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After Tragedy, a Female Construction Worker Builds Homes

After Tragedy, a Female Construction Worker Builds Homes

As part of a weekly series on changes in the workplace for women, we’re profiling those who stepped up at a moment of crisis and filled gaps in the labor market during the pandemic.

With a harness, hard hat and mask, Deyonna Hancock seems indistinguishable from her fellow ironworkers — until the slanting sun glints off her diamond earrings. Only 4.5 percent of construction laborers nationwide are women, with just a tiny fraction of them working as ironworkers. But while many women left the work force during the pandemic, construction is one of the few fields that saw an increase in the number of female workers. Ms. Hancock is one of those recent hires, and her road to this new career was a difficult one.

During the pandemic she decided to change the course of her life. But the upheaval of the past two years — despite being vaccinated, she has contracted Covid-19 three times — made that process challenging. Yet she persevered — and is now often the sole woman among 25 to 50 construction workers who are working to build Casa Sueños (which translates from Spanish to “house of dreams”), an affordable housing project near the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Calif.

“It’s very ironic,” Ms. Hancock, 32, said of the homes she is building. She lives an hour away from her workplace because she cannot afford a nice place in the town where she was born and raised. She earns $28.85 an hour, considerably less than $39.35, the average hourly wage in the Bay Area.

In the morning, while it is still dark out, Ms. Hancock and DeAngelo Austin, her 12-year-old nephew, whom she is raising alone, leave for work and school from their two-bedroom apartment in Vacaville, northeast of Oakland, riding in her polished 2014 white Mustang. She arrives at her work site at 6:30 a.m., half an hour before her shift starts — she does not want to be late — and an hour and a half before DeAngelo’s school begins at the nearby Oakland Military Institute College Preparatory Academy. DeAngelo waits in the Mustang until he gets a lift from the construction site to school from a family friend.

Ms. Hancock sends him to that school, which she also attended, with the hope that it will keep him out of trouble. She sees herself in her nephew. “If he didn’t have my help, I’m afraid he’d turn to the streets,” she said.

On a bright winter’s day just after sunrise, she enters the construction site and swings 50 pounds of rebar, a steel bar used to reinforce concrete, onto her right shoulder. Then she threads her way across an obstacle course of ditches and discarded steel before bending at her waist to install the rebar. Sometimes the rebar she lifts is three times longer than she is tall. Mostly, she works alone. Her co-workers, many of whom speak Spanish, are friendly but say little.

“I’ve always wanted to work construction,” she said. When she was young, Ms. Hancock helped her uncle repair garages and paint buildings.

But the job takes a lot more than good intentions. Raudel Peña, the construction site foreman, said being an ironworker “takes skill and strength and could be backbreaking at times.” Of all the trades, he said, “it is the most brutal one.”

That did not deter Ms. Hancock. During the early days of the pandemic when businesses were closing, she decided she wanted a job with a future. Construction would be the exit ramp out of the life she once led.

She was 6 when her mother died of an aneurysm. Raised by her grandmother, with help from her stepfather, she frequently landed in the principal’s office. As a lesbian in school, “I had to let people know I wasn’t to be played with,” she said. Eventually, she earned a high school diploma and a certificate in business from a local college. But she preferred the streets. “I chose that route,” she said.

At 19 she was arrested for selling crack cocaine. At 21 she held up a convenience store and served 28 months. At 27, she was incarcerated for two years for credit card fraud. That’s when her life as a criminal became bleaker. Many people she knew were killed. While Ms. Hancock was in prison, her grandmother died, and Ms. Hancock could only call in to the funeral. Then, six months later, she learned that her 19-year-old godson had died of leukemia. “I was devastated,” she said.

“When I came home, I had this motivation to do everything for him and my grandma,” she said. “They wanted me to be on the right path.”

“She had to find her own way,” said her stepfather, Rickey Persons Sr., a public works supervisor for the City of Oakland. “I thought she’d be a hustler until the day she died.”

Ms. Hancock enrolled in job-training classes. She collected trash along the freeway, installed bicycle batteries and later “budtended” — fulfilled orders — at a cannabis club. After learning about programs for women to enter the construction trades, where after four years she could earn $100,000, she enrolled in a 10-week construction program at Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, a California nonprofit organization dedicated to job equity in climate and construction, particularly for women. When she contracted Covid, she dropped out and signed up for the next session. During training, she contracted Covid again. She took days off to recover, but as soon as she was well, she returned to class.

She and the other students faced rigorous physical tests, such as moving 45 cinder blocks weighing 35 pounds apiece across 30 feet in seven minutes. Juanita Douglas, Rising Sun’s senior manager of construction and labor relations and Ms. Hancock’s instructor, noticed her passion.

Ms. Hancock was meticulous and, while painting, “caught everything everyone else missed,” Ms. Douglas said. And Ms. Douglas saw that Ms. Hancock was having fun: As she painted, Ms. Hancock hummed.

When Jason Lindsey, president and business agent of Iron Workers Local 378, a trade union that represents 2,500 tradespeople in Oakland, went to Rising Sun, he assured the students he did not care what someone had done in the past. “I care about what you want to do today,” he told them.

He explained that ironworkers were the “special forces of construction” and that their bosses would expect more of them than they expected of themselves. To Ms. Douglas, that sounded like a job for Ms. Hancock. She suggested Ms. Hancock talk to Mr. Lindsey, who told her how to apply for the job.

Ms. Hancock completed construction school on Dec. 14 and began work as an apprentice ironworker the next day. (In February, she contracted Covid for a third time, so severely that she missed work for three weeks and had difficulty breathing.)

In her first days of work, Ms. Hancock found that her thighs, calves and ankles ached. “I had to soak in Epsom salt every day for two weeks,” she said. But she could not rest.

To supplement her income, she drove for food delivery companies. That opportunity ended in late January when she was informed that “my background didn’t clear,” she said.

“That’s why I chose construction,” she added. “They don’t discriminate on your past.”

Without that additional income, Ms. Hancock said, she “can barely pay my bills.” She reminds herself that “you’ve got to stay down for the come up.”

At work, Ms. Hancock concentrates on her tasks, instead of her finances. She calls work her “stress-free zone.”

When she graduated from Rising Sun’s construction program, Ms. Hancock and her family had much to celebrate, although Covid almost ruined that, too.

Guests were not allowed to attend the event, but Ms. Hancock showed up with a dozen friends and family and a balloon bouquet. She said she must have missed the announcement. “We were not leaving,” she said. For her and her coterie it was more than a graduation. It gave her a sense of accomplishment. “I completed something I always wanted,” she said.

This series is part of a technology partnership with Google Pixel exploring the journalistic applications of smartphone photography.

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