Forgotten Corners of the Economy

Another dead day on the street corner and Gonzalo Mejia is wondering how he will get by. He's been finding work just one or two days a week lately. Worse yet, a contractor recently stiffed him out of $400 worth of pay.

"All the time there is less work," grumbles Mejia, a short, muscular man in his mid-50s. His pals nod in agreement as they wait like hawks, ready to swoop down on the next contractor who pulls up. But it's well past 9 A.M., only three cars have trolled by in search of workers, and hardly anyone has budged off the street.

Yet it is not just the disappearance of work that troubles him and the 150 or so men killing time at Milwaukee and Belmont, once Chicago's busiest street corner for day laborers. Everything has become so difficult, so frustrating, so dangerous. For workers with minimal protections against employers who steal from their wages or sometimes leave them dead or maimed, life has lately become bare existence.

Before the housing bubble burst and the economy collapsed, the day laborers here tried to hold the line with employers at $10 an hour for basic work. Nowadays the going rate has dropped to $8 an hour, and some more desperate workers have grabbed $5-an-hour offers, saying it beats waiting around.

Day laborers here and across the U.S. have long suffered from employers who cheat them out of their wages. But there are more complaints recently about employers who give them bad checks or hire them at one rate and then pay less when the work is done or who vanish when it comes time to pay up.

"They say the job is for two or three days and they'll pay you when it's done. And then they disappear. Most of the guys have the same problems," explains Mejia, who was earning $18 an hour as a carpenter when there was work. Nowadays, he takes $12 an hour if he can get it.

Latino immigrants dominate this and nearly all of Chicago's day-labor street corners. But there has also been a rush of U.S. citizens, many of them newly unemployed or low-wage workers, as well as other immigrant groups.

Some day laborers will even continue working for weeks when they have not been paid. "They need money so desperately; they keep working, hoping to get paid. But they don't, and that's sad," says Kasia Tarczynska, a Polish-speaking worker with the Latino Union of Chicago, which serves day laborers. She works with the Eastern European day laborers -- Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Albanians, and others -- who have been showing up increasingly on Chicago's street corners and who suffer from roughly the same problems and abuses as the rest of the day laborers. Many are also undocumented immigrants and because of their limited English skills and the street corner's pack mentality, they stick to themselves.

The flood of new workers has worsened conditions, say the men and workers from the Latino Union, because the increased supply has driven down the wages that the day laborers had struggled to maintain. But some also have made the work dangerous for themselves and others. "They face the greatest dangers because [many of them] have not done day labor before, and they don't have the training," explains Eric Rodriguez, executive director of the Latino Union.

The arrival of new groups of increasingly desperate workers threatens to wipe out a decade of efforts to set pay and safety standards on the nation's street corners, says Nik Theodore, a University of Illinois at Chicago expert on day laborers. He is a co-author of a 2006 national study of day laborers, the first and only one of its kind. It is a grim accounting of what takes place on more than 500 street corners across the U.S. where day laborers gather early each morning to catch the best jobs.

On any single day, about 117,000 day laborers are out looking for work or are on the job, the study said. Three out of four of these workers, according to the study, are undocumented immigrants. But because workers often float in and out of the street-corner job market, it is estimated that as many as half a million people do day labor during the year.

The West Coast accounts for the greatest number of the nation's day laborers, over 40 percent, followed by the East, the Southwest, the South, and the Midwest. About 43 percent of the employers are construction contractors. Another 49 percent are either homeowners or renters. This makes the worker situation even more hazardous, since these employers are unlikely to have safety equipment or know about safety rules.

***

The danger of their work is a reality to the day laborers who reel accounts of falling off buildings, getting hit by falling construction supplies, and being trapped while digging ditches. Their stories help explain the 125 percent spike in the number of Latinos killed in construction jobs between 1992 and 2005, a figure that Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis called "unbearable" in a June speech to safety engineers in Texas. Seventy-five percent of the day laborers contacted in the 2006 survey said their work is dangerous, and one worker in five reported being injured on the job in the last year. But more than half of those injured did not get any medical care for their injuries, mostly because they couldn't afford it or the employer refused to cover them under workers' compensation, according to the survey.

Day laborers often turn to Chicago attorney Jose Rivero because he is willing to file workers' compensation cases against shady contractors with the likelihood of minimal rewards for his clients. It is not uncommon for contractors to file bankruptcy or simply vanish or to threaten workers against taking them to court or reporting them to officials, Rivero adds.

