Day laborers are among the most vulnerable workers in the United States. Nationally, about three-quarters are unauthorized immigrants from Latin America. Day laborers may wait on a street corner, outside home improvement stores, or at a growing network of non-profit worker centers throughout the country, hoping that an employer will hire them for the day. Some jobs may turn into longer-term arrangements or even contracts, but day labor is usually defined by daily jobs for hourly cash pay.
Wage theft—or the denial of legally owed wages and benefits—is particularly acute for day laborers. Wage theft can take many forms, but day laborers tend to suffer one its most egregious manifestations: outright non-payment.
In our mixed-methods study in the Denver, Colorado metropolitan area, we explored what factors made day laborers vulnerable to wage theft. Did higher levels of education, more time and experience in the U.S., legal authorization, housing security, and English abilities improve the economic prospects of some workers? Or did the nature of contingent work more evenly distribute its associated work hazards like wage theft? Finally, we wondered if more legal knowledge would motivate workers to demand higher wages, improve their work prospects, and prevent wage theft?
Based on one year of qualitative fieldwork, followed by a survey of 393 workers at Denver’s worker center and at four open air hiring sites in the wider metropolitan area from 2016-2017, we found that wage theft may be an insufficient indicator of precarity when the lack of income is more pressing. Day laborers weigh the risks of working in under-protected jobs with the often graver risk of not working at all. Our results show that immigrant day laborers experience jagged incorporation into the United States, and that persisting in contingent work may compound precarity over time.
How prevalent is wage theft?
Wage theft among day laborers is pervasive. The only nationally-representative survey of day laborers, which was conducted over fifteen years ago, found that half of day laborers experienced at least one pay-related violation the week prior to being surveyed. More recent studies at the state and local levels also find high rates of wage theft, although discrepancies exist because of definitional differences or recall periods used.
Through interviews and participant observation at day labor hiring sites around the Denver area, we learned about how wage theft occurred, how workers tried to prevent it, and the obstacles they faced to pursue redress. Our follow-up year-long survey, sampling, and weighting strategy was designed to grasp wage theft’s prevalence for a mobile population like day laborers.
We found that although day laborers earned a median hourly wage of $15.60, which was higher than the state-minimum wage at the time, they suffered from insufficient work. The average day laborer only worked 16 hours per week, which depressed their earnings to just over $1,000 per month.
Whereas 62% of day laborers in our study reported ever experiencing wage theft, 19% suffered an incident in the six months prior to being surveyed. This was somewhat of a surprising finding given other studies that found much higher wage theft rates. Day laborers in the Denver area expressed that wage theft was a persistent risk, even if they themselves had avoided it thus far. Given the scarcity of work, however, our results did not necessarily indicate that day laborers in Denver fared better. Instead, lower rates of wage theft could reflect their low propensity to work.
Do human capital or legal status make a difference?
Research on the potential advantages of higher levels of human capital or legal status in mitigating wage theft and raising wages are mixed for immigrant workers like day laborers. This is because of widespread disadvantages associated with contingent work and racism against Latinos.
We found that human capital and legal status did not impact exposure to wage theft or improve work prospects or income. However, individuals with legal authorization status, English fluency, membership in Denver’s worker center, and who never experienced homelessness had more knowledge about their labor rights. Yet workers who possessed such knowledge were not less likely to actually experience wage theft. As one worker wryly told us, “I already know my rights, but still don’t have my money.”
Time in U.S. lowers risk of wage theft and earnings
We originally expected that day laborers with more time and experience in the United States would have acquired knowledge and skills to garner higher wages, attract more employers, and avoid risk. Yet immigrant duration had surprising effects.
Immigrant day laborers with longer duration in the United States had more protective knowledge and earned higher hourly wages than more recent immigrants. Juan (a pseudonym), for example, told us that he had learned from experience how to spot dubious employment arrangements and avoid employers with bad reputations. Yet, even when day laborers knew the risks, desperation for work might lead them to take a chance anyway.
Longer duration immigrant day laborers were 40% less likely to experience wage theft than more recent arrivals. However, they worked much less that recent arrivals, which reversed any benefits from their higher hourly wages and lower exposure to wage theft. In effect, they earned about $350 less per month than more recent immigrant day laborers.
Insufficient and irregular work undercut protection strategies by placing day laborers in a troubling bind between the hazards of working—wage theft and injury—and the financial repercussions if they use their experience and knowledge to reject a job offer. This trade-off makes day laborers hesitant to confront their employers or seek assistance for unpaid wages when the time required interferes with their ability to land the next job.
Compounding precarity in contingent markets
Our results portray an aging generation of Latino immigrant day laborers with increasingly long tenure in the United States, which reflects demographic changes occurring across many U.S. localities. For this population, the value of experience in the United States is double-edged and may even compound disadvantage for those who remain in contingent work.
Although day laborers with longer tenure in the U.S. were better able to discern risky employment situations, day labor took a cumulative toll on their incomes, mental, physical and emotional, health, bodies, and dignity over time. They sensed an impending disposability as they aged, aware that their presence in the U.S. was tolerated as long as they were willing and able to work hard. One man wistfully told us, “When the time comes, when you’re older, you don’t work, you know?…The U.S. is no place for old men.”
As the Latino immigrant population of the U.S. continues to age, scholars and practitioners should pay attention to the implications of vulnerability and socio-legal exclusion over the life-course. While we focus on day laborers, our findings may increasingly apply to other low-wage immigrant workers who remain excluded from opportunities to adjust their legal status and are relegated to industries characterized by insecure work, low pay, high rates of labor violations, and under-protection by labor laws.
Rebecca Galemba and Randall Kuhn. “No Place for Old Men: Wage Theft and Immigrant Duration among Day Laborers in Denver, Colorado” in International Migration Review 2021.
image: authors’ own image