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In the dirtiest of Austin jobs, trying to keep safe with the boss’s help
photo by Rich Oppel

Trip Hamby and his landscaping crew are still working during the coronavirus pandemic

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.

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