The Debate over Day Laborers A new study on day laborers describes the difficult lives of men on the lowest rung of the American economic ladder. Guests on today's program look at day laborers, and the tension in some communities where they look for work.
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The Debate over Day Laborers

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The Debate over Day Laborers

The Debate over Day Laborers

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From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

Day laborers gather on corners or in parking lots, an issue in many places, a flashpoint in a few. Mike Farwig(ph) owns a diner around the corner from a gathering spot in Danbury, Connecticut.

Mr. MIKE FARWIG (Diner Owner, Danbury, Connecticut): They gather there every morning, and anybody who tries to stop, even at the mailbox, they have to have a police officer there, because they've had issues where people just droppin' off mail in the mailbox, the immigrants jump right in their car to go to work for the day.

CONAN: Now, for the first time, we have solid information about who they are. The first nationwide study of day laborers, plus protestors invoke the wrath of God at military funerals, and a remembrance of playwright Wendy Wasserstein who died today. It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

(Soundbite of the news)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Every morning in America, over 100,000 workers leave their homes without knowing exactly where or if they will find employment that day. These day laborers stand on street corners, in front of gas stations, at home improvement stores, anywhere they think a potential employer might come looking for help.

Up until now, all we've known about these people comes from our glances at the parking lot outside the 7-Eleven or the Home Depot and from our presumptions. Now researchers have gone out to ask some fundamental questions. Who are these day laborers? Where are they from? How old are they? Do they have families and children? How often do they get work? How much do they make? Who hires them?

We'll talk with the authors of the first survey of America's day laborers and with a woman troubled by a system she believes traps these men on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. She voted against a day laborer center in her hometown.

Later in the program, does the First Amendment cover demonstrations against homosexuality at military funerals? Several states want to ban the protests, and we'll also remember Wendy Wasserstein's last visit to TALK OF THE NATION. The playwright died earlier today.

But first day laborers. If you have questions about who they are, how they live, give us a call. If you've hired them, if you live in a neighborhood where they gather to look for work, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is Check that. The address is I apologize for that. New e-mail address.

We're joined now by the office of the study On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States. Abel Valenzuela is director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA. He joins us today from NPR's, at studios in NPR West, in Culver City, California. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. ABEL VALENZUELA (Director, Center for the Study of Urban Poverty): Thank you.

CONAN: And Nik Theodore is director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Chicago, uh, University of Illinois at Chicago. He's with us from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida, and nice to have you on the program.

Mr. NIK THEODORE (Director, Center for Urban Economic Development): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And let me begin by saying our presumption, well, the presumption is that a lot of these men, and they are mostly men, are illegal immigrants. Nik Theodore, is that right?

Mr. THEODORE: We found that 25 percent of day laborers standing on street corners in the streets of the United States are U.S.-born workers or citizens, so about three-quarters of day laborers are undocumented immigrants, although we found that about 11 percent have a pending status change, meaning that they have applied for temporary or permanent residency.

CONAN: And what kind of lives do they live, Abel Valenzuela? Where do they come from for the most part? Mexico?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, most of them actually do come from Mexico, sixty percent of them. Another third come from Central America, with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador following in rank order. As Nik mentioned, a significant number were born in the United States, about seven percent. Forty-three percent of them are either married or living with a partner, and about two-thirds, that's 63 percent, has children, and about 29 percent of their children are U.S.-born citizens.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Where do they live?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, many of them live in the communities where they search for work. You can find day laborers, as our study shows, all over the United States, Atlanta, Washington, DC, area, of course, the Los Angeles, New York, but also in Seattle, Chicago and other regions of the country where there's a great demand for this type of worker.

CONAN: Mm. And Nik Theodore, I read the part of your report that suggested that day laborers live within 15 minutes of the spot where they get picked up for work, which I guess makes sense.

Mr. THEODORE: Right. Many of the informal hiring sites and worker centers that have been established around the country are in the neighborhoods in which day laborers live. They, uh, these sites offer ready access both to workers but also to employers who are looking to hire these workers for construction, landscaping and other jobs.

CONAN: And Nik Theodore, let me ask you. Are these men, as the, uh, are they transients? Are they moving from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, looking for the best place or looking for where they can begin to make some money?

