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Day Labor Pains

laborers
Robert Scheer

Waiting Game:Morning brings dozens of men to the streets in front of San Lorenzo Lumber near downtown Santa Cruz. They are there seeking a good day's work for cash--with no questions asked.

An underground economy provides a worker pool for small businesses and flexible jobs free of résumés, interviews and paperwork

By Michael Mechanic

The waiting isn't the worst part. It's the knowledge that each hour you stand out here cuts the next hour's pay in half. And yet, here we are, on the sidewalk in front of the San Lorenzo Lumber Company, selling our bodies like the hookers on Lower Ocean.

It's not sex they want, of course. It's labor. These contractors and homeowners in their vans and pickups want someone willing to trade sore muscles and a sunburn for a pocketful of green, a usually unreported, untaxed cash wage--sometimes fair, sometimes not.

This morning there are some two dozen men out here, about three-quarters of them Latinos. Not yet awake enough to tax my ill-practiced Spanish, I saunter up to a couple of homeless gringos, Dave and Paul, who stand shooting the bull in front of a No-Loitering-in-the-parking-lot sign. Dave is in his 40s, a talkative guy with medium-length blond hair, a ruddy sunburned complexion and a big blond mustache that he grooms regularly with a comb he produces from his pocket. He wears a Nebraska Cornhuskers T-shirt signifying his birthplace. His parents moved out here when he was young, and he's glad of that, he says. Not too many job opportunities in the corn capital.

A former truck driver, Dave has done all sorts of odd jobs, even subsisting for a while solely on money and bric-a-brac scavenged from beaches and trash cans, pay-phone tills and soda machine coin returns. He had it wired, he says; he knew where to look and when. Dave pulls out some of his booty--the ornate cover on his disposable lighter, and a fine-looking Swiss Army knife with leather case--all found in rubbish bins, he claims.

Down at the other of the two parking-lot entrances, a contractor picks up several Mexican laborers. "A lot of the contractors won't have anything to do with us white workers. They want the illegals, because they can work 'em like slaves for five bucks an hour, and they do," Dave complains, sweeping his arm toward the other entrance.

Whether or not the men are actually undocumented, I can only guess. We stand around awhile and I ponder the cracks in the sidewalk. Dave chats with another man and paws through a handful of cigarette proofs-of-purchase, which he says are worth a nickel apiece, and counts 11 "Camel Bucks" (40 will get him a free pack, he says). A truck pulls up nearby and we're beaten to the punch by another guy. It's work digging post-holes with an auger for eight bucks an hour--a good job.

To me, it seems like hardly anybody is getting picked up, but to Dave things are looking pretty good. There've been 10, maybe a dozen men go out this morning, he reminds me.

Exhaust and Silence

We again stand in silence and Dave puts on a headset to listen to his Walkman. The air smells of exhaust as we watch people enter the lot to buy lumber, hardware and plants. We search out their eyes, scrutinizing their intentions, like retail sales clerks feeling out prospective customers. Of course, that's exactly what we're doing, only here we're both salesman and product. You have to be on your toes, too, because the job seekers swarm each prospective employer like ants on spilled honey.

A truck pulls up at the other entrance and picks up two more Mexican men. Another man pulls into the entrance nearest us and motions to a young guy who has obviously worked for him before. "The more you work, the more you're gonna work because people would rather take someone they know is a good worker than take the risk with a stranger," says Dave.

That makes my prospects pretty bad, but Dave reassures me. A man stands out here a week, he'll "go out" for sure, he says. Dave didn't get anything yesterday, but he and Paul made $54 apiece last Sunday digging trenches. It was soft soil, plus the guy fed them lunch, provided rubber boots and paid $8 an hour.

Paul is in his 20s and looks like he could be a UCSC student--a good-looking kid with long brown hair tied back in a pony tail. Says he likes to eat expensive food and smoke green bud. The money he makes with a regular Saturday customer keeps him supplied with these essentials, although (by choice) he sleeps in the woods and subsists on what he makes out here.

