The Invisible Workforce
By Vineet Edupuganti
The loud cries fill the air of this chilly October morning, drifting upwards toward the large, grey clouds slowly migrating off into the distance. A gusty breeze buffets the walls of the yellow portable, penetrating the interior of the orange shed nearby. The skyscrapers loom tall beyond the Willamette River on this stretch of Portland’s Eastside Business District, while rushing cars sound off in the background as commuters make their daily trips on the freeway. I am standing outside the Worker Center of VOZ, an organization that strives to improve the experience of day laborers—predominantly from Latin America. On this cool, damp day, roughly thirty men will register and enter their names into a lottery. If they are lucky, a few of them may go out to work. Many will not. At this instant, a prospective employer has turned into the compound, bumping over the uneven asphalt and prompting a frenzied reaction. For the person fortunate enough to be highest on the lottery list, this job may cover food expenses for the next week.
On any given day, 117,600 workers in the U.S are looking for work, or working, as day laborers, according to a 2006 report by UCLA. Of those, fifty-nine percent were born in Mexico, twenty-eight percent were born in Central America, and seventy-five percent are undocumented workers (Valenzuela et al.).
Just twenty-one percent of day laborers go to formal day labor Worker Centers to seek work. Day laborers are employed mainly by homeowners (49%) and construction contractors (43%), and work primarily as construction laborers, gardeners and landscapers, painters, roofers, and drywall installers. Geographically, forty-two percent of day laborers nationwide are in the West (Valenzuela et al.).
VOZ—which means voice in Spanish—began in 1996 as a response to police tactics used to discourage day laborers from seeking work. In 2000, the organization started the Workers’ Education Project, offering ESL, art, and music classes, as well as access to doctors and lawyers. Some of the workers at VOZ do not speak a word of English, and many of those who do are not fluent enough to communicate effectively. As with all manual labor, a day laborer’s job can be extremely taxing physically—with a high probability of injury, which in turn hinders the worker’s earning capacity. In the National Day Labor Survey, conducted in 2006, just six percent of people said they had their injury covered by workers’ insurance since people who work for homeowners do not always receive benefits (“Day Laborers”). But perhaps the most pressing issue facing many day laborers is the difficulty of earning a fair wage (Portland VOZ).
The median hourly wage for day laborers nationally is ten dollars (“Day Laborers”). Many are stuck below the poverty line, even with additional streams of income from several part-time jobs. It is rare for even the luckiest day laborer to make more than $15,000 per year, just slightly more than the federal poverty threshold of $11,770 that the U.S Department of Health and Human Services specifies for individuals in the forty-eight contiguous states (“2015 Poverty Guidelines”). In the best months, median earnings are $1400, while those earnings drop to $500 in slow months (Valenzuela et al.).
Many employers pay workers little to none of what they have rightfully earned, taking advantage of the susceptibility of people in a foreign country with a different language and customs. In fact, close to half of all day laborers surveyed nationally reported at least one instance of wage theft in the prior two months (“Day Laborers”). Since 2008, VOZ has reclaimed more than $500,000 in lost wages, created over 25,000 jobs, and established a minimum wage of $12 for workers hired at the Center (Portland VOZ).
VOZ is an invaluable resource for many members of the community, yet it faces its own share of difficulties. Relying primarily on donations and grants from other non-profits and the City of Portland, the organization does not have running water or permanent toilets at the Worker Center. Additionally, the budget-strapped organization also has to deal with the negative stigma associated with temporary work and Latin-American men in general. VOZ does not actually know if any of its workers are undocumented. The organization enrolls day laborers of any nationality, and does not ask for documentation. Still, many prospective employers have balked at the thought of picking up a day laborer, instead opting to force the workers to use public transportation, a commute that can become quite lengthy when factoring in changing buses and walking time (Hernandez). This negative perception is so strong, in fact, that when the center first opened, many people protested outside the compound (Portland VOZ).
Back at the Worker Center, the employer that just drove in, a tall, thick homeowner with a subtle limp, is not as easily swayed by bigoted views. Wearing a puffy red jacket to combat the cold day, he fills out a form with preliminary information and drives off, two workers in tow, the tires of his light grey Honda CR-V skimming the water amassed from the previous night’s showers. The metallic sheen of the vehicle glimmers in the pale light as they rumble off towards the city center, heading southbound on MLK Boulevard.
The challenges of the Worker Center also impact the employees of the organization. With a slender frame and long, free-flowing black hair tied into a ponytail, Jasmine Hernandez slowly walks into the compound’s main office later that morning, her light purple jacket glowing in the unlit room. Hernandez, who was born in Portland and is one of two coordinators of the Worker Center, acknowledges that she had trouble adapting when she first started working here in March of this year.
“It was initially hard to understand the day laborers emotionally,” she says. “They come from different backgrounds and cultures, and at first that led to a lot of misjudgment of character.” One day, for example, she told a group of day laborers that she enjoyed her job and being able to help them, but the workers yelled at her, thinking she was looking down on them.
