Garrett, 34, lost a steady job in April. Now, in between filling out applications, Garrett makes daily commutes to Labor Finders in Anniston in search of daily labor. A month ago, Garrett was considered a permanent employee. Now he lives from day to day, not knowing whether he will make a living.
He isn’t the only one.
They are familiar faces to him — the same men and women who stand in line with him every morning and hope. They are all accustomed to greeting the morning in darkness, to waking before the sun has a chance to warm the ground. Some of them load up their cars with building supplies; others take extra time to ensure their shirts are crisp and clean.
When they walk out their doors, however, they all have the same goal: find a job.
“It’s better than sitting at home, not trying,” Garrett said.
When Garrett lost his job at Howard Core Co., he also lost his permanent home. What he did not lose, however, was his drive to move forward.
“I have to try,” he said.
It is the story of thousands across the nation, individuals lining up outside of businesses, home improvement stores, street corners and day-labor centers searching for a source of income, even if just for that day. A 2006 study conducted by UCLA and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that on any given day, approximately 117,600 people are either looking for day-labor jobs or working as day laborers, a figure rendered before the nation entered into a recession.
A hard transition
On Wednesday morning, 24 men and one woman stood alongside Garrett on E Street, east of south Quintard Avenue, hoping to get called out for work. It was barely 6 a.m., but the workers, motivated for the day, paced the pebble driveway listening for their name.
When Garrett’s name is called, part of his daily check goes toward child support for his three children ages 14, 13 and 9. He said he tries to make it to the labor agency as many times during the week as he can, but it all depends on whether he has enough gas to make it there.
“It’s a really hard transition,” he said, when asked about what it felt like to lose a permanent job and have to rely on day-to-day labor. “I need work. I rather come here in the meantime and fill out applications on the side.”
Despite the dedication men like Garrett demonstrate, the rise of day laborers has led to increased community tensions, in part, according to the UCLA study, because the men and women are often misrepresented and misunderstood.
“All of the guys here have homes, families, responsibilities,” said a 56-year-old B.B.J, who declined to give his complete first and last name. “These are not drunk, homeless people — these are men who really want to work.”
As he took long drags from his Parliament cigarette, B.B.J. opened up about his experience as a day laborer. He has been working in the construction business more than 10 years, he said, picking up skills that are both valuable and marketable in the field.
According to the UCLA study, the majority of day laborers search for work in construction, gardening and landscaping, painting, roofing and drywall installation.
Although B.B.J. didn’t get called out to work that day, he remained optimistic.
“When this happens,” he said, “I read the newspaper for job offerings, I fill out applications; I get in my car and go.”
'They show up every day.'
More than half of those hoping to find jobs that morning also set off in search of other jobs: 10 of the 25 individuals received work calls.
Tina McLendon, the manager at the local Labor Finders, said that most of the men and women in the office are familiar faces. She has grown to know many of them during her four years as the local manager; a few people even followed her when she transferred over from another staffing-service company.
“These people show initiative,” she said. “They show up every day. They just want to work.”
McLendon’s labor agency is different from others: The company does not conduct background checks or drug screenings unless a customer specifically asks for it. Typically, only about 1 percent of her clients, of the hundreds she works with, request those services. For the most part, she said, the individuals she deals with on an everyday basis are honest about their past. Many of them, charged with misdemeanors, cannot find work anywhere else.
“I love what I do,” McLendon said. “I feel like I can help more people here. Many people come in on their day off from work; they come looking for a job to help put food on the table. Some come in hoping to make just enough money for food that night. A couple of grandparents come in to buy food for their grandchildren.”
Along with her desire to help, however, comes great responsibility. Although the company cannot be held liable for damages caused by the workers, protected by a waiver signed by customers, McLendon said she understands that she must be careful about who she sends where. Understanding applicants’ criminal histories is vital in ensuring that she does not put the public at risk. If an individual has too many criminal charges, she said, or if she can tell they are not the kind of hard-working people she looks for, she refuses to help them find employment.
All interested job-seekers must present two valid forms of ID and undergo an interview process. Each year, applicants must also update their records.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” McLendon said.
Full-time search for part-time work
UCLA found that the majority of day-laborers look for work on a full-time basis, although it is unlikely that their yearly earnings will exceed $15,000, keeping them at or below the federal poverty threshold.
“These people live on the margins of the economic ladder,” said B. Loewe, spokesman for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “They go to great lengths for very meager compensation to provide for themselves and their families. We need to ensure that workers who perform a hard day’s work get a fair day’s pay.”
Loewe said day laborers often fall victim to discrimination, racism and harsh working conditions with little protection. Sometimes, he said, laborers who find work on their own complete a day’s work and receive no compensation.
“The current economy is making it hard to survive,” he said. “More and more people are needing to find ways to put food on the table and keep their lights on. We can look to day laborers as evidence on how to survive in tough times. We are living in a time when people need to readjust to the realities around them”