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In the Trade Parade: 'Money Drives Everybody Out, and Everybody In’

Thu, 08/31/2023 - 10:55

The dollars and cents of the trade parade

An army of tradespeople make their way east to the South Fork each morning and west again at the end of the day, enduring the slow-moving traffic no matter the routes they choose.
Durell Godfrey

On any given morning, vehicles bump forward slowly through trade-parade traffic on Montauk Highway, at least half of them service trucks and vans. This is how the army of tradespeople who uphold the facade of the Hamptons arrives to build and service huge houses and maintain pristine pools and landscaping.

“Anybody looking for work is going to go where the work is,” Charles Zelnick, an East Hampton plumber, said earlier this summer. The work is here, but is it worth the grinding hourslong commute for the workers? Online job ads and interviews offer a peek into the life of a plumber or a landscaper, a carpenter or a pool technician.

Montauk Plumbing and Heating L.L.C. of Montauk and Tortorella Pools of Southampton recently posted advertisements on to hire plumbers. The former offers $20 to $35 an hour, the later $26 to $35. In a 40-hour workweek, this would amount to $41,600 to $72,800 for the year. The Bridgehampton company JS Plumbing and Heating listed an ad in the classifieds for a plumber with at least five years’ experience: “Must have valid driver’s license and own tools. Starting pay $55,000/year.”

By way of comparison, the Clam Bar on Napeague is hiring line and prep cooks starting at $20 an hour. A dishwasher at the Montauk Lake Club and Marina is making $17 an hour. The night-crew clerks at Stop and Shop are making $18 an hour, and full-time cashiers at Citarella are making up to $38,300 a year — all according to job listings on Indeed.

Entry-level employees at Gateway Pools make $20 to $25 per hour. Paul Arnone, a Springs resident who works for Gateway, made the point that every new house seems to have a pool, which creates even more work. “In the pool industry, most people are looking to hire,” he said. “A lot of our workforce is Latino. Most of the guys are from Colombia, and they go home for the winter.”

“We’re all working 20 to 30 hours of overtime each week,” said Gordon Andrews, owner of Fertilawn, a Hampton Bays landscaping company, who is grateful for — but exhausted by — the demands the region is seeing.

Mr. Andrews hires seasonal employees from El Salvador and Mexico through the federal government’s H-2B visa program, and he rents a house for them. “The H-2B program allows workers to work in the United States up to nine months, and they’re eligible for their driver’s license. . . . They pay in like anyone else,” he said.

Horticulture can often be learned on the job, and experienced landscapers can train the new ones as they go. Plumbing, on the other hand, takes months of schooling and years of apprenticeship, making it much harder to find seasonal plumbers.

“There’s not enough plumbers, basically,” said Mr. Zelnick.

Kathleen Bennett, who works for Harold McMahon Plumbing and Heating in East Hampton, observed that there are no young plumbers replacing the ones who retire. (Important side note: She’s also a volunteer firefighter, and she estimated the median age of firefighters in East Hampton to be “around 58 or 60.”)

Andrew McClain, a Southampton contractor, said he pays his entry-level employee $23.50 an hour and his top guy, whom he pays as his equal, $65.

He has an employee who drives out from East Patchogue every day. Mr. Zelnick said most plumbers come from “west of the [Shinnecock] canal.” They drive from where housing is cheaper, to where business is lucrative.

“If you’re too busy, you’re not charging enough” for your services, he said.

“You gauge [pricing] by what you pay for a loaf of bread or what you pay for a sandwich in a deli,” Mr. McClain said as the unmistakable buzz of a helicopter overhead drowned him out for a moment, a sound that to many symbolizes the immense wealth that has moved into the area, edging out locals who live and work here.

Although the market is booming for all of the trades, workers are leaving the region in droves because of the skyrocketing cost of living here. In the first quarter of this year, the average price for a house on the South Fork hit a whopping $3 million, according to CNBC. And so, retaining workers comes down to reasonably priced housing, even if the workers are making decent money.

“We had good, competent, reliable employees,” said Harold McMahon Jr., proprietor of an East Hampton plumbing company and Ms. Bennett’s employer. “They wanted to become homeowners, but they couldn’t afford it, so they moved.”

“We’re understaffed and overworked. . . . There’s no houses for the workforce,” Ms. Bennett said.

Mr. McMahon, whose family arrived in East Hampton two years after the town was founded in 1648, waxed nostalgic, saying, “This was nothing but potato fields when I was a kid.” There’s a senior citizens apartment complex right next to his office and affordable housing units have sprung up around East Hampton, but he says it’s not enough to support the locals. “Money drives everybody out, and everybody in.”


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