Mr. THEODORE: No, most have been drawn to booming areas where there are very plentiful jobs and where there is great employer demand, so many of the workers have settled down, settled roots in these neighborhoods, and have really tried to integrate themselves into the local economy.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So that these are people, Abel Valenzuela, who go to church or who participate in civic programs?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Yes. I mean, we found that half, 52 percent of these men, attend church regularly. A good number of them participate in other types of community activities, such as sports clubs, community-based worker centers. They're a part of many of these communities despite some of the attention that a few places have generated.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And let me ask you, also, about who it is that they work for. Is this, again, the presumption being they're picked up by contractors to work on building houses. There's a big houses market in this country. Is that right?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Yes. Well, it, a full 43 percent of all employers of day laborers are what we call residential construction contractors. Another 49 percent of day laborer employers are actually homeowners or renters who also hire these men for construction jobs, moving and hauling jobs, preparing a house for a paint job, or other activities that an employer, or excuse me, a homeowner might need.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And what are they paid typically?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, we find that wages are clustered between $8 and $10. The way to think about this...

CONAN: Per hour is what I'm assuming at that...

Mr. VALENZUELA: That's correct.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. VALENZUELA: $8 to $10 per hour. But it's important to remember that despite the clustering of these two wages, I mean, I think most people would think that that's a pretty good wage, the fact remains that work is very infrequent, and in fact, if you were to, I think a more appropriate indicator is the median monthly earnings. At the high end it's about $1,400.

At the low end, it drops to $500. So even if you were to combine many more good months than bad months to get a yearly figure, you still find that most of these men would earn below poverty wages, somewhere around $15,000 a year.

CONAN: And one assumes that they don't have health insurance coverage at these places where they go to work. Is that right?

Mr. VALENZUELA: That is correct. Very few of these men have health insurance. I think, perhaps more important is that when they are injured, many employers refuse to provide workers' compensation for these men.

CONAN: And Nik Theodore, one also assumes that they must be vulnerable to rip-off artists.

Mr. THEODORE: Right. We found a very high prevalence of wage and hour and health and safety violations in the day labor market. We asked day laborers, in the previous two months, have you ever suffered an instance of wage theft, meaning a employer who did not pay you after the work was completed. We found that in that two-month period, 49 percent of day laborers reported that they had been victims of wage theft.

When we asked day laborers whether they had been the victims of the underpayment of wages in that two-period, we found 48 percent had not been paid, or had been underpaid during that period.

And so what this suggests is that the day labor market is characterized by rampant violations of wage and hour laws, and I think this really compounds the problems associated with the insecurity of the work...


Mr. THEODORE: ...the low wages that are earned, and so when we combine insecurity and low wages with the occasional nonpayment of wages, I think this really contributes to the poverty level earnings of many of these workers.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And did you ask these thousands of men you talked to why they do it?

Mr. THEODORE: Well, many are really, have a strong desire to be in the construction industry. We asked workers also about previous work experience in their country of origin, whether it be the United States or elsewhere, and many, many were involved in the construction industry.

And so I think the day labor hiring sites have become part of the labor supply for the construction industry, a just-in-time labor supply, if you will, and so many workers turn to this corner and turn to the labor corner as a source of, as a route into the construction industry.

CONAN: Hm. Let's get some callers involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, And let's begin with Prince, Prince calling us from Sacramento.

PRINCE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you. PRINCE: So, I saw the movie Dick & Jane, with Jim Carrey?


PRINCE: Which came out two weeks ago, whenever it did, and in the movie, he lost his job and everything. And so he went to do day labor. So, I'm a college student. I'm 23, and I listen to your show all the time.

CONAN: Thank you.

PRINCE: Anyway, so I went out and I did the day labor. It was awesome. I got 75 bucks for one nine-hour day and because I'm in-between jobs and I'm a college student.

CONAN: Right.

PRINCE: It was perfect. I just want to say that there are a lot of other people, I'm African American, and there are a lot of other people other than just Hispanic. The majority of them were Hispanic, but it's not all terrible. It's a great way to make a little extra money, then go on.

CONAN: And what did you do for that 75 bucks?

PRINCE: Dug holes for a pool company.

CONAN: For a pool company?


CONAN: Okay. And you'd do it again, no problem?

