Like many Portlanders, José de Jesús González lives paycheck to paycheck. But for González, there’s never a guarantee of where that next paycheck will come from. That’s because he’s a day laborer, taking daily work as a landscaper, mover, cleaner, or construction worker.
And like many other industries, the day labor market in Portland is drying up due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re just coming into the spring season,” González told the Mercury through a Spanish-English interpreter. “I was hoping that work would pick up, but it has not picked up because of the pandemic.”
González is the vice president of the day labor committee at Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, a Portland organization that organizes and educates temporary day laborers. He said that the drop in work due to the coronavirus has had “a huge impact” on him and his fellow workers.
“The only way we earn a paycheck is if we’re working that day,” González said. “If we don’t work, we don’t have any money.”
Voz is currently accepting donations for an emergency fund to help workers get by during the pandemic. Its members include houseless people, immigrants, and refugees—people who might not be able to easily access unemployment pay and other social services. Another Voz leader, who asked the Mercury not to use her name due to privacy concerns, said that there’s little existing safety net protecting day laborers who can’t find work, or who need to stay home because of health concerns.
“We don’t have paid sick leave,” she said. “We’re just working day-to-day with different employers, so we don’t have any benefits.”
And when a day laborer in Portland has a difficult time scraping by, the economic hardship can be felt across borders.
“The majority of our members are older men who are migrants, many of whom have been separated from their families,” said Genevieve Roudané, a lead organizer at Voz. “A lot of them are supporting their families back in their home countries with the money that they earn here. So any economic impact here has an impact in their home country.”
Voz is working with other labor groups in Portland to create a list of political demands for local officials during the pandemic. Roudané said their list will include a freeze on rent and mortgages “so that people aren’t put out onto the street,” universal food access, and closing immigration detention centers because they can have “unhygienic conditions.” Voz is also working to find housing for its houseless members.
“We’re asking the community… to give us the support we need to survive this,” González said.