Day laborers at risk as drought continues

BY CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM | MT KISCO, NY | August 13, 1999


MT KISCO, NY (Aug. 13, 1999) -- Usually, the day laborers lining the

roads here every morning get picked up not long after dawn -- for

work in landscaping, pool maintenance, lawn repair -- but these days

they wait long into the afternoon, hunched in clumps on the curb,

victims of the drought that's engulfed the Northeast.

And with no end in sight, no water for lawns, no water for planting

or refilling pools, and weak harvests on local farms, the largely

Hispanic day laborer and migrant farm worker population in southern

New York state will likely be "devastated," says Patricia Feeley,

executive director of Catholic Community Services (CCS) of Rockland

County.

Feeley estimates that hundreds of day laborers in Rockland have

already lost their jobs, and expects hundreds more to follow if no

rain comes. That means they'll be struggling more than ever to feed

their families and meet rent and utility bills. She says the

situation here probably reflects conditions across the half-dozen

Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states affected by drought, but adds

that hard numbers regarding the population are difficult to come by,

and that she knows of few organizations working closely with

day-laborers made jobless by drought.

"We're very concerned about what the next few weeks will bring," says

Feeley. "The day laborers are fearful. These are people who are two

paychecks away from homelessness, who don't even know they have

rights. They have years and years of learning not to trust

governmental organizations, because they've lived in areas where the

government has never been their friend. They'll only come forward

when they're absolutely desperate."

Most are undocumented immigrants and almost all are paid off the

books, in cash, making them ineligible for help through the

Department of Social Services, which requires pay stubs and proof of

employment. Moreover, the DSS is mandated to report illegal

immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

So the workers turn to groups like CCS, which Feeley says is

preparing for a "tremendous upsurge" in eviction prevention requests

over the next three weeks. The end of the month will be a

particularly desperate time, she says, as people struggle to make

rent.

Notices of eviction will be met with legal services, cash grants and

emergency funds to reimburse landlords. Petitioners need only bring

proof of the notice and rental arrears.

"We're the only agency that does direct payment to prevent

homelessness," says Feeley, who works with groups like the Legal Aid

Society and Greater Upstate Legal Project to secure legal

representation for non-documented immigrants.

Funded by Rockland County and local parishes, CCS also runs eight

food pantries across the county in cooperation with two large

interfaith groups, the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program and the

Ramapo Ecumenical Ministries. The two interfaiths together comprise

about 24 churches and synagogues providing volunteers and supplies

for the pantries.

According to Feeley, requests at local food pantries over the past

three months are up 10 to 15 percent, likely due to job-loss from the

drought.

"This is not a flood or a fire," but a case by case diminishment of

resources, says Feeley. "Under the best of circumstances, these

people are living in difficult conditions," she says. "The bottom

line is that soon there's going to be a crunch point. The federal

government is going to have come in with huge support for those who

do stoop labor, who are not American citizens."

For migrant farm laborers who are citizens or are working here

legally, the situation is not as bad. But it grows more difficult

daily with every failing crop.

"Everyone's underemployed," says Stash Grajewski, director of the

Migrant Farm Workers Community Center, which provides food, clothing,

help with social service applications, and other aid for hurting

migrants.

In the center's meeting room, four workers watch a Spanish soap

opera, waiting patiently for a 1 PM shift to start, their only for

the day. In a normal season, they would have been working all morning

and into dusk.

But with weak harvests of cash crops like onions -- which provide the

majority of migrant labor -- most of the 10,000 migrant workers in

southern New York are working two or three hours less than usual

daily.

"We're barely in mid-season, and a number of workers are being told

there will be no more work for the rest of the year," says Ron

Garcia, administrative coordinator at the Independent Farm Workers

Center in Orange County. "That's unusual."

Garcia estimates that a majority of workers have had a significant

loss in earnings. "A lot are earning half of what they made last

year," he says.

The migrants usually live off their savings when they return to

Mexico after the May-October season, using the money to pull them

through the winter and early spring, says Grajewski. "From the

savings here, they try to buy a solar, a small barren piece of land

where they will build a small, simple shack," he says. "They depend

on the income, and if they make less money this season, the winter's

going to be hard."

Posted Aug. 13, 1999


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