Pay Abuses Common for Day Laborers, Study Finds

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

More than half of day laborers in the Washington area have been cheated out of their wages and one in four has been harmed on the job, according to a study being released today that tries to sketch a portrait of the informal workers.

The study is based on the experiences of 476 day laborers in the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland, who were interviewed last year by a team affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles. It depicts the typical worker as an industrious Latin American man who earns $991 a month.

Day laborers have proliferated in the Washington area thanks to the booming construction industry and the dramatic increase in immigrants, some of them illegal. The workers have posed a dilemma for local officials, who sometimes face complaints that the laborers are unsanitary or swarm around stores or street corners, creating a nuisance.

The study was funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations as well as the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which said it participated "in the hope of supporting constructive dialogue" among officials and residents about how to deal with the workers.

Abel Valenzuela, a UCLA urban planner who was the lead researcher on the study, said day laborers in the D.C. area had an unusual profile compared with those in other cities. They gather in large numbers in at least 16 places -- more than in Chicago, he said. Whereas a few years ago, day laborers congregated in a handful of places such as Culmore and Takoma Park, they now are present throughout the region, the study said.

"It's a reflection of the area becoming an immigrant entry point. You have many, many new arrivals," Valenzuela said.

Day laborers here are more likely to work for contractors or subcontractors than are their counterparts elsewhere in the country, he said. And about two-thirds are from Central America, reflecting the makeup of the immigrant population in the D.C. area.

Valenzuela said he was still trying to tabulate what percentage of the workers had legal immigration status or were qualified to apply for it.

"I would say most day laborers don't have [immigration] documents," he said, but he added that many had permission to work.

Valenzuela defined day laborers as people looking for temporary jobs in a public or open-air space on a daily basis. Some day laborers in the Washington area gather at hiring sites organized by nonprofit groups, while others gravitate to more informal spots at street corners or convenience stores. The study found that more than half the day laborers live within 15 minutes of the site where they solicit work.

The report's results confirm some widely held perceptions: The Washington area laborers are mainly men who are relatively new to the United States. Half of them have a sixth-grade education or less.

But the study also suggests some diversity. Nearly one-third of the day laborers said they had been in this country for at least six years, and about the same number reported being at least 38 years old.

One of the most striking findings of the study was the high level of abuse reported by the workers. More than 58 percent said that, at least once, a boss had failed to pay them for a job or had given them a check that bounced. That compared with 41 percent in a similar study in Los Angeles and 45 percent in New York, Valenzuela said.

Groups that work with day laborers said the findings reflected a widespread problem. Steve Smitson, a lawyer at the nonprofit group Casa de Maryland, said his organization fields about 3,000 complaints a year from day laborers and low-wage workers who have not been paid. He noted that illegal immigrants are protected by many labor laws, although many don't know it.

"What we find is, many day

laborers are documented. But the employers just assume they're undocumented. They assume they're afraid to report the crime," he said.

Officials and day laborers have begun to fight back against such behavior. In Prince George's County, prosecutors won the conviction of a subcontractor on seven counts of failure to pay wages to day laborers. In Prince William County, five Mexican immigrants won awards totaling more than $5,000 in small claims court from contractors.

Still, the problem is rampant, according to a group of day laborers who appeared at the Shirlington Employment Center in Arlington one recent morning hoping to get help in recovering back wages.

Adonay Hernandez, 26, of Arlington said he worked three days this month installing sheetrock at a home in Reston. The contractor gave him a check for only $300, instead of the promised wage of $364, Hernandez said. Then the check bounced, he said.

"I went to the bank and they said there were no funds. He told me to go back to the bank. I've gone, like, four times," Hernandez said.

Hernandez migrated a decade ago from Honduras, where he was one of 16 siblings in a poor farming family. "My friends said life here is better," Hernandez said, and it often is. But when he doesn't get paid, he said, he sometimes has to borrow from friends to eat.

The Community Foundation, one of the study's backers, said in a statement that the study showed the need for more language and vocational training as well as legal aid for the workers. Communities have been divided about offering services to laborers who may be in the country illegally.

Lack of payment isn't the only difficulty the workers face. One-quarter of the day laborers reported suffering an injury or illness related to their work that required medical attention. A majority said they had not received any type of safety training, although many said they did dangerous jobs. And half said they sought jobs seven days a week.

"If we don't have other work, we come every day. Saturdays and Sundays, too," said Alex Fuentes, 20, a Salvadoran standing at a corner in Arlington with other day laborers last week, hoping for a job.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company