NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Garcia was making $80 a day cleaning the basement of a New York City building after Superstorm Sandy. The 34-year-old Mexican immigrant worked 12 hours a day without protective gear.
Today, he makes $180 a day as a carpenter in a Brooklyn townhouse undergoing renovation, and he uses a safety helmet, protective glasses and gloves.
"It*s been a drastic change for me," Garcia says of his latest working conditions. "My life has improved, not only financially but also in the quality of the work."
Being a day laborer no longer necessarily means waiting on a street corner to be picked up by a truck and working for a daily wage in grueling conditions. Day laborer groups and nonprofits across the country are helping these workers by negotiating temporary work contracts, teaching them health and safety standards in the workplace and offering protection against wage theft, a common problem.
Although many day laborers are still on street corners, called "paradas" in Spanish, some now enjoy greater protections.
The Latin Union of Chicago has a workers' center that helps about 200 workers throughout the year who negotiate temporary contracts with companies typically for hourly wages of about $15 to $35, depending on the experience of the worker. Day laborers created the center in 2004.
"In street corners the agreement is only verbal. We are more organized in the center," says Jose Luis Gallardo, a day laborer organizer. "We want to prevent wage theft. We want both the contractor and the day laborer to sign the work agreement."
Seattle and San Francisco also have networks for day laborers, and Los Angeles has financed these groups with public money.
In New York, a new day laborer center opened in Queens this summer, the third in the city. Managers at the oldest — the Workers Justice Project's center in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn — say the earnings of some day laborers helped by the center have risen from $20,000 to $46,800 per year. The nonprofit has about 500 immigrants registered with the organization. El Centro del Immigrante also operates a center in Staten Island.
"There are many day laborers and many of the ones who arrive to the street corners are new, so there are some men we have not reached out to yet. But I believe there is a bigger system now created to guide them," said Adriana Escandon of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, which operates the center in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Escandon goes out every Tuesday morning to talk to day laborers about security at construction sites and sometimes distributes masks and gloves among the workers.
Day laborers became a focus of attention most recently after Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. According to a Baruch College study, they were exposed "to hazardous materials and unsafe working conditions" during recovery efforts.
No exact figures are available, but Workers Justice Project director Ligia Guallpa estimates that more than 10,000 day laborers live in New York City, the majority coming from Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala. Some were also sickened, as were non-immigrant workers, during cleanup efforts after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
Javier Aranda, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant, said his life has improved since he arrived in the U.S. about 10 years ago. His earnings have gone from $70 to $100 a day to about $180 a day because the Workers Justice Project center negotiated a contract with Brooklyn company All Renovation Construction.
"I have helped more my brothers, my parents, sending them money," said Aranda. "I have also been able to save more."
Guallpa said negotiations start with stipulating the salary and the hours.
"We also investigate what kind of projects they are. Then, on the same contract, we establish the health and security measures, if workers will be given the necessary equipment, and we make sure the worker has his OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) card," she said.
Allan Suarez, one of the owners from All Renovation, said that hiring day laborers through the Workers Justice Project center has been a positive experience. If he needs an electrician or a carpenter, he just asks for it and hires him after an interview.
"It's a good connection. We have full faith that if we tell them we need a specific person they will bring us someone with that experience. It alleviates us from going out and trying to find someone when we have these good connections," said Suarez.