How to Hire a Day Laborer

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My wife and I own a single-family residence in Lake Ridge, Va., that must be re-rented every four years or so. The tenant who just departed was a retired Army noncommissioned officer who decided to return to Texas, where she has relatives. The house, predictably, showed the wear and tear of four years of occupancy. It was going to need a lot of work before a new tenant could move in.

I arranged for a contractor from Manassas to walk through the house and give me an estimate for the work. He estimated the cost of painting five rooms would be $500. That, of course, included the paint. Power-washing the rear deck would cost another $100, and trimming bushes and other yard work would cost $80. Total cost of repairs: about $700.

I decided there had to be a better (read: cheaper) way.

I got into my pickup truck and drove to the intersection of the Prince William Parkway and U.S. Route 1. There, in the parking area behind the 7-Eleven, was a group of about 20 men who I was sure were day laborers. As I drove up, a number of men immediately rushed forward. "Usted necesita buenos trabajadores, se¿or?" (Do you need good workers, mister?) asked one of the workmen. "S¿," (yes) I replied in my broken Spanish. "Necesito pintores" (I need painters). An enthusiastic 20-something man wearing white coveralls stepped forward and said, in English, that he was a professional painter. I liked his bright smile and his positive attitude, so I said, "Usted es empleado" (you are hired).

But I still needed one more worker to be a painter's helper and to do the work on the deck and grounds. "Quien puede hacer el trabajo al aire libre?" (Who can do outdoor work?) Three or four men stepped forward, and one told me in English that all of his fellow workers had such experience. My painter pointed to one of the other men and said he was his amigo (friend) and that they worked well together. So I hired him as well.

I then called aside my two workers and discussed the terms of employment. I said I would pay "diez dolares cada hora en efectivo" ($10 per hour in cash), and that the work would last "siete o ocho horas" (seven or eight hours). I would provide the transportation, the tools and "almuerzo gratis" (free lunch) from McDonald's. Did they agree? "S¿, se¿or," they both replied.

We arrived at the house about 9 a.m., and both men immediately went to work. Very little direction was required on my part. My painter placed dropcloths in the first of the five rooms and set about preparing a roller and stirring paint. His helper got a 4-inch brush and immediately started painting corners. They worked so well as a team that I was sure they had done this many times before.

All the painting and outdoor work was completed by about 4:30 p.m. My workers closed up the remaining paint cans, folded the dropcloths and put the power washer and lawn equipment in the garage. Each had worked about eight hours, with only one 15-minute break for lunch. I paid each man $80, or $160 total. The bag lunches cost $10, and the paint was $125, so my total expense for the day was $295. It was a bargain.

-- Gary Jacobsen


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