A Brooklyn Corner

A Brooklyn Corner

Day laborers who clean for ultra-Orthodox Jewish households are learning about their rights.


Women day laborers wait for cleaning jobs at the corner of Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue during a winter storm in Brooklyn, New York. Credit: E. Tammy Kim

On the Thursday morning before Christmas, about fifteen women, mostly Latina but some Eastern European, stand scattered on a curved asphalt shoulder overlooking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As yeshiva school buses and somber men in black topcoats pass by, an older Hasidic woman comes close and asks a Latina, in Yiddish-accented English, “Clean today and tomorrow?” “No, sorry,” replies the worker, who is already booked for Friday. The Hasidic woman eventually hires a middle-aged Polish worker, who trails her home at some distance.

It is thirty-six degrees and windy, but a patch of shifting sunlight warms Hellen Rivera, a luckless jornalera, or woman day laborer. Tall and fair-complexioned, Rivera looks so unlike the other Latina workers that I mistake her for Polish. She wears a long, black wool coat and orange beret and scarf—a contrast to most of the workers’ bulky, pragmatic garments. 

Rivera has been on the corner for only a month or two. I ask her what she thinks about the cleaning work so far. “They should pay fifteen, not ten,” she says. “And they don’t give you a mop. You have to get on your hands and knees!” Gladys, a bearish woman who lives in the Bronx, recommends buying knee pads: “You get accustomed to the way they want you to work.”

Two years ago, Rivera and her daughters—Laura, 7, and Honey, 19—arrived in New York from Cali, Colombia, where she’d studied broadcast journalism and owned a clothing and accessories store. The family now lives in an $800-per-month subdivided studio apartment with pale yellow walls and a knotty wood floor. When I visited in late December, a miniature lit crèche was on display (“It’s Jesus Christ’s birthday. There’s no Santa.”) and, owing to Rivera’s hectic, unpredictable work schedule, the refrigerator was empty.

In a short time, Rivera has worked a series of odd jobs, from selling holiday cards and a man’s self-published book on the streets of Queens to hawking Avon and Herbalife. Live-in domestic work was another option, but “with two daughters, it’s not a good idea.” 

When Rivera was suddenly, inexplicably fired from a job as a live-out nanny and housekeeper, her friend suggested that she visit a corner where “Jewish women come to see who they want to clean.” She found her way to Marcy and Division, where she was startled to see women day laborers and “men with curls” (referring to peyes, the sidelocks worn by Orthodox men). 

Rivera is still getting accustomed to the hiring process. “They look at you. They look at you. And then they say to one, ‘Do you want to clean my house?’ And then they take them.” 

She recites the English she’s learned: “Do you have mop? How many hours? How do you pay per hour?” The going rate, she and dozens of other Latina workers tell me, is $10 per hour. “In the bathroom, sometimes they don’t have the brush, so you have to clean inside with the sponge—for ten or twelve dollars!” And the different levels of need mean that some women on the corner work for less. 

“My Cuban friend today said, ‘We’re going to put up a big sign that says we demand a mop and this is the rate per hour.’… I don’t know how the laws work here, but I was thinking of something like that: organizing.” 

* * *

Women day laborers have cleaned homes in Williamsburg’s Hasidic Satmar enclave since the 1990s. According to experts, this Brooklyn housecleaning corner, which the Latinas call La Parada, is one of only two known spots in the United States where women wait outdoors year round for occasional labor—the other being a corner in Manhattan’s garment district, which, like the industry itself, has a tenuous existence in New York these days. In August 2005, The New York Times’s Nina Bernstein described these corners, respectively, as embodiments of “the vast underground economy of domestic service” and “the scraps of a collapsed manufacturing sector.”

Even in the harsh cold of winter, upward of fifty women can be found on the Williamsburg corner. Some live nearby; others travel from deep in Queens and as far north as the  Bronx. Their ages, backgrounds and work histories vary. On a given day, only a fraction are hired, with the luckiest among them earning between $60 and $80. A day laborer named Rosario says, “Sometimes they hire you for four hours, but then cut it to only two and expect too much work during that time.” 

Because so few of the workers are hired on a given day, the vast majority actually lose money: round-trip subway fare plus, if they have kids, $15 to $20 on informal childcare—unless they have a network. “When I get work from the corner, I call a family member or a friend because I don’t have enough money for a babysitter,” says Cristina, a single mother with a green card.

Until the early 2000s, La Parada took place at the intersection of Hooper and Lee and was worked almost exclusively by “Polish” women—shorthand for Polish, Russian, Albanian and other comparatively white immigrants. When the South and Central American immigrants began showing up, the resulting gathering overwhelmed the corner and drew complaints from neighbors, despite the Hasidic community’s persistent demand for household labor. By community negotiation, the corner was relocated—first, unsuccessfully, in front of the nearby public library, and then to its current spot at Marcy and Division.

