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Day Laborers Feel Pandemic Pain as Jobs Dry Up

FILE - Only a few day laborers seek work near a skilled labor site at a Home Depot in Glendale, Calif.
FILE - Only a few day laborers seek work near a skilled labor site at a Home Depot in Glendale, Calif.

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, Julio Castro’s days began at 6:30 a.m. with a long walk to the parking lot of a Home Depot, hoping someone would hire him to do jobs like yard work or painting.

The Guatemalan immigrant made $500 on a good week, enough to eke out a living for him and his family.

Now, with much of the U.S. economy at a standstill, he’s lucky to see any money at all.

On a recent afternoon, Castro and another day laborer toiled to build a short division wall out of large stones and cement in one of Berkeley, California’s, well-to-do neighborhoods. It was his first job in more than two months.

“I stopped going to Home Depot because of the situation,” Castro said.

As a day laborer with no car of his own, he has little choice but to get into the vehicle of anyone who hires him, placing himself in close proximity with a person who may or may not be infected with the coronavirus. Plus, he notes, very few people are hiring day laborers right now.

Before coming to the United States, Castro taught elementary school. He says narcotraffickers murdered his father, prompting his decision to flee Guatemala. He and his wife and three children arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico in 2018, seeking asylum.

Over the nearly two years since, Castro managed to save around $1,500, a financial reserve that has been exhausted buying food and paying $700 a month in rent with almost no income since February.

California’s stay-at-home order imposed additional burdens in cramped living quarters. Castro and his family share a bedroom with another man in his 20s. A single mother and her two children live in another bedroom, and a man in his 50s occupies the third bedroom. All are from Guatemala. The small apartment in Oakland has a shared kitchen and bathroom but no living room.

“My wife and children just basically stay in the room all day,” Castro said. “The apartment doesn’t have a yard, and we live on a busy street, so there’s nowhere for them to play.”

Things taken for granted before the pandemic, like sending his 6-year-old daughter to school or taking the family out for a stroll, are sorely missed.

After working on the residential wall, Castro earned $160 doing yardwork — a one-day job he secured through another Guatemalan man he’d worked with before. Even so, he is behind on rent for May.

“If I don’t have the money, I’ll try to sell the few belongings that I have to see if we can make up the rest of it,” he said.

Some financial help could be on the way. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that a joint public-private fund would assist undocumented and unauthorized workers who don’t qualify for federal stimulus payments yet make up roughly one-tenth of California’s workforce. The program will provide a one-time payment of $500 per person, or $1,000 per household, but it won’t begin until later this month.

In better times, Castro managed to send money to relatives in Guatemala. Now, he struggles to feed his immediate family while waiting for a decision on their asylum petition.