a green foam crown. He looks something like the Statue of Liberty. He is waving at traffic.

He is a human sign, a walking billboard, a modern update on the Depression-era’s sandwich boards. Wilson is advertising a tax-prep shop in the building behind him. Being a human sign — for a store, a sale, a new subdivision — is not challenging work. Wilson knows this. But this is his job.

“I can’t be prideful about it,” he says. “Especially now.”

Now being a time when the economy is in deep recession, when layoffs are common, when a part-time job paying $7.50 an hour to wave at cars seems like a good find.

The number of people in the U.S. working part time because of various economic reasons jumped 75 percent to 16.1 million in December compared with December 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These people are working, just not as much as they would like.

Taking what he can get

Wilson is 30 years old, college-educated. He lives in Fenton. He has traveled the world. He spent two years in China doing Christian missionary work. He is a pastor at a small church. Last summer and fall, he worked for a landscaper. Winter came. He needed a job, especially since his wife, Brooke, had her hours cut at Starbucks.

He knew he could try hunting for a good-paying, full-time job. It seemed daunting. He has a friend with a master’s degree stocking shelves at Target. He has been unemployed before, spent months sending out resumes with few responses. And that was before the current downturn.

He decided to return to the part-time job that got him through last winter.

“It’s just easier getting something you can get rather than wasting all your time,” Wilson says.

Mary Wittry was happy to have him back. She owns the Liberty Tax Service office near the intersection of Brentwood Boulevard and Manchester Road. Liberty Tax Service is probably one of the nation’s largest employers of costumed wavers. The competitor of H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt encourages its 3,000 offices to hire Lady Libertys and Uncle Sams. The company provides instruction on how to recruit wavers (contact colleges, schools, halfway houses, parole officers) and how to rate waver performance.

Wittry hired eight part-time wavers to work from January until Tax Day, April 15. She had twice as many applicants as usual. And they were older, not just college kids, but men in their 30s and 40s who needed a job or a second income.

“It’s been surprising who applies for the job,” Wittry said.

‘See every person’

Wilson and his wife are in better shape financially than many. No children. They are debt-free. They rent. They keep their expenses to a minimum. But Wilson still needed a job.

He has developed a technique to waving.

“I try to see every person — not just wave — but actually see them, instead of just waving at the sky like you’re crazy,” he says.

He does see plenty of people as they drive by reading or eating or putting on mascara or talking on the phone. He worries about getting hit. He recognizes some commuters, like the lady in a yellow VW Bug who just drove by. She recently gave Wilson coffee and a breakfast sandwich. A bread delivery guy gave him a loaf of bread.

He gets the best response from the blue-collar types, “the construction guys, the laborers who, because they’re out in the cold, they can relate,” he says. Occasionally a driver curses and yells at him.

But it is a job that gets better as the hours and days pass. On this day, the sun surmounts the building behind him about 10 a.m. The temperature climbs out of the teens. Each passing day brings the promise of warmer weather, making it easier to stand out on his patch of sidewalk and wave.

But the passing days mean something else, too.

Soon he will need a new job.

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