By Zach Goodwin
Even before the pandemic, being a jornalero, or day laborer, was a struggle — a daily effort to be hired at a fair wage on a safe work site.
During the pandemic, jobs have become more scarce, while seeking or taking a job means risking illness or death from COVID-19.
At the Cypress Park Community Job Center, a hub for jornaleros located on the Home Depot property on N. Figueroa Street, the Boulevard Sentinel recently spoke with workers and their advocates about how the pandemic has — and hasn’t — changed the outlook for day laborers in Northeast Los Angeles.
One recurring topic was loss — of family members, friends and fellow day laborers. In Los Angeles County, Latinos have endured the highest COVID-19 death rate of any racial or ethnic group, by far. Many jornaleros also suffer health ailments from the demanding conditions of manual labor, year after year.
A new mural, painted on a shed wall next to where the workers congregate, features the faces of four jornaleros — David, Pablo, Leonso, and Jaime — who were established members of the Cypress Park worker community before their deaths from various health conditions over the past year. The faces were painted by fellow jornaleros with support from the Southern California Institute for Popular Education (IDEPSCA by its Spanish acronym), a nonprofit that operates day laborer centers and organizes immigrants through leadership and education programs.
“They were members for a long time and this was something we did to remember them,” said Julio Martinez, a day laborer from Mexico.
By recalling the fallen, the mural also underscores the struggle that persists.
Jornaleros are especially vulnerable to illness, said Guadalupe Garcia, administrative manager at IDEPSCA, because the ad hoc nature of their work means they often do not have employer health insurance, sick days, or access to assistance networks for problems like substance abuse.
Jornaleros are also critically dependent on a robust economy, because when activity stops and day labor disappears, they generally have no government safety net to cushion the joblessness.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, forcing IDEPSCA to close its centers and offices, Garcia and other IDESPCA staff worked remotely to coordinate aid programs such as hot meal distribution in Cypress Park, which began in April 2020. People’s Pantry LA, an El Sereno-based volunteer group, also delivers groceries to Cypress Park every Tuesday.
IDEPSCA has also worked to provide jornaleros with information about COVID-19. This has included contact tracing and helping jornaleros come up with a plan when they or a family member contract COVID-19, as well as helping them and their families schedule testing and vaccine appointments, Garcia said.
At the Cypress Park Center in April, Francisco Gonzalez, 70, a day laborer from Mexico, said that the COVID-19 vaccines he had recently received were “the first vaccines, in 25 years, I’ve been given.” Another jornalero estimated that of nearly a dozen men present at the Cypress Park center that day, nearly all had been vaccinated.
That’s progress, given the relatively slow rollout of the vaccine to Black and Latinx residents in L.A. County and a lack of trust in the system, derived from legacies of medical abuse and discrimination affecting people of color. Gonzalez said he got his shots despite reservations about doctors, at which point another jornalero interrupted to say he also had doubts about the medical system. Nonetheless, most jornaleros IDEPSCA works with have been eager to get vaccinated, according to Garcia.
Back to work?
The Cypress Park center is now open three days a week, six hours a day, with some 10 to 20 jornaleros typically gathered in search of work. To compare, 35 to 40 men gathered daily when the center was open full time pre-pandemic.
IDEPSCA has not set a date for full reopening, said Garcia.
In the meantime, Martinez said he and other workers have found jobs through friends, family, and former employers.
“Just like that,” Martinez said. “Little by little.”
IDEPSCA has tried to facilitate these worker-employer networks, Garcia said, by maintaining a registry of jornaleros looking for work and of past employers who have fulfilled their commitments to workers.
One goal is to prevent employers from taking advantage of workers’ need for income during the pandemic. Many workers are behind on rent, Garcia said, and cannot apply for financial assistance because they live in shared housing arrangements that sometimes are not registered under their name.
Another fear is unsafe working conditions. As part of its popular education program, IDEPSCA has tried to show jornaleros how to advocate for fair wages, protective equipment and employer adherence to COVID rules.
“When workers are in need of jobs, they are going to take what someone is offering them even if it is less than what the labor law says,” Garcia said.
Improving labor conditions for day laborers is central to IDEPSCA’s mission, but it’s only one part of achieving a better life for immigrants. “This is a community that has been left behind in so many ways,” Garcia said. “I’m speaking about immigration policies, about financial assistance, about other resources that the community — and especially the immigrant community — needs.”
And yet, Garcia said that day laborers have consistently volunteered at clean-ups and food distributions to help the community get through the pandemic. “They are one of the most resilient communities that I know,” she said. “Even with all the challenges they are facing, they are still willing to give their time, to help us and to help others.”
Zach Goodwin, a senior at Occidental College, is a participant in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration between the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper.
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