TOPICS > Economy

A Day’s Work

August 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TED ROBBINS: A lot of people play the lottery hoping to win and one day quit their jobs. These men play a lottery to get a job for one day. This is the Phoenix day labor center, opened earlier this year. It was built to put an end to scenes like this: Men ten miles away standing around a central Phoenix Home Depot parking lot trying, sometimes aggressively, to find work. Day labor is nothing new. Its roots go back to medieval times. Here’s how Hollywood portrayed the experience in 1954, one of Marlon Brando’s early films, “On the Waterfront.”

ACTOR: Say, what does it take to get a day’s pay around here?

SPOKESMAN: The reality is there’s a lack of dignity just looking for a job. They’re just trying to get those basic needs. And these are guys that are just looking for a job during the day.

TED ROBBINS: Keenan Strand says he witnessed mornings when 400 men lined the north Phoenix street in front of his McDonald’s restaurant … which did what to your business?

KEENAN STRAND: Well, it primarily scared off customers that were just going by, didn’t understand what’s happening, why is there such a large gathering of men. Oftentimes if they look, if they were in a vehicle that looked like they might need somebody to work, a pickup truck or a truck with a trailer, they’d literally begin to just get in before the customer or the person in the truck knew what was going on.

TED ROBBINS: Eighty local business owners, including Strand, lobbied the city to help build the worker center now down the street. It’s one of more than two dozen such centers around the country, most built in the last decade. The city of Phoenix put up about a quarter million dollars for the structure. Three nonprofit agencies pay to run the place, with Salvador Reza the on-site manager. But he says the workers make the rules.

SALVADOR REZA: We tell them, you are the ultimate authority in this center. Whatever you guys want, that’s what’s going to happen in this center. We’ll propose rules for you and we’ll discuss the rules and whatever the assembly decides, that’s what we’re going to do.

TED ROBBINS: The overwhelming percentage of day laborers are new and undocumented immigrants eager for work. In Spanish they are called jornaleros. Their potential employers are patrons. Jornaleros show up around 5:00 A.M., sign in and get tickets. The system is balanced so that men who have not worked in a while get more tickets and hence more chances. Jose Luis Arrias says he gets work at least three days a week. He says he’s lucky because he prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe at a shrine the men set up.

JOSE LUIS ARRIAS: It seems to work.

TED ROBBINS: Arrias left his family 1,000 miles away in Zacatecas, Mexico, to get work here. He sends the money back and plans to return home at the end of the year.

SPOKESMAN: They earn about 4 or 6 dollars a day. Here they earn about 6 an hour.

TED ROBBINS: Not everyone thinks the labor center is a good idea. Kathy McKee and Rusty Childress are circulating petitions to put a measure on the Arizona ballot that would halt the use of public money to provide aid to illegal immigrants.

KATHY MCKEE: It’s illegal to do anything to help illegal aliens find employment. It’s illegal to hire them, it’s illegal to for them to take jobs, and it’s illegal to help them, it’s illegal to do anything to encourage an illegal alien to stay in this country. If helping them find a job isn’t illegal, I don’t know what it is.

TED ROBBINS: But it is also legal for an employer to hire workers without asking for any documentation unless the employee works for more than three days.

SALVADOR REYES: If you actually pass legislation against day labor, you my as well pass legislation against the 16-year-old next-door, because 16 year olds, 14 year olds, 15 years olds are cutting your lawn, they’re day laborers, too.

TED ROBBINS: Salvador Reyes says it’s just facilitating the free market.

SALVADOR REYES: Corporations are able to go anywhere they want to, regardless of borders of national states or whatever. But human beings, the labor for specific components of the market is being held back and can you not do that. You cannot do that and ultimately not create an imbalance in one country or another, which is what happened between Mexico and the united states.

TED ROBBINS: Harold Huffman came to hire two men for yard work.

HAROLD HUFFMAN: Just help me out a little bit.

TED ROBBINS: Why here?

HAROLD HUFFMAN: That’s where my daughter told me to come. She’s a detective, so.

TED ROBBINS: She knew about this place?

HAROLD HUFFMAN: Yes, she did.

TED ROBBINS: Huffman says the work is being paid for by his neighborhood association, he provides water and lunch. Jose Luis Arias says before the center was bit he had trouble competing on the streets with younger workers. He is 51 years old. He also says he was ripped off by patrons who took his labor, then did not pay.

SALVADOR REYES: All the way to working for them for a week and not paying them to telling them, “well, I’m going to pay you next week because they haven’t paid for the contract.” So the guys wait, but they never see the guy again.

TED ROBBINS: The worker center gives them some protection, because the city sanctions it and because managers will help find deadbeat employers. The city of Phoenix wants to build more day labor centers, including one near the home depot parking lot. So far, opponents have prevented that from happening. Supporters hope the current day labor center is successful enough to convince neighborhoods that it pays to take laborers off the street while they wait for a day’s work.