Behind the Journalism with Gabriel Thompson

By |  December 12, 2013

Author and journalist Gabriel Thompson, has written about immigration, labor, authoring two books on the topic. In the November issue of Golf Digest, his first article of a series, “The Care Takers”, delved into the issue of Latino workers in the golf industry. Thompson worked undercover for the article, giving him a first hand experience to report to his readers. We were able to talk to him about the article. 

1.) Where did the idea for “The Care Takers” come from?

“The idea came from editors at Golf Digest. They realized that the topic–of golf’s Latino immigrant workforce–hadn’t really been covered in the media, and that this key but overlooked workforce was a story worth exploring. I think they also thought that golfers might appreciate both learning a bit more about the workers who spend their days keeping the courses in playing shape, and about the actual work they do.”

2.) What was the overall experience like working undercover on the ground crew?

“Exhausting. I think of myself as an early riser, but I’m not used to getting up at 3:30 in the morning for a shift. So just making sure I got into work on time was a challenge, as was trying to learn how to use much of the equipment. (I should also mention that the superintendent got to work even earlier and stayed later.) And I got a sense of just how much can go wrong at any given minute–from leaves blowing into bunkers to water levels being off. But while the work was tiring, the workers were welcoming and helpful, taking time to instruct a very slow learner. They clearly took the work very seriously. As one told me, “To do this work, you have to pay attention to details.”

3.) Did you run into any snags while undercover?

“Not exactly, though that doesn’t mean it was easy!”

4.) Have you heard any reactions to the story yet?

“I’ve gotten a few emails, with some people praising the article for highlighting the work and workers, and others who are upset about the presence of undocumented immigrants in this country. That’s pretty typical. I’ve written about immigration for a while now, and the articles often trigger some very angry notes. It’s a topic, obviously, that some people feel very strongly about.”

5.) Do you think before your article, the golfing public was aware of the plight of the golf course maintenance worker?

“I would guess not, but that’s hard for me to answer with lots of confidence, since I’m not a golfer and don’t actually know very many golfers. But my sense, having spoken to many workers, is that there’s not much interaction between players and workers. There’s good reason for this: workers do their best to remain invisible and quiet, so that they don’t bother players. And so as a result, there’s not much of a chance for players to learn about the workers. But this isn’t just something that happens in golf. We live in homes built by people we’ll never know, eat food harvested by folks we’ll never know. And so one hope is that the article sheds some light on the workers who are the backbone of the golf industry, and reminds golfers that the lives of such workers are as rich and challenging and interesting as our own lives, and worth thinking about.”

6.) What do you think the future of this industry is?

“That’s way beyond my level of expertise, since I’m not a student of the golf industry. I don’t see any reason why the demographics of the workforce would change much, though, especially considering that Latinos are continuing to grow as a presence in the US. But as to the future of golf in the US, I’m afraid I don’t have any good insights.”

7.) How did your job as a golf course maintenance worker compare to other jobs Americans don’t want to do?

“Well, I should first mention that while it is estimated that two-thirds of maintenance workers are Latino immigrants, plenty of Americans do these jobs. And golf course work is a lot more stable than, for example, working at a chicken processing plant, where turnover is incredibly high. Many workers I spoke to had been at the course for years. But it has certain challenges–like working outdoors in unpleasant weather–shared by other occupations typically done by Latino immigrants, such as farm work. Francisco Mora, the person I profile in the piece who works in the Palm Springs area, often works through temps that exceed 110 degrees in the summer. And the work is very labor intensive, with lots of mowing and raking and shoveling and planting.”

“One thing that came across was that folks took the jobs seriously, and had a lot of pride in their work. Even if they didn’t golf, they knew when a course looked right, and they were determined to make it look right. It’s also important to note that the work doesn’t pay a whole lot, with many of the jobs in the $10-11/hour range. Many of the workers I met have families, and it’s very hard to raise a family on those wages. So then the question comes up: what responsibilities does golf have to the workers who form the backbone of their industry? I don’t have an answer to that, but I think it’s a question worth thinking about.”

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About the Author: Molly Gase

Molly Gase was an Associate Editor for Golfdom and Athletic Turf. Gase is a recent graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper and Online Journalism.

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