It’s a cold, gray Sunday just after dawn near Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. And already day workers are standing in small clusters, with an intent, steady gaze that says, “Hire me.”
Vans and trucks pass by slowly, laden with building supplies from a nearby Home Depot. The drivers of the vehicles eye the gathering of laborers — many of them immigrants, mostly from Latin America — seeking a match. The transaction plays out in the 37-degree chill, around a parking lot close to a towering red brick chimney that marks the vanished Sears warehouses where so many Philadelphians used to work.
Nearby, a squad of brown-hooded Franciscan friars builds a makeshift altar and field kitchen for a Mass they hold for workers once a month, with hot breakfast from the Latin American menu of the Tamay food truck.
Construction, typically slower in the winter, is also mired in a COVID-era lull; stymied by a gnarled supply chain and surging inflation. So the workers say there are more men than usual seeking work at this site, which has a long tradition of running itself.
“Up to 150 here, lately” looking for work, said Adolfo, from Guatemala, who asked not to use his last name or those of his companions because of their immigration status.
That’s double the roughly 75 men seen at the site last summer, when warehouses for Amazon and other distribution companies were sprouting up all over the area.
To be sure, that can be dangerous work — two men died on Philadelphia-area Amazon construction job sites in July, one a Honduran laborer, Wilmer Mejia, whose brother said he had let go a safety line to get a drink of water and fell three stories.
Some of the men on those jobs are back now as jornaleros, Spanish for day workers. These unofficial job sites are familiar sights in such places as New York, Texas, California and many other states, and have been based in some locations for generations.
The scene is a window to an uncertain regional economy. Unemployment fell to 4.2% in November, its lowest point since the pandemic struck, even as hiring slowed. But employers added just 210,000 jobs in November, the weakest monthly gain in nearly a year and less than half of October’s increase of 546,000.
The slight downturn was apparent in this corner of the city, which has been a center for daywork since at least the late 2000s recession, when the U.S. tightened up on employers and forced workers to verify their citizenship.
Some of the men say the slow, complex, uncertain process of applying for legal U.S. residency is effectively closed to them. While some politicians and pundits on cable TV news would call them “illegal,” they say they are “en tramites,” still working on their papers.
Casual employers have gotten used to seeking them out, and old-timers among the workers say city police and store managers don’t regularly hassle them as some did years ago. The Franciscans put bags out for the breakfast trash, which they say the store managers ensure are collected and disposed of, to keep the place tidy.
So the drivers cruise past, seeking a helper or two for a home project, a day’s concrete pour or frame assembly, a small cleanup or site prep crew. They are homeowners, tradesmen moonlighting as small contractors, sometimes ambitious fellow immigrants who have saved for trucks and power tools. All offer the fast, hard or dirty jobs that pay cash with few questions asked.
“I had a good job in Atlanta,” way back in the late 2000s, recalled Oscar, who is from Honduras. He said he went to work every day at a large company that formed concrete construction elements for prefabricated buildings.
“Then the government changed its policy, and they made all the employers ask for strict proof of citizenship.” Any worker who couldn’t show legal residency was let go, he said. So he came north and looked for day jobs. “Here, they don’t ask for papers.”
Why stay, when it’s this hard? Even without papers, taking insecure day work, “it’s better here” than back home, Oscar said. In his hometown, “there’s no work, just all the people in the government who take our money for themselves. And delinquents,” criminal gangs who terrorize poor neighborhoods.
The first year of the pandemic, 2020, was good for day work, Adolfo said. Big construction projects were stalled by state emergency rules, but that left more builders doing projects at home and needing casual help with the heavy lifting and utilities connection jobs.
Many immigrants send money home. The World Bank estimates that in 2020 more than $100 billion was sent home to Latin America and the Caribbean — mostly from immigrants in the U.S. and a 6.5% increase from 2019 despite the pandemic.
“You hope to get at least $150″ for a day’s work, “depending on the job — demolition, cement, plumbing, electricity, drywall, paint” — each has its negotiable price, said Ricardo Nolasco, who came here in the 1990s from Puebla, Mexico.
