At 7:15 on a chilly October morning, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant leaned against the shuttered door of Kennedy Fried Chicken, a worn-out backpack filled with wrenches and tape lay next to his feet.
Roberto Pareja positioned himself across the street from the Benjamin Moore paint store in East Tremont as he had done nearly every day for years, hoping one of the contractors leaving the store would hire him.
Two hours later it began to rain, and the father of two ducked under a deli storefront. None of the customers needed his help that day, nor the help of 20 other day laborers waiting with him. But he did not want to leave.
For Pareja, no work meant worrying about his $960 monthly rent, food for the six people in his family, and dolls for his young girls.
Pareja is one of almost 100 day laborers who have congregated for years on the corner of East 180th Street and Third Avenue. On a nice sunny day, almost all of them will gather, but on this rainy morning, only 20 tried their luck. The New York Immigration Coalition estimates there are about 10,000 day laborers in the city. Some of them have been in the underground labor pool for years. Others are newcomers driven here by the recession.
“There is less work this year than last year,” said Corinne Beth, an immigration lawyer that supports day laborers on behalf of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a not-for-profit organization. She added that with the group of day laborers she helps in Portchester, if five out of the 30 men get work in a given week, they are lucky.
Even though the National Bureau of Economic Research declared an official end to the recession in September, the day laborers’ predicament is far from over.
“The recession hits day laborers harder than it does people with full-time work,” said Lynn Svensson, director of the Day Laborer Research Institute. Of the estimated 260,000 individuals working as day laborers in the United States, approximately 75 percent are undocumented immigrants, according to “On the Corner,” a study by the University of California at Los Angeles in 2006. The study found that their immigration status and the lack of English skills are the biggest impediments in finding more stable work.
Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of day laborers at this spot has increased, said Bob Ascat, the paint store manager who has seen them for the last decade. Local contractors drive by the corner looking for workers to assist in construction work. For a worker who does not have a business relationship with a contractor, he relies on customers from the paint store who have home projects to complete.
But the work available for them has decreased as more people compete for a shrinking pie. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, reported that the unemployment rate for foreign-born Hispanics in the fourth quarter of 2008 was 8 percent, a 3-point increase from the same period in 2007.
Although immigration status was not recorded for the report, the center estimates that undocumented immigrants account for about five percent of the U.S. labor force. In certain industries such as construction, which is the primary industry for day laborers, undocumented immigrants account for 12 percent of employment. Most undocumented immigrants are from Latin American countries, with 55 percent coming from Mexico.
“Life is difficult,” said Pareja, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico eight years ago. “There are times when you don’t find work, and even more now that things have gotten harder.”
His family is still suffering from the recession’s consequences. A month ago his wife started selling Mexican tamales by the dozen to acquaintances with the hope of earning the family an additional $150 a week.
When there is no work, Pareja supports his family with savings and relies on his father-in-law, who assists him in some projects, to pick up half of the rent when necessary. Every single workday counts for him because coworkers may learn of his skills and recommend him for contract jobs.
A week after that chilly Monday morning, Pareja found a contract job with the help of a friend he met through work. He would earn $450 a week for six weeks remodeling apartments on 1st Ave near 60th St in Manhattan.
But work comes sporadically for Pareja, who may have a week with only two to three days of work, other weeks nothing. “No one can survive on that,” said Svensson. “ Bosses are paying less now, their wages have actually gone down.”
There are also day laborers in the underground economy who may not get paid for days and even weeks of work when contractors use a person’s immigration status as an excuse to withhold payment.
“They threaten you with sending immigration, and you can’t turn somewhere else for help,” he said.
“Day laborers are often the targets of exploitation,” Svensson added. “They are often paid less than they were promised, or not paid at all for their work, and told by employers that if they call the police that they will be turned in to immigration.”
What makes the situation worse is day laborers often do not know enough about their rights. “They have no sense of empowerment,” said Beth.
Other day laborers in this Bronx intersection have also been cheated out of money by dishonest contractors. According to the UCLA study, 54 percent of day laborers in the Eastern United States have not been paid for their work.
In a more recent study released this past summer, the Seton Hall University School of Law surveyed 26 day laborers (approximately half of the workers) at the corner of Stockton Street and Wilson Avenue in Newark. Ninety-six percent of day laborers at this East Ward intersection, located less than 40 minutes from the Bronx, reported instances of nonpayment or underpayment from contractors. These regional and local reports exceed the 48 percent reported nationally for day laborers who have lost wages, and in Newark the majority of them have lost $800 or more.
