Shadow work force faces a daily grind

Illegal immigrants rely on temp jobs

By Cindy Rodriguez, Globe Staff, 10/24/99

CHELSEA - While his neighbors slept, Lopez stumbled out of his triple-decker onto the street, joining a silent group of men heading downtown under dark skies.

He arrived at the entrance of Labor Ready, a temporary employment agency, 15 minutes before it opened, hoping to beat the rush. But under the fluorescent sign, 10 men were already there, huddled in the cold.

At 5:30 a.m., the glass doors swung open and the manager began dispatching workers. Soon, two men took off in a rusty station wagon. Eight others jammed into a red van. Some went to construction sites, others to factories. This day there was no work for Lopez.

Lopez would go elsewhere if he could. But he's an illegal immigrant, one of an untold number hidden among day laborers who, labor specialists say, are the region's shadow work force.

They take on backbreaking assignments most workers wouldn't touch - clearing rubble at a construction site near the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, collecting trash for private haulers. They often submit to hazardous or unsafe working conditions. They get no health insurance or sick pay.

Labor watchdogs bemoan the practice. It brings wages down. It creates a class of people one paycheck from homelessness. It's illegal.

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Showdown on Insuring Poor

A record 7 million Californians now lack health insurance, and Gov. Gray Davis and legislators are heading for a showdown over how to best help them.

Last week, the Legislature earmarked $125 million to extend state-subsidized health insurance to working families with incomes below 150% of the federal poverty line--about $25,000 for a family of four. Davis, however, has told staffers he is highly reluctant to expand what some voters might perceive as a welfare entitlement.


Two years after Immigration and Naturalization Service agents raided a series of temporary agencies in the Boston area, specialists say such companies are growing, and unraveling gains made by labor unions during the last 50 years.

''It has become cheaper and cheaper for firms to hire people from these agencies,'' said Tim Costello, director of Campaign on Contingent Work, a nonprofit workers' rights agency based in Chinatown. ''They can match the workers to the work cycle, then send them home after it's done.''

On a recent afternoon, three men in work boots stood outside Work Helpers Inc., a small storefront on Broadway that dispatches day laborers. One of the workers, a short, stocky man named Miguel, claimed to have working papers but later showed his employment authorization card. It expired on Dec. 14, 1998.

Miguel, who asked not to be identified, said he works for Larry Wing, owner of Work Helpers, and showed check stubs to prove it.

Working for Work Helpers, the 19-year-old from Honduras has assembled box frames for mattresses, printed calendars, and loaded produce onto trucks, among other tasks. For every job, he's received $5.25 an hour, the minimum wage. Sometimes he works 10-hour days, sometimes 12. But Wing never sends him out when the hours approach 40. Miguel figures it's because he doesn't want to pay him overtime.

''At some jobs the bosses scream, `Work faster!' They treat you like an animal,'' Miguel said.

Another man who works for Work Helpers said many of the men have false documents.

''You can tell when the Social Security card is bad because the color is different, the blue tint is off,'' he said.

Wing, the owner, said he doubts illegal immigrants work for him, but declined to show paperwork on any of his employees.

At first he said he keeps photocopies of the workers' documents at the Peabody office of his accountant, Jeff Silverman. ''Look around, do I have room to keep their paperwork here?'' Wing said last week.

But on Tuesday, Silverman contradicted Wing. ''We don't have them here,'' he said.

Thirty minutes later Wing changed his story: He does keep the documents at Work Helpers, but that information is privileged.

Mexicans cross the border into California.

''If I knew of anyone who is illegal, I would throw them out,'' he said. ''As far as I'm concerned they have papers when they come to work for me.''

Crowded conditions

Along the streets of Chelsea, illegal immigrants live crammed in apartments, two to four in a room. They sleep on cots or mattresses, or on blankets on the floor. They take turns cooking meals, a practice that's new for many of them. They stow the most basic of essentials - soap, toilet paper - in plastic bags near their beds.

On the weekends, they drink cerveza and talk about the lives, wives, and children they left behind. Waves of immigrants - mostly young men - have arrived in recent years from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The streets of Chelsea are filled with stories of men who say they were shortchanged, injured, or became ill on the job, or worked under grueling conditions.

Ellie Nunez, an organizer with the East Boston Ecumenical Council Center, tells the story of an undocumented worker who last week wound up in the hospital with lead poisoning.

''They had him working with his bare hands, with nothing covering his mouth,'' said Nunez. ''The practice to remove lead paint requires that workers are completely covered from head to toe, like astronauts.''