PRINCE: Yeah, no problem. It was hard work, don't get me wrong, it was hard work. I mean, that was the hardest $75 I made, but I mean, it paid for my, it helped me get through the week.

CONAN: I see, Prince, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call, and good luck in school.

PRINCE: Thank you.

CONAN: Abel Valenzuela, I guess there, Prince calls, among other things, to reinforce the point not all of them are Latinos.

Mr. VALENZUELA: Sure. We also find that in different regions of the company, for example, in the Midwest and Chicago specifically, there's a very large concentration of eastern European day laborers, mostly Polish workers. In the South, we also find African Americans and then white Americans looking for work in this manner. Also, in New York and California, you'll find other day laborers who aren't just Latinos, so I think he reinforces that point very well.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Joel, Joel calling us from Denver, Colorado.

JOEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. Glad to be on the show; first time I've called in. I used to live in Phoenix, Arizona, and worked for a previous employer in residential remodeling. And I can tell you that that previous employer used to send us out as construction managers on projects in order to hire day laborers, generally hispanic guys that are down on the corner, or wherever you could find them, for a great deal less than what your panel is suggesting that they're making.

CONAN: How much less?

JOEL: Anywhere between 20 to 50 dollars for an entire day's work.

CONAN: Nik Theodore, does that sound right?

Mr. THEODORE: Well, when we look across the country, we see a wide distribution of wages, but the hourly wage rates are clustered very strongly around the $10 an hour mark. I mean, sure enough, we encountered workers who reported even sub-minimum wage jobs, but those workers were few and far between. So, nationwide, we see the main clustering around $10.

CONAN: Joel?

JOEL: Well, I just, I know that we weren't, I know we weren't individualistic in how low we were paying this. Boy, it pained me to no end to have to do that. And I sent on my own company and we actually hire through a professional temporary service, such as Labor Ready, or what have you, but I know that we were not by ourselves in doing this.

In talking to the state of mind of a lot of the contractors, and because I was in upper management, I got to know a great deal of contractors down there. I just know from experience that by and large, over the Phoenix area and the Tucson area, and I have to believe that represents a pretty good ...

CONAN: Joel, we're up against the clock, we've got to go, but we thank you for your call. We appreciate it.

JOEL: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, we're going to talk more about the day laborers and who they are when we get back from a short break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're discussing day laborers today. A new profile recently released gives us a better sense of who they are, what type of work they do, and under what conditions. Our guests are Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at University of Illinois at Chicago; and Abel Valenzuela, director of the Center for Urban Poverty at UCLA.

And joining us now is Ann Null, and she's a council member in Herndon, Virginia.

To keep day laborers from standing around on street corners, some local jurisdictions have opened day labor centers. There was an argument about the construction of one in Herndon, Virginia, and Null is among those who voted to oppose it. The Town Council did eventually vote five to three to open it, and Null joins us now from her home in Herndon, Virginia.

Very good of you to be with us today to talk.

Ms. ANN NULL (Town Council Member, Herndon, Virginia): Thanks, Neil. Actually, that vote was five to two.

CONAN: Five to two; I thought that's what I said, but if I misdated it, thanks for the correction.

Ms. NULL: That's all right. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Can you give us an idea of what Herndon was like the day the day labor center opened? Where were these workers going to work?

Ms. NULL: There was a single 7-11 on the corner of Alabama Avenue and Eldin Street, very visible, and some days, there were 150 guys standing in this one 7-11 parking lot, and occasional urination, defecation, drunkenness in public.

It's coupled, the day labor visibility is coupled with overcrowding in the case of Herndon, in that many of these men live in very, very densely crowded, you know, mattresses all over the floor kinds of situations. So, whereas some more upscale guys might drink in their living room, these guys were doing toileting and drinking in the 7-11 parking lot, in addition to soliciting work.

CONAN: And...

Ms. NULL: I'm not saying all of them, but there was that component there that made it even more unsavory.

CONAN: Which is why some people suggested a day labor center might get these people off the streets, give them a clean place to sit while they wait for work.

Ms. NULL: That was, some people argued that, yeah.

CONAN: Your opposition to that was based on what?

