Monday, October 4, 2010

Sign-Flippers and Human Billboards

It was 5:15 in the afternoon and Jordan Barquet was sweating. After a long draw from his sport’s bottle, he set it back down on the grass and waved at oncoming traffic.

Barquet, a 19-year-old student, is one of many folks who have found work with a trending advertising tactic. He stands on the sidewalk on US-1, a block away from northwest 146 Street holding a picket sign nearly twice his size touting a seventy-five percent off sale at Mattress Land.

“My only days off are Tuesday and Thursday,” said Barquet, who found the job listed on some three months ago.

Holding the sign and waving at traffic for eight hours on end, five days per week, for minimum wage, Barquet makes enough
money to pay for his car, an Acura RSX. It’s his baby, he says.

It can be grueling work for a pittance pay, though. Long hours in the hot sun can wear one out quickly.
“And the rain—oh God, the rain. I’m a little sick now because of it,” said Barquet.

Some of Barquet’s managers make him finish out his shifts in difficult weather. During Wednesday’s tropical storm, Barquet stood out in the rain with his sign for a couple hours. “I didn’t finish the shift ‘cause I couldn’t take it,” said Barquet.

But according to Barquet, the sign holding job is only temporary. He hopes to land a retail job at AT&T in the coming months.

Some ten blocks down the street, another youth holds up a sign. Lance Heywerd, 17, holds a significantly smaller sign. Its light weight and arrow shape make it ideal for spinning and flipping. The advertisement was for a lunch special, two slices of pizza and a soda for $4.99 at a newly opened Frankie’s Pizza.

Heywerd, who has been on the job for two weeks, works six days per week, five and a half hours each day. He says he doesn’t particularly like the job, but it’s a means of income. Though his sign is made for handling, his trick set is very basic compared to some sign spinners.

“I don’t really do all that throwing-in-the-air. It’s too windy,” said Heywerd.

Still, Heywerd’s efforts manage to attract business.

“We get a lot of people that come in because of that sign,” said Kelli Markunas, co-owner of the pizzeria.

Markunas says the sign-flippers were so important in generating business for their six-week-old pizzeria, the decision was made to put them out there even before the sign for the storefront.

According to Markunas, the waves of business generated by the sign-flippers currently just cover the cost of their salaries, but she is confident that those customers will be repeat customers.

“In the long run, it will generate repeat business for us,” said Markunas.

The main appeal of hiring sign-flippers is an increased visibility compared to stationary signs.

“I’ve noticed them where I don’t always notice signs that are just put into the ground,” said Carol Markunas, Kelli’s mother.

“It’s cool,” said Daniel Hernandez, a 19-year-old friend of Heywerd’s, “They’ve gotten our attention on many occasions.”

Another perk to hiring sign-flippers as opposed to a stationary sign staked into the ground is the ability to use them without purchasing a permit from the city. According to Markunas, if her business were to plant a sign in the ground, they would have to buy a permit from the city.

But how long will the city allow such advertising to continue? According to The New York Times, sign-flippers are facing city-wide bans throughout California. City officials typically cite sign-flippers as a road hazard.

“This got a little bit out of hand,” said Mark Lewis, mayor of El Cajon in San Diego County.

Kelli Markunas disagrees. She said that if somebody has a driver's license they shouldn’t be distracted enough by a sign-flipper to get into an accident.

According to local community activist Miriam “Mimi” Planas, it is only fair for local businesses to allow sign flippers.

“A lot of people that do that are politicians,” said Planas. “Politicians stand on the corner and do honks and waves and that’s okay. So if that’s okay, then this should be okay too.”

“[Banning sign-flippers] is killing jobs. Some people live on spinning signs,” said Hernandez.