Nevertheless, Hernandez does believe that her experience with the Center has been on the whole positive. “With ignorance comes learning,” she tells me. “It took a while to learn that I had to stay emotionally strong when dealing with emotional people, but these workers need to make money and, as a result, have a lot of stress. I have tried my best to be understanding and transparent with them.”
When asked whether she feels the Worker Center makes a positive impact, Hernandez’s response is unequivocal. “This organization makes a huge difference in lots of people’s lives,” she says. “This is a place of resources, and we have a very strong community here. So many people pass through and don’t even sign in to work. This is a place for them to hang out with people like themselves. Some of the workers are homeless, and this is the place where they can feel a part of something bigger.”
The support that VOZ provides the workers is also extremely important. “It’s a great place to educate and grow,” adds Hernandez. “Outside of the Center, many of these workers have to deal with mistreatment and wage theft, among other things. Our organization provides protection. Employers cannot avoid paying the workers because we have their information. Since many of the people here don’t speak English, we help a lot by handling communication for them.”
Hernandez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants to the United States, feels that the experience has been worthwhile. “The main reason I took this job was to get closer to my roots and to people that have the same background as me,” she says. “I never got to fully experience Mexican tradition, and I wanted to feel a part of that. I was born and raised in Portland and speak perfect English, but I also want to embrace the fact that I am full Mexican and speak excellent Spanish.”
This theme of clashing cultures is prevalent at VOZ, where employers are almost always American, and the day laborers are almost always Latin American (though the organization welcomes workers of any nationality). According to Hernandez, the day laborers often misunderstand what their jobs entail, confusing and frustrating both themselves and their employers and leaving the organization to smooth over relations. The inherent tension is not easy to ignore, but the aim of the organization is to reduce it and ensure that all interactions run smoothly.
“I can connect with two cultures,” says Hernandez. “And if I can bring them together, then that’s pretty special.”
To gain a slightly broader perspective on the issues at hand, a week later I sat down with Romeo Sosa, executive director of VOZ. His office is tucked in a small building lining a courtyard attached to the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Northeast Portland, about a mile southeast of the Worker Center. Rust has accumulated on the door hinges over the years, and it takes me a few strong pulls to force my way in completely.
An indigenous Mayan, Sosa was born in Guatemala and moved to the United States around twenty years ago. He greets me with a warm smile and a persona significantly larger than his diminutive frame. He wears a grey sweatshirt and jeans, slightly hunching as he walks. With a spring in his step, he leads me into his office and starts from the beginning.
After coming from Guatemala, Sosa worked in the fields of California. “It was tough work, but I formed some very special friendships there,” he says, a shadow of a smile creeping onto his face as he reflects on his past. From there he bounced around to Los Angeles and Washington State and finally settled in Portland. After a period of homelessness and a lot of different jobs, he got involved with a group teaching Spanish. He then started working at the church near his current office, frequented by many of the day laborers, which is where he first heard about the plight of these workers in Portland.
Sosa had experience in this field, having worked as a day laborer himself while he lived in Los Angeles. He also felt obliged to help due to his connection with social justice movements in his native Guatemala. “It is the same struggle as in my country, but here there is a more diverse group of people,” he says. He got involved with VOZ immediately thereafter.
One of the largest threats to the organization in the beginning was ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). “People coming into the U.S constantly face abuses, homelessness, cultural shock, harassment by police, and ICE raids,” says Sosa. “Some agents would come undercover pretending to be employers. They would gather people in a van saying they needed a lot of workers. They probably deported most of them,” Sosa explains, shaking his head in disgust.
The biggest boon for VOZ may be the City’s involvement. “It wouldn’t look good for [ICE] to come now that we’re established and have backing,” states Sosa. “But the bottom line is that police and immigration don’t want people on the streets. Businesses nearby would actually call the cops earlier on. That’s not so much of a problem anymore. Businesses would rather have them in a building than on a street corner. They do not appreciate or accept day laborers in the community. They do want the workers, who they associate with crime, drugs, and illegal immigration, off the streets.”
Under former mayor Tom Potter, the City of Portland provided a $200,000 one-time commitment to create the Worker Center in 2007, expecting no future contributions. Right now, the organization requires $340,000 annually to operate. Even after extensive meetings and requests, claims Sosa, the City only pitches in $30,000, a figure confirmed by the City’s Budget Office (“Special Appropriations”). The difference comes from individual donations and support from foundations or other non-profits that believe in VOZ’s mission. The five-year lease that the organization once secured has since expired. The uncertainty of the situation is worrying to Sosa, as VOZ is now leasing its facilities on a month-to-month basis.
Worker safety is also a primary concern of Sosa’s. The National Day Labor Survey found that forty-four percent of day laborers were denied food, water, or rest during the job, one-third had been abandoned by an employer on the job, and one-fourth were victims of violence (“Day Laborers”). A 2011 study by Seton Hall University found that forty percent of day laborers in New Jersey were not provided with the appropriate safety equipment by employers, and twenty-six percent of them had been assaulted at least once by an employer (“Day Laborers, Wage Theft”).
