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Day Laborers Struggle Amid Tough Economic Times

By Carl Nasman, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:38:00 AM
Day laborers wait for work at Hearst Avenue and Fifth Street Wednesday afternoon.
Michael Howerton
Day laborers wait for work at Hearst Avenue and Fifth Street Wednesday afternoon.

Smells of turkey drifted from the kitchen while shouts and laughter echoed from a soccer game in the gymnasium below. This was the scene on Thursday as many of Berkeley’s day laborers spent their Thanksgiving Day at the James Kenney Community Center in James Kenney Park at 1720 Eighth St. between Virgina and Delaware streets. Teeming with friends and food, the event, organized by the Multicultural Center in Berkeley, contrasted sharply with an increasingly difficult struggle on the streets. The recession has hit day laborers hard, and many are searching for ways to make ends meet. 

Each day as many as 100 day laborers, or “jornaleros,” line the sidewalks along Hearst Avenue from Second Street to Ninth Street in search of work. During the height of the construction and housing boom in 2005 and 2006, as many as 30 contractors per day came to the Hearst corridor offering jobs. Today, laborers say, the number of jobs has plummeted. 

“Before the recession there were many contractors. We didn’t even make it to the corner before they grabbed you to work,” said Romeo, a 23-year-old jornalero from Guatemala. “Now, we work maybe one day every two weeks, sometimes just two jobs per month.” 

“There is no work,” said Oscar Flores in a quiet voice while standing on the corner of Fourth and Hearst. “There are months that we don’t work. It’s not like before.” Flores estimates that in the past two to three years, his monthly income has been cut in half from around $600 per month to an average of $300. 

In the past, workers gathered near Truitt and White Lumber Company from early morning until midday. Now jornaleros wait longer, often with nothing in return. “Before, we were here from 6 to 8 in the morning, and the majority knew that they could work their eight hours,” said Flores, who has been in Berkeley for two years. “I don’t know what the hours are now—normally we are here almost the whole day.” 

A 2006 study led by the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty estimates that 117,600 day laborers per day look for work nationwide. Most are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Many speak only Spanish and depend on jobs from construction contractors and homeowners to survive.  

While the situation on the street worsens, organizations like the Berkeley-based Multicultural Institute try to offer help. Founded in 1991, the institute supports Berkeley’s day laborers with programs such as a GED preparation class and a website that matches employers with day laborers. The Thanksgiving Day event began five years ago. Last Thursday, about 180 jornaleros were treated to a turkey lunch and a six-on-six indoor soccer match.  

“On Thanksgiving there is no chance of finding a job,” said Rudy Lara, Program Assistant for the Multicultural Institute. “Instead of sitting at home and thinking about their families, they can spend half a day playing and eating. At least they have something—they know somebody is caring about them.” 

“It’s a moment of happiness during this crisis,” said Cristian, 25, while dribbling a soccer ball and waiting for his turn in the game. “It helps you to forget what’s going on.” 

On a recent autumn morning, day laborers on the Hearst Avenue corridor far outnumbered holiday shoppers walking along the adjacent commercial area on Fourth Street. Small clusters of Latino men stood expectantly, waiting for a contractor’s pickup truck to pull over and offer a job. Many of the workers were dressed in paint-stained sweatshirts and jeans. All were willing to speak with a reporter in Spanish.  

Romeo, the 23-year-old Guatemalan, stood in front of a parking lot on Hearst with two friends, Aron, 24, and Saul, 25. They all came from the same town in Guatemala, and the trio was looking for jobs in construction, gardening, painting or “whatever comes our way.” Standing by the railroad crossing on Hearst, Johnny, from Mexico City, said he lost his permanent construction job three years ago and believes that, with more workers looking for jobs, contractors are paying day laborers less. 

According to the 2006 UCLA study, 92 percent of day laborers are hired by either homeowners or construction and landscaping contractors. This leaves day laborers particularly vulnerable to a dip in the construction market. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 1.6 million construction jobs were lost nationwide since December 2007. In October alone, construction employment decreased by 62,000 jobs. Those numbers reflect the experiences of Bay Area construction contractors.  

“Difficult, difficult, difficult,” said Isidro Gonzales, owner of The Stone Man construction company in Berkeley, describing the local construction market. “Two years ago, I hired day laborers every two to three weeks. I haven’t gone down to Hearst yet in 2009.” 

Peter Bluhon of Bluhon Design & Environment, a landscape architecture company in Berkeley, describes pre-recession Berkeley as a hotbed for home renovation work. “For about five years in the Berkeley hills you would see trucks flying down to Truitt and White. There were contractor and architect signs in everyone’s yards. But by the fall of 2008 it was a ghost town up there. I’m driving around all the time and I’m not seeing any sizable projects.” 

Facing a dried-up labor market, there are few options for Berkeley’s jornaleros. To cut costs, many share apartments with friends and relatives. According to officials at the Multicultural Institute, if a jornalero has not found work for a few weeks, his friends often give him their job. At the institute’s weekly free lunch program, attendance has doubled in recent months.  

But many jornaleros, faced with a high cost of living and the pressure to send money home, are deciding to return home themselves. 

“Many [jornaleros] are saying that they’re going home,” said Fidel, a day laborer from Cosamaloapan, Mexico. “They can’t maintain themselves here.” According to Lara, who patrols the Hearst corridor every weekday, some 10 to 20 percent of the workers have returned to their home countries. Day laborers say that although the job markets in Mexico and Guatemala aren’t any better, living costs are lower, and they can rejoin their families.  

For those who choose to stay in Berkeley, the Thanksgiving Day meal brings some temporary hope in an otherwise bleak winter season. With the summer gone, the jornaleros are not likely to see improvement in the Bay Area construction market until after the winter rainy season.  

“We hope it gets better a few months into next year,” said a group gathered at the corner of Sixth and Hearst streets. “We’re used to not having work, but it’s worse than before. There could come a day when there is no one on the street. If there are no jobs, it could happen.” 


For more information about the Multicultural institute, see