Job seekers brave cold for chance at day labor
January 8, 2004
Each morning Pablo Osornio climbs into his old Ford sedan and makes the 40-minute drive from Reno to Truckee with no assurance that the day will bring any work at all.
He pulls into the bus station parking lot alongside Commercial Row sometime around 8 a.m. and joins the shrinking group of prospective workers that meets every morning to expectantly scan the road for a passing truck whose driver may be trolling for day laborers.
In early December the group of mostly Hispanics idling in the parking lot was up to more than 20, now there are only 8 or 9.
The cold has driven some away, while others leave as the construction trade slips into hibernation for the season, Osornio said.
Osornio is one of the those sticking it out, hopeful that odd jobs shoveling snow and scraping off roofs will spot him between his weekend stints as a butcher in Gardnerville. Like many of the workers waiting in the parking lot, he lives in Reno. He has lived there for five years, after leaving Mexico’s capital to find work in the United States.
The workers stomp their feet occasionally, kick at the snow-covered ground, and casually banter. Every once in a while a truck or SUV passes; the driver motions to a couple men who jump in, and the truck pulls away with newfound employment. The work is almost exclusively snow shoveling at this time of year.
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In their prominent location downtown, the workers illustrate a growing change that the town, state and nation have been facing for years. Hispanics were recognized as the nation’s largest minority in 2002, representing more than 13 percent of the population. In 2002, 21.4 percent of national Hispanics were living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.
With booming construction, ski and service economies in Truckee, it is only logical that the town would have a certain pull towards regional job hunters. It is also logical that the need for laborers will grow strongly as major construction projects spring up within the town and in neighboring Martis Valley.
In this light, the workers can be seen as a vital part of Truckee’s growth and the region’s business viability, which is exactly what the White House acknowledged on a national level in a new immigration policy released on Wednesday.
President Bush, days away from a visit with Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, unveiled a proposal that would allow workers to enter and live in the United States for three year periods if they have employment lined up, and would also give current illegal workers the opportunity to gain legal status. Estimates of the current illegal worker population range from 8 to 11 million.
Bush’s proposal highlights the nation’s demand for transitory, seasonal and low-wage work that is often filled by foreign workers. Although it includes select benefits, such as retirement and social security, opponents criticize the plan as a devaluation of labor – a contract to import cheap labor without bearing the heavy costs of full benefits, creating a permanent second tier of workers that receive inferior treatment.
Others see the plan as a long overdue effort to confront an issue that can easily be ignored. The White House Web site bills the proposal as a “new temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.”
In Truckee, another problem complicates the equation. Many towns like Reno, Carson City or to a lesser extent South Lake Tahoe, have affordable housing available to accommodate the job demand they create. But Truckee, struggling in cases to even appeal to the bottom end of the professional workforce, is an unlikely residence for these laborers
Jose, Carlos and Sergio, a trio of hopeful day laborers that hop into Carlos’ Suzuki Swift every morning for the drive from Reno to Truckee, find Truckee’s housing costs prohibitive. Many who do live in Truckee settle on trailer parks and pack 4 or 5 adults in to make the arrangement affordable, they said.
Omar, who waits alongside Osornio and another friend, is lucky. Somehow, after his move from Los Angeles two months ago, he found a three-bedroom apartment for $800 a month. He splits the rent with two others, but credits the affordable housing find to what he sees as a break on rent since one of his roommates is deaf and dumb. Omar is an electrician, but has resorted to vying with the others for snow shoveling jobs.
Despite the uncertain mornings spent waiting for work in the cold, Osornio likes the life he leads in the United States. The trade off for the difficult life scraping out work in the region is the high wages and opportunity to succeed.
“There’s buying power here,” said Osornio. “In Mexico you work a whole week to buy a pair of pants.”
Here, Osornio said, he can own a car and enjoy other luxuries that would only be a dream for him in Mexico.
Osornio’s inability to speak English has hampered him in finding work and at times he feels people treat him differently when they find out he does not speak English well, he said. While many people in Truckee offer good money for work, others have changed prices on him when they find he only speaks Spanish. But he knows that there is little he can do.
“You remove snow with a shovel, you don’t remove it with language,” Osornio said. “It’s the same work whether you speak the language or not.”
Before the cold weather hit, the parking lot was a social gathering of sorts. Cajoling and off-color joking was interrupted only briefly when a truck would pull into the parking lot, causing the pool of suddenly attentive workers to turn their heads. Now, the parking lot seems deserted, and the few that gather seem more intent on working. With the recent snow, the lot is soon nearly abandoned as workers head out one-by-one or two-by-two to shovel snow.
Its unclear how Bush’s policy, if it passes, will affect Pablo, Sergio, Jose, Carlos and Omar. Their scraping for work, ability to collect a jumble of odd jobs, and regional job hunting, while arguably important to the economy, will hardly qualify under Bush’s guidelines that workers have jobs lined up to become legal or gain entrance to the country.
Its hard to see the policy changing their lifestyle; the weather seems to have more decisive control over the downtown group’s behavior than any immigration policy enacted.
And when the weather or the season blots out any hope of work?
“We’re killing time,” Carlos said.