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Press Release · July 25, 2007

Day Laborers In California… Much Ado About How Much?

Public Attention Out of Proportion to Size of Worker Population

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 25, 2007 — California leads the nation in community reaction to workers popularly known as “day laborers.” Yet, based on the first ever national survey of these workers, a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that day laborers make up a very small proportion of the state’s workforce. The analysis also reveals how the state’s day labor market works and fills in previously unknown detail about who these laborers are and the conditions under which they live and work.

Some of the portrait bears out certain popular conceptions. The average California day laborer is a 34-year-old, single, immigrant male who has had only seven years of schooling. Most day laborers hail from Mexico (68%), 29 percent are born in other parts of Latin America, and a mere 3 percent are born in the United States. The vast majority – 80 percent – are working in the state without legal documentation such as a visa or work permit.

Looking at the state’s entire day laborer population, however, the study undercuts a general impression about the size of this population. According to the California data – extracted from the nationally representative National Day Labor Survey conducted in 2004 – the state has relatively few such workers. Only about 40,000 people are either employed as day laborers or looking for day labor jobs on any given day in California. That is just 3 percent of the total estimated undocumented male workforce in the state – and only 0.2 percent of the entire state workforce.

Also surprising is that day laborers earn substantially more than minimum wage: an average of $11.32 per hour. Their net earnings remain low, however, because they work only an average of 23 hours per week. This is not for lack of trying. On average, day laborers look for work five days a week but find it on only two or three days.

“The minimal hours and the low number of overall workers tell us that the day labor market in California is really quite small,” says the report’s author, PPIC research fellow Arturo Gonzalez. “The issue probably attracts so much public and policy attention because its informal nature means that work is solicited in busy public places – making workers very conspicuous in local communities.”

Indeed, according to the study, Day Labor in the Golden State, more communities in California than in any other state have reacted formally to the day labor market. On one hand, over 50 communities in the state have passed ordinances or tried to enforce laws to eliminate or restrict day laborer activity. On the other hand, more communities in California have established formal work centers, where day laborers and employers can officially conduct their business. In 2004, there were 24 such centers operating throughout the state, compared to 21 in the rest of the country.

Most day laborers in California would actually prefer not to be. The vast majority (84%) are looking for a permanent job, 59 percent have held a regular job, and 17 percent had regular jobs at the time they were interviewed. This may indicate that day labor is used to supplement regular income. The top three reasons day laborers give for being unable to find regular jobs? They are undocumented (36%), jobs are scarce (22%), or they lack English or job skills (17%).

Their preference for regular jobs may reflect the unstable environment of day labor work. They are hired primarily by private individuals (51%) rather than contractors and subcontractors (43%) or private companies (3%). Nearly one-third (32%) of day laborers hired at informal sites report that employers abandoned them at the jobsite. Moreover, a very high number of day laborers – 70 percent – consider their work to be unsafe; slightly more than 10 percent were injured on the job in the year before the survey was conducted.

Some conditions appear to be better at formal work centers than at informal sites. Forty percent of those who gather at informal sites report being harassed, threatened, or refused service by nearby businesses; 43 percent say the police have forced them to leave a site. In contrast, laborers hired at work centers report far less harassment (21%) and far less police interaction (18%), and they are less likely to be abandoned at the job site (20%). The incentive to use informal sites may be slightly more hours of work, which result in higher weekly earnings.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.