For Chayne Hampton, ‘plumbing is not just water and poop’ applies from San Quentin to Santa Cruz

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Chayne Hampton is the manager at Santa Cruz Plumbing Inc., operating the company’s residential plumbing department.

Plumbing was prominent in Hampton’s life growing up in Santa Cruz. His father has been working for the UA Local 38 Plumbers & Pipefitters union in San Francisco since Hampton was born. Around age 20, Hampton began to work alongside his father. But that soon ended because of what Hampton calls “bad life choices.” Hampton struggled with a drug addiction that ultimately led him in 2016 to serve three years at San Quentin State Prison for burglary. After his release in 2019, he entered rehab and sought employment. He reached out to Santa Cruz Plumbing owner Jason Allison, who gave Hampton a chance. He started out as a shop hand, eventually working his way up to manager.

Transitioning from incarceration to the workforce is no easy feat. Hampton says people “have to learn how to operate in a world that’s not the world that you’ve been in.” Many will pass judgment, he says, but if someone is a hard worker their past shouldn’t hold them back. Hampton relishes the simplicities of life, having gone through losing his freedom while in prison. He prides himself on maintaining a job long term, something he struggled with in the past. He enjoys what he describes as “normal-people stuff,” like traveling, working out and spending time with his wife.

Hampton also shared stories on the “Ear Hustle” podcast, as well as narrating parts of the audio version of the book “This is Ear Hustle: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life” by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods. He hopes to be able to progress in his career, either growing the residential plumbing sector or working for himself and beginning a family business.

Education:

  • San Lorenzo Valley High School
  • Cabrillo College: construction estimating, plumbing code, blueprint reading

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Can you walk me through how you became involved in the plumbing industry?

Chayne Hampton: My dad’s a plumber and he works for the [plumbing] union in San Francisco, and he’s worked there since before I was born. When I turned 20-something, I tried to join the union and I ended up getting in. I was commuting over the hill with my dad and that commute was just kind of a nightmare. I can see it now in retrospect how draining that drive is and just working in the city in general. They would pay you a lot but it’s a lot of time off your life. But that’s not why I left the union — I made some bad life choices that ended my career there.

I went to jail two times before I went to prison. Just little six-month stint[s]. I thought that would be the end of it, they would never send me away because I was such a petty criminal. The judge looked at what I was doing and saw that it was gradually getting worse and worse. I was taking bigger and bigger risks and that got me a prison sentence. I ended up going to prison for a little bit and when I got out I was in a rehab, New Life on the Westside.

I turned in an application [to] Anne Keating, who’s our HR person [at Santa Cruz Plumbing]; [she] got my application, showed it to [company owner] Jason [Allison]. One of my past employment [experiences] was at San Quentin, [at] the waste management plant. I was trying to make it look pretty without saying I’d been to prison. Jason, not being an idiot, put it together and gave me a call and he said, “I’m very empathetic to a guy in your position. Where are you at? I’m going to come talk to you.” So he came to where I was at. He was like, “All right dude, we’re going to start you at this [wage],” which in retrospect was exactly how much money I needed to make at that time. Now I make twice that.

I had minimal experience, at that point I think I was a [shop hand]. [Jason said,] “All right, we’ll get you digging some holes.” So that’s where I started, digging a little bit [and] organizing the truck, nothing too complicated because, I mean, I was like a baby. After a while, slowly more responsibilities [were] put on my lap. Jason is pretty hands-on and he saw where I had some strength, which was mostly relatability with people, deescalating situations [with] customers [or] other contractors, just general customer-service skills. My employment took a bit of a shift to more management, so I have guys working under me. I’ve been doing this now for about a year.

Lookout: What does a typical day look like for you?

Hampton: For me, I just started checking my emails. [But] whenever I get started I get parts [and] lay [it out for the] guys, like, “This is the job we’re doing today.” Then I’ll go to the job with them and get a material list for them so that they don’t have to drive back and forth to the supply house, kind of streamline things. [I’ll] check in with the customer to make sure they’re doing OK, no one is making a mess, everyone is parking where they should be parking, let them know if the water is going [to] be off. From there, I head back to the office [to] follow up on quotes that I had written and then from time to time I [find] myself in the field tying up loose ends, [like if] a customer needs to be walked through how their new tankless water heater works, then that’s the last thing I’ll do in the day.

Lookout: What was the experience of transitioning from prison back to the workforce?

Hampton: I mean, I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell. I’ve got tattoos. Even before going to prison I lived in a prison of my own making. Through lifestyle choices I created a very small world for myself, [it was] very limiting. I [could] never be too far away from the action. My life was confined to six or seven blocks in each direction. I was crippled by drugs and addiction, mentally and physically.

