As we near the anniversary of the first COVID-19 shutdowns in Illinois, many of Chicago’s day laborers are finding themselves in dire straits. Months of shutdowns and economic devastation have made finding work — an already scarce commodity in recent years — more difficult than ever, and in many cases, these laborers are particularly vulnerable to infection and financial devastation.
Rigoberto Campos, an organizer from the nonprofit Latino Union of Chicago, which offers assistance to low-income immigrant and U.S.-born day laborers, says the pandemic has put these workers in incredibly difficult positions.
“They wake up every day with hopes of trying to find work, and whether that means they’re able to pick something up, it comes down to what happens when they’re at the corner hiring site … the pandemic has made that situation a lot more difficult,” said Campos. “We’re talking about being able to pay rent, your bills, your phone, and the challenge there is they’re having to make financial decisions that are really hard, and when you add taking care of yourself with COVID, if you get sick, that’s a day away from work, and that’s money that you need right now.”
University of Illinois at Chicago professor Nik Theodore says that because day labor typically comes with low pay and is procured by congregating at hiring sites across the city — often with people you don’t know — these workers are especially vulnerable to infection as well as financial insecurity.
“There’s a lot of exposure issues,” Theodore said. “The pressure to return to the hiring site to try to find work day after day, despite the hazards that might exist, that pressure is very real for day laborers.”
Moreover, Theodore says, any economic downturn will have a dampening effect on day labor markets, “both in terms of the slowdown related to the pandemic and the amount of construction and other (work) that day laborers are doing. But then there’s the bigger question of the workers being displaced from other industries,” Theodore said. “So as restaurants and bars shut down … workers are being expelled from those industries and for many of them they turned up on the street corner looking for day labor work … and so they are putting additional pressure on day labor markets, which puts pressure on wages and job availability.”