Sosa is the first to acknowledge VOZ’s shortcomings. “It is absolutely not a solution, but it’s at least a safer alternative because this organization actually started on the streets,” he says. “It improves working conditions and protects workers’ rights. Our goal is just to provide safety and public health. It’s good for the whole community.” On a larger scale, Sosa says he would like to see some kind of immigration reform. “The workers would then have more opportunities and could be further integrated into the life of the city,” he notes.
The one theme Sosa stresses unequivocally is the value of day labor. “You cannot get rid of day laborers. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. There are plenty of day laborers. We know that. But what people don’t know is that the demand is there. There are many employers who rely on this type of work all the time.” While there are a few businesses that compete with the Worker Center by offering labor, many actually use the Center itself to augment their own pool of workers for temporary jobs. It is this reliance on part-time work as opposed to hiring full wage-earners that has increased fears among those concerned with the nation’s economic condition (Hernandez).
As our conversation winds down, Sosa admits that the job has taken its toll on him. “I work a lot,” he says. “Running this organization is not easy. I need to think in different aspects, moving campaigns ahead and making sure everyone is doing their job. I have to work at night and on the weekends most of the time. Lots of the staff work extra hours, too. While Sosa states that he “likes the work—not the money—and that keeps me going,” he does concede that he “needs some time for me.”
“I wish that 100 percent of the workers could get jobs,” Sosa says, eyes gazing off into the distance. “We’re doing a lot of outreach to attract employers.” Some of this outreach is embedded in the organization’s marketing plan. Sosa and others have been presenting in schools and churches, doing TV and radio commercials, and putting up flyers around town. “We do what we can with what we have,” he asserts in his thick accent. “We are also trying hard to get a new building. We’re working with the City to make that dream a reality.”
A 2011 report stated that even though there are 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, that number is starting to decrease as a result of the Great Recession and improved economic conditions elsewhere (“Population Estimates”). Laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070 bill that encourage racial profiling are a potential factor. This measure requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect to be an illegal immigrant and has led to Latino drivers being pulled over at 2.5 times the rate of White people. The objective of the legislation is to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants in the state that they choose to leave the country (“Day Laborers”).
Additionally, the political rhetoric concerning immigration has become increasingly heated with the upcoming presidential elections as some candidates try to outdo each other by taking the toughest stance on the issue. Amidst this environment, executives of organizations such as VOZ have the tall task of curbing discrimination and attracting more employers, as well as pushing for funding for new facilities. Meanwhile, aspirations remain fairly basic for the men working as day laborers.
Pablo, a well-groomed man from Guatemala, combats an icy November day with a beanie pulled tightly over his head. He wears jeans and two sweatshirts draped over his five-foot-three frame. Pablo, who came to the United States eleven years ago, has taken English and Computer classes in preparation for the future. “Look around you,” he commands in free-flowing Spanish. “You think any of these guys wants to be in this position? Look, man. The only reason I’m even here today is for the money. That’s the only reason. But I appreciate that the organization gives me the opportunity to make the money. It’s hard otherwise, you know.”
Pablo feels the organization gives him hope and the ability to seek a better life in America. The same holds true for his fellow workers. They can just enjoy the moment for now, despite the underlying anxiety associated with their situation. The cries of laughter boom from the shed as they play cards and swap stories, eagerly awaiting the next pick-up truck.
“I’m here now, right?” Pablo says rhetorically. “I just want to support myself. I’ve learned a lot of skills and gained experience. In a few years I’ll be gone. You see that car right there?” he asks, pointing to his small, blue, beat-up Toyota parked on the side of the street. “I’m gonna get a truck soon. There are many other things I want to do in the future, too. I’ll start a business, and then I want to buy a nice house with a lawn.”
Perhaps, one day, his dreams will come true.
“2015 Poverty Guidelines.” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Department of Health & Human Services, 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://aspe.hhs.gov>.
“Day Laborers.” United Workers Congress. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.unitedworkerscongress.org>.
“Day Laborers, Wage Theft, and Workplace Justice in New Jersey.” Seton Hall University School of Law. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://law.shu.edu>.
Hernandez, Jasmine. Personal interview. 25 October 2015.
Pablo, R.. Personal interview. 22 November 2015.
“Population Estimates.” Department of Homeland Security, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.dhs.gov>.
Portland VOZ. VOZ: Workers’ Rights Education Project, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.
“Special Appropriations.” City Budget Office. The City of Portland, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <https://www.portlandoregon.gov>.
Sosa, Romeo. Personal interview. 30 October 2015.
Valenzuela, Abel, Nik Theodore, Edwin Meléndez, and Ana Gonzalez. “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States.” Judicial Watch. UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.judicialwatch.org>.