A Day in the Life of a Day Laborer

Stephen Franklin June 15, 2017

Day laborers often wait for several unpaid hours, hoping for an employer to engage them with work.

CHICA­GO — Come sun­rise, the men fill the street cor­ner, among them Luis, qui­et­ly sit­ting by him­self, nur­tur­ing hopes for work today.

There was no work yes­ter­day, noth­ing the day before and noth­ing for weeks.

Still, the 50-year-old Guatemalan, who didn’t want his last name used, waits in the grow­ing heat, say­ing he has no oth­er choice.

He waits even though he hates day labor work, because he says it is some­times dan­ger­ous, bare­ly enough to live on, and some of the men on the street cor­ner have bul­lied and hurt him on the job.

The fac­to­ry where he worked for almost a decade shut down a few years ago, he can’t find any work as a care­giv­er, and, he says, the fac­to­ries aren’t hir­ing or they are shut­ting down.

He says he has papers to show he is a legal res­i­dent in the Unit­ed States, but he sus­pects that many of the men stand­ing around him don’t have that sta­tus.

That’s not the case for Car­los Sanchez, 70, and Gus­ta­vo Almaraz, 28, who are stand­ing near­by. Car­los says he is Puer­to Rican and Gus­ta­vo says he was born in the Unit­ed States.

But they say that many work­ers lack papers and so they suf­fer. Often, the con­trac­tors who hire the men off the street cor­ner auto­mat­i­cal­ly think you don’t have papers,” explains Almaraz. And that’s a prob­lem, because they want to take advan­tage of you. Some of the peo­ple here (doing the hir­ing) are mean,” he adds.

The two also say they know how to take care of themselves.

Sanchez says he knows how to do a lot of jobs and how to deal with peo­ple, start­ing out decades ago as a migrant work­er earn­ing 35 cents an hour. And Almaraz says he has picked up enough skills that he can vir­tu­al­ly take every job offered on the street corner.

It’s all on you,” Almaraz explains. You see a car com­ing in and you have to go up and say, Hey boss, what do you need?’”

The secret is find­ing a good boss and some­body who needs you for a long time, he says. It also involves know­ing, he says, when to walk away from some­one who abus­es you. I had a good-pay­ing job with an elec­tri­cian, but he start­ed to become dis­re­spect­ful. He start­ed to yell and insult me.”

Almaraz says he won’t work for less than $15 an hour, but sur­veys indi­cate labor­ers often earn min­i­mum wages or less, and some­times noth­ing. Nobody can live on less than $100 a day,” Almaraz says.

Near them is a 65-year-old Mex­i­can: a short, stocky, bald­ing man, who says he has been doing day labor ever since com­ing to the Unit­ed States with­out papers 12 years ago.

He hasn’t been able to find work and so he says he will take less than the oth­ers. Some­times they don’t pay. It’s very dif­fi­cult. There is no work and every­thing is expen­sive,” he says in Spanish.

Time pass­es, and the men dis­ap­pear from the street cor­ner. Some are off to work, get­ting into the trucks and vans that pick them up.

As soon as some­one pulls up onto the gaso­line station’s street cor­ner, the men rush them, hud­dling by the vehicle’s win­dows, bar­gain­ing furi­ous­ly as they tout their skills. And some just wan­der off.

Not Luis. He sits wait­ing. Some jobs he won’t take. I have friends who were injured doing roof­ing, and they went home (to Guatemala) hand­i­capped,” he says.

Not too long ago, he took a mov­ing job with anoth­er work­er. It was sup­posed to be an easy three-hour job. But the items they moved were so heavy, he sat at home for three days after­ward, his hands shaking.

A lot of peo­ple will do this work. They don’t speak the lan­guage so they have to. But I don’t have to,” he says.

He waits along with more than 100,000 oth­ers who gath­er dai­ly on dozens of street cor­ners across the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to fig­ures from 2006. It is a world, where work­ers are often cheat­ed out of their wages, injured on the job and then left with­out med­ical care, accord­ing to a 2006 sur­vey. Where work­ers who com­plain often suf­fer retal­i­a­tion by employ­ers who fire them, sus­pend them, or threat­en to call immi­gra­tion officials.

As the hours pass, Luis hud­dles in the scorch­ing sun­light, watch­ing out for any­body look­ing for a work­er and a job he can do.

Most of the men are gone, but not him.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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