Ms. NULL: Well, a Fairfax County survey indicated that, don't quote me exactly, something like 85 percent of our day labor population lacked documentation to work, and so my feeling was, let's get the documentation instead of aid and abet in illegal activity. And, in fact, the town is now being sued by Judicial Watch for my very concern.

CONAN: Mm hmmm. I know that you also had concerns that this system basically keeps these men on the lowest rung of the American economic ladder, permanently.

Ms. NULL: Absolutely. I was, I listened a little bit earlier to your conversation, your call-in, to how low the wages are. Even if the average wage is $10 an hour, that's far lower than minimum wage when you count the Workman's Comp, and the liability insurance, the social security, et cetera, that a safeguarded, documented worker receives.

CONAN: And, obviously, as this survey also shows, you talk about safe work; they don't have it. They can get injured on the job, when they do, there's no insurance.

Ms. NULL: Yeah, I think it's wrong for municipality to perpetuate a dangerous environment and an illegal environment for workers. I think it's far more important for us to be working towards legalization of those that we can legalize, then to, really, criminally aid and embed people with, not just the illegal aliens, but their really unscrupulous employers.

CONAN: How did you respond, and I don't mean to be blunt, but I'm sure you heard allegations that prosperous, white Herndon, Virginia was objecting to hispanic men being offered jobs in their town?

Ms. NULL: Well, those allegations must have come from outside of Herndon because Herndon is hardly white. Herndon is predominantly immigrant. We have large Indian and other Asian populations. We, you know, the majority of Herndon is immigrant. So, I think that doesn't hold water.

CONAN: And so, at the end of the day, you see this case going to court?

Ms. NULL: Oh, it's in court now. It's in the Fairfax County circuit court. Judicial Watch is suing, both the town of Herndon and Fairfax County. Fairfax County is a partner with Herndon in that it granted the funding to the operators of this former day labor site.

CONAN: And if the day labor site, if the court case is successful, where should these men go then?

Ms. NULL: Well, that I don't know. Basically, I think that the funds would be better used making those that we can make legal. If there's some paperwork shortfall getting everyone we can legal and then, hopefully, explaining to those who need to repatriate for legal entry into the United States that that is the requirement.

CONAN: And is the center now up and running?

Ms. NULL: Yes, it is.

CONAN: And is it operating the way people envisioned it, a less chaotic system than people driving up to the parking lot?

Ms. NULL: I've observed it a couple of times and it's, well, one thing that is very clear, is the former 7-11 site is now empty. What I see going on in Herndon now is more like Annandale, inside the Beltway, 236. I don't know if you're familiar with the area. It's sort of a single file day labor instead of a cluster in a single parking lot. It's more like single file on either side of the highway.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today, Ann Null.

Ms. NULL: Thanks for your interest in our issue.

CONAN: Appreciate your time.

Ms. NULL: All right.

CONAN: Ann Null is a member of the Town Council in Herndon, Virginia and joined us by phone from her home in Herndon, Virginia. And if you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255 or e-mail us

And, Abel Valenzuela, these day labor centers have become an issue in several cities around the country.

Mr. VALENZUELA: Yes. We've identified 63 worker centers in the United States and most of them opened with very little fanfare or controversy, precisely because they were opened to address some of the community concerns that the councilwoman brought up, such as hanging out in front of stores, public use of bathrooms, for example. But, more importantly, I think, to set a wage floor and to curtail some of the abuses that our report highlights.

These worker centers, if they're properly funded, if they're located in spaces that are visible to both the workers and employers, they really do serve an important resource for communities to deal with many of the issues that were previously described.

CONAN: Yeah. Here's an e-mail from Liz in Hercules, California.

I'm not one to demand that the border with Mexico be closed; in California, the Latino community's an important part of history and culture. But when I stop at the Home Depot parking lot on a weekday morning and there are huge crowds of day laborers, growing it seems, one wants to ask, what's the limit? I wouldn't want Mexican poverty in Mexico to think there is an endless supply of jobs here; there is not.

Yet, of course, Nick Theodore, people keep coming.

Mr. THEODORE: Sure, and we view workers' centers as probably the most comprehensive local strategy to deal with community concerns and the very real problems that we identified here in our study. We see the day labor worker centers opportunity to put a floor under wages and working conditions, to try to regularize the employment of these workers. I think both for the benefit of communities, for employers, and for the workers themselves.

