Putting in Work



A dusty Ford pickup truck swings around the corner and parks next to a curb.  Before the wheels come to a complete stop, a mob – maybe 15 or 20 men – swoop across the concrete like migrating birds.  They crowd pushes in close to the cabin of the truck, waving their hands and shouting out their trade in Spanish.

Three men emerge from the bustle, and the other workers make way in silence.  The chosen laborers hop into the back seat of the cab.  The grumblings of those left behind quickly subsides, replaced by the distinctive cadence of jokes and small talk, as the workers find a decent spot – maybe up against a street sign, maybe next to a tree – where they will wait for the next truck.  They may wait hours; there may not be another truck that day.

Things were different six months ago.

200,000 people moved into Denton over the preceding decade, increasing the citi0’s population by a third.  Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, sheetrockeros, manual laborers: all were in demand.  Americans were improving their homes, building permits were hot, and contractors had an unending need for labor.

Today things are different.

“Business used to be good,” says Ben Shaw, a 28 year-old carpenter from Fort Worth.  His clothes hang loosely from his body, and two searching blue eyes peer out from a pre-maturely grizzled face as he perches on his bicycle.  “You wouldn’t know what truck to run up to.”

Today the corner is just as crowded, but work has become scarce.  The real-estate bust has dragged heavily on new construction starts, and the general economic downturn has eaten jobs that used to be plentiful.  City documents show that new residential building permits are down by as much as 2/3rds since this time last year.

On a drizzling Wednesday morning the laborers are still gathered at the site, hands in their pockets, intently watching as the traffic hustles by unaware.  There are few trucks to be seen, and none of them appear to be looking for help.

Shaw points to the work-site street corner, and grimaces.  “That used to be a spot you could get a hand up . . . now you can’t even get a hand-out.”

Victor Cardena, a life-long Denton resident, shares some of Shaw’s frustration.  “It’s kinda aggravating,” the softly-spoken man says slowly.  “I used to work every day, 7 days a week.  Last week, I worked one hour.”

The economic pressures are not the only difficulty the day laborers face.

Cardena gestures to the gas station just around the corner.  “We don’t both nobody, we’re customers too but they [QuikTrip employees] treat us like we’re not.”

Managing the movements of so many people jammed onto so small an area is a perpetual challenge.  Many of the laborers cross the busy Fort Worth intersection and patronize the bustling QuikTrip.  They buy a warm breakfast, maybe a couple $5 phone cards, sometimes a lottery ticket.  The bathrooms are clean, and the cool air-conditioned quiet of the business can be a swift repose from the outside conditions.

QuikTrip employees asked to comment on their day laborer customers refused, saying they were barred by management from answering questions about it.

John Cabrales Jr., Intergovernmental Relations Officer with the City of Denton, says that from “time to time there have been complaints from some of the businesses,” mostly about laborers loitering on business property.

It is illegal in Denton to solicit work anywhere other than the Day Labor Site and the Denton Police Department takes an active role in trying to keep the workers out of traffic and off business properties.  Although some of the laborers complain about the cops ‘hasslin’ them, Officer Ryan Greeley says most of the workers are compliant.

“The day laborers pretty much understand the rules,” Greeley notes.  Incidents are remarkably low, even non-existent, considering the number of people gathered on such a small area.  Creeping squad cars on the Fort Worth block attest to the vigilant commitment of resources made by the city.

But as the economy sputters, day laborers face other issues hidden from the sort of cursory glimpse so often tossed their way.

“The recession is affecting immigrants more than other groups,” says Pia Orrenius of the Dallas Fed.  Orrenius works as a senior economist and research officer, is a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and is of the foremost researchers of migrant labor patterns in the country.

Construction workers, she says, are “more sensitive to the economic cycle.”  Day laborers, in particular, are vulnerable because they work a fluctuating hourly basis.  “They often work fewer hours in a downturn,” Orrenius says, meaning drastically reduced income.

Even when these laborers get work, there is an increasing chance that they will not get paid.  Emily Timm, a 5-year veteran of the Workers Defense Project based in Austin, says that reports of wage theft – instances wherein laborers do the work, but employers pay them half, a third, or none of was originally agreed upon – have doubled since January 2008.

Workers at the site seem to confirm this trend.

Seven Hispanic men crowded next to a fence adjacent to the QuikTrip spoke with this reporter on an early morning.  One of them was looking for work, and inquired about a job – in violation of city ordinance.  The workers wore blue jean jacket and paint-stained pants.  Some look on from under creased baseball caps.  One of the men – with a particularly well kept mustache – smiled.

When asked if any of them had been a victim of wage theft – if someone had ‘ripped them off’ – two of the workers nodded.  Another one, in a blue baseball cap, raised his hand and began to speak, but was cut off.  Taxes were brought up, and it was quickly decided that the conversation had ended.  The mustachioed laborer was no longer smiling.

Workers at the day center site are not the only one’s choosing to stay silent.  Some local business owners refused to speak on the issue, preferring to not have their names attached to a debate that appears to be nowhere near resolution.

“There’s the situation of ramped-up [immigration] enforcement in the labor market,” Orrenius said.  The legal status of many of the workers has drawn the attention of anti-illegal immigration groups, and cities through North Texas have experienced intense debate over how to handle the issue.

The city of Denton has tried to strike a balance, by maintaining the work site but not operating it outright.  The city assumed ownership of the site when the Denton Humanitarian Organization dissolved in 2003, thereby returning the property’s lease to the city (which had initially leased the plot from TxDOT in order to donate it to the DHO).

Confusion with the paperwork means that, for now, “It’s not clear for how long the agreement is for between TxDot and the City of Denton,” Cabrales said.  Cabrales suggested the lease could last for up to 30 years, meaning the city is most likely tied to this arrangement for the immediate future.

The arrangement means that the city will be responsible for maintaining a site that could see rapid growth regardless of academic conditions.

“In other states, like Arizona and Oklahoma, legislation has targeted illegal labor,” Orrenius said.  “They [the illegal labor] didn’t go to California.”  The implication is that many laborers fleeing the widespread crackdowns in neighboring states are coming to Texas.  More workers for fewer jobs, since “low-wage workers in industries such as construction are the most hard-hit by recession,” Timm said.  “they are the first to lose their jobs.”

A startling number of local contracting firms have gone out of business, their posted business lines just beeping dead-ends.  The food truck lingers longer on the asphalt lot at the site, doing business with the idle.  Wages are being stolen, but fear stays the victims from reporting it.

Things could get better – many of the workers interviewed expressed hope that things were about to turn around.  The recession can’t last forever, after all.

But for now they wait, corralled onto a patch of concrete, hopeful that every truck turning the corner might be the one that earns them a day’s wage.  Most of them are still waiting.