Salvador Hernandez, director of the Chelsea office of Centro Presente, a Central American advocacy group, had a friend who was hospitalized with pneumonia. The man, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, had been working long hours in a produce company that was cold and damp.

''The company said it wasn't responsible,'' Hernandez said. Because the worker was undocumented, company representatives claimed he never worked for them. He was left with a pile of hospital bills he couldn't pay.

Along Broadway in downtown Chelsea, it's easy to find undocumented workers who say they have worked as day laborers. They talk about it at the Starbrite laundromat and at Tito's Bakery.

On a recent day, Lopez and two of his friends sat in the bakery drinking cafe, wishing they had gotten work.

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, Lopez collected garbage for BFI, a private hauler. He said he worked in the rain for 12 hours without a lunch break, for $6.50 an hour.

Jack Manning, general manager of the BFI office in Revere, which contracts with Labor Ready, said he had no knowledge of undocumented workers among his ranks.

''That's the reason why we contract with [temporary agencies], so we don't have that liability,'' Manning said.

For Lopez, the worst days are when Labor Ready has no work for him. Last Wednesday he paced along the office's dingy gray carpet for hours, waiting for a job that never came.

''Sometimes I wait an hour, two hours, three hours,'' said Lopez, 27.

He usually works two or three days a week. The other days, he waits.

In a plastic sleeve inside his worn, brown leather wallet, Lopez keeps photographs of his three children: Carolina, 6, Manuel, 5, and Fanny, 4. Most of his pay, which amounts to about $200 a week, is sent home to Honduras. Lopez came to the United States to work after Hurricane Mitch turned his hometown, Progreso Yoro, into a lake.

Only in the United States, he thought, could he make enough money to rebuild his life. In April, he arrived at Logan Airport on a tourist visa. Since then, he says, he has worked mostly for Labor Ready, even though he never gave it a Social Security card or any other documentation.

His close friend, Carlos, who is also an illegal immigrant from the same town, said he uses a fake Social Security card and a non-driver's license that he bought from a man on Broadway.

The man spotted Carlos his first week in Chelsea and whispered, ''?Necesitas papeles?'' (Need papers?) The next thing he knew, he was in an alley. The man snapped a photo. They agreed to meet the next day, at the same corner.

Twenty-four hours later, Carlos had a Social Security card and the ID. It cost him $150. A day later he was working at Labor Ready.

''I think they know it's fake,'' Carlos said.

First home

Chelsea has long been called Boston's first home for immigrants, a city where commercial laundries, lumber mills, and tire factories offered plentiful work for unskilled workers. Many of the factories that once produced furniture, clothing, and rugs shut down. But vans stream into Chelsea every morning and afternoon, taking workers to factories and work sites in nearby suburbs.

Vans, station wagons, and cars pull up to the Labor Ready storefront on Fourth Street, adjacent to a Dunkin' Donuts, taking workers with them each morning. The manager, Joseph Love, said sometimes he has to close the office to drive workers himself.

But Love denied that among the men who line up for jobs each day are undocumented workers. He doubted someone with fake documents would be able to fool him.

''We verify exactly what we're supposed to as far as documentations to work in the United States,'' Love said.

Shannon Roberts, spokeswoman for the corporate office in Spokane, Wash., said Labor Ready has a clean record with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.

''If [the documents] are fake and it's something we're not aware of, that's not something we can do anything about,'' Roberts said.

The Boston District Office of the INS has, in recent years, investigated several temporary agencies that were knowingly hiring undocumented workers, said Kevin Morrissey, section chief of the criminal investigation unit.

Morrissey said he could not comment on whether his office is investigating Labor Ready, Work Helpers, or any other agency.

''We've had a number of investigations focused on that industry and found a number of undocumented workers working for them,'' Morrissey said.

Among them are Lopez and his friend, Carlos. Winter is approaching and neither owns a jacket. On a recent morning, when the temperature dropped to 39 degrees, they felt a coldness they had never known.

Lopez pulled out a white handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose. His eyes were watery, his voice raspy. He said he got a cold from working in the rain, collecting garbage.

''I might end up dying out here,'' Lopez said. ''It's a miserable life.''

He and Carlos share a three-bedroom apartment with 10 other undocumented workers three blocks from Labor Ready. When they arrived in April, there were only seven men living in the apartment, but more men from their hometown have arrived and they've taken them in.

Carlos said he sleeps under a bed because there's little room and he can't afford to pay much rent.

At the end of the day, Lopez crawls into his bed, a space on the floor, covered by a blue, black and white wool blanket. Sometimes, when he snuggles up at night, he forgets that he's so far from home. But then one of the other men shakes him awake. It's dark outside, but time to hunt for work.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 10/24/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.