By Peter Prengaman
Monday, January 23, 2006
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 22 -- The immigrant day laborers who wait for work on street corners across the United States have families and attend church regularly, and the people who hire them are more likely to be individual homeowners than construction contractors.
The first nationwide study of day laborers also found that one in five has been injured on the job and nearly half have been cheated of pay.
The study, the most detailed snapshot to date of the mostly Hispanic and often undocumented immigrants who have become a focal point in the immigration debate, was based on interviews of 2,660 workers at 264 hiring sites in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
The authors said they were surprised by the level of community involvement among men often thought of as transients.
"The day-labor corner is not as disconnected from society as people think. It's seen as a shadow economy, but that's really not the case," said professor Nik Theodore of the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of three study authors. The others were from the University of California at Los Angeles and New York's New School University.
Standing outside a Home Depot store in suburban Burbank on Sunday, Raul Sanchez, 33, said that when he is not working, or waiting for work, he is involved in a church and tried to start a soccer league for fellow day laborers. The native of Mexico has been in the United States seven years and lives with his wife and two children, ages 13 and 14.
Sometimes he worries about small work sites with little safety equipment.
"We know nobody is going to help us out if we get hurt," Sanchez said. "There are risks, but what are we going to do -- not work?"
As often as not, a day laborer's employer will be an individual rather than a labor contractor.
Forty-nine percent of respondents said they were regularly hired by homeowners for everything from carpentry to gardening, with 43 percent getting jobs from construction contractors. Two-thirds said they are hired repeatedly by the same employer.
Based on their interviews and counts at each hiring site, the researchers estimate there are about 117,600 day laborers nationwide, but they say that number is probably low. They said it would be impossible to count the number of hiring sites nationwide, as some spring up spontaneously.
Based on interviews conducted in July and August 2004, the researchers found that three-fourths of day laborers were illegal immigrants and most were Hispanic: 59 percent were from Mexico and 28 percent from other Central American countries.
More than half said they attended church regularly, 22 percent reported being involved in sports clubs and 26 percent said they participated in community centers. Nearly two-thirds had children, 36 percent were married and 7 percent lived with a partner.
In addition, more than 80 percent rely on day labor as their sole source of income, earning close to the 2005 federal poverty guideline of $12,830 for a family of two.