I didn’t have any proper skills. But Jason, once again, I [have] to give this guy all the props in the world. I don’t know what he saw in me, maybe he thought I’d only last a week or a year. I’ve never done anything [for work] for five years [and now] someone just took a shot on me. I have buddies who are in the same situation as me, and [it’s] “I can’t find work” and this and that. It’s not easy for a lot of dudes with tattoos on their face and a rough background or a record, but it’s not impossible. I also have a ton of friends who brought themselves into unions. You’ve just got to be willing to start from the bottom. I was trying to be very humble about it: You want me to dig holes? I’ll dig holes.

Lookout: What was it like working in the sewage treatment plant at San Quentin?

Hampton: So my sewage treatment job, when I first got it, I was like, “Cool, sewage treatment, I’m going [to have] a breaker and some chemicals, maybe some goggles.” Yeah, I had goggles, but my tools were a pitchfork and a hose. I would go into this thing they called the pit where all the sewage travels through it. I would have to unclog these drains with the pitchfork and the hose. When you make food in prison you make it in a spread bag [a plastic bag] and when you’re done with it guys will just tie it and then flush it. So when I’d be in there spraying off sewage, sometimes I’d hit one of those bags, it’d ricochet into my face. That’s why I was going to have the goggles and that’s when I stopped having a beard.

They tell you this is your job then you show up for it and if you [try] to refuse it, it’s going to be bad. There’s this weird illusion of free will [that] people think is so necessary, but after being incarcerated, I’ll tell you what, I miss sometimes having someone tell me when to do things. Like, sure, you’re free, but at the same time, that’s a lot of thinking, decision-making, responsibility [and] accountability.

When I applied for the job [at Santa Cruz Plumbing], of course with Jason I was all-in. I was in the union but I don’t necessarily want to tell this guy I’ve been to prison. I’m just going to be honest, but also say, I worked in the sewage treatment plant in San Quentin. San Quentin is not just a prison, I’m pretty sure it’s a town. He took one look at that and was like, “mm-hmm.” So he figured it out.

Lookout: What do you love most about your job?

Hampton: I like interacting with people. I like getting people set up and stoked. Maybe changing the narrative a little bit that you can’t trust your mechanic, you can’t trust your plumber. Everybody is trying to sell you something extra. It’s like no, man, I’m really not. You just have this active water leak I’m trying to get taken care of. My wife called me from the mechanic and she’s just, “Oh, they’re trying to sell me this fluid. I don’t know if I need it.” I was like, “Maybe you need it.” Everyone’s so scared and I get it. One of the things I like doing is [to] just surprise people by giving them what they want and maybe telling them what they need.

I’ve been able to hire guys too, Jason has allowed me to have that responsibility. There’s been guys that were like me, I’m like, “Let’s give you a chance.” Not all of them have worked out but like one of them did, [and] that’s great. Who doesn’t like a comeback story?

Lookout: What have been your biggest challenges in your career?

Hampton: Realizing what a lack of proper education I had going into this, whether it’s spelling, mathematics, writing an email properly, talking to people [professionally]. Those are these huge hurdles I’m working on every day. Those are things I’ve had to adapt to. Also being kind of a self-starter, my days aren’t always laid out for me. I’ve got to keep myself busy and productive.

Chayne Hampton of Santa Cruz Plumbing

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in this type of career?

Hampton: Just be humble and ready to show up. I mean, just because you got paid $25 an hour under the table by Jimmy Jams Plumbing in Boulder Creek doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to get that somewhere else. And that’s OK, then you go and you learn. I’ve taken classes at Cabrillo that correlate with my career: construction estimating, plumbing code, blueprint reading. Those weren’t things I asked my boss to pay for, either. It’s not his responsibility, it’s your responsibility. If you want to get paid more, be worth more. I know that’s a tough thing. The trades are riddled with guys that have problems showing up on time or attitudes. Just be stoked you got a job, show up a little early, stay a little late. Don’t look [at] your time clock, [or write] every email like, “I actually [finished] work at 3:05, [so] I should get paid for those five minutes.” You should get paid for those five minutes but my dad always told me, “If you got to stay a little late to fix your mistake, don’t make Jason pay for it.”

Lookout: Who is the best person suited for the job?

Hampton: I mean, anybody. Man, women, [or] whoever, a worker [is] a worker. Maybe you’re working with a guy who doesn’t speak any English, but plumbing’s like a universal language, like mathematics. You watch YouTube videos on silent on how to cook things, you could watch a plumbing tutorial in Spanish while you only speak English and still learn something. Just bust ass, move fast and don’t make too big of a mess.

You have to be able to work with dispatch, guys who are ordering parts and you have to have some degree of communication skills and traveling up on your own. It’s a team effort.

