The woman stops for breakfast at McDonald’s by Home Depot on 2100 South near I-15 in Salt Lake City. But she parks near a cluster of day laborers seeking work standing along the busy street’s sidewalk.
They quickly surround her car holding up one finger — asking in Spanish and English if she wants one worker. Some hold her car-door handles, ready to hop in if she gives the signal, as they seek an edge in fierce competition for scarce work.
The woman is now wide-eyed and panicky. A young security guard for McDonald’s hustles to yell at workers to leave McDonald’s property.
But the woman has lost her appetite. She speeds away.
It’s part of a daily theater around Home Depots, where a drama continually plays out about immigration, work, a sluggish economy and stores seeking a balance between making customers comfortable without appearing too mean to struggling laborers.
Immigrants » Gabriel Escalante is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. This day, he is among 120 laborers lining sidewalks on both 2100 South and 300 West by Home Depot.
"People come here because contractors know this is where they can find workers," Escalante says. It has been a phenomenon nationally for years at Home Depots, where contractors and homeowners not only can buy supplies but workers, too.
"I come every day," Escalante says in Spanish. He shows up between 6 and 7 a.m. and stays until 2 p.m., figuring few will hire after that. "Sometimes no one hires me all week. Sometimes I work every day."
He often is hired for landscaping, moving furniture, painting, installing drywall, demolishing concrete and, sometimes, snow shoveling. He makes $200 to $400 a week to support himself, a son, his mother and a grandmother.
"It’s still 1,000 times better here than in Mexico," he says, adding he could make only about $40 a week there.
Juan is from Guatemala. Like many day laborers, he says he used to have a regular job here — in his case, at a meat processing plant. "But immigration [agents] cracked down on employers to require papers for their workers," he says in Spanish. So people like him without papers soon lost their jobs.
Sergio from Mexico lost a Utah factory job the same way. "Without documents, this is all we can do," he says.
Academic studies say the number of day laborers nationally increased greatly during the immigration burst of the 1990s and early 2000s, and then more as businesses outsourced "to cut costs and avoid direct responsibility for workers" amid the recession. Home Depot, the world’s No. 1 hardware chain, became a labor market because so many contractors shop there.
Bad economy » Jeff Liddiard is in the minority among the crowd of workers gathered around Home Depot on any given day. He is a non-Latino U.S. citizen — a category that makes up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the group, according to observations over several days. Liddiard says he is a former union carpenter who for years has been unable to find work in a sluggish economy. He is now homeless.
Data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services shows that while construction employment has been increasing since the recession officially ended in 2009, though those jobs are still only at 2005 levels. DWS spokesman Nic Dunn says, "There is really no data that we track that gives a picture of day laborers in Utah."
Even if Liddiard doesn’t find work on a particular day, he notes that some good Samaritans often drop off food for the job seekers. "One lady brings chicken and bread every day," he says. "A church brings soup every Saturday."
Michael is another non-Latino day laborer. He says he has a felony conviction that keeps him from getting a regular job. "I’ve been doing this for two years because I can’t find any other work."
The going rate for day labor in Salt Lake City is about $10 an hour, Michael says. Harder work, such as breaking up concrete, can bring $12. The better bosses provide lunch.
"One bright side is that when I earn $100, I keep $100. No taxes are taken out," says Michael.
The workers are treated as independent contractors, not employees, so no payroll tax is paid or withheld. On the flip side, there are no benefits — no health insurance, sick leave or vacation.
Conflict » As Home Depot attempts to deal with issues stemming from the day-labor bazaar at the fringes of its parking lot, a long-running tension has emerged between the security guards and the workers.
"See that guard," Sergio says. "One time I was getting into a [contractor’s] car in the parking lot and he yanked me out by the arm. He says he would call the police on me if I came into the parking lot again." The undocumented worker wants no run-ins with police.
Almost all other laborers on the sidewalk complain about what they say is constant harassment by guards, police and businesses. Some say they have been roughed up and warned not to come back. One claims the owner of a nearby business threw him to the ground and kicked him.
