The following story was originally written by Gery Vereau and published by Reporte Hispano and translated into English by Kleibeel Marcano. The translation was made possible thanks to financial support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The story is being republished here with permission from Reporte Hispano and is available for republication with full attribution by all NJ News Commons members. For more information about this program or for republication rules, contact the Center for Cooperative Media at email@example.com.
NJ day laborers struggle to find work during COVID-19 pandemic
By Gery Vereau, staff reporter
May 7, 2020, Reporte Hispano
Note: With permission from the publication, this piece was translated and edited for clarity.
NEW JERSEY — José Arellano has not been able to pay his rent since the coronavirus broke out. He barely has enough money to eat.
But what he has been most worried about, he told Reporte Hispano, is his family that he had left behind in Mexico. Since the lockdown started in March, he hasn’t sent his wife and kids even a single dollar.
Like most undocumented day laborers, Arellano has no access to unemployment benefits, or federal, state or city emergency relief funds, although he has never missed paying his taxes each year.
Every day he and several day laborers stand at a Home Depot parking lot on Dayton Avenue, in Passaic, NJ, waiting for any kind of work — from construction and light manufacturing to landscaping and other similar jobs.
But the lockdown has made it almost impossible to find work. Still, Arellano has never failed to show up at the same spot in search for work that would support him and his family.
“In the last four weeks, I haven’t had much luck,” said Arellano, who was born in Veracruz, Mexico.
Once a van approached them, Arellano recalled. As the driver made a gesture, showing his two fingers — a sign that he was looking for two workers — four day laborers suddenly appeared.
“From time to time someone shows up in a car, looking for workers. But many of my colleagues and I come daily and not getting anything at the end of the day,” said Arellano.
On May 5, the Day of the Battle of Puebla, Arellano had nothing to celebrate. He [left the parking lot] at 5:00 pm without getting a job. “I don’t know if there will be something for me tomorrow.”
‘We have to hide from police’
A Guatemalan day laborer who calls himself Manuel (he requested not to reveal his real name) wears masks and gloves as he waits on the corner street for someone to give him work. He knows a little bit of everything — from laying floors and painting to putting on doors.
For Manuel, a full day of work could mean $180 in his pocket. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, he says, he would be very lucky if he gets two days of work a week.
“We usually don’t get anything. And, on top of that, the police write us a ticket for being here,” he said. “From time to time we have to hide from the police to avoid getting a ticket.”
Unprotected workforce in the state
According to José García, former vice president of the Association of Passaic Day Laborers, the Home Depot on Dayton Avenue can attract 200 day laborers per day.
Yet, because they don’t have the essential protections, the pandemic has made them vulnerable to the dangers of the coronavirus and its financial impact on them.
“We do not receive any help. My colleagues and I would go to the Home Depot and spend days without anyone hiring us,” said José García, who is originally from Puebla, Mexico.
He warned that day laborers are the most unprotected workforce in the state. They often eat poorly, do not have access to healthcare, and live alone without a network of friends or family to help them in times of emergency.
Day laborers, he adds, are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 because they cannot afford to self quarantine.
García urged local police to stop imposing monetary fines on day laborers because they are forced to leave their usual spot and people who may give them a job couldn’t find them anymore.
The fines that police issue to day laborers, he says, are detrimental to them who want to make a living in order to survive.
“Aside from the risk of getting the virus, day laborers are also vulnerable to fines for breaking the social distancing policy,” he said. “Under these conditions, it’s not worth it to go out and look for work.”
Not far from the Home Depot is the Day Workers’ House, where day laborers can gather and rest. But because of the pandemic, Garcia says it may be closed for a long period of time.