BURBANK, Calif. – Chris James needed help moving a piano and three dozen boxes of records from his music studio, but instead of corralling some buddies he rented a truck and hired day laborers outside the local Home Depot.
The two Guatemalan men finished the job in an hour and a half, hauling a piano and wedging a sofa into his condo, then stacking the boxes in a back room, for less than $40.
It was first time James hired day laborers but it won't be his last.
"Absolutely satisfied," said James, 31.
The No. 1 employers of day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants, are homeowners — not construction contractors, not professional landscapers.
"Day labor is not a niche market," said Abel Valenzuela, a UCLA professor and one of three authors of the first national day labor study, which was released in January. "It's now entering different aspects of the national mainstream economy."
Forty-nine percent of day labor employers are homeowners, according to 2,660 laborers interviewed for the study. Contractors were second, at 43 percent. The study also found that three quarters of day laborers were illegal immigrants and most were from Latin America.
Homeowners like the men who call themselves "jornaleros" because they make up a flexible labor pool with no red tape and no overhead. And they'll do backbreaking jobs much cheaper than regular contractors.
Day laborers like homeowners, too. Shady contractors routinely stiff them. Not homeowners — the workers know where they live.
"And in houses, they give us food, water and soda," said Herminio Velazquez, 48, one of the men who worked at James's condo.
While some homeowners are uncomfortable hiring people who likely have no work documents, they often don't believe they are doing wrong.
That position is rejected by anti-illegal immigration activists.
"They know they are hiring illegal aliens and breaking the law," said Joseph Turner, who is trying to force San Bernardino to outlaw taxpayer-funded day labor centers. "They are contributing to the illegal immigration problem."
Agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement occasionally arrest day laborers, but they almost never go after homeowner employers. Their priorities are national security work sites such as seaports and the networks that smuggle illegal immigrants into the country.
"We need to stop unlawful employment," said agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice. "But working day laborers sites is not an efficient way to use finite resources."
The federal debate on immigration reform has been on either criminalizing illegal immigrants — a proposal that has stirred widespread protest demonstrations — or giving them temporary work visas that might eventually lead to citizenship. Though Senate leaders promise progress, legislation may not pass in this election year.
David Peters, a 37-year-old salesman, is bothered by illegal immigration and believes he's part of the problem, but he says it isn't always possible to hire people with work papers.
He hired day laborers over several months while remodeling his Hermosa Beach house. One man tiled a floor and installed a granite countertop for $1,000, jobs that Peters estimated would cost $5,000 if he used the Yellow Pages.
"I know if they didn't have a job, they wouldn't be here," said Peters. "But we all shop at Target and Wal-Mart, and all their stuff is made overseas with cheap labor."
Maxine Colby started hiring day laborers after her husband died six years ago because she needed somebody to clear brush, pull weeds, trim trees and wash windows. She pays them $11 an hour and serves them a hot lunch.
"They have been fantastic," said the 78-year-old Malibu resident. "I speak a little Spanish, and they speak a little English, and we have a good time."
She doesn't ask about immigration status or worry about breaking the law.
"This is a system that works for most people," she said. "If lawmakers can't figure out how to fix it, I certainly can't."