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Disorder at Day Laborer Sites

Guide No. 44 (2007)

by Rob T. Guerette

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The Problem of Disorder at Day Laborer Sites

This guide addresses the problem of disorder at day laborer sites. It begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase the risks of it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and practice.

Disorder at day laborer sites is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to both public disorder and to illegal immigration. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by disorder at day laborer sites. Related problems—each of which require separate analysis—not directly addressed in this guide include:

  • Exploitation of day laborers by contractors who fail to pay or pay less than the agreed-to wage
  • Victimization of day laborers by angry citizens
  • Illegal immigration and human smuggling rings
  • Associations with groups engaged in trafficking women for prostitution
  • Links with other forms of organized crime, such as drug smuggling.

General Description of the Problem

Views related to day laborers vary considerably. Some people view them as valuable resources providing cheap labor that others will not do. Others see them as illegal immigrants and transients who take jobs, commit crimes, and cause community disorder. How communities view day laborers largely depends on how intrusive day-laboring activities become on citizens' daily lives. Most communities will be ambivalent to day laborers until their presence leads to problems, some criminal and some not.[1] Community attitudes against day laborers may be rooted in anti-immigration views more generally. How the community views day laborers and illegal immigrants, whether they are critical or sympathetic, will affect how any particular community addresses problems at day laborer sites. This guide does not adopt any particular judgment about illegal immigrants rather it is intended to objectively inform you about the effectiveness and consequences of various approaches to managing problematic behavior at day laboring locations.

Day laborers§ are those who congregate in public places seeking manual-labor jobs such as construction, gardening, landscaping, and farming.§§ These laborers work daily for predetermined wages. The amount of money laborers earn varies from market to market and time of year. Day laborer sites tend to be concentrated where there is a proliferation of construction, manufacturing, farming, and other industries dependent on large numbers of relatively unskilled manual laborers.

§ Day laborers are sometimes referred to as jornaleros or esquineros, the former meaning "day worker" and the latter meaning "street-corner worker."

§§ Researchers often distinguish between informal and formal day labor markets. Formal day laborers are those who work for temp agencies, contracted out on a daily or extended basis. This guide focuses on informal day laborers.

Harms Caused by Disorder at Day Laborer Sites

Potential problems associated with day laborer sites center mostly on where laborers congregate while waiting for work, and not at the workplaces themselves. The following are among the many reasons police need to be concerned with day laborer activity.

Public Disorder

  • The presence of large numbers of laborers and contractors often creates parking and traffic problems.
  • The constant congregation of laborers in the same place for many hours creates loitering problems.
  • Laborers often leave discarded bottles, food wrappers, and other litter at day laborer sites.
  • Laborers may vandalize area property or deface property with graffiti.
  • Laborers waiting all day for work may urinate in public.
  • Injuries among laborers related to "swarming" may occur. Swarming often occurs when there are many more laborers than the contractor needs. Injuries sometimes occur when many laborers "swarm" around a contractor's vehicle, hoping to be selected for a job.
  • Laborers congregating on sidewalks may harass pedestrians.

Laborers crowd around a vehicle soliciting work. This practice is also referred to as “swarming.” Credit: www.judicialwatch.org


  • Simple and aggravated assaults may take place at day laborer sites.
  • Laborers may be routinely robbed.[2]
  • Laborers may drink and sell or use illicit drugs in public.

Economic Concerns

  • Immigrant day laborers may make it more difficult for community residents to find work.
  • Increased contractors' reliance on day laborers may undercut salary levels and employee benefits for full-time workers.

Spillover Effects

  • The presence of troublesome day laborer sites may incite citizens' frustration and disdain for immigrants.
  • Disorderly day laborer sites could lead to increased fear of crime among community members.
  • Uncontrolled day laborer sites in residential areas may affect property values.
A local resident protests at a day laborer site

A local resident protests at a day laborer site.

Day Laborer and Smuggling Links

As most day laborers are illegal immigrants, most have been assisted by smugglers. Research indicates that smugglers help nine out of 10 immigrants entering the United States across the Mexican border.[3] Many immigrants use smugglers to help them find places to live in the United States, and become obligated to them if they cannot afford to pay them up front. Thus, some immigrants must work to repay smugglers for arranging their transport and housing. It is common for many immigrants to live in one house or apartment that is managed by the smuggler or someone with ties to the smuggler. These residences may be near day labor sites.

Factors Contributing to Disorder at Day Laborer Sites

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, identify valid effectiveness measures, determine important intervention points, and select an appropriate set of responses for your specific problem. The literature on day laborers provides a general picture of the market for them, the conditions of day-labor work, the laborers themselves, their employers, the places where they assemble, and the link between day laborers and human smuggling.

Day Laborer Markets

Day laboring dates back to at least the medieval times, when laborers assembled in daily or weekly markets throughout Europe to be hired for farming and herding tasks. In the United States, day laboring dates back to the late 1700s, when common laborers (many of them immigrants) such as chimney sweepers, wood cutters, and cart men sought jobs daily. During the mid-1800s, "shape-up" sites in northeastern port cities had a system of hiring dockworkers for daily or half-day shifts.§

§ For more on the history of organized day labor, see Larrowe (1955), Mohl (1971), Mund (1948), and Valenzuela (2003).

