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In quest for jobs, more Americans join ranks of day laborers

Dogged by persistent unemployment, US-born jobless swell ranks of immigrant day laborers.

By Drew Hinshaw/ Contributor / February 23, 2010

Unemployment is a real concern for Tess Coleman, who shows up along with other day laborers at the Day Worker Center in Mountain View, Calif., hoping to find short-term work as a caregiver. Like many of the 70 men and 30 women who join her there, she rarely finds work.

Tony Avelar/ The Christian Science Monitor



At the edge of a largely empty Home Depot parking lot, one of many in this city, America's jobless are changing the face of the day-labor market.

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Sam Brown, a carpenter who was laid off last February, first showed up to work the parking lot, where immigrants wait for the occasional pick-up truck, hoping that its driver has come to offer a day's wage in exchange for labor.

Now, eight months into the day-labor grind, Mr. Brown, a US citizen, says he's frustrated with the abysmal pay and stiff competition. But mostly, he says, he's frustrated with the work – because there isn't any. "I haven't worked all week," he says on a Thursday afternoon.

Like Brown, tens of thousands of workers left jobless by the recession are turning to day labor, an informal and sometimes exploitative underground market – and they're entering it at a time when there's hardly enough work to go around.

Traditionally dominated by undocumented, male Latino immigrants, the day- labor market employed 120,000 workers at its peak in 2006, says Abel Valenzuela, professor of Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Today, researchers and hiring centers report a nationwide increase in Americans of all ethnicities – and both sexes – seeking day-labor jobs in such areas as construction, landscaping, and house painting.

"These are folks who have been laid off from other areas of the economy," says Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They try different job opportunities" – want ads, word of mouth, wandering from store to store – "and when those opportunities fall through, they ultimately find themselves at informal hiring sites.

"Really what's at issue here is the economic vulnerability that so many workers in the United States are feeling right now," adds Mr. Theodore.

'There aren't really any jobs'

In Portland, Ore., at the Voz Workers' Rights Education Project, a city government-approved day-labor hiring center, executive director Romeo Sosa has seen many newcomers.

"A lot of white people are showing up," says Mr. Sosa. "They come even from far away, but there aren't really any jobs."

When the center opened in 2008, it hired out 40 workers on a typical day, nearly half the number seeking work. But in one recent full week, the center hired out just 12 people, selected through a raffle drawing.

Some of the unemployed stay in the center, taking IT classes or leadership workshops. Others leave. Many never return. Researchers suspect that's because some day laborers are migrating long distances looking for work, while many others are just giving up.

"They go to another state, or somewhere, but they don't stay long here," says Sosa.