“They have accepted wage theft as a cost of doing business,” said Bryan Lonagan, a Seton Hall law professor who oversaw the Newark study. “There really isn’t an effective avenue for them right now to bring a wage complaint.”
Bronx day laborer Jose Balquiera understands the frustration of losing $800 of wages. After only a few months in New York City, the 28-year-old lost two weeks and $1,000 when a contractor did not pay him for remodeling an apartment. The person who hired him dismissed any discussion of payment from the beginning, simply saying he would pay him on Saturday, then telling him another day.
“Sometimes they don’t show their face,” Balquiera said, scanning the street for cars pulling up. “They give you their numbers but they don’t answer to not pay you.”
The Toluca, Mexico native has been in the United States for a year, and feels overwhelmed by the language barrier, which often causes day laborers even more fear to enforce their rights. “It feels really bad,” said Balquiera in Spanish of not being able to defend himself when he encounters contractors that do not want to pay. “Imagine, they talk to you in English and you don’t understand.”
Wage theft in New York City amounts to an estimated $1 billion across all low-wage industries, according to the National Employment Law Project. Passed last month in legislature, the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act calls for stricter penalties and the enforcement of laws meant to protect workers.
Although this provides an added resource for workers, the Newark study suggests day laborers are vulnerable to wage theft because they have limited English skills and they fear complaining to the authorities due to their immigration status.
“Most of them expressed fear of the police reporting them to immigration and customs enforcement for possible removal,” Lonagan said of the lack of police involvement.
Lonagan added that if a day laborer submitted a dispute through small claims court, it could take almost a year before the claim was just recognized. The day laborers choose then to seek work to make up the lost money instead of spending days in the process.
Although Bronx day laborers may not seek formal assistance in cases of labor abuse, these workers look out for each other even as they compete for jobs. Demaso Genis said he makes an effort to point out crooked contractors who have stiffed him in the past when they return to the intersection. He wants to make sure others are not exploited and left at construction sites without payment.
“There’s no way to reclaim that money,” he said. “No one is interested in lending us a hand.”
Genis said even when contractors actually do pay, every day there is someone different who promises a specific salary only to actually pay less.
The 47-year-old left his wife and two children in Morelos, Mexico more than a decade ago. He said even when the recession might have ended for others, supporting the family is still a struggle for him.
“There are weeks that you can’t even send $50,” he said of this variable work that pays him an average of $80 a day when there’s work.
Remittances to Mexico dropped 20.4 percent from February 2008 to February 2010, according to BBVA Research, a global finance company. After 17 consecutive months of falling remittances, April offered an increase of less then a percentage point. Although remittances continued to increase at a small rate, the improvement slowed in September, and it’s not expected to reach more than two points based on the outlook of the United States economy.
As a result, these day laborers live on as little as possible to send as much money as they can to families in their native countries. Balquiera lives with 11 other men in a four-bedroom apartment, where his portion of the monthly rent is $120.
“When I do find work, I send money; when I don’t…” he stopped and shrugged off the rest of the answer. “It’s difficult here.”
Before the recession hit, day laborers had less competition and more work. With more money to send home, their families invested the money they received in education, businesses and new houses.
After almost 20 years of sending money to his wife and six children in his native Acapulco, Mexico, Cornelio Hernandez, 63, now has his own house in Mexico and is currently putting his youngest daughter through college.
“Everything is done with sacrifice,” he said of not seeing his family for almost two decades. “We come to this country to suffer, to become something.”
Hernandez’s time in New York City has paid off. He is solicited by contractors throughout the city because of the reputation of his work. For the past few summers, a real estate agent has hired Hernandez to work in City Island for the upward sum of $110 a day to remodel apartments. His tired eyes light up and his smile widens when he talks about his children’s professional pursuits.
This winter Hernandez is prepared for more than the harsh winter. According to Svensson, there is less work for day laborers from November to the end of February. Contractors focus mostly on indoor projects such as painting and installing floors.
Pareja said his current contract job is helping him save for those winter months. He still hopes this job could lead to the next so he does not have to spend hours waiting for work in the snow. “We try to do things as best as possible,” he said with his one-year-old daughter on his lap in his home. “If your boss likes your work, he can give you more work.”