Day laborers rally for safety, fair pay

Professors’ study finds 11 percent of day laborers complain about police treatment and 20 percent have been hurt on job

Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006

Nearly 150 day laborers participated in a forum on Saturday designed to discuss altercations with Riverdale Park’s police department and to review the findings of a nationwide study on their plight.

The Riverdale Park Day Laborers organized the forum, which was held at St. Bernard’s Church in Riverdale Park.

The study was also geared toward understanding the result of the study that said 11 percent of workers complain about bad treatment from the police and 50 percent about failure by employers to pay them their wages.

‘‘We are victims of prosecution by the local government and individuals who complain and protest the presence of immigrants in this country,” said Riverdale Park day laborer Ricardo Chavez Valle.

Professors Abel Valenzuela of UCLA and Nick Theodore of the University of Illinois conducted their study of the country’s 117,000 day laborers from July to August 2004.

Among other highlights of the study were that one in 20 day laborers have been injured at the work place and that 50 percent of workers have not received just compensation or proper medical care.

‘‘They take advantage of the service of day laborers,” said Pablo Alvarado, coordinator of the National Day Laborer Network headquartered in Los Angeles. ‘‘These workers are not disconnected from society as some would think.”

Kimberley Propeack, advocacy director for CASA of Maryland Inc. in Silver Spring, said the very nature in which day laborers are hired lends itself to dishonest employers taking advantage of them.

‘‘There’s often very limited information on the employer and the day laborer can’t find them later to get the proper wages,” Propeack said. ‘‘One of the requirements we’ve established in Baltimore is to have the employer provide their name and home address.”

CASA has a list of employers who are not allowed to hire workers through its day laborer center because of their unfair compensation policies, Propeack said.

Other findings

Other important findings of the study are that 49 percent of day laborers are hired to do work ranging from landscaping to carpentry, 40 percent for contractual work, and a third repeatedly hired by the same contractor. Sixty-three percent of day laborers are parents.

The median income for day laborers is $12,000, and on average, they receive $10 per hour and work for about two to three days a week, the study said.

‘‘Ten percent of day laborers are arrested, while and 11 percent ticketed or detained while looking for work,” Alvarado said. ‘‘There’s no other situation like this in the country.”

Organizers of the forum said it was designed ‘‘to find tolerance and understanding in order for day laborers to coexist in an environment that has dignity and peace, and that will help them achieve a salary that will help maintain their families.”

The study was presented to Congress Jan. 27, in an attempt to bring attention to the adverse conditions facing day laborers.

Penelope Guzman, Latino Liaison to County Executive Jack Johnson, said she received word of the forum at the last minute, which may have affected attendance by other groups.

Although day laborers bring their complaints to local organizations such as Casa de Maryland, Guzman said she also wants to be informed of the problems the workers face concerning their jobs.

Complaints about police

Propeack said that CASA has on occasion received complaints from day laborers regarding poor treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials but in recent years, had not received a significant number.

Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer said he would have liked to participate in the forum if he had been made aware of it.

‘‘I’ve wanted to work with day laborers and if they have a leader or group that would like to talk to us, that’s one of the things I would like to do to better communicate with all aspects of our community,” Archer said. ‘‘I had no idea there was any organized leadership.”

Archer said he was not aware of any complaints from the day laborers’ perspective but was aware that the town receives frequent calls from business and property owners asking for assistance with loitering or disorderly conduct.

‘‘To my knowledge we don’t get calls to push off or move the day laborers. The complaints we get are about illegal activities,” Archer said.

‘‘The way the system works, the initial complaints would be directed to the police themselves to handle it in that fashion first and foremost.”

Del. Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly and Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist.18) of Montgomery County also attended the forum.

‘‘I thought it was very important,” Gutierrez said. ‘‘It was the first time we had heard the issues being raised with the workers of the Riverdale area and the problems they have with the municipal police department.”

The turnout impressed Gutierrez, who said she had no idea that so many day laborers were affected. I wanted to hear firsthand about this general climate is of ongoing harassment and violation of a person’s civil rights,” she said.

Gutierrez suggested that Prince George’s County take a page from Montgomery County’s County Council which created a resolution stating that county law enforcement would not enforce any immigration laws.

Bladensburg Councilman Cris Mendoza (Ward 1) was the only municipal official in attendance. He said he learned valuable information on the plight of the day laborers.

‘‘I learned a few things especially the abuse at the hands of the police and being unfair to them in some ways,” Mendoza said.

Where to find them

Day laborers in Riverdale Park typically congregate along 5409 Kenilworth Ave. while the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard is the main assembly area in Langley Park.

With the more significant congregation area in Langley Park, the county is working to open a day laborer center there, although Guzman said the process has gone on longer than expected due to contract negotiations. ‘‘It’s been in the works for at least a year and a half. It’s been difficult because there’s not enough space and we’d rather work things out with this owner instead of looking for someplace else,” Guzman said.

When the center is opened, those laborers who are not hired will be able to wok on vocational training, English and computer skills.

Archer said he would also like to get a day laborer center installed in the town as well to help get a better handle on that business. ‘‘It’s going to be a lengthy process but there are good models out there.”

A day laborer, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, described an ongoing problem with a Riverdale Park police officer who he said continually harasses him. ‘‘I don’t know why but the policeman treats me bad.”

He recalled, ‘‘One morning I came out of a restaurant and brought the food with me so I could eat while I waited for a job; and for no reason, the officer took [the food] and threw it away,” the worker said. ‘‘He has threatened to lock me up.”

Alvarado held a photo of another day laborer that had been harassed by police, showing where officers’ tasers had bruised [the victim’s] chest.

Alvarado said he was disappointed that there were no representatives from the Riverdale Park Police Department at the forum.

‘‘The day laborers have expressed a willingness to work with the police so it is sad [they] didn’t show up today,” he said.

Despite the problems, the day laborers are optimistic that they can work with the government and police officials in creating an amenable relationship.

E-mail Jeffrey K. Lyles at