Day laborers out in the cold as slump bites

PHOENIX Mon Dec 8, 2008 5:11pm EST

1 of 2. Day laborers wait for work near a construction store in Santa Monica, California, December 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Mexican builder Juan Alcaraz stands in the chill early morning air at a day labor site in the Arizona capital and waits for a "patron" or employer to roll up and hire him. He's done a lot of that lately.

"At one time, I worked 10 days straight, now I'm lucky to get a single day," he said. "I've never seen it so tough."

Alcaraz is among thousands of day laborers, almost all of them illegal immigrants, who hire out to lay concrete, do home repairs and tidy yards across the United States and who are feeling the pinch as the fast-deepening recession takes hold.

Many "jornaleros," as they are known in Spanish, worked five or more days a week earning up to $1,400 a month during the good times, according to a University of California at Los Angeles study two years ago, most saving money to support families in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

But as U.S. construction stumbles, home foreclosures bite and credit dries up amid the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, workers in the casual labor pool from California to New York are facing hard times.

"It's only getting worse," said Gerson Hernandez, 40, a Salvadoran who has painted homes for 14 years in Los Angeles, as he waited with other migrant laborers outside a Home Depot store in the Glendale area of the city.

In New York, more than 100 men stood in the cold in the Jackson Heights section of Queens one morning last week, bundled in their hooded jackets with hands buried in their pockets, waiting for jobs that would never come.

"I worked two or three days in November," said Roberto Romero, 51, a Venezuelan worker acutely aware of the perils of life without a safety net.

"Sometimes you can have breakfast with that or maybe have a coffee. Then you look for work and try again tomorrow. It's bitter," he added.

WAGE THEFT ON THE RISE

Feelings run high about illegal immigration in the United States, where an estimated 12 million undocumented workers hide in plain sight.

After the U.S. government failed to pass legislation overhauling immigration laws last year, many U.S. states and some local authorities have acted to clamp down on illegal immigrants.

As the economy soured in recent months, day laborers complain they are facing increasing hostility as they look for work at work centers and strip mall parking lots from Los Angeles to New York.

At the Macehualli Work Center in Phoenix, jornaleros said anti-immigration activists frequently picket the site, telling workers to go back home, and urging potential employers not to hire them. In Queens, workers said they were made to feel distinctly unwelcome by neighbors who don't like the sight of idle strangers crowding their sidewalk.

"We are offensive to them, just because we come here to look for work," said Mexican laborer Vidal Benitez, 46.

For the dwindling number that do get picked up, tales of being cheated of their wages of $80 to $100 a day abound. In Queens, workers blamed unscrupulous Ecuadorean employers for wage theft, while in Phoenix last week it was an Anglo contractor.

"We did a good job, but he never paid," said Jorge Alberto Zarate, 48, a laborer from the dirt-poor Mexican state of Chiapas, who was hired with his cousin to install a patio hot tub, neither receiving the $450 they were promised for two days work.

"First he said it was because his mother was ill, but it was a lie.... He was taking advantage of us because we're migrants."

CUTTING BACK EVEN MORE

Many Americans are tightening their belts and spending less as the economy hemorrhages jobs. Last month, 533,000 were tossed out of work, the biggest number for any month since 1974.

Day laborers, who have no safety net as they work in the shadows across the United States, say they are also trimming their meager budgets gleaned from working as little as one or two days a week.

Some, like Hernandez, are sending less cash home to support their families, while others said they were cutting phone use, eating out less and are even doubling up in their rented rooms and apartments.

Mexican laborer Rodolfo Alva, who earned just $150 in the past week spent at a Phoenix day labor center, said he would have to chop spending at Christmas for his U.S. born wife and their five children.

"This will be the year without presents for the kids because there's no money -- (we have) just enough for rent and food."

The economic downturn is global. Many day laborers say they will try and ride it out in the United States, come what may, as prospects back home are likely to be bleak.

"We're all touched by the same crisis," Benitez said. Like many others, he had considered going home but rejected it.

"In any case, how are we going to return? With what money?"

(Additional reporting by Syantani Chatterjee in Los Angeles and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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