Monday is Labor Day. Since the late 19th century, Americans have paid tribute to workers. Like most municipalities, the city of Sanibel will close in observance, as will county, state and federal offices. Trash pickup will be delayed, your mail won't be delivered, millions of others will celebrate the efforts and sacrifice of workers. It's also the far bookend to summer, with Memorial Day as the unofficial kick off to the season.
While most everyone with a job is an honored member of the American labor pool, it's those who serve our food, trim landscaping and teach our children, answer phones and process forms, build homes and fix vehicles, deliver and protect that were considered most important when Labor Day was recognized on the first Monday in September around 1885. Most industrialized cities continue to hold Labor Day parades.
The Islander/Island Reporter interviewed workers celebrating Labor Day in earnest.
Sanibel Police Officer John Jakubowski
Workers risk more than lost paychecks
Steve Gibson owned a successful cleaning service. He paid himself well, but made sure his workers shared in the bounty. There was almost no staff turnover.
Gibson a week ago had his arms wrapped around a couple of women dressed in red sequin tank tops and a blue hat. The women's embrace capped a fund-raiser to help Gibson put food in the fridge, pump gas in his truck. Literally, Gibson had fallen from grace. Earlier circumstances prompted the loss of his prosperous cleaning business. He turned to the handyman trade in Sanibel in the late '90s.
The fund-raiser that included a women's dance troupe at the San-Cap American Legion post raised a couple thousand dollars to benefit Steve Gibson, who in May tumbled off a ladder trimming sea grape branches in Sanibel. Self-employed, Gibson stood atop the 20-foot ladder, a buzzing chainsaw in his hands. To supplement his handyman wages, Gibson has moved furniture, built docks, painted and cleaned, delivered, anything for a few extra dollars. He delivered a hot tub to Miami for a cool $450.
Gibson is a poster boy for the working class that have kept the America economy motoring over the generations. At age 50 and until a couple of months ago, he has never not worked.
"I've always somehow made money," said Gibson. "(You) wake up broketen minutes later you have a job for fifty bucks. You work hard, work honestly, things seem to be OK."
Then in late May the 20-foot ladder gave. Gibson went one way, the chainsaw another. He said the two-story tumble was in slow motion, almost outside of himself watching the ground rise. He struck hard, crushing ribs, puncturing a lung. His body said, uh-oh, this isn't going to be pleasant, he said. He crawled to his truck, thinking bruises and pain for a couple of days. But by the time his girlfriend got him to a Lee Memorial emergency center, his body was either numb or throbbing and was obscenely swollen. Hospital workers would replace half of his blood supply. He remained in intensive care for a week. It took months of recovery and therapy to regain his life. Nearly three months later, Gibson was creaky and pallid in his black "I'm not dead yet" T-shirt at the American Legion fund-raiser on Aug. 16. The Calendar Girls of Fort Myers furnished a dance tribute to the recovering handyman.
"Anyone that says they can't make a living in America and sits around," Gibson said, "I say 'nah.' Grab a lawnmower, hustle, man. A good day's work is the way to go. Within legal limits, you can do anything to make a buck in this country."
Saving us is part of Sanibel firefighter's full life
At age 33, Tony Fontaine by any measure has lived a full life. The Sanibel firefighter at one point juggled his career while caring for a dying parent, surviving layoffs with another south Florida fire department, a surgery that re-positioned his brain and required a skull patch.
Yet through the career obstacles and grief, Fontaine trained as a paramedic and firefighter. Today his unit with the Sanibel Fire Department averages 20 emergency runs per week. It's a job requiring endurance, long hours, heavy lifting, and the gift of compassion in the face of sometimes crushing loss: Fontaine and his crew-mates are routinely exposed to death, certainly assisting those at the edge of eternity. Lee County has a huge number of seniors. One recent emergency run in Sanibel, for instance, involved a bed-ridden couple, Fontaine said. The man had tumbled, couldn't return to bed. The woman had slept through the ordeal, firefighters startling her awake that her husband was struggling. These stories repeat almost daily, he said.
Fontaine said dying, sickness and pain come with his trade.
"Labor Day," he said, "celebrates people who work hard, who have helped build the country, have defended it. Our job is to protect the citizens of Sanibel. And we take pride in that."
Chef turned cop, Sanibel officer heads labor unit
John Jakubowski has had two working careers. First as a chef with a Captiva resort, more recently as an officer with the Sanibel Police Department. He is currently assigned as a resource officer at the Sanibel School, teaching and mentoring at the blue-ribbon K-8.
When kitchen work became a grind and the hours dashed his personal life, Jakubowski followed a natural progression. He became a cop, starting with Cape Coral and transitioning to Sanibel in 2007. His father spent 30 years as a New Jersey lawman. Despite policing in a tough and violent community, the senior Jakubowski arrived home in good spirits, not once complaining about his work, John Jakubowski said.
"My father was my hero. I looked up to him every day," said Officer Jakubowski, who works from a small office at the Sanibel School. "I always wanted to be a police officer. It just took time to get here."
No one questions that law enforcement can be difficult. Even at historic lows, some 111 officers died nationally in the line of duty in 2013. And don't even discuss family issues, with police reported to have the highest divorce rate in professional circles.
But you'd be hard pressed to find an officer who doesn't take immense pride in the work, said Jakubowski, who is the department's labor representative for the officer's union, which in Sanibel is the Fraternal Order of Police/Lodge No. 33. A recently negotiated labor contract is awaiting final approval. Even in a right-to-work state like Florida, Jakubowski is compelled to represent the rights and wages of fellow officers, he said.
As the face of Sanibel's police force at the school, Jakubowski will spend hours each week talking with and greeting parents, pulling kids aside for a moment of boosterism, offering congratulatory certificates, coaxing and smiling, always upbeat and a positive role model. His job takes him to odd places, having in the last week volunteered to be doused with ice water for a benefit. And, of course, there's the element of danger. There's no lack of evidence that American schools have endured a decade of troubles.
Still, Jakubowski addresses each day with a note of confidence.
"This," he said of police work in Sanibel, "is the best job I can imagine. My work is to get out there, get involved in the community. Like an officer is supposed to."