Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=101535
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 4:30:34 AM CST
Eric Rodriguez has worked with Chicago day laborers for the past five years.
He has to take a slow, deep breath before he explains how the current housing crisis has affected the people he's grown so close to.
“In the summer time, when the economy was [better], if you asked a [day laborer] what a good week was, he’d say getting hired three days out the week,” Rodriguez said. “Now, that same guy would say he’s lucky if he gets hired once in two weeks.”
Rodriguez is the executive director of the Latino Union of Chicago. His organization tries to improve working conditions for day laborers who spend hours each day on street corners waiting for work, usually in construction or landscaping.
“When employers need work for small projects or a homeowner needs work on their home, they go to day laborers,” Rodriguez said. “But the housing stuff has hit hard and the work is not there for them.”
And policy experts believe the problem is not going away.
“Not anytime in the near future, at least,” said Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at University of Illinois at Chicago. “The housing slump is related to other financial issues and until those are resolved, I wouldn’t expect a big turnaround [for day laborers].”
Theodore was among the group of professors who worked to produce a 2006 study that highlighted the plight of day laborers across the United States. The study found that day laborers are often victims of wage theft, hassling by police and are paid wages that keep them hovering around the federal poverty line.
“One of the big issues in the current economic downturn is that the housing market is in the center of it along with the construction industry,” Theodore said. “Work that day laborers would have been getting has dried up really quickly.”
According to Theodore’s study, close to 120,000 day laborers look for jobs each day on street corners, gas stations and home improvement stores such as Home Depot.
Day laborers are spread throughout Chicago, from Albany Park to the far South Side.
Rodriguez said the ethnicity of the workers tends to mirror the neighborhoods in which they live.
Day labor agencies and other companies that offer temporary employment have also been affected.
“The supply [of workers] is outweighing the demand [of jobs],” said Gary Cole, owner of Elite Staffing on the Northwest Side. “I can’t be as productive in what I do if there are more people that need jobs than I can place them at.”
Cole’s business specializes in light industrial jobs such as freight handling. Other staffing companies that specialize in hospitality-related jobs are seeing an increase in areas of business.
“We’re getting more requests for private home events,” said Todd Armbruster, owner of Service Is Us, a company in Uptown that provides waiters, bartenders and culinary staff when needed. “Our catering sales are down because clients are coming directly to us to save money.”
Day laborers who do not have the luxury of using agencies to find work must stay on the corner, waiting. Rodriguez hopes many will come to Albany Park Worker’s Center, which opened in 2004, as an alternative to standing outside.
But the center is at capacity and Rodriguez said he understands that day laborers don’t have options.
“Everyone is affected differently,” Rodriquez said. “But the day laborers are already starting out with little to support their families, and now they have even less.”