Immigration: Working In Denver

White-collar employees might be buying lattes at 17th and Stout, but five blocks away there are men standing on street corners hoping to get jobs. So goes the stark contrast that is currently downtown Denver.

It’s described as an “Ellis Island” by residents. A few overpriced condos have managed to creep into the area, but the Stout and Park Ave. intersection is still surrounded by dilapidated buildings and buses from the El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express.

Some workers stand in groups and wait for an employer. They get into cars driven by strangers and travel to work sites they’ve never been to. There is always a possibility that they won’t be paid, and if the employer has made no considerations for safety they could also get hurt. 

This is a place where immigrants come to work in Denver, and it can certainly be a risky business.But nearby stands El Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores, which exists to minimize those risks and ensure that day laborers receive a fair days pay for a fair days work. The center in not an agency, but it works with employers to make sure workers get jobs that are safe and pay reasonably well.

The building is bright pink and impossible to miss. On the inside a picture of the Virgin de Guadalupe is posted on a bulletin board next to the oficina where Harold Lasso works. Lasso is El Centro’s Program Development Director, and is familiar with some of the problems facing immigrant workers.

“Wages and safety have been a major concern. That’s one of the main reasons we have the legal clinic that we operate,” he says.

Along with legal services, the center provides English lessons and a program specifically made for women to develop job skills. For employment, prospective workers come in the morning to register. When an employer seeks help, his or her personal information is acquired and numbers are drawn to determine who goes to the job site. Currently, those picked for jobs are paid at least $8 an hour, but that number will soon be increasing to $10.

“When you look at a hierarchy of the labor force, in the very bottom you got the migrant workers,” says Lasso. “Those are the people who do the farm work. Those are the people who have the least rights, those are the people with the least benefits, those are the people who have less legal protection by the federal and state laws.”

Lasso remembers when individuals would work day labor in urban settings during the summertime, and travel down south to farm when it got colder. He found they were better off in the cities.

“Some migrant workers are even making less than minimum wage. They can work as many hours as the employee wants too,” he says. “They have no access to health care or any kind of benefits…or anything like that. That’s why I think the day laborers would be better off than the migrant workers.”

One Mexican worker at the center has lived in Denver for ten years, and routinely sends money back home to his family. During the winter months, the work at his place of employment slows down and he seeks other jobs.

“Thank God I have not had any accident at work in terms of salary, although I have not made much money-something between six and seven dollars and hour,” he says in Spanish, while Lasso translates.

“There are many ways in which El Centro protects the workers…registering the employer that comes looking for workers is a way of protection.”

The day laborer says he wants others to try and look at things from a different perspective.

“In my case, I used to stand on the corners with many workers in different places and I noted that many people were robbed of their wages at the job site.”

He says he would tell other workers to not go to an employer that doesn’t pay, but they would go anyway for a fraction of what they were promised in wages.

Such stories may be shocking, but they are not uncommon. The urban dwellers who dine just blocks away are oblivious to all of it, and that’s the reality of the situation. Denver does have a place that tries to protect workers, even though others take their chances on the streets. 

To be continued….

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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