If you’ve ever been to Home Depot or Lowe’s, you’ve seen them: crowds of men, mostly Latin American, standing around the lot entrance waving down cars, looking for work.
If you’re like us (and, if you live in Wallingford, you probably aren’t that different), you have enough money to own or rent a place to live, put food on the table and still have some left over for what the economists like to call “discretionary activities”. Further, you probably don’t have enough time to do all the things you need to do and, if you were to draw up a list of ways you’d like to spend your Saturday morning, “dig up a tree root” would be nestled down there with “lance tongue boil” and “wait at the DMV”.
If all the previous is true and you haven’t hired a day laborer, we’ll bet that for a good portion of you, it’s because you’re scared. Not scared in the “is he going to attack me” sense (although that might dodge in the shadows of your thoughts, as well), but in the “what if I do it wrong” sense.
In the interest of helping you regain your Saturday (and, not incidentally, helping some people who could really, really use a fair, paying job), we thought we’d share our experience.
We’ve hired day laborers a few times now: twice outside Home Depot and once at Casa Latina, an organization that organizes and unionizes day laborers. All three times, we’ve had simple tasks: dig a 20′ long, 4′ wide, 2′ deep trench to plant bamboo, dig up an apple tree and dig a new whole to transplant it into, that sort of thing.
The Home Depot experience can be a bit intimidating, which is odd because clearly you’re the one with the power. Still, as you open your car door, dozens of large, rough men surround you waving their hands insisting that you hire them. For our first job, we needed two men, strong backs, no language skills necessary, so we did our quickest eyeball of the men available, found the tallest, strongest looking guy in the lot and asked him to pick one other man to work with. We figured he’d know the men around better than we did and would want someone who could shoulder his share of the work.
The three of us loaded into our car and made small talk as I drove them back to my house. Juan spoke enough English to pass the time: he was from Oaxaca, he’d been in the country for five or six years, he wasn’t sure, just a few in Seattle. I asked him if it was hard to find work, and he said no, that if you were out there early, and ran to the cars when they came, you could usually find it, the guys who didn’t were maybe a bit slower, they didn’t want it as badly. Still, he was six feet tall if he was an inch, and the smaller guys probably had a tougher time of it.
I’ve got to say in all honesty that I’ve rarely seen men work as steady and as hard. The man Juan picked to work with him was not as strong as he, and Juan picked up the slack, for sure, but they both swung the pick and lifted the shovel steadily for hours, until clean, sharp lines of trench formed, stretching along the edge of my yard. They took my tape measure and made sure they had gone down the full two feet, then asked what I needed next.
In the end, the work took about 5 hours and I paid them $15 / hour plus a round-up tip. For this first job, I ran up to the Rancho Bravo taco truck and grabbed a couple burritos for them, which they appreciated. I asked them if I could drop them somewhere and they said they could find their own way, but I got them as far as a nearby bus stop, anyway.
For my most recent, project, I decided to try a new source, Casa Latina. Casa Latina was formed 16 years ago as a way to provide protection for the workers: many times, they were finding themselves hired by contractors or even homeowners that would “change their mind” about how (or whether) to pay them, or would subject them to unsafe working conditions.
Casa Latina provides the same basic types of laborers as you’ll find anywhere, but without the chaotic feel of the Home Depot parking lot. Instead, you phone ahead and tell them how many and what type of workers you need, then drive up to their office in the Central District and pick up your guys. (Casa Latina will also drop off workers at your home for $8 / worker). You pay the workers directly, who keep 100% of their earnings. Casa Latina is a non-profit that derives its budget from city, county and private grants.
I was so pleased with the work I got from their worker Alex (from El Salvador, mid-40’s, bitter-sweet to see him smile at my young son, hearing he had lost his boy to an accident years ago), that I called up Jill Rose, the development director of Casa Latina to learn more about how they work.
According to Jill, they have about 70 workers show up each day in the spring season (more in the summer and fall), and they hold a lottery to determine who gets placed when the calls come in. Current average placement is 15 – 20 workers / day.
Workers must attend several classes before they will be placed, including ESL and workplace safety. Classes, including ESL and green gardening techniques, are also offered while the members wait for work each morning. Their current membership is about 80% men and 20% women. Women, who are generally placed in house cleaning positions, have a much higher likelihood of being placed on a given day.
Wages start at $12 / hour, although customers are welcome to pay what they feel is fair (see their pay scale information sheet for more info) and there is a five-hour minimum. Most of the employers are homeowners; professional contractors make up only about 5% of their customers. If you need a particular skill (e.g., carpentry, dry-wall, painting, kitchen work), they maintain lists of people with particular experiences and certifications (and they offer an apprenticeship program for their workers, who are sent off with more experienced members to help them learn a trade).
About 90% of their members are from Mexico, with the remainder coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and similar areas. They do not require members to provide documentation regarding immigration status.
The procedure for hiring is much as we described earlier: you call their number (206 956-0779) anytime from 7 am – 10:30 am M – F, 7 am – 11:30 am on Saturdays and let them know when, how many and what type of worker you need, then drive down and pick them up. You’ll need to provide any tools or equipment the job requires. You aren’t expected or required to provide food (although we figure well-fed workers are better workers) and they will typically find their own way back (although, again, it would be kind if you could help them to a bus stop).
So, should you use Casa Latina or just go to the Home Depot or Lowe’s?
Casa Latina isn’t open on Sundays, so if that’s when you need workers, your options are limited. Also, you take who you are assigned through Casa Latina, while you can handpick your workers at the “open air” markets.
That said, Casa Latina was certainly less stressful for us, and we’re sure it’s a better experience for the workers (CL provides legal support services for the workers, educates them in workplace safety, provide classes while they wait, etc.) You can also request specific skills through Casa Latina and be sure that someone has checked that the workers actually have that skill. They will also deliver workers to your door, which is a nice convenience.
Finally, we were touched by a comment that Jill made in describing the feelings of the workers towards the organization:
“There’s a real sense of community for the members. They treat Casa Latina with a lot of respect. They want to be hard workers, they want to be seen well. We often get people who call back and ask for the same person, and we encourage that. Sometimes that even leads to permanent employment.
I remember I was here for a couple weeks, and we had a women’s group taking a class in the room next to my office. They were practicing English phrases like ‘what jobs need doing’, ‘where are supplies’, ‘where are the beds that need to be made’ and the instructor asked ‘who wants to practice first’ and they all volunteered, a whole classroom of hands shot up. It was really moving. It really struck me, when I’m in a class, I don’t want to volunteer, but in this one, every hand went up. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s a really good indicator of how important it is to these people.”
And, in case you needed any more incentive, we’ll leave you with this: as we pulled off the highway and up to the light where one of the usual suspects stood with his “Between jobs” signs (or it may have said “I won’t lie, I’m going to buy beer”), having Juan and Alex in our car, off to earn a days’ wage, made it very, very easy to look them in the eye and shake my head.
Update: Several readers have pointed out that there is a similar agency, The Millionair Club, that connects homeowners and the like with day laborers. Unlike Casa Latina and the parking lots, The Millionair Club ensures that all its laborers are documented and legal to employee. Wages start at $10 / hour and there is a 4 hour minimum. See their web site for more information.