Sandy destruction boosts demand for immigrant day laborers

Fernando Coba, a day laborer, removes material from Fernando Coba, a day laborer, removes material from a house in Long Beach that was damaged by superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Two signs advertised "Workers Available" outside the red trailer that functions as a shape-up site for immigrant day laborers in Freeport.

But only a few among the two dozen men who had gone there Wednesday were available for hire by 7 a.m. The others had been snatched up or were booked mostly by homeowners cleaning up the mess left by superstorm Sandy.

Day laborers -- a mix of workers of various immigration statuses -- are in high demand in the storm's wake at hiring sites in places such as Brentwood, Farmingville, Freeport, Hempstead and Huntington Station, workers and advocates said.

"There's a lot of work," said Patricio Velázquez, 33, a Honduran immigrant in Freeport. "These are days when everybody wants us because they need our hands."

Workers say they are negotiating better pay -- ranging from $120 to $150 per job rather than $100 or less per day at other times -- and they can get hired seven days a week.

"It's been a blessing from God for us, economically," said Javier Mendoza, 42, of Hempstead, part of a group of more than 50 workers bidding up their wages on a recent morning outside a Home Depot in Hempstead.

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Cleanup brigadeIn the rush to repair and rebuild, those temporary workers have become a force of first responders for homeowners who are not always waiting for insurance money to come through before clearing debris, pumping out basements, removing furniture and carpeting, and ripping out soggy drywall and plasterboard.

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Katie Linkner hired two workers to help clean up her Massapequa house, where water from a nearby canal rose to her thighs.

They cleared out damaged furniture and removed pieces of docks that washed up in her yard. Then they pulled out carpets and damaged walls.

"To say these guys have saved my life is not too much of an exaggeration," said Linkner, 46, a teacher who volunteers at the Freeport trailer. "They are some of the hardest-working people you will ever find and they are sympathetic."

Homeowners in storm-ravaged areas from the South Shore to Staten Island to the Jersey shore are seeking immigrant day laborers, said Nadia Marín-Molina, worker rights coordinator with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Advocates like her are watching to make sure workers are treated fairly and are not exposed unprotected to hazardous conditions, such as electric wires, contaminated water or mold spores.

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"We know this is just the beginning and we know there's a ton of cleanup and reconstruction work," Marín-Molina said. "We will be reaching out to workers to give them information so they know about the hazards that they face."

Safety emphasizedThe federal government also is paying attention, having learned from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina that temporary workers will rush to potentially hazardous sites and take on risky jobs, said Diana Cortez, a Tarrytown-based area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The agency is working with consulates from El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil to disseminate safety information in English, Spanish and Portuguese to workers and has sent field workers to talk to day laborers at hiring spots on Long Island and elsewhere, she said.

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The message: Take precautions and demand protective equipment from employers.

"Under OSHA, every worker that works in the United States has a right to a safe and healthy workplace, regardless of immigration status," Cortez said, "and, for each worker, their employer has an obligation to meet that requirement."

The agency does some site visits and seeks cooperation from employers and workers when unsafe conditions are present. Some workers say homeowners provide protective equipment; others say they bring their own.

Amner Israel, 35, of Hempstead, said health concerns are the least of his worries. His focus is making money, he said.

"We all know we are putting our lives at risk to work, but I do what I can to protect myself," Israel said, adding he usually uses masks and gloves provided by those who hire him.

For workers such as Israel who have been scrambling for jobs in a weakened economy that has caused homeowners to put off home improvement projects, the recovery effort has been a boon.

Higher wages relishedAlex Bonilla, 35, of Hempstead, said workers are enjoying the opportunity to negotiate higher pay.

"Now that there are fewer people available to work, we have to take advantage and charge more," said Bonilla, who has seen employers come from Far Rockaway, Freeport, Lindenhurst, Long Beach and Massapequa. "These people need our help."

In Huntington Station, Elmer Andino, 43, said he was part of a group of workers who went door to door the day after Sandy, offering their services to homeowners who had fallen trees and torn fences.

"We have been killing ourselves working," Andino said, "but we get paid."

Fernando Coba, a Lindenhurst resident who has been a day laborer since he lost a factory job last year, said the disaster was helping him launch his cleaning service business.

He and another day laborer were getting $125 each per day to tear up plasterboard and kitchen tiles, and to pull out carpets and insulation at a Long Beach house.

"No one is glad this happened," said Coba, 48. "It's a tragedy, but the homeowners get a break on the cost of repairs and workers like me can get ahead, too."

Some who work closely with the immigrant day laborers hope their efforts will help people understand the role they play in their communities.

"I am trying to tell people, 'If you're going to use them now, please respect them later,' " said Liz O'Shaughnessy, director of the nonprofit CoLoKi Inc., which manages the Freeport trailer. "They have been working nonstop so people could have their homes back."

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