Day laborers may be the best employees |

Day laborers may be the best employees

Life in Our Mountain Town, by Katie Shaffer

There’s a place downtown that everyone who lives in Truckee knows about. It’s the Truckee unemployment office. You may be thinking, “Isn’t that located in Tahoe City?” What I’m referring to is not an official set-up with paperwork or even a door, walls, or heat.

It’s a parking lot that sits on Southern Pacific land between the train depot and the gas station. You can drive past on any morning and see a gathering of Hispanic men standing around – ready, hopeful, waiting for work.

I’ve been told that there is a lead man who organizes the group. He keeps track of who shows up, in which order. I’ve also heard that these workers who used to get $8 or $10 an hour at the end of a days’ work, are now asking for $12 to $15. That must be the trickle-down effect of more wealth moving into the area.

I read a book called “The Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyl,e which mentioned this same scenario in another California town. In the story, a few caring people in town erect a canvas tent to shelter the Mexican nationals from the hot sun as they wait to be picked up and taken to odd jobs. Others in town disapprove of any effort to help these migrant workers. After much complaining by those who are concerned with appearances, they eventually have the group moved, across the street. Does this sound familiar?

Anyway, the point I’m hoping to make here has to do with my experiences in hiring laborers, and how I believe that a lot of the Mexicans who stand around downtown with their hands in the their pockets trying to keep warm while they wait for work, may turn out to be a worthy hire.

Recently I noticed an advertisement in the classified section of this newspaper. It was for, and it announced that all job candidates must submit to a drug and criminal test. I wish my husband and I had known that such criteria was an important hiring practice 10 or 15 years ago.

We’ve hired a few criminals and a few drug addicts, and none of them were Hispanic.

Maybe the reason for this is because laying asphalt is hard work. Many do not last more than a day or two. White employees who are willing to do that kind of labor, in our experience, have a tendency for excuses rather than honesty.

We once had a guy working for us who would try to get a DUI about this time of year, late in the season. The way he figured things for himself, this would put him in jail, which he felt was a fine place to spend the winter. He wouldn’t have to pay rent; meals and heat would be provided for free. He figured he would spend six months there, and be out in the spring.

One day my husband let this stellar employee borrow a work truck to drive home. My husband knew that the truck had one headlight out, but he assumed that a drive home to Donner Lake in the late afternoon and back the next morning would be harmless. Of course, this guy didn’t go straight home – he went straight to a bar. At 10 o’clock that night we got a call from the sheriff. Our truck had been pulled over because of the missing headlight, and in it was our reliable employee, drunk, and headed for jail.

A few years after this guy worked for us, I received a letter from a state official who was trying to attach his wages for some offense. I remember filling in the space on the form where it asked for his last known address: Nevada County Jail.

We had another Caucasian employee who blew in from Colorado with six kids and a woman who was expecting their seventh child. Their blended family seemed suspicious to me. I always wondered if there was a mom back in Colorado wondering where a few of her kids had disappeared to. Within a few months, this guy conveniently got injured on the job. One injury led to several more, and before we knew it, he had milked our worker’s compensation insurance dry, caused our rates to triple, and then he disappeared. He was off to another town to run his scam elsewhere.

I can’t say it was entirely a result of these two incidents, but eventually, my husband and I started to note a pattern. Our Hispanic employees were generally hard-working, diligent, non-drug using, family men who really wanted a job. The white boys were less than ideal employees.

I make these generalizations knowing that there are exceptions.

But for those wary of the group standing around at Truckee’s unemployment office downtown, I can tell you from experience, some of these new fellows in town who are looking for work might turn out to be a pretty good hire.

Katie Shaffer is a Truckee resident. Life in Our Mountain Town appears every other week in the Sierra Sun.

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