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Coronavirus Means Extra Risk for Day Laborers

(Image: Workers convene at the offices of the Workers Justice Project. Photo courtesy of Ligia Guallpa.)

CIARA LONG, HOST: Coronavirus has thrown the lives of American workers into turmoil. It’s been especially hard for day laborers, who rely on short-term jobs in construction, cleaning, or landscaping to get by. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. And because this work is largely off the books, they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits. Emily Pisacreta reports on the additional health and safety risks these workers now face.

EMILY PISACRETA: Most days, Martha Zhanay lines up along a fence in Williamsburg at a place called la Parada where potential employers look to hire cleaners for homes or construction sites. Unlike most spots where day laborers find work, this one is exclusively for women. And even though state officials have ordered all non essential workers to stay home, Zhanay is still going to La Parada. Speaking through a translator, she says she has no other option.

MARTHA ZHANAY: What I’ll do is I’ll keep going to the day labor corners to look for work and hope

that I can find something.

PISACRETA: She says there is less work, and the work that she does find is riskier than ever.

ZHANAY: ….we’re concerned because right now they are no safety masks, and we can’t afford them either.

PISACRETA: Zhanay and a handful of other workers met up to practice different ways to make homemade masks. They also came together to protest outside the office of a management company that Zhanay says is refusing to pay her for cleaning work she did... before the jobsite shut down due to coronavirus. Ligia Guallpa, an advocate with the Workers Justice Project, is trying to help Zhanay recoup that missing payment.

LIGIA GUALLPA: The employer denied almost $3000 in wages. So we went today, we risking

our lives to get infected to confront the employer and say you gotta pay.

PISACRETA: Wage theft is a common problem for day laborers — even under normal circumstances, says Maria Figueroa. She’s the Director of Labor and Policy Research at Cornell’s Worker Institute.

MARIA FIGUEROA: Employers in the industries in which day laborers work tend to be elusive.

It’s very easy for these contractors to just disappear, throw away their cell phone, and

change the names of their companies, transfer all their assets to their spouses or a

friend, and in such a way it is very hard for a day laborer to pursue a claim.

PISACRETA: Figueroa says the wage theft tends to get even worse in times of crisis.

FIGUEROA: When the Sandy Superstorm hit, we had the same issue, that

unscrupulous employers would use the crisis as an excuse to not pay their workers.

PISACRETA: And crises also make it tough to find the masks, gloves, and other protective gear these workers rely on.

FIGUEROA: These workers were already vulnerable before the crisis and now they’re

even more vulnerable.

PISACRETA: Figueroa says that day laborers across the country are likely to have a hard time finding steady work, dealing with unfair business practices, and securing personal protective equipment for the duration of this crisis. Emily Pisacreta, Columbia Radio News.

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