By Elan Ronen
Twelve men gather in Freeport every weekday at noon for what could be the strangest card game on Long Island. They are day laborers, mostly illegal, from Central and South America. They meet at a Freeport hiring site on Bennington Avenue, a trailer nestled between the Long Island Rail Road and Sunrise Highway. The stakes are always high: The winners move to the top of the site’s hiring list. If only three contractors walk in the next day, only the three workers at the top of the list will get work.
These days, workers are lucky to be hired twice a week. The call for the work they do—installing siding, laying brick walkways, residential construction, landscaping and re-shingling roofs—has decreased every month since January. And at an average hourly wage of $10, or $100 per day, most are struggling. So, the game is much more important: Win today, work tomorrow, and at the end of the month, maybe they won’t have to choose between a meal and a roof.
José, nicknamed “Colombia,” shuffled the cards on a recent Wednesday, under the watchful eyes of his fellow workers. José is older than most workers, who are usually in their 20s and early 30s. They trust him to deal because he is known to be fair. And a fair chance for work is more than they will get across the street, in front of Home Depot. Workers are more visible standing on Sunrise Highway, but there they have to physically compete with each other, pushing and shoving to get close to a contractor’s van.
José put 12 cards facedown on a table, as he does every day at noon. Each worker picked up a card. Some cursed, others smiled, a few just threw their card down and left. The winning cards are always the ace, the two and the three of diamonds. This is more like a lottery, a game of chance rather than a game of skill. The losing workers will return the next day, many before 6:30 a.m., when the trailer opens, so they can be placed high on the hiring list, and possibly find work.
A Waiting Game
The Freeport Day Laborer Program, the official hiring site run by Catholic Charities USA, is a second home for local day laborers. Outside on the parking lot they play soccer. Inside the three-room trailer they play cards, eat, watch TV or just talk.
The site is staffed by Coordinator Zoraida Guzman, her daughter and Assistant Coordinator Zoraida Rodriguez, and the Rev.—or padre—Tom McNamara, who is employed by Catholic Charities. The staff keeps tabs on contractors. If the men are not paid for work, the other men are warned.
They also buy food from local supermarkets and take a loss, selling it for prices the workers can afford. One cabinet is filled with instant soups. Small cups of noodles cost the workers 50 cents, and larger cups are $1. Bakeries donate day-old bread, bagels and cakes the workers dig into while they wait. For 25 cents, Rodriguez, or “la hija,” as the men call her, will cook them half a potato or heat up a hard-boiled egg.
“That’s a pretty good deal, because they get a little bit of protein,” says McNamara. “It’s something that will really help them survive.”
Work has dropped off “precipitously” since January, says McNamara, who wears a body-length brown Franciscan robe. Contractors used to pick up 14 workers per day, but that has dropped to three or four, sometimes zero. Most mornings McNamara leaves the trailer, officially called the Worklink Center, to speak with men waiting in front of Home Depot, the unofficial hiring site. About 50 men usually wait there each day, compared to the 20 or so at the trailer. Another dozen wait at the Merrick Road entrance to Home Depot, and a few wait at nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. But only about one contractor comes to these sites every two hours.
Sometimes the workers meander through the parking lot—playing a cat-and-mouse game with Home Depot security guards—hoping to spot a contractor before the others do. The search is usually futile. Almost every worker at every site says the same thing: “No hay trabajo”—there is no work.
On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 18, rain fell in sheets, but the Sunrise Highway sidewalk was not deserted. Seven men with no umbrellas stood drenched, their upper bodies clad in nothing but T-shirts and hoodies, hoping somebody would show up offering an inside job. Even McNamara stayed in the trailer that day.
Guzman says that working with laborers is very rewarding, but recently things have become extremely difficult. Besides giving workers food and donated clothing, Guzman used to help them with rent money, through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance. But now, with the men not working, they can’t prove that they can support themselves in the future, one of the requirements for receiving donations.
A crisis is looming in the near future, Guzman warns. Already she and McNamara have noticed that the workers are really cutting into the food supplies.
