When 2020 began, 55-year-old Antonio Delarosa had steady work as a day laborer with a Denver pavement company. The job required laying asphalt for 14 hours a day, but he was glad for the income—he could afford to send money to his kids in Greeley and took pride in being able to donate small amounts to charities, such as the American Cancer Society. Then, in March, his boss tested positive for COVID-19. Delarosa was spooked and decided it would be safer to look for employment elsewhere.

Now, with the poor economy and fears of COVID-19 infections limiting day laborers’ opportunities, Delarosa isn’t sure he made the right choice. One week in September, he worked just eight hours total, taking home $58 after factoring in travel costs. He’s sleeping in his car. “I want to earn money and help my kids,” Delarosa says. “But right now, I can’t even help myself.”

Delarosa’s story isn’t an outlier, says Sarah Shikes, executive director of the nonprofit Centro Humanitario, which facilitates contingency employment for everyone from construction companies to homeowners looking for landscaping help. (Unlike for-profit agencies, Centro Humanitario provides job safety instruction and other training and advocates for laborers when wage theft occurs.) Requests for labor were unusually slow during the warmer months, when hiring typically reaches its peak. “Last year, during the summer, we got about 200 calls a month for jobs,” Shikes says. “This year, it was closer to 60. I’m apprehensive about what winter will bring.”

High unemployment rates have compounded the problem. In April, when 12.2 percent of Coloradans were out of work, Shikes says an influx of laid-off workers, often former restaurant employees, turned to day labor, potentially saturating the workforce. She expects a similar trend this winter, when dwindling enthusiasm for patio seating and possible extensions of indoor capacity limits could force more eateries into the red. Plus, more competition for fewer jobs encourages low pay and wage theft. The result? Most of the day laborers Shikes works with are facing homelessness, stressing the already overwhelmed shelter system.

Day laborers in the country illegally are especially vulnerable. Because of their residency status, they didn’t receive $1,200 payments from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March. They also can’t collect unemployment (though the Colorado Department of Local Affairs provides funding for rental assistance, and emergency Medicaid is available through the state). One source of help has emerged: In April, Denver nonprofit Impact Charitable unveiled the Left Behind Workers Fund, which disburses one-time $1,000 grants to recently unemployed Coloradans who are ineligible for unemployment insurance or the federal stimulus check. Funded by private and public donors, including Denver City Council (it contributed $1.75 million), at press time the fund had given 6,422 grants to workers in 38 Colorado counties. But it estimates as many as 40,000 people may qualify and needs more donations to meet the demand.

Delarosa is one of the lucky recipients of a grant. The money helped with car insurance and the lease on the storage unit he rents so he has more room to stretch out in his vehicle. There, he falls asleep each night, not sure if he’ll find work the next day—and not sure if the work he does find will be safe. “It’s like I’m playing Russian roulette,” he says, “every time I go to work.”

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2020.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.