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Palisades Park, N.J. – It is about 8:30 a.m., just days after superstorm Sandy unleashed her force and fury in the northeast.
Men with calloused hands, world-weary lined faces that make them seem years older than they are, practically stand on their toes in the lot of a closed gas station on the exit ramp off Route 46 in New Jersey.
Each time a car slows, pulling into the lot, they swarm around it.
“How many do you need?” they ask the drivers. “What kind of work is it?”
These are day laborers, nearly all of them undocumented immigrants, who are helping to clean up and rebuild New Jersey and New York after the storm that left power lines down, homes and buildings flooded, sidings contorted ,and trees lying across roadways, or atop cars and roofs.
Estimates put the damage caused by Sandy at roughly $45 billion.
Usually, there are upwards of 100 laborers waiting on the corners in this square-mile town that has access to many of the highways that lead to all parts of the state and to Manhattan, less than 20 miles to the east.
But after Sandy, there are less than a dozen before 9 a.m. Contractors and homeowners, and others who have damage from the storm, have been streaming to the town to hire them for a day or more.
While government agencies require licensed workers for those types jobs, in the chaos near destruction -- when the more helping hands are available the better -- those laws are often overlooked.
“I’ve done everything,” said a 38-year-old immigrant from Honduras who, like others who stood with him, did not want to give his name for fear of deportation. “Mostly cleaning up flooded basements, there’s a big demand for that.”
“Trees,” said a 50-year-old worker from Colombia. “Some trees have branches that didn’t break off completely, and branches are just hanging, and could break off and hurt someone or damage something, so people want us to fix that.”
So day laborers have waded in knee-deep water to take out ruined furniture and other objects from house and building basements. They have carried gallons of fuel to those who need them, and cleared debris from countless yards and lots. They have ripped out drywall and nailed back fallen fences.
When disasters strike – be they natural or man-made – day laborers in the United States have played a central role in helping to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
They formed fire brigades in California to help homeowners who were affected by wildfires in the hills.
They streamed into Louisiana from all around the country after Hurricane Katrina.
They were called upon to help look for survivors – or look for remains – at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For many months, they helped clean up the site, and like so many other responders and workers, were exposed to dangerous elements and developed chronic illnesses. Several have died of complications that arose from exposure to the toxins.
“At great sacrifice for themselves and great benefit for everyone, day laborers are first responders for reconstruction,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, in a published blog.
But there is concern among immigration advocates about the dangerous conditions many of the immigrants are working in.
“They’re being sent into flooded areas where there are live power lines,” said Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante, a Staten Island-based multi-purpose agency that caters to immigrants. “Workers have already gone out to places not wearing the proper helmets, they’re doing dangerous work with no training. They’re working around fallen trees.”
On Monday evening, Mercado is holding an information session for day laborers in Staten Island that will cover health and safety rules for the kind of work they are being hired to do in Sandy's aftermath.
He says he wants to avoid the tragedies that happen way too often to workers who are thrown into dangerous work, sometimes by unscrupulous employers. He knows of people who have been injured or killed falling from homes, or working with machinery that was not properly maintained or inspected.
“They’re hired to do the most dangerous jobs without always knowing how to do them,” Mercado said. “Seventy percent of the fatalities in construction involve Latino workers.”
He says he still vividly recalls a 27-year-old immigrant who was hired to work at an excavation site in New York in June. The worker was in a trench when the walls caved in, crushing him to death.
The employer did not have permission to do the work, and violated health and safety rules, Mercado said.
He left behind a wife and a four-year-old child.