“If you know any person or agency that can help, we will take it—medical supplies, jackets, soap, towels, hats, anything,” she says.
A New World And
$70 A Day
In today’s economy, young day laborers have it the worst. New arrivals have had less time to build up a savings cushion, and don’t have the connections the older men have to los patrones, bosses who regularly pick up known laborers for work.
The majority of day laborers in Freeport, Huntington Station, Glen Cove, Farmingville and numerous other LI locations are Hispanic, but they have come from a dozen countries to escape hardship, be it from war or economic instability. Many were part of a huge Central and South American immigration wave in the ’80s and ’90s, when whole families fled countries torn apart by civil war. Today, more young immigrants are from Mexico, where the government’s war against powerful drug cartels is creating an unstable environment.
Hispanics also migrate to America by the millions because of better pay. For example, in 2007, the minimum wage for workers in El Salvador was 73 cents, about $6 a day. But in America, the average worker makes at least $7 an hour or $70 a day—more than 11 times as much as what they earned back home.
Miguel, who requested that his real name not be used, has been downright unlucky. Now 22, he came here from Honduras when he was 18. Before that, he dropped out of school after sixth grade to help support his family. His father was a farmer who grew beans and corn and Miguel sold belts at the town market for extra money. But when the cost of the belts’ materials skyrocketed, he was out of a job. The economy was so bad in Honduras—one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere—that Miguel decided to leave. To pay for his trip, he sold his ’86 Toyota pickup and his father took out a bank loan. Miguel left behind his then-3-year-old daughter and his wife, pregnant with his second daughter.
After enduring a 30-day van trip through Mexico, a coyote (someone who transports undocumented immigrants) smuggled Miguel across the border, la frontera, for a relatively cheap $3,000 (it costs about $5,500 today). Unlike many other illegal immigrants, Miguel was not robbed in Mexico or at the border. But his luck would soon run out.
He spent a year cutting down trees in Houston, Texas, for $80 a day, before paying $500 for a van ride to LI, where he had friends. He says he made good money for a year. Then the housing market crashed, and the demand for day laborers plummeted.
“I came here under the illusion that I would be better off,” says Miguel in Spanish. But over the year, things have worsened. He used to send money to his wife and daughters. Now he faces a financial crisis. He owes $400, one month’s rent, to his landlord for a single bedroom in a house in Freeport. He has not called his wife in a month because he cannot afford a phone card. Luckily, his landlord is a friend from Honduras who will allow him to stay another month.
“He only said I could stay because he knows me,” Miguel says. “If he didn’t know me he would have kicked me out. He is a friend.”
Good friends are harder to find these days, Miguel adds. Within the day laborer community, lending money to friends and family is common. He says that many hard-pressed workers end up paying half the month’s rent while trying to scrape together the rest from friends. But nobody is lending.
Miguel has no citizenship status or visa, but he does have a passport. For $5 at the hiring site, a worker can purchase an ID with their picture, date of birth and physical characteristics. Though illegal immigrants can’t fly into this country, they can fly out. Miguel says that if things don’t improve, he will try to find work in Texas, or find money for a plane ticket home.
“I want to know how my daughters are, my babies,” he says softly. His oldest daughter is now 6. He has never seen his youngest daughter, now almost 3.
No Safety Net
It’s hard to grasp just how precarious life is for younger workers. They have traveled thousands of miles to escape hardship, only to find it again at their destination.
Juan is 29. He has black curly hair, brown eyes, and usually wears a knock-off T-shirt from Marshalls and paint-speckled jeans. Three years ago he made a harrowing journey from El Salvador to the United States, leaving without the support of his parents or his four sisters.
Juan had made decent money as an electrician in El Salvador, before deciding to become a police officer. Juan says he spent one year in a police academy, and two months as an officer, but he always had the idea in his head to come to America. In January 2007, Juan left for California, his journey funded by a cousin in Los Angeles.