Dave knows I'm green on the casual labor market, so he gives me the ropes. You get cash, always under the table, he says. For most work, you'll probably get about $7 an hour, although some of the contractors will want to pay $5. The work varies. You might pull weeds, paint a house, dig ditches or slap up sheetrock. You could end up at construction sites, re-roofing a house, building fences in a pasture. You never knew. All you knew was that your wallet was empty, you were out of cigarettes and there were a lot of other men likely to snag any job you reject.

As we talk, a woman in a white Mercedes pulls up nearby and Paul and another guy are all over it. Dave kicks himself. "If we'd have been paying attention, that could have been ours," he says.

It's nearing 11am and things are slowing down. My feet are sore, just from standing. A guy comes up to ask Dave something, and a moment later a quarter tumbles out of a jeep entering the lot. The guy who asked the question abandons Dave's response to chase after the quarter. After several minutes of silence, Dave speaks. "Wish I'd gotten me that quarter," he says.

Neither of us got work that day.

East Side Story

One week later. Second try. I park my old Ford at Kmart on 41st Avenue in Capitola and walk toward the edge of the lot, where men are awaiting work. A few eye me with curiosity, perhaps suspicion. I'm the only gringo among three dozen or so Latinos--with tattered shorts and bleached hair to boot--and I stand out like a sore thumb. But I swallow my self-consciousness and sit down on a curb. Presently a skinny, pleasant-looking man with a mustache and cream-colored sombrero saunters over and offers me some grapes.

My Spanish is much better than his English, which isn't saying much, but we're able to communicate pretty well. He's 42 and his name is Ramón. His family lives on one of several hundred small houses on a rancho in the Mexican state of Nayarit. He shows me a picture of his son, who is 21.

For several years, Ramón has traveled back and forth between Nayarit and Watsonville, returning to his wife and kids only once each year. That's a long time to be away, I tell him. He shrugs and smiles, and says something I can't understand.

Watsonville also has places where casual laborers gather to wait for jobs, so I ask Ramón why he comes here to wait. "In Watsonville, there are many men and few jobs," he says in Spanish. "Here there are few men and many jobs."

Could've fooled me. It's hotter than hell out here today, and nobody's hiring. Maybe half a dozen men will go out before noon, while the rest of us bake in the sun. Ramón assures me that it's usually not this bad. He goes out nearly every day, he says, and the pay ranges between $6 and $10 an hour.

We pass the time by teaching each other Spanish and English words. Ramón is a ham--he jokes a lot and teases the pretty women who drive by. "Quantos!?" he calls, not quite loud enough for the women to hear--"How many [men do you want]?."

I talk to another man, from Mexico City, who has been living in the States for five years and speaks passable English. He quickly dispels Dave's perception that Mexican workers will tolerate inferior wages. "That bastard over there, he's a contractor. I worked for him once and he tried to pay me five bucks an hour," he says, sneering at a man walking toward the Kmart entrance.

"What'll you work for?" I ask.

"Some of them try to pay you five or six and I tell them, 'I got to live, I got to eat, so why don't you pay me seven or eight,' " the man says.

Still, compared with wages in Mexico, even five is a good haul. When I ask Ramón why he comes to the States in the first place, he replies, "Trabajar"--to work. Homeowners on his rancho pay laborers 25 pesos (less than four dollars) a day to work their small agricultural plots, Ramón says. "You work six days a week from 7am to 6pm and you make 150 pesos [about $20] a week. Here, the other day, I worked for $10 an hour and made $80 in one day!"

On the other hand, it's undoubtedly more expensive to live here. Homes in Santa Cruz are among the highest-priced in the country, and the mortgages tend to filter down to renters.

Either way, the only person working today appears to be José M. Brosnan, a Watsonville chiropractor, who pulls up in a brand-new red pickup truck and sets up a full-fledged medicine show for the men--en español, of course. Loud, boisterous and a natural salesman, Brosnan pulls out a model of hips and spine and demonstrates the forces at work on la espalda during stoop labor, pregnancy and sex (good for the back, he says), and shows how he can help alleviate aches and pains resulting from pinched nerves. He offers a $25 introductory visit to his office, including X-rays, or $10 to get adjusted right here, right now, on his portable chiropractor's table.

