Tripp Hamby's No. 1 priority this time of year usually is finding workers to tackle the peak March-October landscaping season. But in the year of the virus he is focused on one thing—keeping his 25 workers healthy.
I watched (from 20 feet away) as Hamby and his production manager, Martín Ortega, met with a crew of his blue-shirted men at the head of our subdivision.
"I'm trying to do anything to keep them healthy and comfortable ... paying them mileage if they want to come separately in their own cars," said Hamby, 42, owner of Priority Landscaping, which services 45 properties across Austin and West Travis County.
"I ask how they are feeling, how are they doing." Early in the COVID-19 epidemic, most of his employees thought the threat was being overstated. Hamby admits he did too. Not any more.
Hamby employs 25 at the peak of the season. They are all men. Thirteen now on board are U.S. citizens, all of Mexican descent. Another 10 just arrived from Mexico on H-2B visas. The H-2B program allows employers to hire foreign workers for non-agricultural jobs on a one-time, seasonal, peak-load or intermittent basis.
Hamby says he paid $10 an hour in 2013, when he began his business, and now pays $17-18 an hour. For the worker, that translates to about $35,000 if the job is held for a full year. The prices Hamby can charge are not elastic; HOAs, developers and residents push back and may reduce service if the prices climb too fast.
Because of the virus, his commercial customers are canceling or delaying new capital projects, as well as maintenance tasks such as installing new flower beds and spreading spring mulch. In these times, everyone looks for ways to save money.
Priority Landscaping's workers ride in trucks that are wiped down with disinfectants. Their tools are cleaned daily, and the power tools are not exchanged among the workers. Your weed-eater is your weed-eater. If a worker is approached by a customer, which doesn't happen often, Hamby counsels that he back away politely.
It's cool now, but once the broiling Texas summer rolls in, temperatures will exceed 100 degrees. The men work in long sleeves, long pants and with kerchiefs, goggles, ear protectors and hats. Dust and leaves cloud the air, and the noise from the equipment is nearly unbearable.
"We are just trying to find our way through this challenging time," said Hamby. "We want everyone to feel comfortable and keep safe."
We are all just finding our way. As April and May unfold, experts tell us, the COVID-19 numbers will spike fearsomely. For Hamby's blue-shirted men, the coronavirus is just another challenge piled atop one of the most difficult jobs in Austin.
The landscapers keep working to keep Austin neighborhoods beautiful. They have spouses and children too, here or back home in the motherland. Here's wishing that they, and we, stay healthy so that we can all enjoy our families for a long, long time.
Next time you drive by a cluster of landscapers, give them a salute from behind the windshield.
Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."