He got to the U.S.-Mexican border unmolested and paid $4,500 for a smuggler to take him across the border into Arizona. There were seven in the group, including the coyote. They spent seven days walking in the desert. It was mid-January, and Juan had no winter coat.
“It was so cold that it felt better to walk then to sleep,” Juan remembers. “At least when we walked, our bodies would warm up a little.”
For food, the group shared a few loaves of bread and a jar or two of mayonnaise. Three in the group, including Juan, carried 1-gallon containers of water in addition to their bags.
“On our belts we had little bottles that we filled with water and gave to others to sip from.”
But on day three, the water ran out.
More than three days without water can mean death in a desert, and the group had four days of walking left. They found a lagoon the next day with pristine water, a miracle in itself, since the streams and lakes on the crossing were rumored to usually be dirty or contaminated, says Juan.
After arriving safely in Arizona, he traveled to Los Angeles and stayed with his cousin for two months. Then he took a van ride 3,000 miles east to LI, where he knew a few friends.
Last June in Freeport, while riding his bicycle—a common mode of transportation for day laborers who cannot get driver’s licenses—Juan had another near-death experience: He was hit by a car at Guy Lombardo Avenue. An ambulance arrived and took him, bleeding from his head, to Nassau University Medical Center.
“I had two dislocated vertebrae and 14 stitches here,” he says, pointing to the top of his head.
Though Juan has no papers and no medical insurance, he was treated and received intensive physical therapy sessions every day for seven months. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for Medicaid, but they will receive medical treatment at an emergency room. Juan’s sessions were paid for by the insurance of the driver who hit him, a woman in her 30s. But Juan’s back still hurts him, he says. Though he hasn’t seen a doctor since February, Juan thinks he needs more therapy.
Finding healthcare is not impossible for illegal immigrants, but it is difficult, especially for workers like Juan who lack both health insurance and money. Juan is suing the driver for additional compensation, but finding a lawyer is difficult, too. Juan’s current lawyer, his second, charges no fees, but will take 30 percent of compensation won.
But now, Juan has other problems, mainly finding rent money he doesn’t have. He lives in a house with eight people in Freeport. Juan owes his landlord $320. This is the first time he has missed rent.
“I don’t have the money; I don’t even have half of it,” says Juan. “I lent it to a friend’s brother who is in the hospital.”
The laborers don’t like to talk about what happens when money is really tight. Asking about workers who are homeless is futile; the subject is taboo, off-limits to outsiders.
“More and more of the men are living in what they call ‘la montaña,’ which literally means ‘mountain,’ but it’s their code word for living out in the woods,” says McNamara.
Miguel, one of the few who discusses the topic, says there are “many, many” workers who sleep in wooded locations in Freeport. The specific places have been omitted from this story, but the spots are no secret. Both state and local officials say they have seen homeless workers camping in the woods for years.
There are no hard statistics on how many workers in Freeport or across LI are homeless today, but the number is not marginal. It took this reporter 25 minutes to find a campground, located deep within the woods in Freeport.
The perimeter of the area was littered with opened soup cans, empty Corona bottles, and soda cans. In the middle of a circle of trash was a large fire pit. A cooking pot was turned upside down next to a pile of charred wood. Next to the pit was a hammock and a log, suspended 5 feet in the air between two trees. A green tarp nearby suggested the log was used to hold up the tarp as a makeshift tent. Near the edge of the campground lay a bunch of old bicycles. Many missed handlebars and had only one wheel. It appeared that the parts had been stripped to fix other bikes.
Though at first the site looked like a dumping ground, it was clearly a temporary home for many people. Men who did not sleep by the fire slept 50 feet away, in an area protected from wind by surrounding bushes. Flat planks of wood had been set on the ground. Dozens of jackets, shirts and jeans covered the planks, or were pushed underneath to keep the clothing dry. A few deodorant sticks lay nearby, an attempt to ward of the effects of not being able to shower.