I think there's a real danger, though, if worker centers come under attack. That it'll begin to push this market back underground and back into the shadows and we'll see an expansion of the kind of employer abuses that we've documented here in our study.

CONAN: Mm hmmm. Let's get some more callers in on the conversation.

Steve, Steve calling from Phoenix, Arizona.

STEVE (Caller): Good day. How are you doing?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

STEVE: A couple quick things to say, and I just want to, quick, even some of the last comments made that the nature of exploitation potential lends itself to a similarity to prostitution, if you will, in that if it's unregulated and you clamp down on it somewhere, it pops up somewhere else. And it's kind of a dicey topic, but you do see some similarities.

But what I really called to say was, it does provide an option for some people. I'm in construction in Arizona and I have been all my life, and while there's no justification for any of the exploitation, as one of the people said, it is a choice some of them are making to get into it. And because they have the group living, because they don't show up with their own tools, because their lunch is typically supplied, applying a poverty standard that's common for other U.S. citizens isn't necessarily accurate because their cost of living is a little bit lower.

And I'm certainly, again, not suggesting that it's in any way positive but, certainly, trying to set a wage floor is a dicey thing when we can't even get the U.S. minimum wage up.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

STEVE: In the last 10 years I've seen a dramatic change, actually, in their behavior, where, when you pick them up, as opposed to just jumping in and then basically asking what they're going to get paid at the end of the day, they'll negotiate pretty aggressively when they get in, for how much they're going to get paid and also pretty much tell you what they want to have for lunch, as opposed to be happy with what they get.

And from time to time these days, I'll find a better dressed guy gets in, and I'll watch him and he'll be talking on a cell phone at some point in the day. Things that just never happened ten years ago. So there's a changing face of the day laborer I would say as well.

CONAN: Steve, it sounds as if you had hired these men from time to time.

STEVE: Not as a staple, but frankly they provide an option that your basic U.S. 17 to 24-year-old male just doesn't want to do some work. I typically work right alongside them, but I work with a shovel or swinging a hammer or what have you. And I should also note that I know a lot of people in construction that don't have worker's comp or any other kind of advantages like that, so, I don't know if that's really a rallying point, because there's a heck of a lot of Americans that aren't getting those kind of perks out of their job. But, yeah, I've worked with them on various and sundry jobs over the years.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

STEVE: Have a good day.

CONAN: Nik Theodore, I realize this is your first survey, but more aggressive bargaining for, well, benefits I guess if lunch is a benefit?

Mr. NIK THEODORE (Director, Center for Urban Economic Development): Well, I think we see the day labor market maturing in many parts of the country, especially in the Phoenix area where it has been around for a long time. And so I think some of the callers have brought to light that the day labor marker is something of a paradox. On the one hand it is characterized by routine violations of wage and hour laws.

On the other hand demand is growing and workers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they intersect and interact with the construction industry. And so, you know, day labor really is changing as the caller suggested and workers' experience in the labor market is increasing dramatically.

CONAN: An email question from Barry in San Antonio. Are day laborers wages subject to tax and social security withholdings? Abel Valenzuela?

Mr. ABEL VALENZUELA (Director, Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA): One thing that you should know about this market that I think is obvious to everybody is that it is a cash based market. And it would be subject to taxes.

CONAN: Do people pay them?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Employers and day laborers usually do not pay taxes for services and exchanges in this market.

CONAN: Another question, this from Don in Berkeley, California. Do most of these day laborers send remittances back to their countries of origin? How much do they send back home? Nik Theodore?

Mr. THEODORE: We did ask questions on remittances and we're in the process of analyzing that. The answer, the short answer, is yes they do and often several hundred dollars a month. So this is a source of earnings to support workers as well as their families, both in the United States and in their country of origin.

CONAN: But to do that one presumes they do have to live under these terrible conditions that we're told about, these places crowded together with mattresses on the floor. That sort of thing.

Mr. THEODORE: Well, I think day laborers do take steps to save money so they can send money back home to support wives and children and others. So there are steps that are taken to try to hold down costs.

CONAN: We're talking with Abel Valenzuela and Nik Theodore. One from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the other one at UCLA, about their first ever survey of day laborers in America. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Katie. Katie's calling from Saint Augustine in Florida.