Today's market for day laborers exists wherever there is a need for construction and agricultural workers. The jobs include home construction and/or refurbishment, landscaping, roofing, painting, and harvesting and other farming activities. In some regions, day laborers work in factories on production lines.

For low-skilled or illiterate workers, day labor sites provide an easily accessible way to find employment. For employers, day labor sites provide easy access to a relatively large pool of workers whom they can hire when needed and release when not.

Employment Conditions

The specific conditions of day labor employment vary, but the arrangement is generally the same regardless of place or employer. Day laborers are usually paid in cash at the end of each work day. The wages paid to day laborers vary and depend on the time of year, the skill of the laborer, and the location of the day laborer site. By some estimates, the pay can reach $80 to $100 a day, exceeding federal and state minimum-wage ceilings.[4] However, in markets where there are many more laborers than jobs, wages may be bargained lower, resulting in pay that is below minimum wage. Employment generally lasts from one to three days, is unstable, and provides no benefits or worker protections.[5] Employers may sometimes mistreat day laborers, may not pay them for their work, may make them work without regular breaks, and may require them to work under hazardous conditions.

Despite the chaotic appearance of day labor sites, the daily procedures are relatively structured. Laborers usually gather at the site at around 6 a.m., waiting for prospective employers to pass by in pickup trucks or vans. As prospective employers arrive, groups of laborers crowd around the vehicles pointing to themselves and indicating their availability for work. Employers select laborers for different reasons, some of which include the laborers' skills and ability to speak English. Often, employers will return to the site and look for men they have hired previously. Many laborers wait several hours before getting a job. Some laborers do not secure jobs at all and usually leave the site in the afternoon. It is common for some laborers not to secure work for several days, and periods of unemployment lasting several weeks have been reported.[6] The rate at which the laborer will be paid is often negotiated during the selection process, but is sometimes agreed to on the way to the jobsite or at the jobsite itself, once the laborer has seen the nature of the work. The employer often provides lunch.

Day Laborers

The exact number of day laborers is uncertain; however, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that approximately 260,000 wait each day on street corners for employment.[7] In Los Angeles, some 20,000 to 22,000 day laborers are estimated to seek work every day.[8] Most day laborers are male, entered the country illegally, are young, are uneducated, and either cannot speak English or have poor command of the language.[9] Because of their illegal status, they largely lack access to formal employment. Most day laborers are Hispanic, though this varies somewhat by region. For example, in Chicago one study reported that the majority of day laborers were African-American.[10]

Day labor appeals to workers for many reasons. First, day laborers are paid in cash at the end of each work day. Getting paid daily is beneficial because laborers can use the money immediately to pay for food and other needs. Receiving payment in cash also eliminates the need to establish a bank account. This appeals to illegal immigrants who are wary of formal institutions and/or lack the documentation needed to establish accounts. Second, payment in cash means that day labor work is "under the table" and tax-free. This creates further incentives for immigrants who have worked for much less in their home countries. Finally, day laborers have the power to negotiate their wages for each job. They are free to accept or decline a job and to walk off the job site, should they choose. This negotiation power allows them to undercut the market rate, while at the same time make much more money than possible in their homeland.[11]


Comparatively little is known about those who employ day laborers, but one study found that contractors hire the large majority of them. Private employers are the next largest group of hirers.12] Employing day laborers is appealing because they are easily accessible, are hardworking, can be hired when needed, and are cheaper to employ since employers are not required to provide benefits packages. Employers often rehire the same workers once they have established a relationship and the laborers' work skills are established.

Day Laborer Sites

Day laborer sites exist mostly in metropolitan areas. Sites are often located adjacent to paint stores, plant nurseries, truck rental stores, and home improvement or hardware stores. Laborers may congregate in the store parking lots, marketing themselves for specific types of employment. For instance, those in front of paint stores are looking for painting jobs, whereas those in front of home improvement stores are looking for general construction jobs. It is efficient for day laborer sites to be located near such establishments because it allows prospective employers to pick up supplies and workers all in one stop. However, the congregation of large numbers of laborers sometimes causes problems for merchants, who might take actions to keep the laborers off the premises, thereby displacing them to nearby street corners and sidewalks.

Day laborer sites may also exist in public parks, vacant lots, and residential neighborhoods that are easily accessible to laborers and/or employers. Credit: Glendale (California) Police Department

Day laborer sites also exist in public parks, vacant lots, and residential neighborhoods. These sites may exist for a variety of reasons; they are easily accessible to laborers and/or employers, have simply been there for many years, or have informally been allowed to exist by community members. Municipalities, church groups, and other community-based organizations have established a smaller number of day laborer sites to help deal with the large numbers of day laborers. These sites are usually regulated and pose the fewest problems for the community. 

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