“The New-Economy Day Laborers”

City Desk IconA misunderstanding over the attempted coining of a new phrase has resulted in an unlikely friendship between two groups of the City’s workforce.

When Tomas Babushkin announced the opening of WorkSHOP, his new “wiki-place” where freelance information professionals can rent cubicles, collaborate on projects, and drink complimentary espresso and yerba mate, he foresaw a clientele dressed in open-collar Prada shirts and Chip & Pepper jeans. What he didn’t expect were strong, silent types in flannel shirts and Carharts.

But WorkSHOP’s unexpected diverse clientele now includes many of the migrant workers drawn to the City in hopes of finding landscaping, construction, or agricultural work. Babushkin is still trying to adapt to this mixture of open-source and open-borders, but the “rock-ribbed entrepreneur” is thrilled to have the opportunity. “I guess I brought this situation onto myself,” said the former chief interaction architect for social-networking site MishMash. “But it is what it is, and I’m committed to serving all my customers, whether they’re running from corporate careers or ICE.”

It all started during Babushkin’s media blitz to draw attention to WorkSHOP. He was looking to advertise his services but also cultivate an image of the nebulous group of writers, artists, and consultants who work for themselves. Babushkin thought “freelancer” was overused and didn’t fully capture the spirit of the people he was trying to serve.

So during an interview with Journal-Clarion, Babushkin said, “Don’t mistake [freelancers’] casual dress for a poor work ethic: These people will toil for their paychecks. I like to call them new-economy day laborers.” Babushkin was so pleased with the phrase that it became WorkSHOP’s slogan: “Home office for the new-economy day laborer.”

And that’s where the confusion began. WorkSHOP ads used the slogan, and promised free services, including free international calls, for its first week. When WorkSHOP opened for business three weeks ago, Babushkin greeted a stream of white-collar freelancers — and migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America. While the freelancers booted up their laptops, the laborers rushed to the VoIP phones and began making free calls to their families down south.

“I took a bath on those phone charges for the first week, but how could I resist?” Babushkin says. “These men hadn’t had long phone conversations with their families in weeks, months — one guy even a year — and it was so great that they could do this. More than one of them openly cried.”

The free international calls ended two weeks ago, but the migrants have become comfortable with WorkSHOP, and Babushkin has become fond of them. Just as he predicted, various collaborative efforts have arisen between the freelancers and the migrants:

  • Freelance TV producer Seth Cohn is working with a group of migrants on a reality show, tentatively titled Meet the Migrants. “The biggest obstacle is obviously protecting their identities, so these guys don’t get any interference from la migra, but I’m confident we can find a solution,” Cohn says.
  • Independent political pollster Maggie McBride is conducting a long-term study of the migrants’ political beliefs. “I’ve been surprised by my findings so far — they think Congress’s stimulus package is a rash quick-fix to a complex problem, they support reinstituting the draft, and they’re surprisingly libertarian. Almost all of them would have voted for Ron Paul if he weren’t such an extremist on immigration.”
  • Many of the freelancers are now proud owners of beautifully hedged lawns and sturdy, pressure-treated patio decks. One is even having an addition built for a home office in place of his WorkSHOP cubicle.

Babushkin, ever the communicator, has held a series of themed discussions designed to share knowledge between the freelancers and migrants. There was an uncomfortable moment when a freelancer asked a migrant panel about differentiating himself from his competition, and laborer Hector Gamez answered, “You must work very hard.” The freelancer, assuming Gamez’s simple answer was because of a weak grasp of English, tried to elaborate on his question in a raised voice before the laborer cut him off. “No, man, I’ve been speaking English since I was 3 years old. You just have to work really hard.” A confused debate ensued for the next 20 minutes before Babushkin said everyone was just going to have to agree to disagree on that point.

While no freelancers have traded their BlackBerrys for Black & Deckers, there are signs the migrants might be rethinking their career paths. Fortunato Umaña, a 23-year-old Salvadoran, says he’s through with landscaping. “I was talking to that programmer guy with the red hair, Brian, recently in the Idea Lounge and he was talking about how it hit him one day that he was sick of working for a corporation. When he started talking about how his manager just took all the credit for his work, I went, ‘Exactly! Why am I working 13 hours a day cutting and edging and leaf blowing and getting zero credit? I need to stop breaking my back and start using my brain.’ That’s when I decided to really make a go of it and become a landscaping consultant.”

Umaña then excused himself. “I need to go talk to one of the designers about my logo.”
—Craig Gaines and Ilya Perchikovsky

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