KATIE (Caller): Hi, Neal.


KATIE: How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

KATIE: Good. Listen, I had a couple of issues I wanted to talk about because we live in a primarily, well, it used to be a primarily agricultural county and it's growing now so we have a lot of construction workers. But recently in the county right next to mine there was a day labor camp that was raided, I believe by the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco. The conditions there were found to be quite deplorable, obviously.

And there were also found,the owners were found, to have been holding, not necessarily people like against their will, but they would purchase alcohol, cigarettes, and even crack cocaine and turn around and sell it to their employees and just sort of kind of keep them in an indentured situation where they were in debt for their either addiction or whatever they needed.

And they were just really never, I mean, I guess in situations like that you've got workers who are not really able to get out of a financial situation that's not going to benefit them. And these are not necessarily illegal immigrants either. There were, you know, poor African Americans mostly, and some Hispanics from, you know, the pictures that were on the front page of our paper when this happened.

And I'm just wondering, this is going to, situations like this tax local communities anyway. I mean, we've got our homeless shelter that goes out everyday into migrant areas and feeds workers sandwiches and lunches and then you end up with, you know, situations where you have families or heads of households who are breadwinners and end up addicted to, you know, crack or have an alcohol problem. I mean, what is this doing to the local communities where these situations are and do your guests, how common is this? I mean, how common are camps like this?

CONAN: Mm hmm. Abel Valenzuela?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, you know, the camps that she's referring to, I think, have more to do with the agricultural industry, as opposed to the more urban construction industry that the men that we studied participate in. I think it goes back to the point that we've been making about the use of worker centers to mitigate some of these conditions found in different parts of the country where you have high rates of abuse and exploitation. Worker centers, we find, are really a fiscally responsible approach that local cities, municipalities, are undertaking to try to deal with some of these issues.

CONAN: But if illegal drugs and that sort of thing have been found at camps, again, they might be peculiar to agricultural communities, but might there be a justified fear that they would find their way to more urban or suburban settings?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, you know, there's many issues of public and mental health that different segments of our population, different workers in the United States, encounter and I don't believe that there's a higher preponderance of that with your low skill workers. I do think it's an issue that we as a country need to confront when we talk about men earning low wages and finding infrequent work and having to support themselves and their families. I think some of these men do divert to other forms to relieve themselves, if you will.

CONAN: And if many of their activities, including their presence in the country, is illegal they may be in the presence of other illegal activities. I mean, they may have greater access to it.

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, I think that's the connection that was trying to be made by the previous speaker.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Katie, thanks very much for the call.

KATIE: Thank Neal.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We're going to continue taking calls on this subject when we return from a short break. Again, if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Our email address is We're also going to be talking about why some states may try to ban protests at military funerals. We'll also remember playwright Wendy Wasserstein who died earlier today in New York City of lymphoma. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after a short break. You're listening to talk of the nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now we're wrapping up our discussion about day laborers. Our guests are Nik Theodore, Director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago and Abel Valenzuela, Director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255 or email Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Nabor(ph)? Am I pronouncing that correctly? Calling us from Phoenix.

NABOR (Caller): Correct.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

NABOR: Yes, I'd just like to say that if it wasn't for my mother introducing me to that type of work I don't think I would be the person who I am today. She had five children and was a single mother and introduced that to us when we were quite young and we did a number of day labor type jobs where we would do mostly agriculture and farming.

CONAN: And this was when you were a kid?

NABOR: Yes. That's when it started. I did some in my late teens also, but currently I'm working for a large company making approximately 16,000 a year, and I have two brothers who are engineers.

CONAN: Hmm. Abel Valenzuela, earlier we heard from Ann Null who worries that this system traps men on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Nabor at least is one who got out.

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, we actually find that a worker who participates in this market comes from the formal market, for example, a good percentage of these men were either laid off or fired from work, regular work. We also know that it serves as a compliment to part-time work. For example, some men work day labor on Saturdays and Sundays.

The market is very fluid, so one can't say that it's just a market for recently arrived immigrants, because we know that it involves workers who are displaced from permanent jobs, workers who look for work because they're trying to compliment, supplement part-time work or even full-time work. So in many ways it serves as a staging ground for people to get experience or to hold them off as a result of a temporary lay off or firing.

