L.A. day laborers struggle to recover from COVID pandemic

On a cold Tuesday morning, Genaro Guerra pedaled to the U-Haul parking lot in Atwater Village and prayed for a job, even though it had been 62 days since his last job.

This time of year is stressful for Guerra, a 42-year-old day laborer from Guatemala. The men who often hire him for construction jobs drive back to Mexico and Central America for the holidays. In order to Guerra pedals to Fletcher Drive and Larga Avenue in hopes of being hired as a mover.

Every day, low-wage workers pop up in the roadside job boards like these looking for work on construction projects, roof installations and landscaping jobs. They are often immigrant men living in the countryside without documentation, making them vulnerable to wage theft and other unfair labor practices.

The economic slump caused by the pandemic two years ago hit day laborers particularly hard. They were exposed to the deadly virus at high rates, unable to stay home or receive unemployment benefits. Until last year, most had no access to health insurance. Now, high inflation and high interest rates have made jobs scarcer, adding another hardship and pushing many into homelessness or homelessness.

The slowdown was visible at U-Haul’s storage and rental car facility as Guerra and others jornaleros, as day laborers are called, observed the comings and goings of the customers.

“People come here to pick up and leave their U-Haul trucks,” Guerra said. “They don’t need us.”

He believes that today, due to rising prices, people have less money and are choosing to do the lifting themselves.

Before the pandemic, Guerra said all he needed was one good day where he could get four jobs and make about $800. But now it’s a miracle if he gets just one.

“All I wish for in the new year is for God to give us more jobs,” Guerra said. “More jobs mean we have money to pay rent and have food.”

Guerra is preparing for this time of year by saving money he earns during this time spring and summer. This year he paid his rent two months in advance, but that drained his savings. He has his last $300 and his $800 monthly rent is almost due. He is now considering pawning three gold chains to get through next month.

He worries about becoming homeless and knows of some workers who do camp now on the Los Angeles River.

He’s sitting in a folding chair, freezing as a cold breeze slices through his hooded sweatshirt and unleashes water from the tree he’s sitting under. His body stiffens as a drop of water lands on his neck. The sun is just breaking through the storm clouds. He lights a cigarette.

The hustle and bustle of the day just hits the block – mainly a strip of car dealerships, with side streets lined with small gated houses. A couple rummage through trash cans and pull out plastic water bottles. Minutes later, another man searches the same trash cans.

Genaro Guerrera, 42, left, waits for work outside the U-Haul storage and rental car in Atwater Village.

Los Angeles, California-Dec. 29, 2022 Day laborers including Genaro Guerrera, age 42, left, wait for work outside of the U-Haul warehouse and rental car in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, CA. on December 29, 2022. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Gustavo Gutierrez shows up at 8am and dabs Guerra. The men tell how difficult it is to find work. They can’t agree on how long it’s been since regular jobs existed.

A third man appears and drinks coffee. He overhears Guerra mentioning how beautiful the day looks as he notices more sun and blue skies.

“Everything is beautiful and eternal,” says the man.

Guerra giggles.

“Hay, miralo, tan profundo,” he said. Look at this guy, so deep.

Gutierrez, 65, smiles amused and shakes his head.

The men spend so much time talking to kill time in their endless wait that they alternate between mutual amusement and annoyance.

In a soft, husky voice, Gutierrez questions the man.

“What does forever mean to you?”

“Everything, Guerra is eternal.”

“As the?”

“Well, when he dies, his spirit remains,” says the man.

“So you think that tree over there is eternal? The chair?” says Gutiérrez.

The topic loses its thread and the conversation fades.

guerra tries to keep his struggles for survival in context. In his view, poverty in Los Angeles is nothing like poverty in Guatemala.

“We know our jobs are low-wage, but even with that you can buy several pairs of shoes, whereas in Guatemala you can only afford one pair every two years,” Guerra said. “You earn so little that you can hardly afford eggs.”

Poor and desperate for change, Guerra said he left Guatemala in 2003. He has worked in various jobs but specializes in house frames. His only family in the US is his 23-year-old son, who left five years ago to live with a wife in Texas.

“I haven’t really heard from him since he left,” Guerra said. “I’d like to speak to him, but I don’t have his number.”

Since his son moved, he has lost his father to cancer and his mother to diabetes. When the holidays come around, he tries to think not of the losses and regrets of a hard life, but when he’s in his Bedroom in a nearby house, drinks to calm down, he can’t help but think about his family.

“It’s hitting me hard,” Guerra said. “I never saw my parents before they died.”

Gutierrez listens while Guerra tells his story. He kept his hands in his pockets and tried to stay warm.

He is the oldest in the group.

There are days he thinks about when he was young like her, when he could do just about any job. But now it’s getting harder. He has prostate cancer and the medication he is taking to prevent it from spreading is damaging his body.

“I’m old and sick now,” he says. “I can barely lift my arms and I don’t know if it’s because of the medication or just my age.”

It’s almost 11 a.m. when Guerra pulls out his cell phone. He calls another worker at MacArthur Park and asks if there’s any work.

“Hey jale?” he asked is there work

He hears the man say, “Some.”

He tells the caller he’ll be there around noon.

Other jornalero appears as Guerra hangs up the phone. Guerra and Gutierrez speak to the man and ask if he has found work.

The man tells him that he was doing masonry work before the last storm. It was his first time doing this work, so he only made $40 for it.

“But now that you know how to do it, you can ask for more next time,” Guerra tells the man.

Guerra crosses the street and sits around six other workers. The conversations are loud, with lots of laughter. Guerra’s voice is the sharpest and loudest of the group. He’s a born talker, a barfly without a bar. After half an hour, he’s so distracted by the conversations that he misses the bus twice and never makes it to MacArthur Park.

The group of men eventually make their way to a round wooden dining table. They sit on chairs that residents have thrown away. For two hours, the men play poker and listen to music while continuing their conversations. A few drink beer.

Neighbors understand the men are there to find work but say they can be a nuisance, including sometimes urinating in public.

For now, a portable toilet used by construction workers remodeling two nearby houses has temporarily solved this problem.

Guerra said neighbors have complained to them about the noise and drinking.

“It’s valid. I understand that,” he said.

He’s worried that whoever moves into the converted homes might not want them in the area anymore.

Gutierrez said fear is part of the reason he tries to distance himself from others. He thinks if they’re a nuisance, it’s harder for them to get jobs.

“I come here and just try to find work,” he said.

This Tuesday, none of them did. But the next morning, when it was raining, the men showed up to try again.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-05/la-day-laborers-covid-pandemic-recovery L.A. day laborers struggle to recover from COVID pandemic

Alley Einstein

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