* * *

Most Wednesdays, 27-year-old Ligia Guallpa arrives around 11:30 am. Short and slim, she could be mistaken for a college student with her wire-frame glasses and large backpack. Guallpa is not a day laborer, though she was raised by one. She’s the head of a small nonprofit group: the Workers Justice Project, an affiliate of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

On the corner, she greets every Latina worker and waves to the Polish women she knows. She tapes sheets of office paper to the chain-link fence, creating an ersatz bulletin board for English words and phrases. She attracts a small crowd of listless workers—by this time, the day’s hiring is mostly done.

“The first question should be ‘How many hours?’ because, based on that, you decide how much to charge,” Guallpa says on a recent Wednesday. “If the lady says five hours, you say, ‘I charge $10 per hour.’ If only one hour, $15.” The workers nod; some take notes. An elderly Satmar man in a tall, fuzzy hat pauses to check out the scene. He looks disapproving.

Guallpa teaches the women the days of the week. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” she says slowly, in call-and-response fashion. But when she gets to Saturday, a long-timer named Rosa says in broken English, “Jewish no working Saturday!” Everyone chuckles in agreement, and Guallpa crosses it out, moving on to “Sunday–Domingo.”

Around noon, after the mini lesson, Guallpa invites the workers to a ground-floor church annex a few blocks away. Ten Latinas follow her down Marcy Avenue—for bathroom access, hot coffee and conversation. They settle into a circle of folding metal chairs and introduce themselves (name, country of origin, time in the United States, time on the corner). 

Guallpa polls the women about their many obligations. Most are struggling to cover basic expenses, an average of $1,500 per month for rent, cellphone, clothes, food, MetroCard, childcare and medical expenses—nearly double their average income on the corner.

It is 21-year-old Antonia Martinez’s second week as a day laborer. She has quit her job at a grocery store, where she was underpaid and scheduled so tightly that she rarely saw her toddler son. She explains, in fluent English, that the job “wasn’t worth it”—but her husband didn’t earn enough as a construction day laborer to support the family.

“A lot of the women are the head of the household, have kids, and they have more responsibilities on their shoulders as women,” Guallpa says. “They have to do all that’s in their hands to find work.” 

By reaching out to the workers, Guallpa and co-organizer Yadira Sanchez hope to incite change on La Parada: better wages, protection from the elements and mops for all. They model their organizing after unions and day labor centers that offer shelter, wage scales, training and contracts in writing. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at the wind-whipped edge of Gravesend Bay, the Workers Justice Project already runs a tiny but successful center for construction workers (inherited from a predecessor group, the Latin American Workers’ Project). Guallpa and Sanchez also recruit women for an entrepreneurial alternative to day labor: the Apple Eco-Cleaning green housecleaning cooperative. 

Bety, a Mexican worker with the large, dark features of Maria Callas, appreciates—but also is realistic about—the organizers’ efforts on the corner. “Ligia comes, but in three years nothing has changed. The pay’s the same,” she says. “But she taught me how to say how much I want to be paid, not to ask what the pay is. That helps a lot…but people need work, so they go down to eight dollars.” 

* * *

“You want to work?” a middle-aged Hasidic woman asks a young Latina.

“I charge twelve,” the Latina replies, somewhat nervously.

“Fine,” the employer scoffs, going down the row. A second jornalera agrees to $10 per hour and follows the woman down Division Avenue.

Satmar women usually do the hiring on foot (the men do the driving), with stroller and children in tow. At home, they instruct the cleaners to cover up—even imposing a modest, long-sleeved smock, according to many Latina workers—and to keep the kitchen kosher (meat and dairy plates separate). Sometimes they send their husbands to the corner to inspect the day laborers and confirm their choice via cellphone. Sometimes Hasidic men pull up to the curb in minivans, silently beckoning one, two or three workers through the sliding door—for housecleaning or to work in kosher factories packing chocolate and cookies.

It’s a bizarre (and bizarrely American) multicultural symbiosis. But why does the nation’s only domestic day labor corner exist in such a radically Orthodox religious neighborhood?

For starters, Satmar women have a lot to do. Every week, leading up to the Shabbat (the daylong sabbath beginning Friday evening), they must make sure the house is clean, wash and dress an average of nine children, and cook a long list of ritual foods. As a result, many rely on a goyte, or non-Jewish “cleaning lady”; the Latina and Polish day laborers are busiest Thursdays and Fridays. 

