Day Laborers on Long Island

How the Suburbs Came to Terms With a Decades-Long Controversy

The Story

As he waited behind the 7-Eleven in Southampton Village, New York, Guatemalan day laborer William Fuentes, 29, paced on the sidewalk of Aldrich Lane next to a sign that reads “Keep off the grass” in Spanish. Identical signs dot the village’s Main Street.

Fuentes came to the United States in 2013 to make money for himself, uncertain of what he’d find here.

“I heard you can make $88,000 working in the U.S., but others said it was closer to $17,000,” Fuentes said.

Fuentes is among dozens of men waiting here for work — men who also crossed the Mexican border without documentation.

There are about 99,000 undocumented immigrants in Nassau and Suffolk counties and two-thirds are employed as of 2014, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Although day labor by undocumented immigrants is illegal, the practice has become normalized in much of Long Island over the past two decades. The island has seen various attempts at regulating day labor, revealing what does and doesn’t work when dealing with hiring sites.

Map by Ronny Reyes

The place where Fuentes waits is one such place, a place where Village Mayor Mark Epley once hoped to create a sanctioned hiring site.

“I went to a variety of sites in Florida and Long Island to come up with some ideas, and I made a decision to do something with that site next to the 7-Eleven,” Epley said. “When a community supports it, you get successful hiring sites.”

But the community did not support it. Epley is facing two lawsuits for trying to use parkland on the lane for a sanctioned hiring site. He announced in March 2007 his plans to add benches, portable toilets and a gravel driveway to the park so contractors could drive in to pick up laborers.

But a group of residents sued Epley to block the proposal. Protesters, he recalled, stood outside his house for nine weeks.

An appeals court in November 2009 ordered the removal of the preliminary injunction that prevented day laborers from using the park as a hiring site. The lawsuits are still ongoing.

Preliminary injunction for Southampton hiring site – January 2008 by Arielle Martinez on Scribd

Southampton Village is the norm when it comes to hiring sites on Long Island: a place where day laborers informally gather, waiting for employers to pick them up off the street. Few hiring sites are sanctioned and funded by the government and operated by nonprofit organizations.

“A proper hiring site, from what I understand, is a place promoted by the local government for day laborers to use as a waiting area to look for work,” said Cero Barona, a day laborer at a sanctioned hiring site in Freeport.

Barona sips his morning coffee inside the Freeport Trailer, a red structure on Bennington Ave. where day laborers wait for contractors to hire them. The men distract themselves as they wait by watching TV, arguing about politics and playing soccer in a makeshift court.

They recently finished painting the Trailer red, with an American flag at its center. They’re now focusing on renovating the floor to keep out the cold in the winter because some of them sleep inside the trailer when snow falls.

“When the winter comes, some of the guys here would be in big trouble without this place,” Barona said.

Video by Demi Guo

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to deport the country’s undocumented immigrants, which number about 11 million, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center.

But Trump’s proposals aren’t a concern to every immigrant. “I’m not worried,” said Alexander Sanchez, 30, a Honduran day laborer. Sanchez waits for work at another spot that’s popular for day laborers: a CVS parking lot in Huntington Station. “I’m only scared of God,” he added.

Epley said that his previous view on immigration “was a conservative approach, that there were people in this country, people who came illegally, and that we should actively look to deport them. That was the bottom line.”

It also became something personal for Epley when his friends began experiencing economic hardships because of day laborers.

“I had a few friends of mine who had to go through the process of hiring these individuals properly, the insurance from paying the payroll taxes, etc, etc, and being in competition with people who were going to job sites, picking people up, and undercutting them,” Epley said.

Complaints about day laborers fueled former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s push for the deportation of undocumented immigrants in the early 2000s.

But overall, immigrant labor has had little to no effect on the wages and employment of American citizens, according to a 2016 study from the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, which found that “particularly, when measured over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the overall native wage may be small and close to zero.”

And Americans’ views about immigrant labor have softened, according to a report from Pew Research Center. In 2006, 55 percent of Americans surveyed said the presence of immigrant workers hurt U.S. laborers. In 2016, only 45 percent said the same.

But municipalities have tried to use tactics like anti-loitering laws to rid their streets of day laborers.

In the 1990s, the City of Glen Cove passed an anti-loitering law that prohibited day laborers from soliciting employment on streets. Before the decision was appealed, city officials agreed to establish a sanctioned hiring site and withdraw the ordinance. The site, then a trailer and portable toilet near the train station, opened in 1994.

In 2009, the Town of Oyster Bay passed an ordinance that prohibited people from soliciting work on the streets and sidewalks because day laborers were waiting for work on four blocks of Forest Avenue in Locust Valley.

Residents argued that day laborers were chasing after cars, urinating in public and making the sidewalks unsafe and unsightly, according to a lawsuit filed by the Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project against the Town of Oyster Bay.

The town argued that soliciting for work on the streets and sidewalks was infringing upon the public’s right to proceed on a public route without interference. The ordinance was strict enough to fine $250 for so much as a wave of the hand.

