The economic crisis affecting the United States is being felt by undocumented day laborers in Los Angeles who, with the specter of unemployment, are fleeing California to other states or to their countries of origin.
“In the last two months I have only worked two weeks, which means I have spent six weeks without work,” said Elias Quijano, a young Salvadorean waiting for work at the day labor center adjacent the Home Depot in Hollywood.
Like Quijano, thousands of undocumented workers from Mexico, Central and South America are beginning to strongly feel the effect of the country’s sliding economy.
Used as cheap labor without any social benefits, day laborers are primarily hired by bosses and contractors who do small remodeling work.
Day laborers, who tend to gather at busy street corners, are chosen by being pointed at by the potential employer.
After coming to a pay-by-the-hour agreement with the contractor, who pays in cash once the job is finished, they are transported to the temporary work site.
Some day laborers prefer to use city run day labor centers because they have the advantage of establishing stable rates for the work needed.
But decreasing home values and the slowing down of the construction industry has made it harder for day laborers to find steady employment.
“Day laborers are the most affected because contractors or property owners are not investing in fixing up or remodeling their properties,” said Jerónimo Salguero, director of the Carecen (Center for Central-American Resources) of Los Angeles.
Felipe Aguilar is one of the many day laborers making plans to leave California and return to his homeland.
“I am already figuring out how to go back. In Guatemala, the situation is really difficult but at least I can find some work,” said Aguilar.
He spends his days at the day labor center on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles, but has not worked in three months.
Cases like that of Elias and Felipe are becoming more common: workers once able to find work seven days a week, including overtime, are now barely finding work two or three days out of the week.
“Many fellow workers have already left, thinking it’s better over there, but others migrate north,” explains Adolfo Cisneros, a volunteer who assists undocumented immigrants.
Some day laborers have left construction in favor of agriculture jobs in Washington state, where the effects of the crisis are not so harsh, said Angel Olvera, a work center coordinator.
“The crisis is such that skilled day laborers go out to sell anything for 20 or 30 dollars a day, instead of the 150 they used to make,” said Jerónimo Salguero.
Official data indicates that the unemployment rate in California is 7.3 percent, the highest in 12 years.
In August, the national unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, the highest since Sept. 2003, according to data from the Department of Employment.
The unemployment rate among Latinos is much higher, eight percent because of the losses in the construction and service job sectors that are forcing many legal workers to compete with undocumented works for any type of work.
While a recession has not yet officially been declared because we have not registered two consecutive trimesters of negative growth, Latino day laborers feel the crisis is deep and will be long.
In the meantime, undocumented day laborers wait for work while playing cards or simply conversing. Reflected in their faces is the anguish of uncertainty in not knowing what to do or where to go.