With no money and unable to find work in Mexico, David came to the United States 12 years ago. He first immigrated to California. Some of his extended family lived in North Carolina, and they told him there were more job opportunities in Charlotte, so in 2010 he left for North Carolina.
WFAE is not using David’s full name because he is not in the country legally and he fears for his safety.
“I felt a need to immigrate to this country in search of a new life, new opportunities. A new way of living,” David said.
When he arrived in Charlotte, he started washing dishes at a restaurant. But it didn’t pay enough, so he quit.
Since then he has been working as a day laborer. Every day is different. He doesn’t have a set job or employer. Instead, he calls around for jobs or stands on a corner in east Charlotte with about 20 others looking for work. Contractors hire him for different manual labor jobs. Some days he helps them clear out materials at construction sites. Other days he works in landscaping.
David says he feels limited to this work because he doesn’t speak English or have a car. He’s not an expert with any one skill, so he can’t be picky about the kind of offers he gets.
“I had to survive. I had to make an income in a fast and concrete way. I don’t think I had another option,” David said. “My economic situation was delicate and I was alone and without support. I had very few possibilities.”
He’s gotten used to not knowing if he’ll have a job from one day to the next. Before COVID-19, the season and the weather determined how easy it would be to get work. The spring and summer were usually his busiest times.
Then the pandemic hit.
“My life has changed. I mean, it was already difficult. But now my life is even harder,” David said.
Before the pandemic, he would work six days a week; now he’s lucky if he gets work two or three days a week
This drop in work is happening across the country, according to Pablo Alvarado, president of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
There is little data on the number of day laborers nationally because most of them are paid off the books. A study out of University of California Los Angeles from 2006 finds a majority of them are Latinos who are in the country without legal status. And 7% are born in the U.S. Alvarado puts the national number of day workers at about 120,000.
Jobs are slowly coming back to these workers, but Alvarado says they’re still struggling.
“It’s not like they can isolate or quarantine when they don’t have anything to eat, when they don’t have any employment security or a consistent income,” Alvarado said.
The majority of day workers live in poverty, Alvarado said. Their only income is what they earn on any given day. That’s why groups like NDLON have stepped up to help them during the pandemic.
“Us, as nonprofit organizations, are helping them find personal protective equipment. We frequently give them masks and gloves,” Alvarado said. “We’re the only safety net these day laborers have. And not even all of them have this because there aren’t organizations everywhere.”
The Latin American Coalition is that bridge in Charlotte between day workers and employers.
The day laborers the Coalition works with stick together and protect each other. These workers also try to stay under the radar. The Coalition’s Workforce Development Coordinator, Jenny Gomez, says the workers fear deportation and some of them have a criminal past.
Another fear for day workers — especially now, during the pandemic — is getting sick.
That’s why the Coalition makes sure they have protective equipment. Gomez says they started handing out personal protective equipment after hearing it wasn’t being provided on the job.
“The Coalition has been delivering COVID-19 tests, constantly providing them with masks, taking them food and administering economic resources,” Gomez said.
Most day laborers live in poverty and do not have legal status in the U.S. making them ineligible for federal financial support. This is why, during the coronavirus pandemic, nonprofit organizations have become their only safety net.
Normally, day laborers could negotiate around $150 a day. Now they’re getting $95. Before the coronavirus pandemic, getting a job every day wasn’t guaranteed. Gomez says day workers wait around for hours as contractors come and go, hiring a couple of them at a time. If they don’t get a job that day, they won’t get paid. They’re also telling her they have to decide whether to show up for work possibly with COVID-19, or not go.
“When they did take a job, they either weren’t paid the same or they weren’t given their protective equipment,” Gomez said. “At first, it was unheard of for them to get a mask or for us to see them wearing one. I would go in the mornings to hand them out and give them information.”
David got some masks and a little cash from Coalition employees who visited the site in east Charlotte where he waits to find work. He’s thankful for this help, he says, but it isn’t enough.
“It’s not something that can help alleviate my economic situation,” David said. “It’s something I can be grateful for. But it’s not even close to what I need.”
He’s managed to continue paying his rent and buying food, and he only has enough for the necessities. He’s careful with his money — especially because he doesn’t know where his next paycheck will come from.
“Physically and emotionally I’m depressed. But I have to keep going out and fighting all the time, in order to be able to survive,” David said.
Getting sick with COVID-19 is a constant worry. He’s avoided it so far, by wearing a mask and keeping a distance from other workers. But he’s on his own. With no family that can help him out, he knows that despite his fear, he has to go out every day to look for a job.
He doesn’t have the option of staying home.
The Latin American Coalition is a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for Charlotte’s Latino community. Its Worker’s Collaborative Center connects day laborers with potential employees and helps ensure workers are paid fair wages. During the coronavirus pandemic, the Coalition has established a COVID-19 helpline to provide Spanish-language assistance. For the COVID-19 helpline call: (980) 320-3743
National Day Laborer Organizing Network is a nonprofit organization that advocates for and supports day laborers, immigrants and low-wage workers. The organization has set up The Immigrant Worker Safety Net Fund to support day laborers who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Want to read all of WFAE’s best news each day? Sign up here for The Frequency, WFAE’s daily email newsletter, to have our top stories delivered straight to your inbox.