There has never been an easy peace between the crowds of day laborers who’ve gathered for a decade along North Wendover Road and those who own the property where they stand waiting to be hired.
Home Depot’s lot was their original gathering spot on Wendover, and when it booted them off, they went across the street to Habitat for Humanity. When Habitat objected, they moved to a nearby strip mall. And when it complained, they went a few feet away to a vacant lot, which has been mostly stable for the past couple of years.
But that, too, is coming to an end.
The lot (formerly a doughnut shop) is now home to a newly built post office set to open this month, and this time it’s the federal government that wants the workers banished.
It is unclear where they’ll end up, but Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition has stepped up to help and is asking congregations, businesses and local governments to consider offering their property for a gathering site.
“These men have had a big impact on this community by providing services, including constructing so many of the buildings we see going up around the city,” said Faith Josephs of the Latin American Coalition. “They are Charlotteans, looking for work, and standing on a street corner is not the safest way for them to be going at it.”
The coalition is not only looking for a site but hoping for a facility where the low-income workers can connect with services while waiting to be hired. But the site needs to be in the same area (Wendover Road and Independence Boulevard), which has long been known as the region’s hub for finding day laborers.
The men typically start showing up at 6 a.m., and most are gone by 2 p.m. Contractors often park in the lot, too, while negotiating pay and length of service.
U.S. Postal Service officials have not given a specific eviction date, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have put the day laborers on notice. Once the building opens, the men will get citations for trespassing and face possible arrest if they persist. The latter could result in deportations as Mecklenburg County jailers check to see who is in the country illegally, police officials said.
William, a day laborer who prefers not to give his last name, said he has spent the past seven years finding work while standing on Wendover. He’s 43, a husband and a father, and has been in the United States 12 years, having come from Guatemala. His wife works full-time, too, he says.
It’s a mistake, he says, to assume that all of the men who stand alongside him are immigrants. A growing number of them are African-Americans and some are whites, he says. All are looking for work in landscaping and construction but will take short-term manual labor jobs moving furniture and equipment.
“People think we are criminals or drug dealers or a gang, but we are just here trying to find work to help our families,” said William, as he stood waiting to be picked up for a job doing foundation work.
“Black, white, Mexican, whatever. Here, we are all brothers, trying to survive. We all have to eat. If someone comes here drinking, we make them leave. If someone comes to do bad, we make them leave. If they throw down trash, we pick it up. We don’t want trouble.”
Their gatherings are not completely trouble-free, however.
As William spoke, an enraged contractor showed up to confront the men about being in the country illegally, claiming day laborers are putting his landscaping operation out of business.
“I’m frustrated. Americans are being pushed out of this work,” said the contractor, declining to give his name. “There’s no floor to how low (prices) can go, because we don’t close the door to letting these people in. Thirty years of cutting rich people’s grass and stepping in their dog (droppings) and I’m not able to make a living. But I don’t matter, because I work with dirt.”
Ironically, the contractor was there to hire some help, but few were willing to go because they said he wasn’t paying enough.
The law requires day laborers be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25, though workers like William say they often negotiate for a higher wage. Latin American Coalition officials say the most common complaint they hear is about contractors who refused to pay after the work was done or paid only a fraction of what was negotiated.
There have also been instances of contractors taking the men to job sites in surrounding counties and abandoning them there. William said that has happened to him twice.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say the department has had an attitude of tolerance toward the day laborers, except when rare complaints are filed by property owners.
Among the most memorable of those complaints occurred five years ago when the men were gathering at Habitat for Humanity, recalled Officer David Padgett of the Providence Division.
“A woman with a child in the car pulled up to a donation trailer to drop off something, and three guys jumped in her car,” he said. “They thought she was looking for workers. She thought she was being carjacked and robbed. It was pretty traumatic for her. And it (the crowd) became a liability.”
Still, Padgett says he has yet to write a single citation against a day laborer in the area. In fact, he is working with the Latin American Coalition to find a new location for the crowd.
“It’s best for everybody if we find them someplace safe to go, so they can still work and provide for their families,” Padgett said. “I know the hardships they have, and I understand them wanting a better life.”
Finding a new location
The Latin American Coalition wants help finding a location for day laborers to gather each morning. Call Faith Josephs, worker center coordinator, at 704-941-2559 or email firstname.lastname@example.org