By 2 p.m. Tuesday, Àngel and Martín are ready to call it. They lie slumped in the shade against an apartment building near 26th and Alabama streets, their backs against the wall. It’s looking like yet another day when they won’t find work, and another day their families back in Chiapas, Mexico, must go a little hungrier.
The last four months have been especially hard for day laborers like Àngel and Martín as the U.S. economy worsens and puts the brakes on construction, according to multiple day laborers and an advocate.
“No one wants to build right now,” several developers said, an assertion similarly echoed in the city’s January, 2023, proposed Five-Year Financial Plan. The report attributed the weak housing and commercial market in part to “a combination of reduced demand and higher interest rates.”
For the 2,000 to 3,000 estimated day laborers in San Francisco, that means more competition for fewer jobs. By the end of 2022, neighbors near 26th Street and Garfield Park, two popular pick-up areas for day laborers, noticed more and more workers waiting for painting, demolition, gardening or roofing work.
“It’s getting harder and harder. I don’t know what they’re going to do right now,” said Lydia Candila, the executive director of the nonprofit and indigenous group Asociacion Mayab. A majority of Asociacion’s male clients are day laborers in the Mission.
Starting last winter, she noticed an uptick in clients who reported a lack of employment. Demand for the organization’s free food boxes also rose.
“I can tell a lot of them don’t have a job, or they work only two days a week. It’s very difficult. Some haven’t had a job in six months, or a year,” Candila said.
Àngel has found a job three or four times a week since he moved to San Francisco in 2020, but that’s far less work than he imagined he’d find. Lately, it’s been worse. “Since January until now, it’s been bad,” Àngel said in Spanish, a cap shading the 42-year-old’s face. He estimates he’s getting at least one less opportunity per week.
Still, he rises daily at 5 a.m., dons his steel-toed boots, and takes the bus from Daly City to his spot at 26th and Alabama, where he’ll wait some eight hours for work alongside his pal, Martín. Àngel loves “framing” jobs, while Martín prefers demolition.
“We’re here every day,” they said in unison. Àngel originally moved to Daly City so he’d have a place to park his car, but recently he sold it. Without any work, he needed the money.
The Mission’s day laborers
About a dozen other day laborers were still on the street by the afternoon, accepting their fate: No job today. The best chance of procuring a job is from 7 to 8 a.m., when contractors, whom the laborers call patrons, cruise the streets looking for workers.
All the laborers flock to 26th Street, which has recently usurped Cesar Chavez Street as ground zero for pick-up work. Purportedly, neighbors say, the street’s proximity to the highway makes truck stops easy.
Martín has been here a month, and has gotten picked up about half of the days. He and Àngel were briefly flatmates at a Mission apartment building, and the two bonded over love of boleros and Modelo beer. Are you best friends? I ask. “So far,” they agreed.
Both, like most of the 26th Street laborers, came from Chiapas in search of work. When each crossed the border without papers, dodging immigration officials in the desert and salvaging water jugs, they expected bountiful jobs in the United States. I ask if it was worth it. They both replied without hesitation: “No.”
“I thought there was going to be a lot more work,” Martín said in Spanish, talking softly beneath his black ‘Texas’ hat. Had he known how it would be, “I don’t know if I would’ve come.”
The new laborers on the blocks
The economic downturn has forced those who generally had regular construction jobs onto 26th Street, where they sometimes pick up day-labor work. Fernando, 40, hides behind a bush on 26th Street, his eyes smiling behind his Covid-19 mask.
The Veracruz, Mexico, native said he has been looking for work for just two weeks. “The economy is bad,” he said in Spanish. But, he said, his bosses from his regular job promised work would return the following Monday.
Fernando sends money to his family of three kids, 20, 15, and 10. He’s no longer with their mother, and joked that he’s looking for a woman here to date, maybe to remarry. For a second, his grin weakens. “I’m lonely,” he admitted.
At 8:43 a.m. a block away, Ignacio, 26, joined five other laborers on the corner of Folsom and 26th attempting to court a patron. He also generally has a fixed job, but his Irish bosses left for vacation in Dubai eight days ago, leaving him temporarily high and dry.
Next to him was 22-year-old Martin, who watched the Folsom and 26th street intersection traffic like a hawk. To hail them, he lifted two fingers at every pick-up truck that passed, and tried to catch the drivers’ eyes. None stopped.
Martin followed his four elder brothers here from Chiapas a year ago. Each of them crossed the border alone. But the young man is ready; his backpack is full of predicted necessities. A measuring tape, pencil, work gloves and orange juice.
Then, just after 9 a.m., his luck changed. A truck driven by a patron he knows slowed down — for him. The young man glided across the street like a soccer star fueled by a game-winning goal. He whooped, tossed his backpack in the truck bed, and hopped in, glowing. The other five laborers remained on the block, baking in the sun.
Going the distance
Like Àngel, some of those waiting on 26th Street don’t live in San Francisco; others travel to other cities for work.
“I have a couple of guys who mention they go to the Home Depot in Daly City, and stand and wait to see if somebody has a job,” Candila said.
By the time Junior strolled up to the corner of Garfield Park at 8 a.m. one Wednesday, half a dozen day laborers already stood under a tree, teasing each other. Junior said to get a spot on 26th Street, he traveled from Monterey, California, rising at 4 a.m.
“There’s no jobs over there, entonces,” the 20-year-old said in Spanish, smacking his bright blue gum.
Junior has had better luck on the streets of San Francisco in the past year, he said. He is one of dozens that 26th Street neighbors believe are part of a greater influx of day laborers in recent months.
But when the white pickup pulls up to Treat and 26th, it’s not for Junior. Behind Junior, the group of laborers at Garfield erupted in chatter; one man separated himself, and drifted calmly to the passenger side of the truck. This man smiled smugly, hyperaware his friends were watching as he slid in the truck, immediately whisked off to a job. His audience, purportedly thrilled on his behalf, cheered.
“They’re drunk,” Junior said, shaking his head disapprovingly. He stays away from drugs and alcohol. Business owners and neighbors said that both vices have claimed some laborers over the years. Many are depressed from the difficult work and time away from loved ones.
Alfredo, who waited for work against an apartment stoop near 26th and Harrison, said he used to drink and take drugs often. The instability of work was tough; he spent some months homeless. But after waking up so sick and intoxicated one day, he decided to quit. Instead, he plays basketball in the park with friends, and hopes his daughter will drop by to visit.
On Tuesday, he’s in bright spirits. While he struck out for work on Thursday and Monday, he was able to pick up some four-hour gigs over the weekend.
Yet others aren’t feeling as optimistic. One 40-year-old man, who asked not to be named, sat by Garfield Park at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. He said he’s averaged one job a week, far less what his two kids and wife need, back home. “Sometimes, there’s no work at all,” he said.
The man left Chiapas eight years ago, the last time he had seen his wife and young sons in person. “I had to go to take care of them,” he said.
He Facetimes them occasionally, and knows that when he can’t send money, they must get by with “what little they have.” There, you can’t “work, study, or nothing,” he said in Spanish.
Still, he misses his kids terribly; the conversations aren’t the same online, he said. He wonders if he should return to Mexico next year, given that the U.S. economy hasn’t improved. He can’t shake the fact that his son is 13. “That’s the age when a son needs his father.”
Was his eight-year sacrifice worth it?
“No,” he said, the sun lighting the early morning. “There’s no jobs.”