By Ernesto Londoño
Marcio Martins, one of the 4,000 or so elevator operators in Rio de Janeiro, assisting a visitor to the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center. (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga for The New York Times)
RIO DE JANEIRO — The elevator attendants are under no illusion: Their days are numbered. Yet the few thousand operators in Rio de Janeiro who have clung on to their jobs well into the 21st century are hoping the forces of automation won’t entirely obliterate their trade, at least for a few more years.
“You’re never bored,” said Roselia da Conceição, 53, as she ferried passengers up and down a 23-story building in downtown Rio de Janeiro one morning, commanding her bouncy elevator from a tall stool. “Because you’re always talking and interacting with people, you learn a lot and you create a type of intimacy.”
While Rio de Janeiro may be best known for its beaches and favelas, the city, which was Brazil’s capital until 1960, has a downtown full of high-rises and corporate headquarters.
In 1991, a state law made it mandatory for commercial buildings with five or more stories to employ elevator attendants, which is the main reason the city still has some 4,000 operators, said Sandro das Neves, one of the leaders of the elevator operator union.
Board elevators downtown and it feels as if you are stepping back in time. The ride between floors becomes a chance for a brief, but sociable encounter — the sort of small talk that used to happen all the time at the grocery checkout line, the bank and the airline check-in counter before artificial intelligence and touch screens phased out those human interactions.
But the trade of elevator operator, which reached its global heyday in the age of telephone operators and has survived in Rio into the dawn of the driverless car era, may finally be fading away. Despite the law, many elevator operators lost their jobs in recent years as building managers cut costs during an economic recession that hit this city particularly hard. Then came what will probably turn out to be the fatal blow. This year, a court struck down the 1991 law, siding with state lawyers who argued that the requirement posed unreasonable burdens on building owners.
Since then, Mr. das Neves said, the union is now simply devoted to survival. “Our fight is not to raise wages,” he said, noting that elevators operators make about $290 a month. “It’s merely to keep attendants inside elevators.”
Manuel Fernandes do Prado, who at 77 is well past retirement age, is in charge of the lift at a building on President Vargas Avenue, the main street that crosses downtown Rio de Janeiro. What does he think of his job? “I adore it!” he said.
Mr. Fernandes, who has been in the business for more than 40 years, sometimes works back-to-back shifts in different buildings. He said he enjoyed tracking the lives of regulars. He notices when they walk in feeling chipper, when they seem upset. “Life is good when you work surrounded by people,” Mr. Fernandes said.
Ms. da Conceição said the job wasn’t quite as obsolete as it might seem. Many elevators in the city are several decades old and have been repaired using custom-made parts because the models are no longer sold. Keeping them operational requires someone who knows how to handle all the cranks, quirks and funny noises of the aging, fussy machines. And a steady hand when they malfunction, as they often do. “When an elevator breaks down, the only person who can’t panic is the operator,” she said.
Ms. da Conceição said the job had downsides. Being confined to the small, windowless cube for hours has taken a toll on her figure. But it’s a job she would love to continue doing for at least seven years, when she’ll be eligible to retire.
“The profession is going to end,” she said, sighing. “And when you’re over 50, you can’t easily get another job.”