The site was deserted on the morning of Nov. 3, while the men looked for work, but had been used recently. An empty yogurt container had an expiration date of Oct. 28, and a Sept. 24 story about a visa lottery had been pulled out of the newspaper Mundo Hispano.
Workers who are homeless try to keep out of sight but are noticed. Freeport residents living adjacent to the woods say they see them hop the fence every night.
A Freeport groundskeeper, who declined to give his name, says he sees homeless workers every day.
“I usually see four or five of them every morning when I do rounds,” he says. “I see some of them sleeping next to their liquor bottles.”
Substance abuse is a huge problem in the day laborer population. Miguel is convinced that workers sleeping outside have been “taken” by vice, namely drugs and alcohol. Rodriguez, the work site’s assistant coordinator, says that workers used to show up drunk, but now they know not to come by because she won’t let them in.
But with jobs scarce and alcohol a tempting escape, even those who do show up sober to work each day may still end up homeless and intoxicated this winter. One cold night last winter Rodriguez spotted a worker, a regular who came looking for work at the trailer every day. She saw him in the heated waiting room on the platform of the Freeport train station.
He was with a few of them up there, drinking,” she says. “One would keep guard to look for police.”
Day laborers commit crime like any other population, but often their motive is not revenge or greed but survival.
McNamara says that one month ago, someone broke into the trailer. He and the other staff members don’t know who did it, but they are certain it was a worker because of what was missing, or rather what was not missing.
“They took a cell phone, some soup and a little soda, and that was it,” says Rodriguez, pointing out that the TV and the computer were untouched.
Transportation is just as important to the workers as food. If the men can’t get to the sites, they can’t make money and won’t be able to buy food. Only the few workers with papeles, or documentation, can drive. While many have driver’s licenses in their home countries, in America, they must ride a bike, walk, or carpool with friends.
It is transportation, again, that is more important than better housing. Juan was recently offered a place to stay in Freeport, with the owner providing a daily meal for a small sum. He does not think he will accept the offer because the house is too far from the hiring site.
Juan knows firsthand how crucial it is to have transportation: He has three bikes. Twice, other workers stole bikes. Eventually, he recovered two bikes, but only after he had bought a replacement.
In addition to worker-against-worker crime, laborers suffer contractor abuses. A 2005 survey of 146 LI day laborers by the Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy at Hofstra University and the immigrant rights group the Workplace Project, both in Hempstead, found that more than half said they were not paid for work, at least once. More than a third—34 percent—report being abandoned at the work site at least once. On-the-job injuries were reported by 26 percent, and of those injured, 39 percent said that their contractor pressured them to keep working.
Most abuses are products of greed, but in some cases the culprit is hate. In the same study, more than 43 percent of workers reported being insulted because of their nationality, and 26 percent reported being threatened at least once. Almost one quarter reported being physically assaulted.
Sociology professor and study co-author Gregory Maney says that the assaults were committed by a “whole range” of people, including local residents and contractors. Sometimes workers were hit by eggs, bottles and garbage thrown from passing cars.
“The media usually focuses on Farmingville [in 2000, two Mexican day laborers there were severely assaulted by two young men armed with digging tools and a knife],
but this study covered eight municipalities on Long Island,” Maney says. “We had high levels of assault reported in all municipalities.”
He adds that things get worse for workers in bad economic times, because competition is stiff and contractors take advantage of workers’ desperation.
The staff and workers at the hiring site work with a daily reminder that not everyone likes them. The window above the trailer’s office has been smashed three times this year. It was fixed twice, but since the third incident, has not been replaced. It remains shattered, the shards held in place only by the crisscross metal wiring.
To Stay Or Go
While Miguel and thousands of other Hispanic workers will likely return home over the coming months, Juan will stay on LI. Through the fall, there will be leaves to rake. If it snows hard this winter, he might get work shoveling driveways. During his free time, Juan, who speaks only Spanish, will attend night classes to learn English.
But for now, until he can find rent money, Miguel prays that his landlord will be lenient. Tomorrow, like every other day, he will wait at the Freeport hiring site, hoping to draw the ace of diamonds.