But he has been getting fewer calls lately and doesn't think that is because the work has suddenly become safer. The injuries he sees are "as horrible" as ever. "I think the economy is a big factor," he explains. Workers know that they will be "blackballed" by contractors if they talk to a lawyer, he says. Because they are desperate to hang on to the work, they don't take such risks.

But the day laborers' biggest day-to-day worry, according to the 2006 survey, is getting paid. Nearly half said they had not been paid by an employer in the months just prior to the survey, and another 48 percent told of being underpaid. There has been no comprehensive survey since 2006, but my reporting suggests that these trends are worsening.

Chris Newman, Legal Programs Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, which links together several dozen groups that serve day laborers, says the level of wage theft "has been amplified by the [financial stresses] downtown. Before, you would be owed $200, but now it is more likely $2,000." Theodore of the University of Illinois at Chicago adds, "I can't tell if you have unscrupulous employers taking advantage of what's happening or it's the financial problems facing those higher up in the contracting chain."

***

As the ranks of the workers on the streets have swollen in the last decade, day labor activists like Newman have steadily complained about the federal government's failure to stop the wage theft or to halt the unsafe conditions the workers face. Now, they say the Obama administration should take these steps:

First, the Labor Department should increase the ranks of investigators in its Wage and Hour Division, the office responsible for making sure employers do not cheat workers out of their wages. Kim Bobo, author of the recent book Wage Theft in America and head of Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based group organization, praises the administration's plans to hire several hundred more investigators. "But that's not enough. They need double the number of investigators," she says.

Second, employers need to live in fear that will they face stiff fines for violating federal wage and worker-safety laws. They should not be allowed to negotiate down the penalties so that overworked federal bureaucrats can clear the cases. The likelihood of serious penalties should increase for employers with repeat violations. "Every time we file a case, [the Labor Department] settles it for 50 cents on the dollar, and that means workers don't get what they are owed," says Bobo, whose organization operates a network of worker centers around the U.S. She adds that the government should make employers' violation records more "transparent" and accessible so businesses can be tracked.

Third, the government should develop direct ties with day-labor and worker centers, creating a system that will regularly inform workers of their rights and educate them on safe workplace practices. Theodore says the government should use the locations as worker development centers, where they can train and improve workers' skills. By authorizing the centers to directly file workers' complaints, the government can also expand its investigative outreach to the workers, he says.

Fourth, federal offices serving day laborers should be more accessible to workers, especially in the case of undocumented immigrants who are both fearful of visiting government buildings and who usually cannot enter them because they lack proper identification. "The agencies are designed to serve bankers, not low-wage workers who cannot make a 3 P.M. meeting," Bobo says. So, too, she says there need to be more government workers able to communicate with the largely Latino day-laborer work force. After the Katrina disaster, the government was hard-pressed, she recalls, to cope with the number of Spanish-speaking day laborers drawn to the recovery work in New Orleans.

To Newman, however, the most important step is "harmonizing" the government's immigration and labor-enforcement policies. "If undocumented immigrants are unable to come forward and form unions and file complaints and get redress from unscrupulous practices, then the bad guys will continue on," he says.

As for prospects of the Labor Department improving its day-to-day performance, he is quite upbeat about Solis. "The team that she is assembling is fantastic," he says. "There are all the indications that the U.S. will get its Labor Department back after eight years of self-mutilation."

Solis, the daughter of Latino farmworker immigrants, tells me her agency is hiring 250 investigators, some of whom will be bilingual. She wanted more, "but we didn't have the money." Besides "looking at increasing penalties" against employers who break the laws, she also plans to create a strike force to focus on firms with the "most egregious abuses." If the companies cooperate, the agency will offer them training and assistance, she says. And if they don't want to comply, "we are not going to sit around," she adds.

The agency will closely investigate how employers who use the government's recovery funds treat their workers. "They better know we are taking a different approach here," she says. As for workers' fears of dealing with a government agency, she vows to increase the agency's links with organizations that "have the trust of the community."

***

Help dealing with abusive employers or those who put him in dangerous situations could not come fast enough for Guillermo Caicero. Not long ago he got into an argument with a contractor who promised him $15 an hour but paid him only $10 an hour when the work was done. He complained and the employer called the police. But the police "didn't do anything," he says.

Four years ago he tumbled off a roof and broke a leg, he says. Several months ago, the 50-year-old day laborer dislocated an arm on the job. Not long ago a pipe also fell and hit his head, sending him to a hospital. But the contractor refused to pay for treatment or time lost, and Caicero was not covered by workers' comp. He went to a county hospital and was able to get free care, Caicero says.

Despite it all, here he is, on the corner, waiting and waiting.

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