Sections

Immigrants at a Brooklyn Street Corner: “We are Waiting for the Job that Falls”

On an early October morning, Gloria, 43, stands on a street corner in southern Williamsburg. 

 

She has worked as a day laborer for 13 years, but today she brings her college-bound daughter to the spot for the first time. “Mom always comes home telling me about this place, so I wanted to see it myself,” says Stephanie, 18.

 

Gloria and her daughter settle on two black plastic crates on the sunlit street corner. Every 15 minutes, they move the crates a few feet to stay out of the chilliness of the changing shade. By 9 a.m., more than 60 women crowd the corner.

 

Some workers are chatting with each other, others are quietly looking at their phones. All are waiting for an employer to show up.

 

Gloria is from Ecuador and asks that her full name not be published because of her immigration status. She is one of a group of women who gather on this street corner every day searching for work. The corner is known as La Parada, which translates to ‘the stop’, a name that mirrors the action of the place: The day laborers are waiting to be picked up and taken somewhere else to work.

 

La Parada is one of many street corners where immigrant day laborers come to find work in New York City — but this corner is unusual, as all the workers are women. It came into existence in the 1990s when a group of Polish immigrants started gathering there, but now the corner is almost exclusively frequented by immigrants from Latin America.

 

Six years ago, a group of researchers from Cornell University and the Workers Justice Project wrote a report about the conditions at La Parada. They found that the laborers’ wages barely covered such necessities as food, rent, and transportation.

 

The study of 80 women showed the risks of the market, where wages are negotiated on the spot. In this study, 42 percent reported that they had at some point been paid less than agreed upon — some reported not being paid at all — and 82 percent considered their work dangerous or hazardous.

 

At La Parada, the laborers undertake a wide range of jobs: Some are employed in construction, retail or food processing, but almost all the women have done cleaning in private households — primarily within the neighborhood’s Satmar Hasidic community.

 

*** 

 

“Nosotras estamos aquí esperando el trabajo que caiga” — which in English means, “We are here waiting for the job that falls.”

 

Those are the words of Merced Aguilar, who once did temporary jobs at the corner but now has steady cleaning work.

 

An immigrant from Mexico, Aguilar, 45, now returns to the same employers every week — including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s campaign office in the Bronx. However, she still comes to the corner early many mornings before work to support the women there.

 

The corner is a concrete triangle atop the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where traffic noise is constantly humming in the background. There is no shelter to provide cover from the rain or sun, and many women have resorted to sitting on empty paint buckets or pieces of cardboard while they wait.

 

The practical clothes of the day laborers — soft pants, hoodies, and sneakers — stand in sharp contrast to the neatly dressed Orthodox Jewish schoolchildren passing by during the morning. The women must be dressed for whatever work they are offered. And when a job opportunity makes its appearance, they are quick to notice.

 

A hiring woman arrives with a child and a stroller. She is looking for someone who can do five to six hours of work. A day laborer offers $50 to $60 — around $10 per hour. After a short phone call, the woman agrees, hands her an envelope, and gives directions to the workplace. A crowd of other laborers quickly assembles, hoping that the woman will have work for another one. She makes another call but leaves without hiring anyone else.

 

At La Parada, employers and day laborers can strike a deal within minutes — tasks, hours and wages are negotiated on the spot. It is a place of constant negotiation. If a laborer demands too high a wage, she risks being outcompeted by another woman ready to commit to cheaper labor.

Often the employers pay as little as $11 an hour, Gloria says. “It depends.” 

 

For Gloria, the answer to almost everything is “it depends.” Who she is working for, what she is doing, how much she is earning — it all depends on what deal she strikes on the corner that day. Some days, Gloria returns home without finding work.

 

One thing is more sure: Gloria’s daughter, Stephanie, begins her education at Queens Borough College next spring.

 

*** 

 

A woman clutching her flip phone addresses one of the day laborers, Claudia. The woman asks Claudia in English if she is available to work five hours. Claudia doesn’t speak English, so Aguilar intervenes, explaining that Claudia wants $15 an hour — the minimum wage in New York City.

 

The woman is hesitant and asks for Claudia’s number. She then calls someone, tells Claudia she will call her later and continues her walk down La Parada.

 

“She is going to find another one,” Aguilar said.

 

“Here is how the job is — to wait for them to choose us,” said Claudia.

 

Claudia, 20, an immigrant from Ecuador, has been working on the corner for six months. At La Parada she finds work “cleaning rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms, cleaning floors by hand,” she says, often for as little as $10 an hour — or two-thirds of the city’s minimum wage. 

 

She came to the U.S. to support her family at home, but the combination of low wages and high cost of living makes it hard to send much back. “The money is spent,” she said.

 

*** 

 

The laborers at La Parada face below-minimum wages and difficult working conditions — but do these activities violate labor laws?

 

Most government websites don’t account for day laborers who are infrequently employed by private households. Since they work within the boundaries of an informal market, the enforcement of employment laws is less likely to be applied.

 

Liberty Cleaners, a workers-rights organization, comes to the corner several times a week to counsel the women. Affiliated with the Workers Justice Project, Liberty Cleaners is trying to organize and empower the laborers while offering education in English, green cleaning, and technology.

 

The employers are taking advantage of the constant change, says Maria Valdez, director of Liberty Cleaners. Every time she goes to the corner, she meets new women. They arrive without understanding that it is illegal to offer the workers sub-minimum wages.

 

New York state law on minimum wages states that “every employer shall pay to each of its employees” the city minimum wage of $15 an hour.

 

On other issues, the picture is less clear. Day laborers are excluded from many protections because those often are based on a formal relationship between employer and employee, the number of hours worked, and the employer’s number of workers, according to the 2016 report.

 

The New York Domestic Workers Bill does not apply to day laborers working in private households on an infrequent basis, for different people and paid in cash. Other state laws protect day laborers if they are hired by commercial employers — but these women mostly work for private households.

 

And many day laborers wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting labor violations.

 

In the U.S., a worker has to file a complaint for basic protections to be activated, says Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University. 

 

“Because they’re undocumented, there is the fear that if you file a complaint, you might get detected as undocumented and be deported,” she said. 

 

“In a workforce that is undocumented, leaving enforcement to worker-based complaints is a model that is broken.”

Written by

Laura Bejder Jensen is a Danish data journalist currently pursuing an MS in data journalism at Columbia Journalism School.