Queens resident Roberto Garcia hasn’t been able to find regular work since autumn, when he was laid off by a contractor. Instead of standing in an unemployment line, he stands at a day laborer hiring site. Like thousands of other workers in New York City, Garcia is undocumented – but that didn’t keep him from receiving steady work before the economy sank. Now, his career in an underground economy is mirrored by unemployment in the shadows.

While last week the city’s official unemployment rate reached a troubling 8.1 percent, indicators suggest that the population without working papers is faring even worse. The desperation can be particularly felt at day laborer sites in Woodside, Queens where Garcia stands with dozens of others competing for low-skilled jobs in construction, carpentry, moving and cleaning. They used to get picked up for day jobs – but now they just keep waiting. The lack of work has led some to become homeless.

These workers are some of the estimated 7.2 million undocumented immigrants who have been employed in the American economy, making up about 5 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Despite the official status of their presence and employment as illegal and unwanted, their engagement in the labor force tells a different story – as does their estimated $7 billion contribution to Social Security through payroll taxes, according to the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, which says “we have at the very least implicitly invited these individuals in.” In New York City, the New York Immigration Coalition estimates a workforce of more than 10,000 day laborers, the majority of whom are undocumented.

Garcia, who emigrated from Mexico several years ago, spends six days a week under the elevated tracks of the 7 train waiting for work. Groupings of South Asians, East Asians and other Latino immigrants also wait for employers to pick them up in vans or trucks for a day’s work. Despite Garcia’s perseverance through a cold winter, he hasn’t been very successful. He has only found work one day in the past month.

“The majority are in this situation,” says Roberto Meneses, President of Jornaleros Unidos de Woodside – United Day Laborers of Woodside – a group that organizes and educates workers around the area. Meneses, also from Mexico, has worked as a day laborer for more than five years. “Before, I would find work a minimum of three days a week,” he said. “This past month, I worked three days.”

Meneses and Garcia, like most day laborers, typically work in the construction industry. But since the housing crisis started, new building projects in the city have slowed considerably. Managers of buildings are also less likely to do repairs and renovations. One Woodside property owner, a frequent visitor to a day laborer site on Roosevelt Avenue, hires the workers to maintain his home and three rental units. But lately he’s coming by less often. “I’m not fixing certain things,” he told City Limits, after a swing by to find an electrician.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, construction unemployment nationwide has nearly doubled in the past year to 22.8 percent. That particularly impacts unauthorized immigrants – while they account for 5 percent of the total labor force, they make up 12 percent of those working in construction, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Despite jobs growing scarcer, every day there seem to be more and more people at sites across Queens where day laborers gather. “Last winter there were a lot less people in the street” – because more were getting hired, notes Meneses.

Garcia is representative of the new faces at day laborer sites. Laid off by the contractor in Manhattan who employed him for two years, he did not qualify for unemployment insurance because of his legal status. He turned to day labor, as he and his girlfriend support three children in Queens. In the past, Garcia regularly sent money to family in Tlaxcala, not far from Mexico City. Now he says, “I have only been able to send $100 in the past two months.”

“For the first time I am hearing of people asking for money to be sent from their countries,” exclaims Meneses. Others in need of cash are selling their only possessions of value, their tools. “Many have had to go to churches or community organizations for help. People without papers suffer more when they lose their jobs.”

That makes sense to Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association (BTEA), which represents 1,700 union contractors locally. “My guess is the undocumented workers are feeling the pain more, first,” Coletti said. The unions in his association all “follow the law” and bring only documented workers into their apprenticeship programs, he said. The BTEA considers it a problem that undocumented workers’ low levels of pay, training and benefits “put us at a competitive disadvantage” – but it’s not just that. “These unfortunate immigrant workers are taken so advantage of, it’s criminal,” Coletti says. The government “should be going after the contractors who are employing these workers.”

