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

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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

If any day laborers happen to travel south to the Day Worker Center in Mountain View, Calif., they'll find a picture as bleak as Portland's. More than 100 people looking for work show up at the center each day. Only a few find work.

Among those looking is Tess Coleman, a single mother who moved to the Bay Area two months ago and comes to the center each day.

"It's very, very hard out there to find … [even] the simplest jobs," Ms. Coleman says. "I'm really scared that we may be standing in a soup line one day."

At the Shirlington Employment and Education Center in Arlington, Va., executive director Andres Tobar sees 50 to 90 day laborers come in each day, but only two to six find work. He estimates that 15 percent of his "workforce on wait" are US citizens. Three years ago, he would have pegged that number at 2 percent.

Work opportunities are similarly scarce at informal hiring sites such as the U-Haul parking lot on a North Atlanta road where four men – two immigrants and two citizens – offer their brawn.

"Before the recession, I used to work seven days a week," says Roberto Islas, an immigrant from Mexico City. "Now, if God blesses me, I work two. Sometimes one."

Lemain Miller, an African-American mason from Atlanta, saw his work with contractors wither away over the past three years, which is when he first started coming to the U-Haul lot.

"Some weeks, you're lucky if you make $60," says Mr. Miller.

"I've been going around, putting in [job] applications," Miller says, "but I'd rather come out here and try to put forth an effort to do something than to sit at home and not do anything."

That's what he says on a Thursday. Three days and no work later, Miller starts to wonder if he'll come back the following week. "It's been so bad that, I don't know," he says. "It's a waste of time out here."

Jobs that won't return

Even if the economy ultimately recovers, researchers worry if the workforce can reabsorb those who have resorted to day labor. Many lost jobs aren't coming back, data suggest. In November of last year, more than 55 percent of job losses were categorized as permanent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the hardest hit sectors: construction. For years, the housing boom employed legions of those workers now lining up at day-labor hiring centers, says Theodore. "Look at what function construction performed," he says. "If you were prepared to work and ready to learn on the job, it was a great safety valve."

Now, labor researchers doubt that construction work will ever rebound enough to refill the void it left. Yet job seekers continue to join day-labor queues.

"When unemployment benefits run out for millions of Americans, I think you're going to see more," says Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network. "But the market can only take what it can take."

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