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Hansen: Working in the shadows

February 02, 2012|By David Hansen

On any given day, a couple dozen Latinos wait on a dusty strip of dirt on Laguna Canyon Road, hoping for work. Most support families back in Mexico. They will be lucky to work one day a week.

The recession has taken a toll on nearly everyone, including those in the Day Labor Hiring Center.

"I'm paying for two families," said Jose Villaseñor, 58, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years and has four children. "I work maybe one day a week, maybe no work, no nothing."

Villaseñor gets up at 4 a.m. and takes two buses from Santa Ana to get to Laguna by 6 a.m., when the work center hands out lottery numbers. In an effort to avoid a free-for-all, the lottery system tries to more fairly distribute work.

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"We're a barometer," said David Peck, chairman of the South County Cross-Cultural Council, which runs the site. "Before the recession, about 50% got jobs working two to three days a week. Now, it's maybe one to two days."

On Monday, there were 25 guys vying for work, but only four got picked up.

For Villaseñor, the long days without work are taking their toll. He's trying to hold out for retirement.

"Six days I got to take the bus," he said. "Sometimes I don't have any money to take the bus. Too much problem."

Two years ago he had a "real job" for a construction company as a framer, but the company folded, laying off 465 people. He made $600 a week.

"That was good, but no working here, no making money," he said. "I gotta eat. What do you eat? Tortillas? No beans? No carne? No pollo?"

Villaseñor appears older than his years. It's obvious he's had a rough working life. His tiredness looks permanent. His teeth need work. He doesn't have insurance.

"No insured, no nothing," he said. "My wife, I got to help. Kids is small ones — they got to eat. I got to pay rent, $500."

Most of the workers share rooms.

"A lot of guys are living five to six in an apartment," Peck said.

Irma Ronses, who has managed the day-to-day operations of the center since its opening 11 years ago, tries to help those she knows haven't worked in some time.

She also avoids political issues.

"I'm not allowed to ask if they are legal or illegal," she said.

No one likes to admit it, but most are illegal. According to a seminal 2004 National Labor Day Survey, 80% of California's day laborers are undocumented.

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