Undocumented workers have some of the highest fatality rates in NYC construction

By Samia Bouzid

The sun isn’t up yet, much less the shutters of local shops, but outside a paint store in Jackson Heights, about 40 men stand in a cluster. A No. 7 train roars overhead, and the silence breaks to let the train pass, then closes behind it.

Soon, vans began pulling up outside the shop. Construction contractors call out their offers: three workers, demolition, $120 a day. Others need workers for stucco, wallpaper, plumbing or paint jobs. The workers who have the skills step up and contractors take their picks: you, you, you. The ones chosen climb into the vans.

Starting around 6 a.m., the same ritual is taking place around the city, at various paradas, unofficial gathering places where day laborers, many of them undocumented, wait for work.

Undocumented workers make up an estimated 19 percent of construction workers in New York City, according to an analysis of 2014 census data by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. They typically earn less than natives and other immigrants, so many contractors have come to depend on their labor to keep costs of production down. While President Donald Trump has called for the deportation of undocumented immigrants to open up more jobs to Americans, these efforts could have uncalculated impacts on the construction industry.

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Many undocumented construction workers are day laborers, who get picked up for projects that last anywhere from days to months.

Contractors typically seek out undocumented labor for residential or small-business projects, which make up about a third of the city’s construction, according to an affiliate of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In general, large public projects such as airports or hospitals are required to go through unions, which largely exclude undocumented immigrants. Union labor also monopolizes other projects that require highly skilled workers, leaving mostly small-scale, low-skilled work to undocumented workers.

Yet even for day laborers who land longer projects, work from one day to the next is not guaranteed. While some of them try their luck at the paradas, others collect in day labor centers, nonprofits that help connect employers with workers.

In the small office belonging to the New Immigrant Community Empowerment center, labor organizer Lynda Cruz sits at a table with eight men, making calls to potential employers. In between calls, she asks the group in Spanish, “Who still needs to get OSHA-certified?” “Is anybody a plumber?” “Who speaks English? Anyone?”

The median hourly wage of all construction laborers was $16.25 nationwide in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But most of the jobs coming through the labor center pay between $11 and $15.

One contractor who hires undocumented workers said that the explanation is simple.

“It’s just the money,” said Nick. “Let’s say a job costs $50,000. No documents, they can give just $35,000.” By hiring undocumented workers, Nick can charge $15,000 less over roughly three months.

Giovanni Peri, a labor economics researcher at the University of California, Davis, said that employing undocumented workers also has more subtle advantages. Money saved gets invested: in part in more low-skilled workers, but in part in expanding the company at all levels.

“You need more supervisors when you hire more workers,” he said.

But recent political rhetoric and reports of deportations have shaken the community of undocumented workers.

“We could be arrested at any moment,” said Eudes in Spanish, one undocumented day laborer.

Eudes believes the uncertainty plaguing the undocumented community has also affected employers, who may be thinking twice about hiring undocumented workers. Normally, he said, contractors will hire workers as long as they provide an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, which ensures that both the contractor and the employee pay taxes. The ITIN does not legally authorize a person to work, but many independent contractors accept it anyway as a way to cut corners.

Peri said that the concept of simply replacing undocumented labor with American labor is naive.

“All the rhetoric is ‘Oh, take away the immigrants and the natives will find those jobs,’” he said. “But the problem is that a lot of those jobs will not be there at all.” The reason, he said, is that paying higher wages to American-born workers will leave less money to fill all the job openings left by undocumented workers.

Edwin Vargas, a labor organizer with various community groups, said he doesn’t believe any other community would do the work of undocumented immigrants for the price they are paid. To Vargas, a New York City without undocumented labor is unimaginable. From the bathrooms and private offices to the skyscrapers, undocumented labor is cemented into the city.

Vargas still has vivid memories of the days after the Twin Towers fell, when vans headed to Ground Zero drove past the paradas, picking up workers for $150 a day.

He remembers, too, the day after Hurricane Sandy swept over Rockaway, undocumented workers lifting a boat out of the road, cleaning up the remains of people’s homes.

He said undocumented workers have helped pick up the city during some of its hardest times.

“Someone has to do it,” Vargas said in Spanish. “Who’s going to do it? God’s not going to do it.”