Javier Hernandez is crouched beneath a lamppost at the corner of Mission and Cesar Chavez Streets, hiding from the unusually hot 10 a.m. sun by squeezing his body into the thin sliver of shade. He’s been sitting like this for two hours already, moving as the shade moves, waiting for a car to pass by and offer him a job.

When the 40-year-old day laborer is asked about work, he throws his hands up in the air. “There isn’t any,” he says. “I’m done. I’m going home.”

By “home” Hernandez means Monterrey, Mexico, which he left 18 years ago. Tired of waiting on the corner for a job that doesn’t come, Hernandez is thinking of heading back by December.

Hernandez, a trained carpenter who does “whatever work comes along”, is not alone in his frustration. Feeling the combined effects of the housing recession and recent immigration crackdowns, day laborers in the Mission District are having a harder time getting work, and getting by.

Rene Saucedo, director of La Raza Centro Legal, the organization that runs the San Francisco Day Laborer Program, says that although times have been hard for day laborers since 9-11, recently she has seen a significant change for the worse.

In the last six months, Saucedo says, the Centro has seen “an increase in homelessness, workers moving out of San Francisco, sometimes going back to their home countries or at least thinking about it where before they didn’t.”

Like others, she blames the housing crisis for the downturn.

According to the California Building Industry Association, August 2008 saw the lowest rate of new home construction in the state’s recorded history—a 61 percent drop compared to the same month last year. The California Employment Development Department reports that, of all industrial sector jobs in the state,  construction jobs were hit the hardest in August 2008 with a decline of 79,200 jobs, or 8.9 percent, compared to August 2007.

And construction isn’t the only sector that’s hit Latinos hard.

Immigrants do work that facilitates the lifestyle of middle-class homeowners, such as landscaping, housekeeping or childcare. With the economic downturn, says Saucedo, this sector is cutting back on such expenses.

The slowdown is clear at the Day Labor Center on Cesar Chavez Street. The hiring hall is teeming with waiting workers. Hundreds of workers a day come through the center, hanging out on the sidewalk or on the back patio, passing the time with jokes, smokes and talk of the next soccer game.

Here, workers sign in and wait to be called as work offers come into the center. Program laborers charge employers $15 an hour, for a minimum of three hours of work.

Hector Valdez, the director of the program, often fields the call. In the last two months alone, Valdez estimates, the number of calls coming in has dropped by 40 to 50 percent. Whereas just a couple months ago they handed out 7 or 8 jobs referrals a day they are now down to 3 or 4.

With about 250 names on the wait list, workers are currently waiting up to three weeks to get work.

“It’s hard.” says Joel, who like others asked that his full name not be used. “You work one day, make $100 and go back to being number 200 on the list.”

It’s not any easier out on the street corner, where workers try their luck charging less than the $15 an hour they would earn through the Day Labor Program.

At the corner of 26th and Van Ness, Javier says that this is his third time in the United States and it is by far his hardest. When he first came in 2000, he “always had work” in construction, and managed to save money and marry upon his return to Mexico. In 2003, his second time around, he worked up to seven days a week painting houses for a steady employer. He went back to Mexico and had a second child.

Now, a year and a half into his third trip here, Javier is barely making enough “to eat poorly and send a tiny bit home.”  The boss that gave him steady work painting houses the last time says he doesn’t have any work now.

Instead,  Javier has to try his luck on the corner. In the last three weeks, he has worked five days, making $70 or $80 a day. These figures were similar for the majority of workers interviewed for this piece. With no other options, there are times when Javier has resorted to collecting cans or recyclable bottles all week, turning them in on Sundays for $60 or $80.

“Back in Mexico, they think we come here to sweep up money, but they don’t know what we go through–the hunger, the cold, being here with no work,” he says. Desperate for work, Javier has even considered working for a notoriously exploitative boss who yells at workers and often doesn’t pay up. “I’m tempted to call him and take the abuse, but I haven’t dared yet.”

“Some people give up looking in other places,” says Carlos, a 31-year-old Salvadoreño with three kids in Los Angeles. “They start drinking, they get depressed, they give in to their solitude.”

In the midst of this desperation, however, workers are trying to come up with alternatives to waiting in frustration.  At a recent meeting, Day Laborer Program members proposed developing a crafts project to generate income for members.

“Most of our members come from provinces and know how to make traditional crafts like jewelry, hammocks, or clay figures,” explains Joel Loyola, a program member and leader. “Instead of just sitting around waiting for hours, they could be learning to make something, and learning how to commercialize it.”

Until now, however, the idea is still just that- an idea.

When the day laborers’ office closes at 1:30 p.m., Javier Hernandez is standing outside waiting for friends to go to a bar. He didn’t get any work today.

“So what,” he says with a dry laugh and a shrug of the shoulders. “I’m leaving soon anyways.”

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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