Lookout: What can someone expect to be paid when they’re going into this career field?

Hampton: I don’t know, maybe $20-ish if you have a license? You’re not only getting a job but you’re also getting hands-on training that translates to other places. You could probably get a job for more starting at a restaurant, for example. It’s like, what’s your intention?

If you’re really good you can make like $75 an hour. If you’re doing your own thing you could charge $125 an hour, you could charge whatever you feel like you’re worth, as long as you’re being fair with the customer and honest. If you’re new to a company but you’ve done plumbing for 15 years, they may start you off at a certain dollar amount and then once you’re able to prove yourself then your price will go up.

Lookout: What’s the difference between a union and non-union plumbing?

Hampton: A lot, it’s a big question. [In a] union, there’s guaranteed work. It’s hard to say, because some people prefer the union, but you have to pay dues to the union. You’re not allowed to really strike out on your own, like your knowledge is essentially theirs. Prevailing wages, some projects are only union, like this is a union plumber job and it’s prevailing wage. That could be upwards of $75 an hour, but that prevailing wage job doesn’t necessarily last forever.

Lookout: What is something that most people misunderstand about your job?

Hampton: There’s a lot more to it than you think. It’s not just unclogging toilets, it’s also opening up walls, installing new plumbing systems [and] knowing how hot water works. I understand it’s just water, but [it’s] temperatures, also gas and gas pressure. Like what size should your gas line be if it’s servicing these three different fixtures? I’ve got to find out what’s on the fixtures and this degree of math to size something correctly because it’s going to go underground. I don’t think it’s a trade you would see depicted in a movie. Like I’m Mario and Luigi and we just got these plungers. There’s a lot to it. There’s a complement of electrical and HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems]. They all culminate into one.

Lookout: What kind of jobs do you think there will be out there in the plumbing field?

Hampton: I think the technology around plumbing is always changing, new applications, making it so jobs can be done quicker. There’s all kinds of routes that you want to take [because] plumbing is not just water and poop. It’s also gas [appliances]. There’s new water heaters that are electric — in California, we’re trying to go in that electric direction. That means your old gas water heaters have to go, and your new electric ones have to go in.

Lookout: What does the trajectory of your job look like?

Hampton: For me, I would like to grow [into] the service department and have more guys. Jason, the owner, is responsible for over 100 guys. If I could have my little department where I’m doing that in my own way, that’s the goal. Maybe one day be competent enough to do something on my own or have my dad involved and keep it in the family. Jason started his company from the ground up, out of his garage. I do more residential stuff at people’s houses, if I were able to grow that. Right now we have five guys. When we have 10 guys, we’d really have a thriving service department along with [a] thriving construction side.

Chayne Hampton of Santa Cruz Plumbing

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What would be your advice to someone who is getting out of jail or in a position where they ask, “What’s my next step?”

Hampton: Apply, apply, apply. Just apply and be forthcoming. I genuinely believe there are business owners out there [who] want to be that person that gave that dude [a] chance and he just crushed it. Understand though, too, other guys have come before you and they let people down. Understand that people are going to pass judgment. Don’t lie, be forthcoming. The bottom line is, none of that [stuff] will matter if you’re a really good plumber or you’re a really good hand [or] worker.

Lookout: What motivates you every single day to continue on considering all the hurdles you’ve gone through?

Hampton: Personally, it’s the security of having something to do every day. I know that idle hands [are] like the devil’s playground. Too much idle time, either you’re just on social media or you’re distracting yourself in one shape or form. At least this way, I’m driving around on this side of the hill. That’s the great part. I could be on the Westside, in Aptos or Felton all in the same day and that just keeps me busy. I also have a wife now, she works here cleaning vacation rentals. We’re a DINK [couple], dual income, no kids. So we like to go out to dinner, travel or whatever and those things cost money.

Lookout: What does the future look like for you?

Hampton: I would like to get a dog. Me and my wife want to go to Italy. It’s a lot of normal-people stuff that maybe to the average person is like, “Yeah, that [stuff] is cool.” But understand I came from a place where, like I said, I’ve never done anything for five years. I don’t know how else to describe it, I’ve had a job for five years, like I’ve been fired from everywhere I ever worked. The second I got off drugs and started trying, I was able to keep things. I think that was a pretty big constant in my life before, I was always losing things. Whether it was something as simple as losing the money I had in my pocket for the drugs, losing this and losing that, and losing my freedom. Now I try, and I genuinely put in the effort. It’s just my belief that when you put in the effort you get gifts.

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https://lookout.co/santacruz/business-technology/hiring/story/2023-05-08/chayne-hampton-santa-cruz-plumbing-formerly-incarcerated-san-quentin-ear-hustle