In the break of the August morning heat, with the Denver Broncos stadium and the mountains in the backdrop, I stood on the street corner at Federal and 19th St. with graduate student, Max Spiro, to talk to the men who stand there each morning waiting for work, often referred to as day laborers.
Shortly after, lawyer Raja Raghunath and a law student arrived to help assist workers who had not been paid for their work. I met a man I call Claudio. He is 53, wears a long braid, and is originally from Veracruz, Mexico. He had been living in Denver since 2003, but was debating returning to Mexico in the fall. He got teary-eyed when he began to explain why he contemplated returning, “It’s nice here, but we are alone. It’s difficult…” Most of his family still lived in Mexico, but the woman he had been living with in Denver for nearly nine years had recently passed away. In Mexico, he worked in a factory with a union, but lamented, “I don’t know what I would do [in Mexico] now…due to my age…to survive, but things are very difficult here.” Many day laborers we met were in their mid 40s to early 60s. They struggled to find work in Colorado, but also knew there were fewer opportunities back home. The average age of the 400 workers we surveyed from October 2016 until August 2017 was 44.6. As one day laborer told graduate student Camden Bowman, “The U.S. is no place for old men.”
In December of 2014, Claudio fell from a ladder during a job. “I thought I just got banged up, but I broke my foot” “What did you boss do?” I asked. “He wasn’t there, he didn’t say anything. And I didn’t want any problems.” Claudio went to Denver Health, which accepts a card he had for “those who cannot pay and do not have permanent homes,” as he explained, to receive a 70-80% discount. “But I still haven’t paid,” he told me. He had unable to work well for five months, maybe a week here and there. He had called the day labor center, El Centro Humanitario, for assistance with finding a lawyer. He had been without work and wanted to issue a letter to his boss to ask him to pay the expenses. Yet, he still did not know if he had to pay the bill. Without a permanent address, there was nowhere to send the letter. He had not received anything.
Previously, he lived with a woman who was a United States citizen, but she had a heart attack and became disabled. They had thought about getting married, but he lacked sufficient documents. “When we went downtown to try to get married, they said I needed a Colorado identification,” he explained. He only had a consular identification from the Mexican consulate. “When I went [to the consulate], they couldn’t help me either…But we weren’t in a rush either [to get married].” “But then she died.” Claudio looked at me with irony in his eyes. “I broke my foot on December 9th and she died on January 4th.” For Claudio, these events were intimately connected, sending his life into a downward emotional, physical, and economic spiral. The woman had been not only his partner, but also his safety net. Having her support was part of the reason why he did not immediately seek legal assistance to track down his employer to cover his medical expenses. Her death also rendered him homeless. He had been living in her apartment and she received regular disability payments that helped smooth the irregularity of his day laborer wages. Her extended family, with whom they also shared the apartment, did not allow him to stay. Claudio had nowhere to go.
As Claudio and I continued talking, I brought up the problem of wage theft. The term wage theft includes all the ways workers are denied earned wages and benefits protected by federal and state labor laws regardless of legal status – including underpayment and illegal deductions, misclassification, improper deductions of tips, and denied overtime pay as well as outright withholding of wages.[i] For day laborers, wage theft often entails complete non-payment for work performed, but it also frequently involves underpayment. To my surprise, Claudio mentioned that his incident of wage theft was committed by the same employer he had been working for when he broke his foot. One of the primary street corner rules for day laborers is to not return to work for employers who have wronged workers in the past. In fact, sometimes a truck screeches to a halt at the corner and no workers approach it. In contrast, usually 7-8 men will rush to a car or truck to negotiate the job and the wage rate. The quickness and cunning required to land jobs has led day laborers to nickname street corner hiring sites in Denver liebres, or jack-rabbits. However, in these instances, it becomes clear why no one rushes the vehicle. A few men will usually yell out to the others, “This [employer] does not pay. This one does not treat workers well,” thereby alerting other day laborers to potentially exploitative and abusive employers. So why would Claudio return to work for a boss for whom he was still seeking payment for medical expenses?
Claudio looked at me; it was obvious; “There is not much work. You think that people are good and sometimes it is not true.” Claudio had not been working for this employer regularly; just a week here and there since his foot was not completely healed. The employer was supposed to pay him $750 for the week, but only paid $400. Claudio also reminded me that the employer had provided no assistance when he broke his foot on the job. “What did you do about it?” I asked. “I didn’t do anything. When I was with my señora (girlfriend), I felt protected. And then, can you imagine, I had nothing,” he told me. He continued working for this employer because he had no other work. “I do keep calling him,” he said, “but he keeps telling me later [he will pay me].”
Claudio proceeded to ask me if there was a way to adjust his immigration status or acquire a work permit since he had lived with his señora for a long time even though they had never married. “I have a clean record here and in Mexico,” he stated. However, he admitted that he had used a fake social security number when he worked at a temporary employment agency. He motioned across the street to a temporary labor agency, which has since gone out of business. Many day laborers at this street corner previously alternated finding work at such agencies with the street corner, but with the more widespread adoption of E-verify in Colorado since 2008, this was no longer an option for undocumented day laborers like Claudio.[ii]
Throughout our conversation, I integrated some of the questions my research team had been asking day laborers over the course of one year of interviews, casual conversations, and outreach at four street corner hiring sites in the Denver metro area, as well as at the day labor center, El Centro Humanitario. One of these questions was, how do you ensure an employer pays you for your work? Claudio responded, “The things I learned at El Centro [Humanitario]…get paid every day [versus at the end of the week], take photos of the work I do, photos of license plates, [take down] employer’s phone number.” However, he had grown tired of making calls to find a lawyer for his injury case. “No one returned my calls…I have lost faith,” he lamented.
Claudio’s experience illustrated how immigration status, precarious work arrangements, race, and age combine to not only make day laborers vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of employers, but also hesitant to contest it. The precarious, intermittent, and unregulated nature of day labor, coupled with the fact that the small employers who employ day laborers are unlikely to face meaningful consequences if they do not comply with labor laws, means that day laborers often strive to curry favor with employers in hopes of maintaining a job even when they are exploited. Claudio, for example, was fearful of “causing problems” out of desperation for the work. Community efforts to combat labor exploitation are often targeted at improving day laborers’ knowledge of their rights and knowledge of where they can receive legal assistance. However, providing workers with more legal information and outreach is just one part of the fight against wage theft. Even when workers know their rights, it is not sufficient to prevent wage theft. A more holistic, structural, and systemic approach is needed that also puts responsibility on employers, the legal and employment context that make wage theft easy and profitable to get away with, and consumers who turn a blind eye to the labor conditions of those who may be building their homes or tending their lawns. The DU Just Wages project has therefore sought to couple research on the plight of immigrant day laborers and Know Your Rights street outreach with interviews and collaborations with employers, lawyers, policy-makers, and allied organizations to bring the problem of wage theft into the public eye and denormalize it. It is rarely accidental; instead lawyer Raja Raghunath argues it has increasingly become “the new normal.”
The DU Just Wages Project @ Korbel has \until October 9 to reach a goal of raising $2,500 to support the dissemination of our results, further direct support of workers experiencing wage theft, and more. Please donate today.
[i] See Bobo 2011.