LA day laborers struggle to recover from the COVID pandemic

On a cold Tuesday morning, Genaro Guerra rode his bike to the U-Haul lot in Atwater Village praying for a job even though it had been 62 days since his last job.

This time of year is stressful for Guerra, a 42-year-old day laborer from Guatemala. The men who often hire him for construction jobs head home to Mexico and Central America for the holidays. Rest pedal war at Fletcher Drive and Larga Avenue, hoping to be hired as a mover.

Every day, low-wage workers show up at hiring sites on the sidewalks like this, looking for work on construction projects, roofing installations and landscaping work. They are often immigrant men living in the country without documentation, making them susceptible to wage theft and other unfair labor practices.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic two years ago particularly affected day laborers. They were exposed to the deadly virus at high rates, unable to stay at home or collect unemployment benefits. Until last year, most had no access to health insurance. Now, high inflation and interest rates have made jobs scarcer, adding another layer of hardship, pushing many into homelessness.

The slowdown was visible at U-Haul’s truck rental and storage facility such as Guerra and others laborers, what are the day laborers called, he watched as the customers came and went.

“People come here to pick up their U-haul trucks and leave,” Guerra said. “They don’t need us.”

He believes that people have less money today due to rising prices and choose to do the lifting themselves.

Before the pandemic, Guerra said, all he needed was a good day where he could hold four jobs and make about $800. But now, it’s a miracle if he gets just one.

“All I want for the new year is for God to provide us with more jobs,” Guerra said. “More jobs means we can have money to pay the rent and have food to eat.”

Guerra prepares for this time of year by saving the money he earns during spring and summer. This year, she paid her rent two months in advance, but it drained her savings. She’s down to her last $300 and almost has her $800 monthly rent paid. Now he’s considering pawning three gold chains to get it next month.

He is worried about becoming homeless and knows of some workers who now camped along the Los Angeles River.

Sitting in a folding chair, he shivers as a cold breeze cuts through his hoodie and releases water from the tree he’s sitting under. His body stiffens as a drop of water falls on the back of his neck. The sun has just broken through the storm clouds. He lights a cigarette.

The hustle and bustle of the day is coming to life on the block: a strip of mostly auto shops, with side streets of small, boarded-up houses. A couple rummage through recycling bins, pulling out plastic water bottles. Minutes later, another man passes by the same containers.

Genaro Guerrera, 42, left, waits for work outside the U-Haul rental and storage truck in Atwater Village.

Los Angeles, California – December 29, 2022: Day laborers, including Genaro Guerrera, 42, who left, wait for work outside the U-Haul rental and storage truck in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, CA. in december 29, 2022. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Gustavo Gutiérrez appears at 8 in the morning, beating Guerra. Men talk about how hard it is to find a job. They cannot agree on how long ago there were regular jobs.

A third man appears, drinking coffee. He hears Guerra mention how beautiful the day is starting to get as he notices more sun and blue skies.

“Everything is beautiful and eternal,” says the man.

river war

“Hey, look at it, so deep,” he said. Look at this guy, so deep.

Amused, Gutierrez, 65, smiles and shakes his head.

The men, in their endless waiting, spend so much time talking to kill time that they pass between mutual amusement and irritation.

In a soft, hoarse voice, Gutiérrez interrogates the man.

“What does eternal mean to you?”

“Everything, War is eternal.”

“How is it?”

“Well, when he dies his spirit remains,” says the man.

“So you think the tree over there is eternal? The chair?” says Gutiérrez.

The topic loses its thread and the conversation fades away.

war tries to keep their struggles to survive in context. From his perspective, poverty in Los Angeles is nothing like poverty in Guatemala.

“We know the low-paying jobs, but even with that you can buy several pairs of shoes, whereas in Guatemala you can only afford one pair every two years,” Guerra said. “You earn so little you can barely afford the eggs.”

Poor and desperate for change, Guerra said he left Guatemala in 2003. He has held several jobs but specializes in house framing. His only family in the United States is his 23-year-old son, who left five years ago to live with a woman in Texas.

“I haven’t heard from him since he left,” Guerra said. “I’d like to talk to him, but I don’t have a number for him.”

Since his son moved out, he has lost his father to cancer and his mother to diabetes. When the holidays come, try not to think about the losses and regrets of a hard life, but when you’re in your bedroom in a nearby house, drinking to calm his mind, he can’t help but think about his family.

“It touches me a lot,” Guerra said. “I never got to see my parents before they died.”

Gutiérrez listens as Guerra tells his story. He kept his hands in his pockets, trying to stay warm.

Of the group, he is the biggest.

There are days when he thinks back to when he was young like them, when he could do almost any job. But now, it’s getting harder and harder. He has prostate cancer and the medicine he takes to prevent it from spreading is hurting his body.

“I’m old and sick now,” he says. “I can barely lift my arms, and I don’t know if it’s the medicine or just my age.”

It’s almost 11 in the morning when Guerra takes out his cell phone. He calls another worker at MacArthur Park and asks if there is work.

“Hay jale?” he asked, is there work

He hears the man say, “Some.”

He tells the caller he’ll be there around noon.

Another laborer appears as Guerra hangs up the phone. Guerra and Gutiérrez start talking to the man, asking him if he has managed to find a job.

The man tells her that he did a bricklaying job before the recent storm hit. It was his first time doing this job, so he only made $40 for it.

“But now that you know how to do it, next time you can charge more”, says Guerra to the man.

Guerra crosses the street and sits around six other workers. The conversations are noisy, with lots of laughter. Guerra’s voice is the sharpest and strongest of the group. He is a natural speaker, a fly without a bar. After half an hour, he is so distracted by the conversations that he misses the bus twice and never makes it to MacArthur Park.

The group of men finally make their way to a round wooden table. They sit on the chairs that the neighbors have thrown away. For two hours, the men play poker and listen to music while continuing their conversations. A few drink beer.

Neighbors understand the men are there to find work, but say they can be a nuisance, including sometimes urinating in public.

For now, a portable toilet used by construction workers remodeling two nearby houses has temporarily solved that problem.

Guerra said neighbors have complained about noise and drinking.

“It’s valid. I understand,” he said.

He is afraid that those who move into the remodeled houses will no longer want them in the area.

Gutierrez said fear is part of the reason he tries to distance himself from others. He thinks that when they’re being a nuisance, it’s harder for them to get work.

“I come here and try to find a job,” he said.

That Tuesday, none of them did. But the next morning, as it rained, the men showed up to try again.

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