Arturo Griffiths, an activist for day laborers in Washington D.C., holds forth at the Home Depot parking lot. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

Every weekday morning, around six, a stream of pickup trucks and vans arrive at Washington D.C.’s only Home Depot. It’s near the end of summer construction season, so the entrance is busy, as contractors emerge with wood and drywall and other supplies. On the way out, they’ll collect the last thing they need for the day: labor.

That comes in the form of a gaggle of African American and Latino men wearing work boots and paint-splattered pants, waiting in a parking lot on the side of the building. The men rush toward the doors of the truck, pleading for the driver to pick them. He points at one or two, and they get into the back and drive away.

By 10, the flow of contractors has nearly stopped. A few dozen guys still hang around in the parking lot, waiting and hoping someone will come by and need their skills. Otherwise, they just socialize; there’s not much else to do.

That’s when Arturo Griffiths stops by. A big guy with a building trades-logoed jacket and a pickup truck, he looks like a contractor himself.

Quite the contrary. Griffiths’ project: Protecting day laborers from contractors who might cut corners on safety or short them on pay, with a fledgling group called Trabajadores Unidos de D.C. — United Workers of D.C. The group, sparsely funded by the city and a local charity, takes on everything from helping undocumented immigrants get drivers licenses to ensuring they are protected in the workplace at a time when the country’s immigration laws remain deeply unsettled.

Griffiths walks through the parking lot, handing out bottles of water, as worried faces ease into big smiles when they see him. He checks in, and hears their troubles. One guy says he was beaten up by a gang on the street the other day, and they stole his money. To Griffiths, that’s an opportunity: Immigrants who are victims of violent crimes can get a U Visa, which allows them to work in the U.S. for four years.

“We’ll go to Carecen,” he reassures the quiet-voiced worker, leaning on his truck, referring to a Latino outreach group in the city that offers immigration legal services. “We’ll get it worked out,” he says, patting him on the back.

After about 10 minutes, a small group has gathered around Griffiths.

“Cuando no te paga, que pasa?” Griffiths asks them. When someone doesn’t pay you, what do you do?

“No se,” one guy says, and laughs. “No sabe igual.” I don’t know, and neither do you.

That’s one of the biggest problem day laborers face: They have virtually no recourse against employers who don’t honor their agreements. Police might investigate if they have a signed contract, but, of course, nobody does, which means lodging a complaint with the authorities isn’t even an option.

A report by the Washington Lawyers Committee from 2008 found that 62 percent of day laborers had experienced some sort of wage theft. It can take many forms: Denial of overtime, shorting of pay, or simply not paying at all.

The solutions, however, are already well-established.

Griffiths says the easiest way to organize the day laborers, and create a system that protects their rights, is what’s called a “worker center”: A place where contractors pick up laborers in an orderly fashion, on a first-come-first-serve basis, and negotiate contracts that both sides have to honor.

In other words, a way of creating integrity in a world that currently has no rules.

 

Casa de Maryland's Prince Georges worker center. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post) Casa de Maryland’s Prince Georges worker center. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

“They are not alone”

The best example of a worker center exists in a seedy strip mall just over the border in Prince George’s County, signified by a single door between a sporting goods store and a nail salon.

Open it, walk down two flights of stairs, go through another door, and you’ll find a long hallway lined with cartoon displays of happy workers getting various certifications, and brandishing checks. The hallway opens up into a large, brightly-lit room with a few computers along one wall, some guys eating pizza, and a cluster of other day laborers who didn’t get jobs that morning.

Here, if you don’t get work, it’s just because your name didn’t come up on the list.

The list is how Casa de Maryland, an immigrant services organization that runs five worker centers, aims to keep the process fair.

When a prospective employer comes in, if a worker is at the top of the list, he or she gets the job — unless he or she doesn’t have the right skills, in which case it goes to the next person down who does. With Casa staff watching, the two parties work out an agreement. Once a laborer has finished a job, he goes back down to the bottom of the list. Both contractors and laborers evaluate each other, on forms where they can write critiques, creating a system of mutual accountability and feedback.

In an era where the relationships between labor and management have broken down, it’s a reinvention of the old-school hiring hall, which farms out work to union members in skilled trades where people are needed for small jobs on short notice.

