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Written by: Diego Bleifuss Prados
It’s no secret that employers often exploit vulnerable workers, but the extent to which wages are being stolen from day laborers in Colorado has never been thoroughly studied. Following a year of informal interviews and legal outreach, the University of Denver’s Just Wages team began conducting surveys on street corners across the Denver Metro Area to understand the issues and challenges facing these marginalized workers.
We get to the corners in the morning—bringing bagels and coffee for the jornaleros, or day laborers who are waiting for work. At the corner in Aurora, they wait on both sides of the street, with Latino workers on the east, African American workers congregating on the west, and a group of older Mexican men a block north at 16th Ave. In the parking lot in Lakewood, a few workers are always waiting in their cars. On the Federal Blvd corner, workers line the length of the sidewalk.
Sometimes, jornaleros stand in large groups, greeting each other and joking; others wait in clusters of two or three conferring; and some prefer to stand alone. Their boots and jeans bear the wear and tear of painting and landscaping and construction. The morning air is often cold, and it may be raining or snowing, but there is always someone looking for work. We randomly select the jornaleros to approach, and if they’re willing and haven’t already been surveyed, we question them about their work as day laborers and their experiences with wage theft.
We ask their first name, or nickname, their age. We do not collect last names and take precautions to protect their individual identities. Many are in their 50s and 60s, and sometimes older. Many are young and recently arrived in the United States.
We ask where they were born. Most are Mexican, from Chihuahua or Durango, but sometimes from D.F. or Chiapas. A few are Guatemalan or Honduran. Some are born here. A man from Iowa says he comes to the corner when he’s between jobs.
We ask when they came to the United States, to Colorado, and if they have left since then. Some have just arrived: “Had to leave Oregon because my license plate got in the system and I kept getting pulled over.” Some have been here since the 1970s. Some never return home: “I left behind my family, my wife has died and I have no one.” Some go back and forth: “Got deported in October, was back two weeks later.”
We ask where they live, with how many people and if they’ve ever been homeless. Many are staying in shelters or on the street, some sleep in their cars or share apartments with other workers, others live happily with their families.
We ask what type of work they do—landscaping, plumbing, construction, demolition, roofing, moving, painting. Some specialize in one trade, or refuse to do others: “It pays the best, but I don’t do roofing, after a boy died last year.”
We ask what days they have worked in the past week, how many hours, how much they got paid. Often, the day is wasted in waiting. Sometimes they get hired on a job that lasts weeks. Sometimes it’s just two-hours of moving furniture. The standard rate is $15 an hour, $120 for a full day. In practice, it often comes out to less. Sometimes a car pulls up, the driver describes the work and pay, and no one gets in. After a few moments at the curb, he will drive away rather than raise his rate. Sometimes someone is desperate, hasn’t had work in days, and will take the lower wage.
We ask if they have ever been injured on the job? Many have. One man fell while doing roofing, his employer dropped him off at the hospital and drove away, but his toolbox had been left at the house and he needed it to work. One jornalero told me about his wife who fell at work. He asked if the restaurant should pay her for the hours she had to spend at physical therapy.
We ask if they have ever been the victim of wage theft—if they have been paid less than they were promised, or not at all, for their labor. Many have, often more than once. An employer promises to pay at the end of the week and then disappears: “He doesn’t come to this corner anymore, so what can we do?” A boss lowers the pay at the end of the day by $40: “Take it or leave it.” A man shows up with a truck, and hires several jornaleros for a moving job. On their way home, the police pull them over and arrest the driver for using his employer’s truck without permission. Nobody gets paid.
We ask if they tried to recover their wages, and, if so, are they still trying. Usually they’re not. The system is slow, and requires persistence and patience: “Can’t lose a day of work trying to get that money.” Businesses change their names, employers don’t pick up phone calls and free law clinics want cases bigger than the typical couple hundred dollars stolen from day laborers. Thus, employers continue to rip off workers here and there, knowing that most of the time they won’t suffer any consequences.
I have seen white construction workers, passing in their truck, yell hateful slurs at day laborers. On Federal Blvd, a man pulled a gun on a crowd of workers after they refused his low hourly offer. Cops mostly leave the jornaleros alone, cruising by slowly only if they’re looking for someone in particular. “You can run from la Migra, because they can’t do anything, but don’t run from the cops”, one man, referring to ICE, counsels another. A worker tells me he doesn’t accept jobs outside of Denver County anymore because he’s afraid of getting picked up and deported. People seem more nervous after the election, and rumors and stories about ICE abound.
We ask if they’re authorized to work in the United States. Many aren’t. Sometimes the jornaleros argue back: “What does authorized mean? I came here to work and I’m not harming anyone, so I’d say yes.” Sometimes they ask about “Tromp,” and then, as if convincing me will convince the President—and the country—carefully lay out the case for their humanity, the case for their right to live and work.
Handing out cards, pamphlets, and phone numbers, we try to connect cheated workers to lawyers at Towards Justice, or to the tireless volunteers of the Wage Theft Direct Action Team, which assist workers in recouping unpaid wages. But we are treating only symptoms of a sickness that is ignored at all levels of government. Even when new laws have sought to address wage theft, they are often under-enforced and under-resourced. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, found that more money was stolen in the US through wage theft than from all burglary and robbery combined. Yet while we spend millions of dollars on police departments, we completely ignore employers cheating their workers, particularly when they are undocumented. This is no coincidence: the owners of capital and land benefit from workers without power, and workers without papers lack power. Here, in rapidly-expanding Denver, developers, contractors, and landlords depend on the status quo, and have no interest in it changing.
Cities and counties must start paying attention to both the workers who contribute so much both to society and to the building of our communities, and to the employers who steal their labor without repercussion. Some cities have started tackling wage theft on a more local level, including a promising ordinance passed in Boulder in 2007. On the federal level, a path towards citizenship would allow many jornaleros to gain legal employment, and earn wages closer to the actual value of their, often highly specialized and skilled, labor. A path towards citizenship would help stop unsafe and unscrupulous contractors from undercutting honest ones through wage theft and labor violations, and would also allow day laborers to better access social services without fear.
Jornaleros are marginalized in society and in the legal system, but are at the center of much of the country’s construction, landscaping, and hard labor. Their toil often goes unnoticed, un-thanked, and even unpaid. This has to change.
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