Workers say McDonald’s and Home Depot will not let them use restrooms, or even buy food or materials. They are careful to stay on public sidewalks, but will run to cars that pull in and motion for workers — often with guards running up to chase them out.
Security guards for Home Depot and McDonald’s listen nearby, and then walk up to give another viewpoint.
"I am called all sorts of names, and am spit on, and have things thrown at me," one says. The other adds, "If a woman walks near these guys, they all start whistling and their tongues hang out. It’s not very nice for customers."
The guards say that without constant watching, the workers wander into parking lots and bother customers.
One guard is later spotted in a shoving-and-yelling match with some laborers who stand in a parking lot entrance to talk to a contractor who is hiring. "I can’t have them block the entrances," he says. He adds that he "tries to train contractors" to pull up on the street next to the sidewalk if they want to hire someone.
Sometimes that can happen fast. A contractor pulls up on 300 West and holds up four fingers. Four laborers hop into the truck, which pulls a U-turn and speeds away. It all happens in under 10 seconds.
Bosses who want to negotiate rates often pull into a gas station across the street from Home Depot. Laborers at times run across the street in a flock, dodging heavy traffic.
Response » Catherine H. Woodling, manager of corporate communications for Home Depot, says the company has a no-solicitation policy in order to maintain "a pleasant shopping environment for our customers and a safe environment for anyone on our property."
She adds, "The fact is that soliciting by anyone in our parking lot is not safe, regardless of the reason, so we aggressively enforce our policy. That being said, it’s important to note that we only have the jurisdiction to enforce our policy on our own property" and not public sidewalks.
The local franchise owner for McDonald’s did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Home Depot nationally has faced a delicate balancing act on the topic. A few years ago Latino groups in Illinois were angry over arrests there of Latino day laborers — and a Latino shopper who was arrested by mistake. By contrast, the company was attacked by a group in California complaining that Home Depot was aiding illegal immigration.
Payment problems » Virtually all the laborers have stories about being stiffed by contractors.
"They figure we won’t go to the police because we don’t have papers, and worry about being deported," Sergio says.
"Some guys have been hired for a job that lasts a week, then at the end their boss won’t pay them. That’s cold," Liddiard says.
"Others don’t treat you well, yell, won’t give breaks or water." Overtime for long days is not offered. "If someone is hurt, they often don’t get help."
When word spreads among day workers about bad employers, they may find it difficult to make future hires.
At the 2100 South Home Depot, worker after worker complains about Polynesian employers not paying.
That reputation — deserved or not — makes it tough for any Polynesian contractors to raise a crew from the Home Depot crowd.
One morning a truck driven by a Polynesian parks across the street from Home Depot and the would-be employer gets out to motion over workers. Only two run across the street, and they soon retreat. The rest of the laborers ignore him and, after about five minutes, he drives away with an empty truck.
A 2006 National Day Laborer Survey of 2,660 day laborers in 20 states by college professors found about half were denied water, food and breaks on jobs, and about half were victims of wage theft. The average pay then — eight years ago — was also $10 an hour.
Elena Bensor, public information officer for the Utah Labor Commission, says the office receives and investigates complaints from day laborers who are not paid.
"But many are afraid to come to us because we are a government agency, and they worry about being deported if they talk to us," she says.
Many go instead to the Mexican consulate first to seek help. "When the consulate sends them to us, they come with confidence that we will not deport them."
She says the Labor Commission cares only about whether an employee-employer relationship existed, and whether promised pay was provided — and says that is sometimes hard for day laborers to prove because they have no written contracts or proof of employment.
"We try to educate them to be aware of who they are working for, the address where they are working, or to get a business card — any information that can help," she says.
Bulmino is from Mexico, and still seeks work nearly every day even though he is 67 years old. He seems sad when he talks about lack of respect from some employers.
"We may not have papers, but there is still a human right to live," he says. "We are not trying to hurt anyone. We are just trying to work."
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