Nolasco and a few companions and helpers started the Philadelphia Workers Association eight years ago, based at a small office at St. Joan of Arc parish in Frankford, to help jornaleros. His dream is to organize a small cooperative, like the ones immigrant groups have set up in California and other states, to share tools and transport and more easily ensure members get paid and not stiffed, as too often happens.
He found helpful volunteers in the labor and legal community, who organized seminars to teach workers good employment practices, even if they are still “en tramites.” For a time, they had a van, but an accident totaled it. Shared tools disappeared.
“It is frustrating,” Nolasco said. “It is hard to get people to work together.”
The authorities may not bother them as much, but they don’t protect them either, leaving workers vulnerable to wage theft and street crime, Nolasco added.
“Ricardo has a tough job,” observed Al Martino, a bricklayers’ union officer who has visited the jornaleros and is sympathetic to Nolasco’s group and its goals.
Besides being seasonal, construction is tied to the larger economy and depends a lot on the weather. Summer hurricanes are good for business. “There was a lot of work after that storm, Ida,” said Adolfo.
But snow is not good, he added: “There’s a little work cleaning roads and sidewalks, but construction shuts down” sometimes for weeks.
Jonatan and another group are from Honduras, from the Atlantic coast. Gustavo is from Puebla, in central Mexico. Jose Sanchez — “it is a really common name, you can use it all,” he said — came here from the Dominican Republic.
The Franciscans, here in pan-Latino and Christian solidarity, are also international. Besides Father Kevin, the friars include Father Reynaldo Frias, from the Dominican Republic, and Brother Edgar Pereira, born in El Salvador. They are Capuchin Franciscans, based at the Padre Pio friary at a former Catholic parish in Frankford.
The Mass was the idea of Marco Osuna, a native of Colombia and lay Franciscan who moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s and works as a union electrician. When he learned of the jornaleros, Osuna went to the Home Depot parking lot on his own to hold lay services, then badgered the friars into joining him.
Osuna usually arrives early, rounding up men to join the Mass and leading the crowd in the repetitive call-and-response of the rosary. But he’s sick this week, so Frias is doing double duty.
Frias jams a shopping cart against the folding-table altar to keep its cloth from blowing away. “We are here to remind everyone that we are all children of the same God and are worthy of respect, even when society does not show this,” he said.
The food — stewed chicken, rice and gandules, spiced meat in a potato crust — is prepared and kept warm by volunteers under the direction of members of the Tamay family, the food truck operators who hail from Ecuador.
The choir, with its chill-fingered singer-guitarist and full rhythm section, is called Rayo de Luz — Ray of Light. The group more often sings at Holy Innocents Church on Hunting Park Avenue and is largely Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can work anywhere, but they feel solidarity with the immigrant workers, said Carmen Hernandez, the choir leader. “We are here to show the special commitment we feel to them, as our brothers,” she said.
The men say they don’t understand why the government won’t make it easier for them to get work permits, when so many employers are begging for help.
“We do a lot of work Americans won’t do,” said Hugo, from Guatemala. “There are Help Wanted signs everywhere.”
“We’ve been coming here for years,” said Gustavo, the Mexican. “They should let us apply for papers and pay whatever fines they require.”
“There is a lot of work in this country. But the Americans don’t seem to want us to advance,” said Adolfo.
Despite everything, Sanchez still sees Pennsylvania as a place of opportunity. He said many of his fellow Dominicans have left the immigrant neighborhoods of New York and moved to the cities in the eastern part of the state because it’s less expensive to live, and there is plenty of need for workers, if you can make arrangements.
Even in the middle of Mass, the men’s eyes follow each truck that slows as if looking for helpers. “Ladrilla? ladrilla?” one driver called softly, using the Spanish word for bricks.
On one such pass, Sanchez stepped smartly up to the truck and struck a deal. “He’ll come back after Mass,” he said.
Is he a bricklayer? “We’re all bricklayers here,” he said. “Or any other work they need.”