They toiled to repair and rebuild the homes, apartments and businesses that Hurricane Sandy damaged. They ran into areas where danger lurked — contaminated water, downed power lines, hidden debris capable of puncturing skin.

And while the day laborers of Bay Parkway Community Job Center helped in the recovery of Hurricane Sandy, their own facility laid in shambles. 

Sandy’s angry, unforgiving winds shook the old center, an 8-by-12 wooden shack, off its foundation, blowing it 100 feet away, causing major damage.

But with grants from several foundations and the work of the laborers, the center was brought back to life.

It is a renaissance of sorts for the center — now a 40-foot trailer the workers painted in red and yellow, the colors of the old shack — and also a new incarnation for the laborers and their place in the larger community.

The destruction brought the laborers, most of them undocumented, from the margins of the community to the front lines of the rebuilding process.

The laborers played a key role in reconstruction, city officials said — showing up to areas most devastated and asking how they could help. They distributed donated food and supplies to the elderly and to those in most need. They formed volunteer brigades to do clean-up in Coney Island and Far Rockaway, often refusing payment.

This is a place where they come together, share their stories, as brothers and sisters, share their own struggles. They have come to understand that they have a common struggle they have to fight together.

- Ligia Guallpa, Worker's Justice Project

“We waited near the site where our center used to be, and no one came [to offer work],” said Camilo Hernandez, a laborer from Mexico. “So we said to one another ‘We’re of no use just waiting here. Why don’t we go to the people and help?’”

Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Workers Justice Project, which manages the center, said the disaster marked a turning point between laborers and the rest of the community.

“In many areas that were hit hard by Sandy, the laborers were the first responders,” Guallpa said.

“We changed the idea of day laborers just looking for work to the idea that day laborers are part of the community,” Guallpa said.

The problems that typically affect day laborers everywhere hit with more intensity when they did post-Sandy work — there were dangerous conditions, such as walking into flooded areas where water contained raw sewage and live wires, unstable structures, rooms filled with mold, trees whose roots were weakened and loose branches that could strike like a spear upon falling.

And then there were the perils of the man-made kind — contractors, homeowners and business owners who cheated laborers out of wages, or expected the laborers to work in dangerous conditions without any protection.

The growing scale of the problems led laborers to intensify the steps they already had begun to take, gradually over the years, to work together to protect themselves against abuse, exploitation and even death.

“This is a place where they come together, share their stories, as brothers and sisters, share their own struggles,” said Guallpa. “They have come to understand that they have a common struggle they have to fight together.”

The center also is where they go to have coffee, practice English with one another, to reminisce about their homeland and relatives that stayed behind and share photos of their children.

It is why they don’t call it a center but rather their “La Casita” — “home.”

“It’s more of a refuge, a familiar, comforting place,” said Hernandez, 47.

This kind of group effort by day laborers is a rarity in the United States, where about 80 percent of the tens of thousands of day laborers are on their own, standing on corners, hoping and waiting for someone to hire them for a day or longer. Organized hiring sites such as the Brooklyn Center number only about 60 nationwide, according to the 2006 report, “On the Corner.”

Laborers in the Brooklyn area used to stand on 18th Avenue and 69th Street to wait for work, but as in so many places where immigrants stand on corners, long-time residents complained, said Borough Councilman Dominic Recchia.

Around 10 years ago, some of the laborers relocated, waiting for work out of a tent. Eventually, they started using the shack that got destroyed during Sandy. Recchia and another councilman, Vincent Gentile, were instrumental in helping the laborers establish their new gathering spot.

“Whatever they need, they just call up and ask, and we’ll help,” Recchia said. “They’re just people who want to work, they work hard, they contribute, they helped after Sandy and did a lot of work for no pay.”

After Sandy, the laborers turned to one another about the dangerous conditions, and decided together how to deal with them.

The center brought in safety experts for guidance; community groups and foundations rallied around the laborers, helping them buy their new trailer with several grants.

With the help of organizations such as the Worker’s Justice Project, laborers learned about wage and hour laws, the hazards of exposure to certain building materials and what kinds of actions or treatment by the people who hire them constitute abuse and violations.

Some 70 percent of day laborers nationwide at some point become injured; fatalities are not uncommon.

“When something isn’t right, at that moment, you may not realize it or attach much significance to it,” said Rafael Tecpanecatl, a 30-year-old laborer who came from Mexico 10 years ago. “I’ve worked many jobs that I realized later were hazardous to my health. I’d get on ladders that were not steady, I’ve sanded walls and cut plywood and had debris go into my eyes and lungs.”

Now, Tecpanecatl takes government-sponsored health and safety training classes and returns to the trailer to share the lessons with other laborers.

Councilmen Recchia and Gentile have pledged to help the center hold English classes, and the center has begun to hold sessions with lawyers who talk to laborers about wage and hour laws, as well as immigration matters.

The center has also received more than 300 pieces of donated safety equipment, including goggles, masks and vests.

“It’s valuable and eye-opening for us to get this guidance and support,” said Hernandez, who lost part of his thumb years ago while doing roof work. “I’ve worked for contractors who say ‘I pay you, get your own safety equipment.’ I didn’t know what I had a right to ask for or expect.”

The laborers also engage in activism, going to corners where laborers gather and give them fact sheets about medical and legal rights.

Sal DeStefano, an Argentinean national who owns a construction business, walked into the trailer recently looking to hire workers.

“I was one of them a long time ago, I was a laborer,” said DeStefano, who has been in the United States 25 years. “You can achieve a dream in this country.”

 

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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