“In a sense, it is a way to provide an avenue for workers to negotiate their conditions in the absence of unions,” says Alma Couverthie, a Puerto Rican who oversees all Casa’s worker centers. As casual laborers, they can’t join unions, and enjoy few other protections under the law.

“If something happens to them, these employers are banking on the assumption that these people have no one to back them up, so the risk is minimal,” she says. “If they are members of Casa, they are going to receive a call from us, and at that point they’re going to realize they are not alone.”

Ultimately, Couverthie says, the goal is for workers to forge relationships with employers that then become permanent, so they don’t have to spend time waiting on a list at all. They’re also exploring the idea of creating coops, which would allow workers to employ themselves.

At the Prince George’s center, which was founded in 2008, the demographics have shifted dramatically in recent years, from being filled with mostly Latino immigrants to West African immigrants, many of whom have fled conflict.

Take Paul, who declined to give his last name because he’s seeking political asylum from Cameroon. He sits crouched on a chair, his eyes darting back and forth, as if still looking for enemies. To go back, he says, would be “disastrous.” But his mind is still far away, with his wife and three children. “That’s what gives me a headache every day,” he says. “I’m very, very worried about them.”

Paul came to Prince George’s County three months ago, and has been shifting between friends’ apartments. He did communications for a large transportation company back at home, but he doesn’t have a work authorization permit yet, so he’s been relegated to the odd jobs he can pick up through waiting at the worker center — sweeping, moving, picking up trash.

“Believe me, it’s difficult, you find yourself here cleaning,” Paul says. Still, he says, the worker center has been a home base — better than a corner on the street.

“That’s our fight right here, to get work”

The Prince Georges worker center's motivational poster-lined hallway. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post) The Prince Georges worker center’s motivational poster-lined hallway. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

Getting a worker center started, however, isn’t easy. Immigrant advocates tried it at the D.C. Home Depot back in 2007, with the backing of the District government’s Office on Latino Affairs, but failed in the face of opposition from nearby homeowners and others who expressed concern about spending money on undocumented immigrants when there were many residents of the city in need of help. The issue hasn’t received much attention since.

Though that may seem surprising in a diverse and liberal city like Washington, it’s the case in many similar cities across the country. Nationally, there are 70 centers for about 120,000 day laborers, most established between 2000 and 2005.

“It started to decline as the immigration debate intensified, and day laborers were portrayed as the face of the broken immigration system,” says Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. A few more pop up every year, usually after a conflict in a community, which leads to calls for some kind of organization — but, he says, nowhere near as many as are needed.

Alvarado cautions that worker centers aren’t an overall solution to the problem of recent immigrants being forced into contingent labor: Only changes to immigration law that give people paths to citizenship will allow them to access formal employment.

Where they have been established, however, the University of California – Los Angeles’ Center for the Study of Urban Poverty found that day laborer worker centers mitigate complaints from community members about “undesirable social behavior,” increase laborers’ wages, and reduce incidences of abuse. In addition, according to researchers at the University of Washington, safety training at worker centers is a good way to reach a population at high risk of injury on the job.

Arturo Griffiths is trying to rekindle a campaign. He raised the issue at a recent candidate forum for an at-large city council seat, and the hopefuls all pledged their support. Maybe it’ll work with a church across the street from Home Depot, which is building a senior center, he hopes.

“If not, the only solution is to do battle with Home Depot,” he says, pushing the company to allow a day laborer center — perhaps in the form of a trailer — right in its parking lot. (Home Depot did not return a request for comment on Monday.)

The need isn’t going to go away, he says, until some kind of permanent immigration reform happens.

That morning, as Griffiths finished chatting with the guys about how things were going, a Cuban named Arnaldo Aldama jumped into the circle that had gathered around to talk and started dancing, as if it it had been formed for the purpose. He was among the few who knew English, and seemed to speak for everyone.

“We ain’t looking for no trouble. We need someone who understands us,” Aldama said, when he’d finished his joking performance. “Until immigration reform, we have to be here, we have to have the hustle. That’s our fight right here, to get work. We’re all in the same boat.”

His audience soon disappeared. A pickup truck rolled by, slowly, cruising for willing hands. The small crowd of men rushed over, thrusting themselves into the window. Two lucky guys were picked, and the rest dispersed, back to waiting.