That undocumented immigrants do not qualify for unemployment insurance, food stamps or welfare, adds an extra level of urgency to their situation. Salvation Army spokeswoman Molly Gordy says there is greater demand for free food among laborers on the streets of Queens, where a van from her organization circulates distributing meals: “We serve 300 meals a day, but the demand is for as much as 1,000.” For workers at 65th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, as midday passed without work, conversation turned from jobs to the real possibility of homelessness.

Ignacio Sanchez, who is from Mexico, hasn’t been able to pay rent in three months. He’s thankful that his landlord has been lenient. “For three years, I always paid the rent, so he knows when I can, I will pay him,” Sanchez said in Spanish. But with little work, he doubts he’ll ever be able to pay the $850 he owes for his room in Corona: “Any day I might be out into the street.”

Some unable to make rent have been taken in by family members; others are sharing cramped rooms with friends. Even then, some can’t get by.

Carmelo Peña of Mexico was sharing a room in Corona when he lost his construction job last summer. Unable to earn enough as a day laborer to pay his $200 rent, in November Peña became homeless at age 60. He now lives in a tunnel that runs along the BQE. “Others also live by the BQE, in the street or under bridges,” Peña says. After six years in New York, “This is the worst. This has never happened to me before.”

Standing at a day laborer site seven days a week, he has found work only two days this past month. He is so discouraged, he plans to leave. “I’m going to work for a few more months and then return to Mexico.”
Timothy Marx, executive director of the homeless services organization Common Ground, which serves as the city’s homeless outreach contractor for Queens, says his employees also have observed the trends the laborers are living. “We believe there to be more undocumented workers in the streets,” Marx said, but “because of their status they are reluctant to work with us. They are afraid of deportation.” They can gain access to city-funded shelters or temporary housing, but not more permanent solutions. “They are not eligible for publicly subsidized housing,” he said.

Laid-off undocumented workers like Garcia and Peña claim that their immigration status was added reason for their dismissals. The inability of undocumented workers to access benefits gives employers an incentive to hire them – and lay them off before workers who can collect unemployment. The business website Business Management Daily, for example, counsels managers: “If you discover that an employee isn’t authorized to work, you don’t have to worry that firing him or her will mean you’ll have to pony up for unemployment benefits.”

New York does not track labor statistics for unauthorized workers, nor does it target any assistance toward the sector. State Department of Labor spokeswoman Michelle Duffy said, “State labor law protects workers regardless of their status.” But, Duffy said, federal law does not allow them to file for unemployment benefits.

In addition to the growing number of workers who are both unemployed and undocumented, Meneses has also recently noticed that legal immigrants with working papers are coming to the day laborer sites. While rare before, now as workers across the board feel the crunch, many who never before considered day labor find it to be their only option. In a December article, the Wall Street Journal reported that “unemployed nonimmigrant laborers are seeking informal work that has typically been performed by low skilled immigrants.”

More people chasing fewer jobs also leads to lower wages for those who do find work. Meneses recalled that just last summer, laborers could earn more than $100 per day, with the most skilled sometimes earning upwards of $200. Now many settle for $80. According to him, “It is not enough.”

“Undocumented workers are the first hit when there is less work or no work to go around,” says Amy Sugimori, executive director of La Fuente, an immigrant workers’ rights organization active in Woodside. Sugimori hopes that a recovering economy and job creation will help those undocumented and unemployed. But for real improvement, she feels, there must be “broadened rights to unionize and immigration reform.”

Garcia has faith that “when the weather is warmer there will be more work.” In the meantime he diligently frequents day laborer sites and has begun participating in Jornaleros Unidos de Woodside outreach to other laborers, and organizing immigrant worker rights workshops. The group is organizing a large contingent to march in the May First rally for immigrant and work rights.

“In the crisis, there is opportunity,” says Meneses. “Opportunity to organize.”

– Andrew Silverstein

Andrew Silverstein recently served as civic engagement coordinator for New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in Jackson Heights.

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