Painter, carpenter, mover, landscaper — Juan Lopez has truly become a jack of all trades during his eight years in Carrboro.
Standing with about 30 others, he begins every work day as part of a crowd of hopeful laborers waiting for work at the corner of Jones Ferry and Davie roads.
But showing up is only half the battle.
Lopez explains in Spanish that the language barrier between employers and workers means those who understand English have a distinct advantage when it comes to landing a job. For his first job, Lopez said he and two other workers got spots building a fence because they could communicate their abilities to use the tools the job required.
On any given day, the most common jobs include yard work and helping people move heavy objects, but Lopez said workers with more specialized skills look for jobs in the carpentry industry because they tend to pay more than the average $10 per hour most laborers receive.
Lopez and other members of the growing population of Latino day laborers in Carrboro showcase how the state’s economic downturn has led to a growth of non-traditional employment sectors. With an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, it’s no surprise that North Carolinians are following the national trend of turning to temporary jobs to keep putting food on the table.
During the warmer months, Lopez said he and his peers average three or four jobs a week, but when winter rolls around what was a week’s worth of work turns into a month of work.
Alberto Rodriguez, who has worked as a day laborer in Carrboro for 15 years, said getting enough money to cover the rent is always the most important thing. When money is especially tight in the colder months, he said many workers turn to local churches and food pantries for help.
Additionally, Rodriguez and a majority of the day laborers in town have go to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Human Rights Center for assistance.
Through the center, workers have access to computers, telephones and soon a place to wait inside when the weather isn’t suitable for standing outside.
Judith Blau, a UNC sociology professor and the center’s director, is working to create the state’s first electronic database of workers and employers. Once it is completed, Blau said the database will help ensure that both workers and employers are reliable.
“Some of the employers are a little queasy about giving their names, but we’re just at the beginning of this process,” she said. “The database will give workers protection from wage theft and provide employers with a more secure hiring process.”
Blau also said the database will help prevent wage theft, which happens when employers don’t pay workers for their labor or pay them less than the agreed upon wage.
Carol Brooke, director of the workers’ rights project at the NC Justice Center, said she gets multiple calls every week from workers across the state who have not been paid.
“When there’s widespread abuse going on against one group, who is it that employers are likely to hire? That group,” she said. “Even if you have no concern for the workers who are doing work and not getting paid for it, wage theft brings down the standard for workers in all industries.”
Lopez, who worked in the construction industry in Mexico before coming to North Carolina, said while working as a day laborer doesn’t provide the stability of a traditional job, it can pay as much as double what someone might receive working at a store or restaurant.
He said if someone has a family, they work at jobs that don’t pay as much because they’re more stable. On the other hand, day laborers charge more because they don’t know if tomorrow will bring a job. At times, even $10 an hour doesn’t stretch enough.