“The term ‘solicitation of employment’ includes, but is not limited to, shouting at cars, waving arms or signs, making hand signals, approaching motor vehicles or standing in public roads facing in the direction of oncoming traffic,” the Oyster Bay ordinance read.

But a federal judge ruled in September 2015 that the law was too broad and ordered that enforcement of it be stopped.

Court decision on Town of Oyster Bay loitering law by Arielle Martinez on Scribd

Efforts to control where day-laborers stand to wait for work aren’t always successful, said Lorie DeFelice, the manager of the Southampton 7-Eleven near where the day laborers wait. Her store has signs in Spanish that ask people not to trespass or form groups on store property.

DeFelice said the day laborers are here because they often work on renovating the houses for property owners in the Hamptons.

“If they weren’t needed, they wouldn’t be standing out there,” she said.

She added that the day-laborers are good customers, but when trouble does happen, like fighting due to daytime drinking, she will call the police.

Day laborers can easily fall into abusive drinking habits because the culture around unsanctioned hiring sites normalizes excessive drinking, according to a 2013 study by the Multicultural Institute and the University of California.

“Once they get to the point that they’re drunk somebody may say something someone doesn’t like and next thing they know they’re hooking it up in a fight, and at that point we might be making an arrest for disorderly conduct,” Det. Sgt. Herman Lamison of the Southampton Village Police Department said.

Hector Aparicio, 45, a Salvadoran day laborer who waits for work near the Huntington Station CVS, said he does his best to stay out of trouble. “If you don’t drink and don’t smoke marijuana, you’ll never have problems with the police,” he said. “I work, I go home, and that’s it.”

Day laborers can behave in ways that bring anger and disgust from the local community.

When anti-immigration groups protested the proposal of a hiring site in Farmingville in the early 2000s, residents complained about public urination from day laborers, which was a key reason for why the Freeport Trailer includes bathrooms in its site.

“They’re waiting hours and hours for work and where else are they going to go,” said Liz  O’Shaughnessy, a founder of the Trailer. “This provides them a basic level of dignity and helps the town.”

The Trailer helps the day laborers avoid fines or arrests for public urination, O’Shaughnessy said.

While providing a space for contractors to hire day laborers, the Trailer also offers breakfast, English lessons and a community integration program that introduces day laborers to resources in their neighborhood.

“We even help them get library cards,” said Mirna Obers, a bilingual volunteer at the Trailer. “There’s this one guy who who’s using his library card to study because he wants to take a citizenship test. He even started a conversation with someone in English the other day.”

In the winter of 2009, the Trailer lost its funding from the Hagedorn Foundation, an organization that funds nonprofits throughout Long Island. The Catholic Charities, which ran the site, had to shut it down.

“We never went anywhere,” said Jose Diaz, a day laborer from Colombia who’s over 50 years old. “We went around the back and put up a campfire and just waited for the contractors to come. This was our place, and everyone around here knew it.”

When the Trailer was closed, Diaz and the other day laborers not only stayed but also kept to the old rules of the Trailer, like the first come, first serve policy.

“It may have been closed, but we had developed a culture here that we were going to stick to,” Diaz added.

He takes a special sense of pride looking at the American flag he helped paint for the Trailer. And he doesn’t even want to think about what would happen if the Trailer were to shut down again.

Sandra Dunn, director of immigration at the Hagedorn Foundation, said the future of the Freeport Trailer is uncertain. She says, once the foundation dissolves in 2017, it’ll take away the $65,000 that go to the trailer every year.

Audio by Ronny Reyes

Funding has long been an issues for sanctioned hiring sites on Long Island. One site in Huntington closed in 2010 after a decade of operation. The Family Service League ran the Labor Ready Site on Depot Road, but the Town Council decided not to renew its contract for the site’s operation, according to A.J. Carter, the spokesman for the town government.

The site “was underutilized,” Peggy Boyd, the Family Service League vice president, said. “If I was one out of many at the site who switched to looking for jobs on my own, there would be a greater chance of me finding one.”

Funding became an issue for the Huntington site after it had lost $15,000 of State Senator Carl Marcellino’s legislative funding, according to a report released by the Family Service League after the closing of the site.

South of Huntington, Farmingville lost its chance to open a sanctioned hiring site when former Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney vetoed the county legislature’s vote to set aside $80,000 in taxpayer money to open a site.

Levy agrees with his predecessors’ decision.

“I mean, it’s bad enough that this stuff was happening under our noses and the government was looking the other way,” Levy said. “But now it’s the ultimate insult to taxpayers to suggest that they must facilitate this illegality.”

Timeline by Arielle Martinez

While the previous Suffolk County executives were against the sites, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi backed the Glen Cove hiring site when he was the mayor of the city.

The site became the first indoor hiring site on Long Island in 2001 when it moved from a trailer into a building on Sea Cliff Ave. It is run by La Fuerza Unida, a nonprofit organization.