CONAN: Nabor, are you in a situation in your current job where you hire and fire men like these?

NABOR: No, I'm not actually. I work for Frito-Lay.

CONAN: Uh huh.

NABOR: I work for the company Frito-Lay, it's owned by PepsiCo and it's a quite large company and everything's corporate.

CONAN: So, have you ever thought about whether you would hire somebody who did the job that you used to do?

NABOR: Absolutely, because I think that sometimes people are in those situations where they need to. That's the only option they have available to them.

CONAN: Ok. Thanks very much for the call.

NABOR: Thank you. Have a great day.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Here's an email we got from Flavia. From an economic standpoint, she writes, this whole concept is very destructive. With 75 percent of the laborers being illegal aliens they encourage construction companies to avoid following legal paths. They place an additional burden on the tax payer who ends in subsidizing construction companies and developers. The more we protect these individuals the longer it will serve to perpetuate the system. Illegal aliens are already breaking the law, she writes, why should we protect them or their employers?

Abel Valenzuela, I don't think Flavia is alone in that belief.

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, I think that's a complicated question. I think to just say that these men are legal or illegal I think obscures a much bigger issue of labor demand. This country has relied on this type of work and worker for many, many, many years and they currently do so.

CONAN: Will you continue doing these surveys in subsequent years to see how this situation is changing, growing, diminishing, whatever?

Mr. VALENZUELA: Well, I think for now we're trying to still mine the database that we have to see what other types of interesting findings we can use to inform public discussions and debate over this issue.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VALENZUELA: We have discussed doing a broader study. Or not a broader study, but a similar study in New Orleans. We understand that day labor has become a big issue in that part of the country, obviously as a result of the hurricane that devastated the city and as a result is now being built up by low-wage workers that include day laborers.

CONAN: Nik Theodore, tell me one thing that surprised you when you found out the results of your survey.

Dr. THEODORE: Well, I think that our two most surprising findings were first, that day labor is now a nationwide phenomenon. We found day labor in every region of the country. And we're not just talking about the big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, but small towns and rural areas as well.

And then second, while we knew that there was a high prevalence of work-place violations, the level of violations surprised us. We found that day laborers are interacting in a market that often denies them many of their worker's rights, and that they're often searching for work in a climate of hostility, sometimes victims of unscrupulous employers, and sometimes incurring the wrath of local communities that are trying to come to terms with what this growing phenomenon means for their area.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Andrew, Andrew calling from San Diego.

ANDREW (caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ANDREW: Thanks for taking my call. And I was just wanting to give an example. My brother works in landscaping. And he turned down a job once where he was asked to clear a field of a lot of poison oak, and later saw that someone had hired a bunch of day laborers, that they were working clearing the field, and that they had their shirts off, obviously didn't have any protection from that.

And so I was just wondering, it does sound like there was a lot of examples of abusive labors, and just wondering if your guests could comment on that?

CONAN: Abel Valenzuela?

Dr. VALENZUELA: Day laborers, we find, undertake many of the jobs that, I think, regular construction or other types of contractors will not. I think that's the reason why they're in such high demand. That's the reason why employers will drive by their neighborhood, pick up these men, and they'll put them to work undertaking dangerous, difficult, and low-paid, inconsistent work.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call.

ANDREW: Thank you.

CONAN: And one final email, this from Darryl in Phoenix, Arizona, a very simple question. When these guys get hurt, who pays? Nik Theodore?

Dr. THEODORE: Well, we found that there was a very high instance of workplace injury, about 20 percent of day laborers who reported an injury in the past year. Of those, about half reported that they did not receive the medical care that they needed, either because they couldn't pay for it, or because their employer would not pay for it, or would not cover them under worker's comp.

And so, the overall picture is this: these workers are doing, sometimes difficult and occasionally dangerous work. And there are instances of injury. But often times, it's the day laborer going back home and recovering on his own without the benefit of the medical care, because most of the medical system is closed off to them.

CONAN: Gentlemen, thank you both very much. We appreciate your time today.

Dr. THEODORE: Thank you.

Dr. VALENZUELA: Thank you.

CONAN: Abel Valenzuela, Director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nike Theodore, Director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with us from the studios of member station WLRN in Miami. They authored the study On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States.

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