The men listen attentively and laugh at Brosnan's jokes. Most are on intimate terms with back pain. Ramón is the first to volunteer for the field treatment, amidst much chiding and laughter. Then another takes a turn. A third makes an office appointment. Every man present accepts Brosnan's business card.

I'll never get work, it seems. It's past noon and I'm tired out just from the waiting these men have to endure every day. I bid Ramón good luck, toss him an orange in trade for the grapes, and head home to work in my garden--a poor substitute.

Hidden Economy

Many men, few jobs, but nobody knows how many and how few. According to analysts at the state Employment Development Department, there are about 91,000 regular jobs in Santa Cruz County, where the population was 238,000 in 1993.

But the EDD doesn't track the casual-labor market. "We don't measure that part of the economy; it's pretty small," says Eric Alexander, a labor-market analyst for the EDD in the Santa Cruz area. "You have casual labor that employment offices, temp agencies and halfway houses handle. And then you have [referrals from] the colleges--Cabrillo and Bethany College. And then you have the self-referrals at Kmart. We don't research that. It's not counted, it's not reported."

Still, the day-labor population is sizable enough that several Bay Area cities have built centers to keep the day laborers off the streets and provide meeting places, services and education for workers and employers.

Underground economy or not, employers are expected to obey California laws. "Workers hired for just an hour, a day, a week, are typically common law employees," states an EDD information sheet. "Generally a business becomes an employer upon paying wages in excess of $100 in a calendar quarter [$400 per year] to one or more employees."

Once a business becomes an employer, it must register with the state, report wages, pay unemployment insurance contributions and employment training taxes on the wages, withhold earnings, and pay disability insurance contributions and personal income taxes due on wages paid.

Casual laborers, however, are not considered employees if they receive less than $50 per quarter or if they work for less than 24 hours during any two quarters. That means an employer can legally pick up the same laborer for three full-day jobs every six months. More than that, and the employer is breaking the law.

Many do, however. While these laws are designed to protect workers, the law often fails to recognize that many of the businesses are composed of single individuals--men and women who must choose between obeying the letter of the law and being consumed by taxes and paperwork.

Third Time Charm

Back at the Santa Cruz location, and this time I'm determined. No more missed opportunities. I'm got long pants and a good cap to ward off the sun. I've got work gloves, water, sunscreen and a couple of bananas in my bag. I concentrate on watching the drivers, giving a little shrug and tilt of the head to ask if they need anyone. Most shake their heads, but my diligence pays off. A man in a white pickup points at me. I run over, with Paul close behind. "I need two men," says the driver. We hop in, but leave the door open.

"Whaddya got?"

The job is landscaping work--mostly raking and hauling tree branches. Mike, the contractor, offers six bucks an hour. I think about what the man from Mexico City said.

"Will you do seven?" I ask.

"I'll go seven."

Paul is elated. "Thanks for upping it," he says when we're alone. "I'm not much of a negotiator."

For the next four and a half hours, Paul and I put our muscle and sweat into clearing a Scotts Valley property. We rake steep hillsides of dried vegetation and cuttings and haul the stuff away. We rake a thick carpet of pine debris from a dirt driveway. We consolidate piles of spiny tree branches into a monster heap 12 feet tall and 20 feet long. It's hard work, though far preferable to digging trenches or picking strawberries.

The big difference between doing casual labor and working around the house is that a person-for-hire will work faster and rarely take a break, because he wants to get rehired.

Mike says he is paying taxes on our labor, adding that this year, for the first time, he's doing everything legit. I ask how long he's been in the business. Fifteen years, he replies.

Dave was right about one job leading to another. On the return, Mike says he'll be needing help painting and may soon build a retaining wall, in which case he'll need help hauling several hundred cinder blocks up a steep driveway and across a property. Real grunt work. He says he'll look for us in the lot.

Paul might get some of those jobs, but me, I think I'll stick to words for a living and labor in my own garden when I feel the need. But spending a few days out there gives a man some perspective on what an honest day's work really means, in addition to a bit of poison oak and a sore back.

Matter of fact, that 30 bucks I made is just about enough buy some lunch and a visit to the office of good ol' Doctor José Brosnan.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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