After Suozzi lost his reelection bid in 2009, La Fuerza Unida experienced a decrease in government grants, said Alberto Munera, the organization’s executive director. The organization lost the space for its hiring site in 2013 because it could no longer pay the rent.Now after three years, La Fuerza Unida has secured a new spot for its hiring site on Glen Cove Ave.

La Fuerza Unida’s hiring site offers Internet access and English classes for day laborers who do not get hired after 10 a.m. or so, Munera said.

Suozzi wasn’t the only Nassau politician to give hiring sites a chance. Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy officially sanctioned the Freeport Trailer after it reopened in 2010.

“We just felt that it was a positive program for the community,” Kennedy said. “It’s a successful program, and hopefully we’ll continue to work with it. And it’s at no cost to the village.”

In Southampton, Epley says he sees the importance of the humane approach to dealing with this issue.“There’s a limited opportunity in the countries where these people come from,” he said. “A lot of them don’t read and write. They’re taken advantage of. There’s a whole underground society around here. Individuals are afraid to come into the spotlight.”

Fuentes is one of those individuals. He keeps a low profile, taking the bus to Southampton from his home in Riverhead and not risking driving without a driver’s license. And he has been a victim of wage theft many times, he said.

But he does what he must. He has been in the United States for about two years, and he works to support his family, including his 5-year-old daughter, back in Guatemala.

“Here, anyone can look for work because this is a place where Americans who need help with things come to pick up somebody here who can help them,” he said.

And for now, it looks like Fuentes and the other day laborers aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

In Southampton, Some Residents Offer Helping Hand To Day Laborers

Just around the corner from where over a dozen day-laborers wait for work on the sidewalks of Aldrich Lane in Southampton is a tire shop run by Carol and Al Whitby. There, the Whitbys run a soup kitchen for the day-laborers.

Out by the front counter of Southampton Tire is a set of shelves piled high with donated cans of soups, cans of vegetables, and cake mix boxes.

“We keep this soup kitchen open 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year,” Carol Whitby said. “We donate and sell discounted clothes and shoes. And we’re usually really busy on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

The Whitbys, who have lived in Southampton for over 40 years, started the soup kitchen in 2009 because of the economic recession. She recalled that a young man rode his bike over to her one day and asked for a dollar for something to eat.

“The bad economy hit hard and they couldn’t find any work,” she said. “We saw sad faces, and they were asking for a $1 so they could buy something to eat. So we got some help from the church (Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary) to open up the soup kitchen, but no one is helping me anymore.”

“Most of what we do is out of pocket,” she added. “We gave out sandwiches yesterday for everyone to eat.”

Latino immigrants aren’t the only ones who come to the soup kitchen. Carol said that she serves people of all races and backgrounds. The number of people who come to the soup kitchen varies each day. During November and December, when there’s less work available for the day-laborers, up to 60 people come each day.

Whitby says that those who need food come to her tire shop. She doesn’t bring food out to the day-laborers waiting on Aldrich Lane because she fears retribution from Tom Wedell, a man who stands in the intersection near the tire shop many days, carrying signs protesting the day-laborers.

But Carol doesn’t like the term “day-laborer.” She prefers to call them “amigos.”

“They’re my friends,” she said. “I don’t like day workers or laborers because they work longer than a day. They work hard.”

Wage Theft: An All-Too-Common Problem For Day-Laborers

At unsanctioned hiring sites, day laborers can also fall victim to abuse from employers, specifically in terms of wage theft, Fuentes said.

“Here, we’ve seen the problem of companies not paying us,” Fuentes explained. “Suppose they give you a check. The check won’t have funds and will bounce. The boss will be like, ‘Sorry, I’ll give you another check.’ And when that check doesn’t come, it starts adding up. That’s happened to me before.”

Seventy percent of day laborers nationwide do not know where to report a workplace violation, according to the 2006 National Day Laborer Study. As a result, abusive employers are often able to continue to violate workers’ rights with impunity.

But that problem is lessened in sanctioned hiring sites, as Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley explained about a hiring site in Jupiter, Florida that he visited. Because the Jupiter hiring site requires that employers write down their contact information and the location of their worksites, “the person in the site is protected because you don’t have to worry about getting dropped off someplace and not getting paid or abused,” Epley said. “And it helped the community so the police could go to the guy who’s over there and say, ‘You didn’t follow the procedures here. If you’re going to be here, you need to follow the rules.’ ”

The Freeport Trailer had also seen instances of wage theft.

“Wage theft is unbelievably prominent, but we have ways to deal with that now,” O’Shaughnessy said.

With help from the National Day Laborers’ Organization Network, workers can use an app to share information with other day laborers and keep track of employers who have not paid day laborers in the past.

“We want to help all workers feel that they can be supported despite their immigration status or where they’re from,” Gonzalo Mercado, New York director of the NDLON, said.

As Barona pointed out, the app is useful to the day laborers in the trailer. And instructions on how to get and use the app hang near the doorway.

About

This project was produced by three students — Demi Guo, Arielle Martinez, and Ronny Reyes — for the course JRN 364 in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism during the Fall 2016 semester.

Photos from Huntington Station and Freeport by Demi Guo.