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Construction companies, professional landscapers and building subcontractors, among others, often employ a temporary workforce of unskilled or semi-skilled workers known as day laborers. Day laborers are usually assigned menial jobs around the work site, such as unloading supply trucks or keeping the area clear of debris. Some may work alongside regular employees as assistants, while others may be assigned to their own independent work details.
Potential employers have several ways of finding day laborers for hire. Some day laborers congregate in the parking lots of home improvement stores and make themselves available for a day's employment. This practice may or may not be tolerated by the stores themselves, but some contractors will hire several day laborers to help unload their supplies or paint walls or other semi-skilled chores. In this scenario, the day laborers who agree to perform the work are paid directly by the contractor at the end of the workday.
Other day laborers meet at designated stations for similar employment opportunities. Contractors can hire temporary workers and establish a daily wage, generally the current federal minimum wage or the standard minimum pay rate for that industry. Unscrupulous employers may offer desperate day laborers less than the minimum wage, however, or else not pay them at all once the work is completed. Because there is no legal labor contract between the contractor and the day laborer, it would be very difficult for an underpaid or unpaid worker to pursue legal recourse.
Perhaps the most mainstream method for day laborers to find employment is through professional contract labor companies. These companies act as middlemen between employers and temporary employees. Day laborers register with a contract labor company and list their specific skills and work experience. They may be required to report in person to the contract labor company's offices every day to prove their availability. A company manager keeps these names on file until a potential employer requests workers.
Sometimes day laborers may be sent out as a group for a large construction project, or only a few may go out on a small landscaping assignment. Certain day jobs may require a temporary worker to be in good physical condition, while others may expose day laborers to harsh weather conditions or a hazardous work environment. The contract labor company may provide safety gear such as hard hats, hearing protection, or work gloves, but registered day laborers may also have to provide their own steel-toed work boots or weather gear.
The average workday of many day laborers is brutal, long and exhausting. Only a few temporary workers are ever considered for permanent employment, primarily because the contract between the employer and the contract labor company makes it financially difficult to permanently hire day laborers. Meanwhile, a day worker must remain available for any work assignment in order to earn a living wage. Day labor can be very seasonal, since many construction and landscape companies have very few projects during late fall and winter.
Day laborers may be a part of the shadow economy, but the work they perform often helps others meet their own production goals or project deadlines. Without a steady supply of day laborers, many construction projects would fall far behind schedule as regular employees tried to fill the labor void.
One of the home improvement centers near my house had an unofficial day labor site at the edge of the parking lot. I'd see company vans pull into the lot and someone would hold up a number of fingers, apparently indicating how many day laborers they wanted to hire that day. I don't know if there were illegal day laborers at that location or not, but I do know that another day labor center was shut down by the police after receiving a lot of complaints from "concerned citizens".
When I was in my early 20s, I worked as a day laborer for several months until I found a more permanent job. I showed up at a day labor center every morning and signed in. The manager already had a list of open positions, and he'd call some of us up to the window and send us out on those assignments. All I'd know sometimes is the name of the company and the location of the work site. I wasn't always told what kind of work I'd be doing or how long I'd be there.
Most of the time I got sent on semi-skilled jobs, because I learned a few trades working for my dad and I
had a college education. I did things like roofing and demolition and final clean-up work on new houses. Some of my co-workers got sent out on unskilled labor assignments, which usually meant hauling materials around construction sites or cleaning up behind demolition crews.
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