Shabbat hardly compares with the Jewish holidays, which are “a huge amount of work for women,” says Ayala Fader, a Fordham University anthropologist and author of Mitzvah Girls. The spring holiday of Passover requires an intense level of cleaning—“to fulfill the religious requirement that all leavening be removed from the home”—and is therefore greatly anticipated by the day laborers. Rosario, a middle-aged Ecuadorian who’s been coming to La Parada on and off for about two years, recalls, “At that time you even have to clean the walls…. I get hired for eight to fifteen hours at a time.” 

Yet the sheer volume of domestic work doesn’t explain why women are hired off the corner rather than through an agency or by word of mouth. Perhaps the Satmar find anonymous day labor less intrusive than steady help; perhaps it’s the convenience. A 44-year-old Satmar woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “Most people do hire off the corner when they’re most desperate…usually pre-holiday or Shabbat.” What’s more, “there’s a large informal economy in general among these communities. If you can, you do cash and off the books.”

The corner is nothing if not informal. Women cycle in and out. There’s no first-in, first-out rule or agreement on wages. There’s no clear logic as to who’s hired, though many Latinas say the Polish women are favored. (The same Satmar woman wrote via e-mail, “everyone’s gotten used to the Mexican cleaning women…[but] the Polish women [are] ‘hungrier,’ willing to work more hours and do anything.”) Rosa, a petite, self-assured Mexican woman with a long ponytail, says, “Sometimes bosses pick old workers, sometimes young. Sometimes people who look very good, sometimes not. It’s luck—what a person feels like that day.” 

* * *

In 1950, Marvel Cooke, an African-American journalist, wrote a series of stories for The Daily Compass in which she went undercover as a domestic day laborer. For the series, Cooke stood on 170th Street in the Bronx, just west of the Grand Concourse. This was in the neighborhood’s white, middle-class heyday, when Italian and Jewish housewives, daunted by the upkeep of their large Art Deco apartments, sought help beneath the click-clack of the elevated IRT, at the Woolworth’s five-and-dime.

A line of “Negro” women, the “paper bag brigade” (a reference to the sacks in which they carried their work clothes) could be found in front of the store. Cooke joined this line and became, she wrote, part of the “Bronx Slave Market.” One morning, she was picked up for a job and told “to get down on my hands and knees to scrub all the floors,” a lasting humiliation. Cooke regretted having to work for less than was recommended by the New York Domestic Workers Union ($1 per hour). 

Today, through the efforts of successor groups like Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, many more Americans recognize and value household labor—especially that of the nannies employed in upper-middle-class homes. Similarly, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network has mostly drawn attention to day laborers of the usual sort: Latino male construction workers. But the women workers at Marcy and Division fit neither mold.

Ana Luz Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in urban planning at UCLA, co-wrote a national report on day laborers in 2006. “Only 2 percent were women in the study,” she says. “We had a very hard time reaching out to women…. They’re just not as visible as the men.”

According to Sanchez of the Workers Justice Project, “the women going into these situations don’t have other options…. There are a couple that have been here for four, five…ten years, but every day there are different faces.” Patricia, a veteran of the corner, explains the flow: “If they come today and get hired, they won’t come back because they already got a job.”

This was the case for Rivera—except that the job that took her away from the corner was not in cleaning at all. A month after we first met, she explains, “I was having a nervous breakdown because I didn’t have anything steady in terms of work. And Brooklyn was somewhat of a journey—not knowing whether I’d get something that day.” 

Rivera finally found work in nearby Jackson Heights, selling clothes at a store much like the one she owned in Colombia. Her teenage daughter had previously worked at the store part time; now, Rivera’s full-time income would support the whole family. 

I ask how the new job compares with the hodgepodge of day labor. “I don’t know how good it is, but he pays me $70 a day and gives me breakfast and lunch,” she says. The pay is just above minimum wage, but the hours are long enough—10 am to 7 pm—to make it worthwhile. 

How is she adjusting, I ask, to the unrelenting schedule? Allowing her to be home after school with her 7-year-old daughter had been one of the corner’s few virtues. “There’s a big change in my life,” Rivera replies. “I’m going to be sending my younger daughter to be with my parents in Colombia. It’s temporary, while I organize myself and my life.”

The news surprises me. Rivera seemed exceptionally attached and devoted to her girls. But life in America is more trying than she’d expected. “I’m responsible for myself and my daughters,” she says. “I need to be more on top of day-to-day finances. I need to cover that and get extra money, and once I get to that point, I can check with my daughter and see if she wants to come back.”

Rivera has no intention of returning to Marcy and Division. “I realized that that job isn’t going to support my growth as a human being,” she says.

Our blogger Josh Eidelson reports regularly from the labor front. His latest dispatch: “Striking McDonald's Guest Workers Headed to CEO's Chicago Home.”

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